The Religion of Revolution

Rainer!  Have you been reading Guy Debord?  Yes?  No?  Have you been watching Godard and Anderson?  Weekend.  If.  Are these films colonising your camera?  “Possibly, but not in the way you imagine.”  You talk in riddles, and I do not understand you...  Oh, I see, you are, as always, going you own way, doing your own thing; so that we are never quite sure which side you’re on, even when you are on the right side, the side, that is, of the revolution. 

This film exists in two time periods simultaneously: the fifteen and twentieth centuries (more precisely: 1474 and 1968).  On screen they are merged; so that characters can appear within a single shot wearing either medieval or contemporary costume, speaking the theology of religion or the ideology of politics, quoting the Gospels or the collected works of Lenin.  It is a continuous dialogue - an echo and comment on times too similar to be ignored – and an implicit critique of a moment when a modern myth seemed close to realisation. 

In 1474 a shepherd has a vision of the Virgin Mary.  This will eventually lead to a peasants’ revolt against the local bishop, a man who prefers the bodies of young boys to God and pastoral care.  This is one story.  It is entwined with another about a modern revolt against the state; one led, we think, by a clique of professional radicals who wish to kick-start a revolution by an act of spectacular violence – they attack a police barracks.  

We see a number of powerful images whose power is self-consciously advertised.  Thus some scenes are arranged like old masters; others like record covers, particularly from the early sixties, when faces highlighted against a black background were the fashion (think of the early Beatles’ records and those of the easy listening artistes, now largely forgotten).  Always this mix of the old and the new; Fassbinder in his leather jacket walking in between his personages to argue with himself about the nature and causes of a revolutionary situation.  He is the ideologue.  He is also the revolutionary impresario who directs events from behind the scenes, using theatrical display and the talents of the charismatic Böhm to galvanise the masses into action.  

The radicals of 1968 mimicked to the point of caricature the style and the props of past revolutions – they were, after all, performing on the same stage.  But they foreswore to repeat their violence.  As a consequence, the French ‘psychodrama’ (Aron) of 1968 entered popular mythology almost immediately as an object of nostalgia, a stylised struggle in which the forces of Life and Energy and Freedom were ranged against the numbing, gray dullness of the men of the past.  (Tony Judt, Post War: A History of Europe Since 1945)i

1968 was a performance.  Its well-educated and Left-saturated participants occupied the streets to act out a revolution in a highly self-conscious way; the slogans and iconography more street theatre than politics; not so much Westminster as the West End.  Here was the image of revolt rather than a revolt itself; a revolution made for TV.  The Parisian uprising pervaded by an irony that was as ubiquitous as expensive perfume at a soirée in the Faubourg Saint-Germain; the event too knowing (and therefore too safe) to be a real threat to the French state.ii 

This film captures something of this atmosphere; the modern commentary making explicit what otherwise would remain vague or unconscious, so that the innocence of ancient peasants and religious mystics is openly undermined by the knowingness of the contemporary radicals, intellectuals to a man and woman.  There are two revolutions in this film and yet their conflation makes them appear as one.  This creates a peculiar atmosphere, one well suited to its subject; this movie, we could argue (and we will, of course we will), is the embodiment of the spirit of 68; that moment in time when a revolution could not be separated from the idea of revolution, and image was everything.  (And because everything: nothing.  Paris was essentially an illusion.) 

At first we are disorientated, as the opening scene is almost completely obscured by Fassbinder’s back.  When it pans out slightly we see a man in 15th century costume and a woman in a modern dress walking back and forth in an empty building, which could be modern or medieval; it is timeless in its anonymity.  Fassbinder will later join this couple to ask questions about the nature of revolution.  What is it? Who leads it? What is it for?  The answers are predictable: it is made by the people for their own emancipation, although it is led by a vanguard party who must both educate and incite them into action.  Who is this vanguard?  Is it representative?  How many people do we need to start the revolutionary struggle?  A few will do.  A few committed activists are enough to enlighten, agitate, and stimulate the masses to carry out their historical destiny.  

This is the prologue; it summarises what we are about to see: a conversation about two different kinds of uprising; one made by peasants, the other by the intellectuals, although here they are merged together into a single event.iii

It feels like a catechism.  As the film progresses it is transformed into a genuine debate, as Fassbinder argues with himself about the meaning of revolution.  That it is an interior dialogue becomes clear after one particularly incongruous scene – a group of young adults drugged out on rock music -, which serves as a metaphor for a generation.  Fassbinder wanted people to act and think for themselves; the reason he set up his theatre commune.  But when given the chance its members preferred to follow a leader - Fassbinder himself – rather than be free.  Discipleship is too strong a drug for most of us to resist.  Confronted with his experiences Fassbinder is beginning to question his own principles; that opening scene, we now realise, far more ambivalent than we first thought; the great director doubting his old ideas, and turning away from his own Left euphoria; aware that his thinking has been suffused with illusions and founded on false premises.  We speculate of course; for even Fassbinder seems to be uncertain in this film; he is at an intellectual turning point, arguing himself into new directions, which as yet are hazy and unclear.  We are watching a man as he trudges his way through an ideological no-man’s land; the reason, no doubt, these characters do so much walking.iv  They are on the way to somewhere else….

False premises?  The most obvious is that revolutions start with the People.  They don’t.  Most of the population is inherently conservative and indifferent to political change.  Radicals come overwhelmingly from the elite, although it is often the conservatives within these elites who are responsible for a revolution; for in trying to preserve the existing system against what they regard as unwelcome innovation, which they perceive as a threat to their power and status, they create a reaction that destroys the governing regime.v  Not that the radicals in the establishment necessarily want to a revolution.  Reform is usually their aim.  However, reform, in creating a conflict that is too large to be reconciled between the competing factions, breaks down the reigning culture.  Then suddenly this political battle becomes an open fight and a zero sum game; where the winner takes everything, and the loser is banished from  With the stakes so high establishment parties will now seek the help of groups outside the ruling circle – the ideologues, the middling sort, the peasants, the proletariat – to destroy their rivals.  The revolution has started; it generates its own momentum, overthrowing first the establishment figures and then the governing institutions, until anarchy breaks out and there is the spread of millenarian hopes.  Out of this chaos new leaders emerge, often from the fringes of the old elites, who use a radical ideology to sanctify their destructive actions.  For a short while there is euphoria, and many sections of the population feel free and keenly alive;vii but then the logic of revolution takes over, and imposes a new elite often more tyrannous and inflexible than before (it has to be to control the enormous energies that the revolution has unleashed).  The majority are passive throughout.  They are acted upon not acting.  At most they freely improvise to unusual circumstances; that is: even their freedom is contingent, forced upon them from the outside.  To think otherwise is believe in the great myth of Left wing thought.  It was not a myth to which Lenin subscribed; he knew he had to create a revolutionary elite to replace the Russian autocracy; he was the Czar of the Marxist aristocracy.viii

If there is no civil war within the establishment there is only a peasants’ revolt, which is rarely strong enough to destroy the ruling authority.ix  However, even these revolts usually require some character outside the community to instigate them.  Thus Norman Cohn, in his Pursuit of the Millennium, shows how millenarian uprisings in the Middle Ages were usually triggered by wandering preachers who would galvanise a local population suffering from some severe depredation, such as bad harvests, plague or a devastating war.  That is, even revolts require a leader of some kind; the people by themselves are (politically) helpless; the most they can achieve is a riot.x

Is Fassbinder beginning to see this for himself?  To fight power means to exercise power; a revolution a counter-revolution in all but name – because the freedom is but an aberration, a few weeks of anarchy snuffed out when the new rulers gain control.  The myth is the belief that these few weeks can last forever, when in fact they are simply the by-product of a collapsing society, destined to fade quickly away.  

The shepherd genuinely seems to have had a vision.  However, such simple spirituality cannot remain innocent for long.  His good looks and charisma attract the attentions of a rich lady, who sexually continent – her husband is old and bedridden – sublimates her desires into religious fervour.  When they meet they become intimates, and with such influential connections his power naturally increases, which of course changes him; Böhm moving away from mysticism into revolutionary politics.  Magarethe is blind to this transformation, and so loses her status and self-respect; until we see her crawling over the bed and over the body of her dead husband to slide along the floor to prostate herself before Böhm, begging him to answer her entreaties.  The camera cuts to a tableau vivant.  It is the vanguard party, who watch from the corner of this enormous room.  The power relations have been reversed.  The rich lady is slithering about like an abject serf while the rebels stand rigid and immobile; inhuman in their authority.

Their presence reminds us of the first shift in the visionary’s stance.  Fassbinder has persuaded him to ask Magarethe to let his friends stay in her house; however, when Böhm asks her permission he pretends it is the Virgin Mary who has made the request.  Böhm has started to lose his innocence; although as yet he has not become a total cynic; thus he continues to pray at a church where the pastor warns against violent revolt.  “The people do not want revolutions.  For they replace one kind of authority with another, and one that may be even worse, for you cannot remove cruelty by using cruel means. Listen my friends.  Spiritual enlightenment is not the same as political action…”  These are the words of his mentor.  Böhm ignores them, and so crosses the line that divides the prophetic visionary from the messianic leader who preaches class war; rejecting the pastor’s advice he recommends an attack on the bishops who, he says, are using religion to keep the peasants poor and oppressed.   Nevertheless, he retains his humanity, protecting the critical but friendly pastor from his acolytes.

Revolutions change both things and people very quickly. Magarethe, who has always hated her husband but still cared for him, now stabs him to death; goaded, we believe, by the class war rhetoric of Böhm, who shifts easily between the Book of Revelations, which dominates the early parts of the film, and Das Kapital, which dictates its end.  Here is the power of Böhm.  His lover tells him he is a fake.  “Why do I have to pretend to be the Virgin Mary if you believe in what you are saying?”  “All that I speak I believe to be true” is his reply.  She is unconvinced.   Is his a conscious act or does Böhm really believe that he is a prophet?  The distinction is irrelevant.  Charismatic people create their own reality; and it is in their transformative power, that power to induce other people to believe in them and their fictions, where their truth can be found.  The essence of their character resides in their ability to generate belief; the rest is mere detail.xi  If Böhm can make others believe in the Virgin Mary then he has made them believe in his power, which is therefore real; their faith confirms it.  Does he himself think that he is the messiah?  This is the wrong question.  If he can make other people believe that he is the messiah he must have the supernatural power of a real one.  It is not long before he is crucified.   

His lover is beautiful.  With her slim figure and flaxen hair she is angelic; the perfect instrument to convince the country folk that she is the Virgin Mary who supports the prophet’s revolt.  It is great cinema.  First we see her and Fassbinder rehearsing the speech, which she cannot master – she makes mistakes and her emphasis is wrong.  During this rehearsal a member of the group reads out a newspaper report on the political assassination of Fred Hampton; and the scene ends on this anachronistic and therefore self-conscious note.  A little later we see her again in full costume, unexpectedly delivering a powerful speech about the false ideologies that are keeping the people down; property, she says, is theft.  We are surprised by how good she is; we had forgotten that since we last saw them they would have refined and improved her act.  For this is art.  It is a performance.  It is spectacle.  Revolutions, Fassbinder is reminding us, are full of make-believe.  Founded on some indeterminate spirit they nevertheless live on artificiality; because without actors and without theatricality this spirit could not survive for very long. 

God is on the side of this rebellion.  Centuries later he will be called historical necessity.  These are the justifications for a revolution that once started creates its own fate, which is usually sad, and almost inevitable; for by releasing enormous amounts of energy a tyrant is needed to control it.xii  

This revolt does not succeed; the prophet is crucified, and his chief disciple leads a hopeless attack on the police barracks (being German it is more grown-up than If).

The film ends with Fassbinder discussing this attack.  It failed, he says, because it was the wrong tactic.  He then tells a story about what happened next: the survivors went into the mountains, where they stayed for two years before returning to triumph over the authorities.  It is a parable… and a dream. 

Earlier Johanna and Fassbinder walked along a river path discussing the inability of the masses to rise up, and their unwillingness to think and act for themselves.  It appears that Fassbinder has accepted that a post-revolutionary paradise is the fantasy of the petite intellectuals; those dreamers with too much imagination and too little influence.  All seems clear!  After his long dialectic he has at last reached the other side.  Yet… the film ends with this story, which Fassbinder implies is true.  How strange.  He has, it seems, drifted off into his own fantasies.  Unable to resolve his doubts, incapable of clearing up his own contradictions - the conflict between his ideas and his experiences – he has invented a folk tale he can believe in.  Revolution is a story we tell ourselves.  It is a myth to get us through the livelong day.  And at night we cuddle up to the Virgin Mary.  A dream is real for as long as we have the power to imagine it.

i. See also my Revolution.

ii.  This doesn’t mean Paris 1968 was fake.  As Mishima, a key 1960s figure, once said:
“What people regarded as a pose on my part was actually an expression of my need to assert my true nature, and… what people regarded as my true self was a masquerade.” (See my Do You Know Me?)

 iii. The source of these ideas is far back in the 19th century.  Lenin adapting what was then an old idea to a society that had outgrown it; only the fortune of World War and the collapse of the Russian state allowed his strategy of a revolutionary vanguard to capture power (Hugh Seton-Watson, The Decline of Imperial Russia).

iv.  Contrast with Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.  This film is punctuated by a recurring scene of a group of middle class people walking down the road.  It is an image of utter pointlessness, because they have nowhere to go to.  Their lives are not full of questions they cannot answer.  Indeed, they have no questions at all.

v.  It seems possible that this was the cause of the English Revolution – a rebellion against the modernising of the English state by a king who lacked political finesse (because he was alien to the ruling culture).

vi.  In the 1960s this became a central aspect of the generational war being the young and the old.   Usually the former has to wait a generation to turn into the latter.  In the 1960s the young (Turks) actually had their chance replace the old (fogeys), and often did.  (Stefan Collini, Common Reading)

vii  For a good account see Leonard Shapiro’s 1917; The Russian Revolutions and the Origins of Present-Day Communism.  The poetry of Boris Pasternak captures something of these times.

viii  I am writing about the mature Lenin, after he created his own party. Lenin hated the Left!  In large part I think because he was a typical state bureaucrat, adverse to freedom and anarchy.  He knew he was right, and so he expected everyone else to follow his line (tellingly, he was hopeless at philosophy – he turned it into polemic).  If his brother hadn’t been executed by the regime one could easily imagine Lenin high up in the state bureaucracy, perhaps heading up its secret police. (See Adam B. Ulam, Lenin and the Bolsheviks.)

ix.  The history of Russia is rich with these sorts of rebellion (see Lionel Kochan’s The Making of Modern Russia).

x  Believing in the great myth of revolution thus actually de-powers the people it is supposed to uplift.  This gives rise to a wider thought: modern life is saturated with populism; the belief that individuals know best.  But of course we don’t.  The result?  We believe a myth that takes our power away, giving it to experts, multi-national CEOs, wealthy financiers and the quacks of all persuasions.  For the contrary is actually the truth: most of us attain power by following someone.  I’ll give you three examples - Kurt Raab, Hanna Schygulla and Margit Carstensen.  Fassbinder made them great.  

xi  Diane Athilll captures something of this in her book on Hakim Jamal (Make Believe: A True Story).  It is an account that shows that the power of the personality is independent of the message, which is believed by the gullible but rejected by the shrewd who are nevertheless moved by the charisma.
For a brilliant portrait of the charismatic individual see Joyce Cary’s Prisoner of Grace.

Xii. Writing about Cromwell Pieter Geyl wrote that all revolutions will lead to imperialist wars – it’s their inner logic to expand to their maximum extent. (Orange & Stuart 1641-1672)