Issues & Ideas | 27th September 2014

The 6 greatest political films

What are the greatest political films, novels and songs? Over the summer we asked two dozen of […]

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What are the greatest political films, novels and songs? Over the summer we asked two dozen of the New Statesman‘s leading contributors to recommend a choice.

They could choose between any art form. Together they chose nearly a dozen novels, and half as many songs and films.

We have taken a look at our panel’s top songs and novels. But six of our contributors thought a film a greater piece of political work than any other art form. Do you agree with their choices? Let us know on Facebook.

Michael Powell’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

You can’t tell from watching Michael Powell’s superb film that it was written by a Hungarian émigré who had lived in England less than ten years, nor that it was made in 1943, but it seems unlikely that an Englishman of that time could have followed a friendship between a young German and a young English soldier through one World War and into the next with such grace and compassion for both sides’ idées fixes.

Neither Clive (the Blimp of the title – the name comes from cartoonist David Low’s moustachioed stuffed-shirt character), nor Theo, the German Baron who survives defeat in 1918 only to be morally torpedoed by Nazism, ever becomes a caricature – these are decent men attempting to wrestle the 20th century’s mass of political contradictions without losing their decency. Beautifully shot (in part by Jack Cardiff in a career-making role), the film is as light and humorous as good dinner party conversation and as unforgettable as war.

— Nina Caplan; travel and food & drink writer.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Germany In Autumn (1978)

The omnibus film Germany in Autumn was made in response to the kidnappings and killings carried out by the Red Army Faction (aka “The Baader-Meinhof Gang”) and the subsequent deaths in custody of three of the RAF’s leaders. A collective work of eight directors, it feels slightly dated now, except for the segment directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Fassbinder’s 20-minute film takes place in his apartment in Munich. The director bullies his lover, snorts cocaine and generally acts the part of the neurotic self-pitying artist. At the kitchen table he whines and shouts at his mother about democracy. All sympathy is with her, until finally she gives him what he has been after, her opinion: Germany is in a terrible state again, and what the country needs is a strong leader. It’s about authoritarianism, and it’s about how truth needs to be fought for, and dug out—and it’s a reminder too that the transactions of power begin in bedroom and kitchen.

— David Flusfeder; author.

John Sayles’ Matewan (1987)

Sayles’ film tells the story of the build-up to the “Battle of Matewan” in May 1920, when, for once, the Stone Mountain Coal Company’s hired guns came off worst in their dealings with the local people. Sayles documents the strike-breakers’ modus operandi of dirty tricks and intimidation and the ugly machinations of agent provocateur C.E. Lively, but he also tells of the impromptu formation of a mixed-race syndicate, including black workers and Italian immigrant “scabs” who, alongside the local miners, resist the company’s brutality and dirty tricks.

Matewan is a great film in its own right, with a superb cast, cinematography by the inimitable Haskell Wexler and an authentic sense of West Virginia’s land, people and musical culture; it is also close to unique in American cinema in offering what historian Eric Foner has called a meditation on “the possibility of interracial cooperation, the merits of violence and nonviolence in combating injustice, and the threat posed by concentrated economic power to American notions of political democracy and social justice”.

— John Burnside; writer, poet.

Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997)

All art is political, as Orwell nearly wrote, but some artworks are more political than others. Once you’ve clocked quite how political – and quite how wildly funny – Paul Verhoeven’s film Starship Troopers is, you can’t but love it.

Humankind is waging a perpetual, motiveless, and ludicrously bloody war against a distant planet populated by insanely violent giant insectoids. The whole of society is organised around the war: you only become a citizen if you fight.

This deadpan film brilliantly spoofs its own genre, and brilliantly spoofs the politics and propaganda of militarism. Plus, since it is also a frenetic, CGI-heavy slice of top whack science fiction war porn, it absolutely has its cake and eats it. Which is, like, a dense additional recursion of self-implicating co-optative irony or something, yeah?

 Sam Leith; author, journalist, columnist.

Osvaldo Golijov’s Ayre (2005)

The Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov’s extraordinary Ayre (2005) is more like a musical road movie than a work “for voice and chamber ensemble”. It jump-cuts its way across the troubled Mediterranean from the almost-flamenco love songs of the Sephardic Jews of medieval Andalucia, through Balearic maquis music to riotous kletzmer versions of Arab Christians’ Easter carols.

All different musical traditions, but you can hear the common modalities, rhythms, melodies pulsing and merging through them. Golijov’s aim is to express “how connected these cultures are and how terrible it is when they don’t understand each other” politically, as they have always done musically.

Ayre revolves around the sublime soprano voice of Dawn Upshaw, who can switch from poignant simplicity in a traditional Spanish lament, “A Mother Roasted her Child” to Janis Joplin growl in a thrash version of the 19th century Sardinian rebel song “Walls are Encircling the Land”. (“Imagine you are in front of mob come to overthrow power” Golijov instructed Upshaw.) Bruised love and political repression meld as the music develops and effloresces.

 Richard Mabey; writer, broadcaster, naturalist.

Yael Bartana’s And Europe Will Be Stunned (2012)

Two years ago I saw the trilogy of short films by the Israeli video-artist Yael Bartana, And Europe Will Be Stunned, and I was, indeed, stunned. Their premise is as simple as it is startling: Poland calls for the return of the six million Jews who disappeared from that country during the war.

In the first film, set in a crumbling and deserted stadium in Warsaw, a charismatic leader addresses a tiny band of followers as though the stadium was packed, calling for the return of the Jews. Is he calling for the dead to come back to life or for a fresh wave of Jews to settle?

In the second we see the new immigrants singing songs, learning the language of their adoptive country and building a wooden town (on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto). In the third, the leader has been murdered for his pains. As he lies in state dignitaries file past and make impassioned speeches.

What is so disconcerting about the trilogy is that Bartana is profoundly conscious that the very tools she is using – visual, aural and verbal – have been deeply contaminated by a century of nationalist aspiration and propaganda. Every scene thus simultaneously tugs at the heart-strings and fills one with a mixture of horror and laughter. This is what political art should be and so rarely is.

 Gabriel Josipovici; novelist, short story writer, critic.