The Centre Cannot Hold: the 2019 Berlinale


For me, however, the towering achievement of this year’s festival was Jean-Gabriel Périot’s Nos défaites (Our Defeats). The French filmmaker had already signaled his interest in the contemporary legacy of the wave of political radicalization in the 1960s and 1970s with his found-footage compilation on the origins of the RAF group in 2015’s Une jeunesse allemande (A German Youth). Here, he continues in this historico-political vein by using high school students from the Parisian suburbs to reenact French militant films from the May ’68 era. With filming taking place in May 2018, fifty years after the événements, scenes from Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, Alain Tanner’s La Salamandre, Chris Marker’s À bientôt j’espère, Marin Karmitz’s Camarades and the direct-cinema work La Reprise du travail aux usines Wonder are all faithfully replicated by his band of teenage performers, who are then interviewed for their thoughts about the relevance of the politics of these films for their present-day lives. Through this dash of Raymond Depardon, Périot elicits a range of responses from the lycéens, from curiosity to disengagement, but the common theme in all of these exchanges is the cavernous distance separating the political utopianism of the ’68 films from the reality of contemporary French youth. As the pessimism of the film’s title suggests, Périot’s preliminary hypothesis for his film is governed by the sentiment that Enzo Traverso has called “left-wing melancholy”, the post-1989 loss of faith in any ability to fundamentally change society, no matter how predatory the neoliberal order becomes, and a replacement of hope for the future with a wallowing in the honorable defeats of the past. But to his immense credit, Périot allows for history to refute his project’s presuppositions. In an epilogue appended to the end of the film, the same students are shown seven months later. As all of France erupts into a protest against Macron’s turbo-capitalism, Périot’s actor-interviewees had themselves radicalized. When a fellow pupil of theirs was given a heavy handed punishment for a graffiti tag, they successfully occupied their high school for several weeks demanding his exoneration, even in the face of police brutality of teens at nearby schools. Whether their exposure to the militant films of 50 years ago aided in the students’ later politicization or not, one thing is indisputable: we have entered a new age of political struggle.

The future, then, belongs to the young – a category in which, alas, I can no longer unequivocally include myself. As with politics, so with cinema. In another quote which, shorn from its context, has served as a quick go-to for journalists grappling with the breakdown of the political status quo, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci once said, “The crisis consists in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” The worst of the Berlinale consisted, precisely, in the morbid symptoms of the dying old order. The best was the new that is still struggling to be born.

Daniel Fairfax
Sense of cinema
March 2019