All of Peter Watkins films are events. When he tackles a historical moment of such magnitude as the Paris Commune of 1871, Watkins provokes, disturbs, jostles. The story, based on a thorough historical research, leads to an inevitable reflection about the present.
La Commune is the name given to the French revolutionary government established by the people of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). On March 17 and 18, Parisians led an uprising against the national government, which fled the capital and re-established itself in Versailles. The radicals established a proletarian government in Paris, called the Central Committee of the National Guard, and set March 26 as the date for the election of a municipal council. This council became known as the Commune of 1871, and its members as Communards. Most Communards were followers of Louis Auguste Blanqui, a revolutionary held prisoner in Versailles by the head of the National Assembly, Adolphe Thiers. Other Communards supported the school of socialism expounded by the French philosopher Pierre Joseph Proudhon and members of the International Workingmen's Association, of which Karl Marx was then a corresponding secretary.
For the film LA COMMUNE we travel back in time to 1871. A journalist for Versailles Television broadcasts a soothing and official view of events while a Commune television is set up to provide the perspectives of the Paris rebels. On a stage-like set, more than 200 actors interpret characters of the Commune, especially the Popincourt neighborhood in the XIth arrondissement. They voice their own thoughts and feelings concerning the social and political reforms. The telling of this story rests primarily on depicting the people of the Commune, and those who suppressed them.
Deliberately, this film is an attempt to challenge existing notions of documentary film, as well as the notions of 'neutrality' and 'objectivity' so beloved by the mass media today. The film is not intended as an apologia on behalf of the Paris Commune. But at the same time, it attempts to show that the Paris Commune, for all its human frailty, its internal conflicts and its blundering, was an event of major importance, not least because of the way in which its leading reformers tried to work with social process, by a direct involvement with the community and its needs.
For Peter Watkins, to make a film is to question his own work as a filmmaker. LA COMMUNE represents an uncompromising challenge to modern media and a penetrating critique.
"An intellectually challenging and tremendously moving experience, as history replayed among its contemporary ruins. Watkins builds to the long and cataclysmic Bloody Week of street fighting... But, this impressive sequence notwithstanding, LA COMMUNE is meant to evoke the unfamiliar sensation of revolutionary euphoria, or living (and dying) in a sacred time."—J. Hoberman, Village Voice
"Stunning. Peter Watkins's approach to history is to make its representation coincide with reflection on it, to film, together with the re-enactment, the idea - what history means for us today. As you watch LA COMMUNE, it becomes impossible and senseless to distinguish between present and representation. The film becomes a lucid dream: history as reinvented by and for the living."—Boston Phoenix
"The energy, conviction and skill with which the players of LA COMMUNE perform is startling. So genuine is the force of their passion that at moments you feel they might be about to erupt and carry the revolt live into the auditorium..."—Peter Lennon, The Guardian
"A thought-provoking and moving tribute to the desire for a better world. The film's unconventional approach to history provides a unique and rewarding glimpse into a process of great interest to historians: that of collective, revolutionary action... The insight the film provides into the process of social change invites reflection both on the state of the world today and on the process of historical change on part of the viewer... A valuable teaching tool."—H-France Reviews
"Invigorating... big, passionate and brimming with compelling human details and broad sociopolitical idealism... LA COMMUNE is powerful, heady stuff."—Variety