One of the most effec­tive and real­is­tic depic­tions of man­ual work in cin­ema is found in a scene in the avant-garde film Pravda (1970) by Jean-Luc Godard (offi­cially by the Groupe Dziga Ver­tov), well-described in Monaco (1976). This is a short piece about the events in May 1968 in what was then Czecho­slo­va­kia. Whereas most peo­ple in Britain and the USA saw the upris­ing as gal­lant lit­tle Czechs mak­ing a bid for free­dom from the Soviet Empire, Godard took a more crit­i­cal line, as did the French Com­mu­nist Party. For them, the upris­ing was a bour­geois human­ist one based on pro­mot­ing the illu­sory indi­vid­ual free­doms of cap­i­tal­ism. A stern marx­ist (Maoist in places) com­men­tary makes up the sound­track while the cam­era shows a clan­des­tine series of scenes of life in Czecho­slo­va­kia. Godard him­self later dis­missed the piece as ‘Lenin­ist garbage’.

The film also has a ped­a­gogic point to make. Most doc­u­men­taries of the time, includ­ing the ones we saw on British TV on the Czech rebel­lion, worked really hard to make their depic­tions seem real­is­tic. In the process, they repro­duce an ide­o­log­i­cal ‘real­ity’, for marx­ists. One way to show this ide­o­log­i­cal effect is to break the usual con­ven­tions, which is what Pravda does in a deter­mined way. In the most-often quoted scene, some Czech work­ers appear on screen, speak­ing Czech. No sub­ti­tling or dub­bing is pro­vided for the viewer, unlike in the usual doc­u­men­tary – ‘Vladimir’ tells ‘Rosa’ ‘If you don’t speak Czech, you had bet­ter learn fast!’

The work scene is also dis­turbingly unusual (for­ward to 46min 30 sec­onds in this ver­sion). We see a young man tend­ing a large rotary cut­ting machine in the Skoda fac­tory (which made weapons as well as cars, the com­men­tary reminds us). The machine cut­ters move slowly up and down the piece they are work­ing on. We get extremely noisy nat­ural sound. There are no edits or shifts in cam­era posi­tion, and no other sound for 5 or 6 minutes(a very long time in cin­ema). The worker tends the machine, lubri­cat­ing it occa­sion­ally, but largely just watch­ing it as it does its job. There are no ear defend­ers, no guard rails, and no other work­ers to talk to. After a cou­ple of min­utes, we are all long­ing for it to end.

My stu­dents often nom­i­nated this scene as the most annoy­ing and chal­leng­ing in the whole of a very unen­joy­able film (but it did them good!). That was the whole point, of course. They found 5 min­utes enough, so what of the poor guy who spent 8 hours a day doing that?

Ref­er­ences

  1. Monaco, J ( 1976) New Wave: Truf­faut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Riv­ette Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press.