Quest for Happiness: A Conversation with Peter von Bagh



By Boris Nelepo and Celluloid Liberation Front

9/22/2014: We were saddened to hear of Peter von Bagh’s death on September 17, 2014.

In Citizen Peter, last year’s book on Peter von Bagh (edited by Antti Alanen and Olaf Möller) published in his native Finland, the object of study is dubbed “a Renaissance man,” which is certainly no exaggeration seeing that over the course of his long, multi-hyphenate career, von Bagh has run the Finnish Film Archive, authored about 40 books, and perennially presided over the Midnight Sun Film Festival co-founded by the Kaurismäki brothers. Add to these accomplishments, for good measure, the cinephiliac magazine Filmihullu, which he has helmed for more than 40 years, and his stint as art director of Il Cinema Ritrovato (a festival run by the Cineteca di Bologna), and it’s easy to overlook that first and foremost, von Bagh is a virtuoso filmmaker in his own right, fashioning unique collages out of archival footage.

Apart from 50-plus documentaries, his still underseen back catalogue includes one feature, a bizarre comedy, The Count (1971), admired by none other than Douglas Sirk. Chris Marker once made a bold claim that he preferred von Bagh’s Helsinki Forever (2008) to Walter Ruttmann’s esteemed classic Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). A man of truly encyclopedic knowledge, von Bagh is equally well-versed in film and music, literature and visual arts, architecture and politics. Moviemaking is his way of chronicling the history of his beloved home country; his movies are, therefore, brimming with biases and strong opinions, movies that peer inside the human soul with great intensity and ardour.

In Remembrance—A Small Movie About Oulu in the 1950s (2013), the director thinks back on going to the cinema for the first time in his life: at age seven he saw a film about an Arctic expedition, and suddenly realized how much courage it takes to simply be a human being. The recurring theme of his work is the limitless ability of film to process the 20th century; his medium is the fabric of time itself. Filmmaking allows von Bagh to quench his thirst for imagery of the past, since the entire century has been preserved on film. The sum total of images captured by the camera is a bottomless treasure trove that never fails to send us on a trip down memory lane. Socialism is his magnum opus, a mosaic meticulously assembled over the years. As Olaf Möller articulated, “von Bagh, maybe the truest of all Benjamin’ians in modern cinema, shows how socialism and cinema—all of cinema, be it documentary, be it fiction—are one, and how life is all about this sense of never being alone but always one; that cinema and socialism will always be there, just like Tom Joad knew.”—Boris Nelepo


The fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent collapse of “Real Socialism” was followed by one of the most experimental films of the ’90s, the First Gulf War. Expressionist, green signs on a nocturnal backdrop broadcast live on CNN, the neoliberal Pravda, provided global audiences with a new villain to scapegoat. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union, Hollywood had to suddenly deal with a shortage of villains. Russians had in fact populated American films in large and negative numbers, from McCarthyist sci-fi flicks to Rocky IV (1985) and the final catharsis of The Hunt for Red October (1990). A former US ally, Saddam Hussein, successfully filled the vacant throne of evil, inaugurating a new chapter in Hollywood mythology: that of the evil Muslim. Perhaps Kathryn Bigelow should give him partial credit for her Oscar…The first Iraq war also altered the alchemy between the two main components of cinema: image and sound. In Lessons of Darkness (1992) Werner Herzog captured the supremacy of images when showing a child left speechless by the horrors of war. The black tears of oil sealed the first, entirely televised war that was, appropriately enough, fought with images and which concealed its victims behind a wall of silence.

In Socialism Peter von Bagh does almost the opposite: he uses images to give voice and a human face to a political goal. Socialism: a failed dream defeated by a successful nightmare. The film has the sombre and mournful dignity of those who, defying opportunistic trends, still stand up for lost causes in the firm conviction that only unity and solidarity can grant universal happiness, however imperfect. To look at the (hi)stories of socialism through the lenses of cinema is to recognize their (s)elective affinities. Without industrialization neither cinema nor socialism would have existed, and the both of them have cultivated a contradictory relationship with the mechanical forces of progress. The factory was the birthplace of the Lumière Brothers’ first cinematic wail as well as the hotbed of workers’ revolts. Line-produced homologation and creative sabotage, normalcy and insurgency, art and artificiality; the same dialectical antinomy has accompanied world cinema and world revolutions. They have both transcended geographical borders and united different peoples and audiences; they have served as the utopian engine of modern history but also participated in its vilest crimes.

Very much like cinema, socialism is a kinetic movement towards an imagined land, a world of possibilities but also a mirror of our own, very (in)human monstrosities.

What von Bagh’s film reminds us is that the difference between cynicism and utopian impulses is the direction they point us towards. The former is fearful and conservative, while the latter is fearless and imaginary. Socialism is ultimately a film about life and our role within it. Unlike films, socialism will never feature a final cut, it will constantly demand our conscious participation in its unfolding script. Spectators in the endless montage of life, without a glimmer of remorse…—Celluloid Liberation Front


Celluloid Liberation Front: Your film, Socialism, comes at a time when the very idea of collective well-being and emancipation has been drowning deeper and deeper in the “icy waters of egoism” and self-interest. Can you tell us why you felt the need to make this film and how it came to be?

Peter von Bagh: Shame to say, but I didn’t know in advance what the film would become. I had a need to articulate my life-long interest in socialism, but the angle of the film came only little by little, in montage; as usual, I didn’t have a script. Like all my latest films (Helsinki Forever; Splinters, 2011; Story of Mikko Niskanen, 2010-11; Sodankylä Forever, 2010; Remembrance), this is also very strongly a view of cinema—something seen through the unique perspective that cinema provides, meaning truths that can’t be reached otherwise. And thus was born this strange but strong equation: cinema/socialism.

CLF: You consider the 20th century to be the “century of socialism.” It also happens to be the century of cinema, and, like cinema, socialism is often seen through the eyes of its main protagonists even though it couldn’t have existed without popular participation. Why did you decide to tell the (hi)story of socialism through the images of cinema?

Von Bagh: I tried other, more conventional ways, but exactly as I had abandoned the idea of writing about socialism (I couldn’t have told anything in a relevant way), I saw little by little that the essence of my theme would be in the brilliant films made long ago: an objective testimony not perhaps of truths and what really happened, but illusions and hopes, and with them something deeper than the events and “history.” An alternative history of the century.

Boris Nelepo: You start the film with a beautiful epigraph from Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya: “Those living a hundred, two hundred years from now, despising us for our silly, mundane lives, may perhaps somehow learn the secret of happiness.” It introduces immediately this melancholic dimension of the film, the sense of a dream that could not come true. After all, we are the very characters envisaged by Chekhov’s Astrov, living the same mundane lives.

Von Bagh: Chekhov is, all things considered, maybe my dearest lifelong literary love, and 19th- century Russian literature—very dear to Finnish readers—is also otherwise full of remarkable insights into the forthcoming new century, including facets of socialism. And you are right about the predestining tone of the quote: it’s a statement and prophesy of a sad fact. Actually a Spanish friend of mine, Miguel Marias, wrote to me that Socialism is one of the saddest films he knows.

Nelepo: Another emblematic Russian figure you quote is Vladimir Mayakovsky, who is the symbol of failed hopes.

Von Bagh: Right. A filmmaker does not have to make things obvious. The destiny of Mayakovsky is well known, and just the mention of him opens plenty of perspectives that invisibly build the overall drama.

Nelepo: The point that is most commonly made as a reaction to your film (at the Locarno Q&A, for instance) is that your portrayal of socialism is rather idealistic, and all the most gruesome and criminal aspects of actually trying to implement socialism in the 20th century are left aside. For me it is completely wrong. You mention Stalin’s repressions, show the last photo of Edvard Gylling, the Finnish Social Democratic politician, and give word to Mayakovsky…It is more than enough, we know the history of the 20th century. But Socialism at the same time is all about the pursuit of a beautiful and yet impossible dream.

Von Bagh: Of course the historical nightmares of socialism are in the film, undiluted. On the other side, I guess somebody might accuse the film for not showing concrete enough images of the perhaps short moments of fulfilled, concrete everyday socialism—moments that surely existed. So I agree with the question, about the dream being so dominant in the film—and that again being inseparable from the secret undertones of the films I dramatize in my collage.

CLF: The supposed failure of (Real) Socialism is often measured against its practical implementation and degeneration. On the contrary your film seems to stress the utopian dimension of socialism (without absolving its political crimes) as if what mattered is the forward movement towards a less unjust, lonely, and miserable world rather than its concrete materialization. Can you tell us what socialism meant for you and your generation and what the void left by its demise entailed?

Von Bagh: My generation, or the best of the generation, shared a belief in socialism which then seemed to bloom in many places; which seemed to compensate the crude versions of Realsozialismus that caused so much disillusion. There was indeed a void, and rather many had had enough—which can be seen in the terrible voting numbers of many European countries, my own country included. Watching old films again I couldn’t help the contrary happening: a new wind of belief being born inside of me, meaning that almost as much as many good people in the ‘20s and ‘30s, I simply could not—once again—avoid the feeling that among our alternatives, socialism could not only be a utopia, but the one real chance against the inhuman, brutal forces liberated so fully and perversely after 1990 and the collapse of “the Empire.”

CLF: Socialism paints a very unorthodox picture of socialism. We go from Lenin to Durruti, from the Russian to the Spanish revolution with the Paris Commune standing as a sort of revolutionary blueprint for the ones to come. Do you consider socialism to be a singular historical movement and moment or simply one of the many forms that the never-ending struggle against oppression has taken in the past century?

Von Bagh: Exactly so, many forms and never-ending struggle. I most definitively decided not to repeat the historical tragedy of siding with one or two directions as the “only right ones.” That’s why there is such a rainbow in the quotations.

Nelepo: One of the most astonishing qualities of your cinema for me is that your films, as only true cinema does, cancel the finiteness of time and, subsequently, death. The most fascinating example is Sodankylä Forever where the greatest directors meet each other, despite the time barrier, through the montage. It could be impossible to have an encounter of Vittorio de Seta, Marlen Khutsiev, Samuel Fuller, and Jean Rouch all at once, but everything is possible in your films. The same thing happens with the quotations in Socialism. It is a sort of an image of heaven where the most beautiful people coming from different centuries and countries meet each other and end up having conversations.

Von Bagh: The very poignant reaction of the first Lumière spectators in 1895 was that this new invention, cinema, gives us eternal life. This is an aspect I believe is present in most of my films, even in the improbable ones. Another, linked main theme is of course time: films like Helsinki Forever or Splinters are quite complicated time games, without the theoretical overtones of, for example, French literature or film. Which should be true also of Socialism.

Nelepo: In Manoel de Oliveira’s Porto of My Childhood (2001) there is a beautiful line: “To recall moments from a distant past is to travel out of time. Only each person’s memory can do this. It is what I shall try to do.” One could say that all your films are always about a matter, essence, and nature of time and have this Proustian quality, but I don’t remember any direct references to Marcel Proust in your work.

Von Bagh: Proust is certainly one of the decisive reading experiences of my life. And he is mentioned once in my films, in Helsinki Forever (about the anonymity of railway stations), along with Dostoyevsky and Faulkner.

Nelepo: In your massive filmography you imagined and created Finland. At the same time you always generate a compelling portrait of what civilization is and how it works. Then Socialism is a step further because it presents the highest possible level of civilization, verging on utopian.

Von Bagh: I would never in written word try to construct or imagine “a utopian perspective for civilization” or anything as general. But somehow film is a medium that just—and without myself intending to—moves into that kind of territory, and does it even in a concrete way.

Nelepo: Besides your work as a director and film historian, you are the artistic director of two great festivals. Could you propose the ideal double-bill for the projection of Socialism?

Von Bagh: If I answer with a reference to my own films, there are two obvious double-bill candidates. First, a 1983 short film called A Day at the Grave of Karl Marx—a film that also touches on the utopian perspectives of socialism. Or, secondly, Remembrance, a film that does not seem to have anything to do with Socialism—it’s about the smallest things in life and the following film is about the great themes—but they are basically one and the same film: about the quest for happiness. But these pairings can often be surprising just by the unexpected: the Edinburgh festival a couple of years ago showed the double-bill of Sodankylä Forever and the Karl Marx film, and the director of the festival said to me: they are one and the same.

Nelepo: You were thinking about the composition and structure of Socialism for years. The complex mosaic includes 47 film excerpts. Did you have in mind the very first image for the film, which became a locomotive for the rest of the collage?

Von Bagh: The Lumière images were among the very first ideas I had for the film—including the exact music that would give them maximum meaning. The use of the 1932 recording of Louis Armstrong’s “When You’re Smiling” led to other music ideas, so basically the soundtrack (which is not at all an orthodox “socialist history” soundtrack) was there before any other elements were developed.

Nelepo: The excerpt from En dirigeable sur les champs de bataille (1919) with the aerial footage of the remains of the Western front at the end of WWI, was, for me, the absolute stand-out in your film. The screening of this film at Piazza Maggiore was one of the highlights in Bologna this year. How did you find this film and decide that it should be part of Socialism?

Von Bagh: En dirigeable sur les champs de bataille has been shown in Bologna several times over the last years, and it was relatively easy to decide that in my short reflection about WWI that film would simply do the essential in a frighteningly precise way: to show what total war does to landscape, civilization, and human beings.

CLF: Very much like cinema, socialism is the practical realization of an idea. They both try, in their noblest attempts, to give form or at least voice to a more beautiful and just vision of the world. One deals with images, the other with social realities, and they have occasionally served each other. If there is one, how would you describe their relationship?

Von Bagh: Agreed. There is a beautiful and almost dreamlike relationship between cinema and socialism. If I found something essential to say about socialism—I don’t know if that is the case, but I hope I did—that happened because I approached the theme with the tools of what I feel are the noble essence of cinema. Something concrete and yet invisible, ready to be touched but having also an utopian, untouchable core. And I don’t want to forget human faces: they are what we feel most profoundly in our film memories, and they reach us in the same way from the screen, as images of old films. Images perhaps but more aptly life itself.

Nelepo: The testimonies of socialism you use are from an era when the cinema was still an extremely powerful form of mass art with an ambition of changing the world and society. For instance, in Bologna every year you curate a program on the great importance of films during the time of WWII. The cinema of today seems to have lost this ambition and power, more and more turning into a passion shared by the very few. Would a comeback still be possible? And could socialism be possible without cinema?

Von Bagh: I am not a prophet but I agree instinctively. We have now a cursed chance to live in a world (almost) without film (I mean in the powerful traditional sense) and (almost) without socialism—and that world is definitively a strange and fake place. The more I long for a comeback of both, hand in hand… Nelepo Boris