Raise your hand if you have seen this film. Come on, I want to know who you are! Send me a comment! I saw this extradordinary work as a college student in the 70s – just that once – and I remembered it vividly. I just bought it from the Criterion Collection of DVDs, and, to my delight, it is just as amazing as I recalled it from 30 years ago!
Directed by Dusan Makavejev in 1971, it earned him – his words – “a one-way ticket out of Yugoslavia.” Remember-this is long before the Fall of Communism! The film was banned in the East Block for years of course, and it is not widely seen or heard of in the West. I posted about it briefly early in this blog. What is it?
I provide a brief outline with images of the film here. It is an attempt to convey the visually and intellectually dazzling experience it provides. For an excellent and lengthy description of the myriad ideas that crisscross throughout the film, visit this post on another blog.
The film begins as an investigation into the life of Wilhelm Reich (WR), focusing on his later years in America. Reich was a member of Freud’s circle, but he was deeply interested in contemporary politics, appropriately terrified by the rise of Fascism, and a Communist. Of course, with his belief in the connection between sexual repression and political movements, he couldn’t be a favorite son of The Party, and the Nazis reviled him as a perverted Jewish subversive. Reich linked the repression of the sexual drive with the appeal of Fascism for the masses, and he was an advocate for free and open sexual education of youth.
Opening credits – still image of WR – shot of his Orgone Accumulator
NYC waste incinerator – Reich on the way to prison – NYC streets 1970
In his later days, Reich went rather mad. He developed crackpot theories about cosmic orgone energy, which he believed was channeled by humans during sex. The Orgone Accumulator was a box he “invented” to capture and focus this blue energy for therapeutic purposes. His books were banned, burned in New York, and he was tried and imprisoned through actions by the US FDA. Meanwhile, in the grungy NYC of the 1970s, some strange bohemian types roam about and don clothing and paraphernalia of urban guerillas.
Title pages of works by and about Reich – WR memorial in the USA
Local folks reminisce about the eccentric Mr. Reich – Cloud buster apparatus to manipulate
atmospheric cosmic orgone energy – Archival clip of the arrival of scientists arriving to meet with WR
The film provides some background on the earlier career of WR, but focuses on his deranged later period. How much more deranged than the rest of us was he? Was his insistence on the primacy of sexual force in human life nutty, or just common sense? He was certainly a fish out of water in the USA, despite his conversion to conservative politics. (He voted for Eisenhower). Isn’t America filled with loonies like WR, setting up communes, founding Utopias, peddling revelation?
Milena’s story – Milena – Relaxing with a cigar and Karl Marx
Milena’s appeal – Sexual polemic for proletariat – Comarade Stalin
The fictional narrative of the film begins to be intercut with the documentary strand at this point. The satire, parody, visual and verbal irony are relentless. The language and artistic cliches of orthodox state communism are hilariously skewered, while the psychological documentary side of the tale is pursued with segments of primal-scream therapy and New York Reichian therapists discussing the role of body language, “body armor” to Reich, in repressing sexuality.
Milena, the Yugoslavian heroine is devoted to the ideals of revolution in the personal and political realm. She is a communist-feminist advocate of freedom, in love and work, but she has yet to find the right man with whom to build her personal sexual-socialist paradise. Leaving her cramped apartment so her voluptuous roommate can have her romp with her latest boyfriend, she goes to the terrace to address the assembled workers on the need for sexual joy in communist revolution. An annoying worker, who fancies himself eligible to be her lover, appears yet again. Archival propaganda films of Father Stalin (played by a look-alike) are intercut, the monumental socialist-realist kitsch providing a bizarre and hilarious counterpoint to the action.
Meanwhile, back in NYC – At last, a love interest! – Milena smitten
Back in NYC, the crazy guerilla wonders the streets, menacing with his M-16 to which he appears to have an overly passionate relationship. Milena goes to an ice spectacular with friends and, lo! she finds the man of her dreams! He is a god, and she is in love, at last! The show is an absurd and showy concoction of kitsch – part Vegas, part Moscow – to the choral accompaniment of childish songs of praise to The Party.
Soviet Man, Soviet Hero, Soviet Hunk
Milena approaches the lead skater – Vladimir Ilyich, like V. I. Lenin – and of course, he responds to her – she’s gorgeous, and so serious! After his makeup is off, he comes home with her to have some milk and cookies. The two women fawn over him, so handsome! as he talks on, sonorous, serious stupidities falling from his tongue as if rehearsed. Seeing a poster of Manhattan he says, of course, they have performed “miracles of production,” but they are unhappy, without our socialist souls.
What is that picture! – Communism means “in common” – Breakthrough?
The working class is the subject of history – Death to Male Fascism! – Free Love!
Vladimir notices a picture on the wall of Adolf Hitler sitting in the midst of a huge circle of admiring, adoring young women. What is a beautiful young communist doing with that on the wall? Milena explains that it is to illustrate how thoroughly the beautiful erotic impulse can be distorted and manipulated to frustrate the workers and to subjugate women to tyrannical rule of fascist males. The portraits of Reich and Freud look down from the wall. Do they approve?
Milena’s roommate – she left her clothes somewhere – brings the refreshments. Let’s share, we are all communists! Vladimir explains that a communist must be incisive, sharp, like a scalpel…The wall breaks, someone is coming through! It’s that drunken worker again, so unlike the Adonis-Vladimir. He sings and makes as if to march with his pickaxe and locks Vladimir in the armoire. Cut to Milena: She’s the only person in the frame…she’s holding the frame…she addresses US!
Releasing the Soviet Hero – Granny, Look! – It’s Stalin!
Bohemian “artist” molding a penis – Stalin speaks!
Milena frees her love from the closet – cut to a Soviet propaganda film: all eyes turn to Comarade Stalin! Then back again to weirdo NYC where we watch an artist do a plaster cast of a man’s erect penis so as to make a wax or plastic model of it. Turned out pretty well! Back to Stalin!!
Last stand for fascist architecture? – Primal scream – Reach for the heights!
Our weirdo urban guerrilla continues his maneuvers. How fitting that he ends up in Lincoln Center, surely not an accident. The style is reminiscent of Mussolini’s projects – totalitarian kitsch is a different kind of International Style. (Philip Johnson, who had a hand in the project, was quite sympathetic to the Nazis for a while…) We learn more about Reichian therapy and watch numerous women come into ecstatic contact with their inner-orgone, or at least breathe very heavily. And finally, our urban warrior finds release with his beloved M-16 and sends off some celebratory rounds skywards. Happiness is a warm gun!!
Cloud busters – He thinks only of THE REVOLUTION – Is he blind!
“Your people are so interesting,” he says. “And the women?” she asks.
Back at Rancho Orgone, the cloudbusters are manned by the intrepid cosmic seekers. They look an awful lot like anti-aircraft guns, but they are designed to bring energy down to the earth, not to send destructive explosions up into the sky. Milena and Vladimir take a romantic walk by the not so romantic riverside. She tries, but he has eyes, ears, thoughts, only for the great revolution. “To die for love is wasteful, romantic, bourgeois. Brutally zoologic!” He lives only for his art in service to the glorious workers state! Does he not see the palpitating beauty right in front of his nose, aching for him to take her into his arms and bring them both to a revolutionary, socialist, common, fruitful consumation?!!! Is he blind?! Alas, she realizes sadly, he may be just that.
She makes one last try…and, STALIN!
She will try once more, desperately, without inhibition, to break through his emotional, intellectual, sensual armor and to let him know what she wants, what she needs, in no uncertain terms. She reaches for him and…he SLAPS her! And we see… Comrade Stalin! (How interesting – could this be a deliberate echo of the movie, Fail Safe?) Stalin looks on coldly, with world-historical understanding (the choir music swells!) The woman brings a supplication – he considers, will he grant it? The world on his shoulders!
Enlightenment – Anger – Telling it like it is!
She sees the truth now, the cosmic light energy of understanding is shed on her, through her. She will set the record straight and she is terrifying in her righteous, socialist, revolutionary, feminist, truth-telling. She lets that sniveling stuffed-shirt of the revolution have it with hits, verbal pummeling, and slaps. She knocks his stupid hat off!
“You want the revolution, but heaven forbid it should touch you!” She really gives it to him! “What’s a baby? For a man, a second, then it’s the woman’s job!” You want revolutionary violence, I’ll give it to you! She denounces him, his party, the revolution, and the entire kitsch spectacle of his socialist art extravaganzas.
At last, on his knees, he understands, she forgives and finds love…
…But in the end, the energy released is too much for this repressed agent of the people’s revolution. The male principle must reassert itself, achieve dominance and control of all impulses. He cannot allow himself to run free. The communist road must be followed! The champion skater, tumbled low by love, uses his skate to decapitate Milena with one terrific blow. Her head, examined in the morgue, begins to talk, to tell of her tragic experience with this “genuine Red fascist”. Meanwhile, Vladimir lets loose with a song of his sorrow. Her story will go on, and his.