Sunday, September 24, 2006

Gymnaslaerer Pedersen (Comrade Pedersen)

GYMNASLAERER PEDERSEN (COMRADE PEDERSEN) (PI) Norway / 2006 / 35 mm / Colour / 110 min / Dir.: Hans Petter Moland, Cast: Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Anne Ryg, Jan Gunnar Røise, Jon Øigarden, Stig Henrik Hoff, Silje Torp Færevag, Fridtjov Såaheim In 1968, it seemed as if all of European youth was infected with revolutionary fever. When young high school teacher Knut Pedersen arrives in a small Norwegian town he discovers that Maoism and sex are uncomfortable bedmates.

I saw Gymnaslærer Pedersen (“Schoolteacher Pedersen,” though in English the movie was released as Comrade Pedersen) at the Montreal World Film Festival back in August. The movie – based on a book by former Maoist Dag Solstad – is an interesting mix of beautiful cinema and one-dimensional anti-communism…

The film opens as a bedraggled and ageing Knut Pedersen boards a train, on a trip to revisit his youth. Sucking on a cigarette he cracks open the train window for air, and loses himself admiring a woman’s legs as her red skirt flutters.

Chilled by the draft (this is Norway folks!) Pedersen closes the window… only to notice that without a breeze no skirt flutters…

After a moment’s thought our protagonist breaks out in a great big grin, pushing the window open as far as it will go, letting in such a gust of air that the woman’s skirt is blown clear above her waist.

The director is telling us that, on second thought, this grey haired man is choosing pleasure, choosing freedom, choosing life.

The soundtrack breaks in and the red “skirt” is shown fluttering out the window, now become a giant red flag…

Comrade Pedersen is full of scenes like this. Half-imagined, dreamlike, sending the audience messages that dry realism would have to struggle with. Yet it’s well done, at times even beautifully done, and these scenes come in measured doses. Neither distracting from the narrative, nor coming off as cheap ploys.

Which is not to say that Hans Petter Moland’s latest film has no cheap tricks. In fact, it is only Moland’s skill as a director which half-rescues this film from his bad politics, his superficial and cartoonish anti-communism. (Interesting side note: Norwegian comrades seem to hold high opinions about Solstad’s book, while really disliking this adaptation…)

The film’s story is told as its title-character, schoolteacher and former Maoist Knut Pedersen, relates his pathetic youth to a classroom of modern young Norwegian teens. It all takes place as one long string of memories.

Pedersen explains how he joined the AKP (ML), Norway’s main Marxist-Leninist party in the 1970s, largely due to his weak personality and strong desire to “be one of the gang.”

In another one of those very clever, half-real half-symbolic scenes, we see this happen, as a young schoolteacher Pedersen is challenged by one of his students, the Maoist student Werner, who insists that the whole class should sit in a semi-circle to undo the authoritarian nature of the education system. Next thing, the entire class has broken into a stirring rendition of Polyushko-Pole (O, Field, My Field by the Red Army Choir), as the spellbound schoolteacher looks on, not really sure what the hell is happening.

We then cut to his being gently interrogated by the school principal, who asks why the students were sitting on the floor and what they were singing. She is particularly interested in knowing if Pedersen sang too, if he mouthed the words, if he even felt like joining in.

“It is easy to get carried away by such a tune,” she notes, and we know she is not just talking about music here.

Scene after scene, conversation after conversation, this is a very smart movie by a very good director. And as far as that goes, it was a pleasure to watch.

But that’s just half the story.

Moland has given us a movie which is not only beautiful, but also thoroughly political. Thoroughly dishonest politics at that. Not that it’s even necessary, but he makes his message explicit near the end, when (the old) Pedersen tells his class that if he has any advice for them, it is “to beware of communist groups.”

It is a message which was obviously understood by the small crowd which gathered around the director after the Montreal premiere. As one of them said, “I just want to say thank you for making this movie.” Another, who had come to Canada in the fifties, asked him, “What happened to my Norway, so that such things could happen?”

Sensing perhaps that i had seen the product of a convert’s zeal, i asked him if he had ever been a Maoist, if the movie was in any way based on his own experiences. “Completely fictitious,” i was told. And no, Moland was never a communist. “Though the communists made a lot of problems for me,” he added.

Ah so…

Nina Skåtøy, representing first eros
and then its denial by revolutionary politics...

In the movie, the young Pedersen is seduced into joining and staying in the AKP(ML), first by his student Werner, and then by the earnest and sexy cadre Nina Skåtøy. The movie shows us snapshots of his ten years with the AKP(ML), allowing Moland to exploit almost every stereotype of the “left-wing cult.”

While i am not a Maoist, i think it is nevertheless important for all of us who dream of revolution to pay attention to how anybody gets dissed in films like this one. Because there is nothing about these “criticisms” to prevent them from being used against anybody else, ourselves included, who might try to break out from the capitalist routine.

So – keeping in mind that i liked this movie, that it was enjoyable to watch – i’m going to take a second look at how revolutionaries are presented here.

  1. Revolutionaries are disconnected from reality. The unreasonable and embarrassing zeal with which the cadre carry on is matched only by the disdain they receive from the very proletariat in whose name they are fighting. This point is driven home by Nina, who fucks Knut and then in the height of passion shouts out “Oh comrade!” – and by Knut himself who after one late night romp exclaims that Mao would appreciate their ardour. Yet as the more committed revs leave their professional jobs to work in the factories they find themselves isolated and unappreciated by the working class. Nina is devastated by her isolation, as her fellow workers care more about the soap opera of Norway’s royal family than any communist propaganda. She is stripped of her illusions, and finally there remains nothing for her to fall back on. The film’s climax is in fact a climax of disillusionment, which reaches its logical conclusion when Nina kills herself.

  2. yet another schoolteacher
    wasting his time in the bottling plant...

  3. Revolutionary organizations interfere in members’ personal lives. In Comrade Pedersen, after a late night quickie in the snow Nina actually breaks up with Knut in a criticism/self-criticism session (“I have been having a petit bourgeois adulterous affair, the man is married to a woman of the people, she is being oppressed,” etc.) Schoolteachers and social workers are pressured to give up their jobs and go work in the factories. (Note that the same anti-communists who insist capitalism is so great are horrified at the idea of middle class revolutionaries “wasting their potential” at working class jobs!) Members are told to not drink with their friends at the bar, but at home, so that the saved money can be donated to the party. At one point Nina quips “After the revolution, everyone will drink tea” – a ridiculous point which echoes the cell leader Jan Klåstad’s claim that every good communist should prefer plastic goods, as plastic is the “truly communist” material…

  4. There is no reason to be a revolutionary. At no point in Comrade Pedersen do we see anything worth fighting for. Apart from the middle class Maoists, the workers all seem content with their factory jobs. Women are not oppressed in any horrible way. Vietnam is mentioned, but nothing is shown or discussed to explain what that was all about. We see this small town in Norway, perhaps not the most exciting corner of the world, but not a bad one either. Given that there seems to be nothing in society to justify political revolt, it is implied that the cause must instead be found in the pathologies of the individual radicals. Indeed: we see that the only thing worth rebelling against in the 1970s must have been… the Maoists!

Of course we can see revolutionaries portrayed in much the same way in all manner of cultural products – television programs, movies, books, etc. – and yeah, there is grain of truth in some of these characterizations.

Revolutionary groups are not above reproach, and some did (and do!) perhaps at times conform to the worst of these clichés.

The problem is that by presenting these facts on their own, devoid of context, anti-communists are sneaking in some definite untruths.

For instance, the implication that most people were somehow more connected to reality than the hapless revolutionaries. Or that outside of the bounds of the revolutionary organization, people were free to live their lives however they pleased. Or that there were not real gains and changes as a result of people fighting for them.

If we think about it, none of these things are even close to true. Keeping that in mind, the choices of yesterday’s Maoists – while perhaps not correct – nevertheless appear far less cultish and bizarre.

Take point number one, the way in which revolutionaries were “disconnected from reality.” Looking back on the world as it existed before the revolutionary upsurge of the 60s/70s, who could have predicted the incredible changes that have taken place since? Given how much has changed, and in so many unpredictable ways, was someone who thought that politics had nothing to do with their life, or that it was best to trust the powers that be, really more “connected with reality”?!?

Jog your memory: queer and women’s liberation, the fall of the Soviet Union, the defeat of colonialism and the emergence of global neo-colonialism… the United States scrapping the Geneva convention as it unilaterally declares war on this and then that neo-colony… social control through mass incarceration… a plague which was allowed to take hold because the right-wing held power, and which today has life expectancies plummeting across Africa… the rise of the far right both within the metropoles and in bits of the former colonies… global warming and genocide around the world… these are just some of what the past decades have brought us…

Was not thinking about politics, or accepting the rules of the system, really more “realistic” than doing otherwise?

The people who joined revolutionary organizations in the seventies were not living in a static world at all, but rather one in which everything was changing all at once. (One which continues to do so even today...)

Yet the message of films like Comrade Pedersen is that people had no reason to be frantic, to be passionate, to throw their lives into a project to change the world. The world changes on its own timetable and there’s nothing we can do one way or another. We may suffer its effects, but to try and make a difference is to simply tilt at history’s windmills.

So when people do act radically, do make sacrifices, do get all crazy with ideas that have them seeing things from a perspective different from anyone else… we are told that this is an illness, an unhealthy delusion, a cult.

To note that this propaganda, trumpeted by capitalists and their right-wing cheerleaders, is transparently self-serving… is really to state the obvious and nothing more...

Suffice to say that while the revolutionaries of the sixties and seventies failed to make revolution anywhere in the metropoles, looking back at the changes of the past thirty years they were certainly no more “disconnected from reality” than anyone else.

in one of the films many "subtle" scenes,
Pedersen thanks the thuggish AKP(ML)
leader Jan Klåstad for tearing up
photos of his estranged wife and child...

As for the second point, interfering in people’s lives, this is another cliché in depictions of “crazy leftists.” And one which some groups have deserved, as stir-and-add-water leaders imposed the most ridiculous rules on members. The most famous examples are of course sexual, where people were told that a certain type of relationship was the only type appropriate for “real revolutionaries,” generally (though not always) one which “coincidentally” mirrored the kind of patriarchal heterosexual relationship that predominates in capitalist society.

But while top-down coerced personal politics are obviously a bad idea, here too there’s a heaping dose of hypocrisy when leftists are singled out by anti-communist “freedom-lovers.” After all, it is the capitalist State which has engaged in the most radical social engineering, criminalizing all sorts of sexual activity, legislating how a woman may use her womb, using its schools to indoctrinate children with capitalist values, and throughout the colonies using the most brutal methods to regulate even the most trivial personal matters.

Furthermore, a whole slew of non-state institutions – churches, benevolent associations, clubs and charities – impose all manner of codes of personal behaviour on their members. And throughout history – at least here in Canada, and i imagine the same is true elsewhere too – many of these predominantly middle class associations have also concentrated on coercing or manipulating the personal choices of the working class, though this is normally presented as some kind of charitable “uplifting” or “improving” of the lower orders.

What sets revolutionary leftists apart from these pro-capitalist busybodies is that in theory at least their personal politics were predicated on making life better for the oppressed. Whereas most “social reformers” are more concerned with making the oppressed “better” for capitalism.

But in a world in which we are taught that our “private spaces” are our only real recompense for the alienation and oppression we experience in the “real world” – no matter how alienating or oppressive the private sphere may in fact be – even “progressive” interference in people’s personal lives seems almost blasphemous.

I should make something clear: i think that leftists telling other people how they should live their lives – their “personal” lives, i.e. what they eat and how they fuck and what they do to relax – is normally an extremely bad idea!

Many radical organizations carry within them the same patriarchal and racist and middle class values that exist throughout capitalist society, so this kind of repressive personal politics can often appear as much right-wing as left-wing. But even when that is not the case, the kind of organization which may be best suited to mass intervention is often not the best for leveraging “cultural” (for want o a better word) change.

Imposing “revolutionary values” can become a form of etiquette, or a code, that serves to discourage people with different lifestyles and experiences from joining the movement – becoming a mechanism which replicates and concentrates the very repressive traits that were (sometimes incorrectly) deemed radical in the first place.

The personal is political – it cuts both ways!

Which is what people are picking up on when they feel that radicals are like members of some cult.

That said, we’re obviously in a bind. Because ignoring the “personal” as a terrain of political battle basically amounts to throwing in the towel. The personal is, after all, what is most important to many of us. It is the place that the heaviest repression and the most meaningful liberation can take place – most obviously for women and children and queers and old folks, but if you think about it or half a minute i’m sure you’ll see that not even straight men in their prime are exempt.

Family, kids, friends, community – take these out of the equation and there’s not much left worth fighting for or against. Accept the capitalist-patriarchal definition of these terms and you're sunk. And a sense of personal meaning, that one’s personal decisions have a relationship to one’s values, and to a particular social project… this is such a basic need, such a fundamental element of social chemistry… abandoning the personal terrain would mean limiting oneself to the sterile world of official bourgeois politics.

Like i said: we’re in a bind. How do we fight on the personal terrain while not becoming an insular and isolated bunch of wackos? How – for instance – to promote veganism and animal liberation without making everyone who eats meat or wears leather feel that they have been consigned to the camp of counter-revolution? (and i write this as a non-vegan) How to oppose patriarchal relationships while not telling people they have to reconfigure their lives to live in what Chairperson X or Guru Y have decided is the model “unoppressive” relationship? How to subvert language in a way which empowers people, not a way which makes them feel that they’ve encountered some juvenile pranksters copying jargon from the Sekret Kommie Kodebook?

I have no blueprint or pat answer. But i do observe that those radical movements which focused on the personal in a less centralized and more autonomous manner (think feminism, queer liberation and the animal rights people) have had a far greater influence on popular culture and the way people live their lives than those card carrying comrades who tried to use their organizations as cudgels to hammer “the correct behaviour” into cadre.

Of course, the “social movements” can also be arrogant and self-righteous and riddled by bullshit and ego… but by keeping their interventions more decentralized, by leaving the decision on when and how to intervene up to smaller local groups rather than larger centralized ones, by keeping such “cultural” interventions grounded in the grassroots, there has been less risk of surpassing the bounds of what is realistic and appropriate.


Comrade Pedersen is just one of a whole slew of movies and tv shows which make anyone who wants to change the world look like a nut, and any group with such a goal look like a cult. It’s a winning formula, especially in the current right-wing atmosphere, so there’ll likely be many more to come. The only thing that sets Moland’s film apart is how nicely it was filmed.

Those of us who do want to change the world should not be discouraged by such propaganda, but nor should we dismiss it as completely unrelated to the tasks at hand. If this “critique” is such a popular formula, it is in part because the way in which we are depicted in these films is not completely unconnected to how we are already seem. Embarrassingly, not even disconnected from how we can sometimes be.

So while we should note the political agenda behind films like Comrade Pedersen, while we should condemn their hypocrisy, we should also remember that the question of “how to intervene” personally and culturally is one we have not yet resolved, but which remains tied to the heart of our project.

Maoism in the metropoles crested along with the advances of the 1960s and 70s – indeed, it was just one of several First Word echoes of the tremendous struggles taking place throughout the “periphery.” While the right-wing neutralized this revolutionary upswing, and today presents capitalism as “victorious,” it doesn’t take a historian to see that this is a pyrrhic victory indeed. Around the world the choice between barbarism and communism is as stark as ever, and the fact that the former seems dominant in no way discredits the choices of those who fought for the latter…

1 comment: