Personnel is being hired for the Theater in Oklahoma! The great Theater of Oklahoma is calling you!
—Amerika, Franz Kafka
“But how can we know we’re in communism?”
—Camille, Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog
Specters haunt: class society, the ghost of Mayakovsky, the Soviet avant-garde. Julian Radlmaier’s filmography has thus far demonstrated a fixation with the terminology, the iconography—and the names, and the reference points—of a Marxist culture at once sacred, dogmatic, malleable, popular, misquoted, bastardized, mocked. The German filmmaker foregrounds his referential framework (two medium-length efforts preceded this one: 2012’s A Specter Is Haunting Europe and 2014’s A Proletarian Winter’s Tale) as if to simultaneously goad and warn his audience. But these are less lectures than Brechtian grapples. In them, characters discover the praxis of getting by: togetherness, fairness, the realities of a living wage.
In Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog, Radlmaier’s feature-length debut, the first gag is a foul-mouthed dismissal of Fra Angelo’s 1420s painting, Apparition of St. Francis at Arles, hanging inside the visually pristine, preciously quiet space of Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, on the grounds that its subject—St. Francis of Assisi—was a “fucking communist”. During a lunchbreak, museum employee Hong (Kyung-Taek Lie) explains to younger colleague Sancho (Beniamin Forthi) that St. Francis lived among the poor, spoke to the birds and always donated his clothes to others due to his communist beliefs. Sancho replies: “Idiot.” Over the course of the film, the two workers will undergo a borderline spiritual awakening—pilgrimage and all—prompted by a confrontation with the actual politics by which they come to acquire their daily bread.
Radlmaier, born in Nuremberg five years before the Berlin Wall fell, is evidently concerned with the ways in which his generation might find—and frame—an oppositional politics when the overwhelming pressure is to do the opposite: to join, that is, those who have already won. In one sequence in Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog, workers from disparate backgrounds discuss the best way forward following the demise of their boss. It’s Loach by way of Godard—the empowering dialectics of the former, but boxed and fractured like the latter. Radlmaier, shooting in 4:3 (a preference stemming back to his days of making 16mm shorts as a DFFB student), frames his characters head-on, in close-up, separated from and in reaction to one another—as if to underline the difficulty of aggregating individual needs.
Radlmaier has gone on record
as an admirer of Godard—specifically, his tendency or ability to mix politics with slapstick. “I think that in our world you hear so much of ‘things are like this’ and you hear so many explanations,” the German says, “things seem to be so static and determined. Comedy is just a means of making everything open again.” Comedy as crowbar: no doubt aware of the pitfalls of didactic artistry, Radlmaier eschews easy readings—to say nothing of easy answers. This isn’t merely a film poking fun at the gentrification of leftism; it’s also about how we might recover a workable politics from the dense fog of semantic confusion, the failed lessons and botched historiographies, that led to the widespread demonization of—and disillusionment within—the Left. (In the UK, we might remind ourselves here of the hysterical readings, peddled by some on the Right, of Labor’s Jeremy Corbyn as the Stalinist leader, somehow, of a Trotskyist sect.)
This being a self-criticism, of course, Radlmaier implicates himself in the film’s mechanisms of derision and doubt—both of which have come to define daily political discourse for large swathes of the filmmaker’s social class. He plays onscreen surrogate Julian, a filmmaker who convinces Canadian expat Camille (Deragh Campbell) to join him on what she thinks is a research trip laboring at Oklahoma—an apple-picking estate overseen by “Maggie’s Farm” type Elfriede Gottfried (Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg, recalling with her very presence here the similar deadpan absurdities of Daniel Hoesl’s features).
At Oklahoma, though Radlmaier never quite abandons his distancing techniques (sudden cut-offs of a non-diegetic MIDI rendition of “L’internationale,” gestures held mid-action before a scene ends), there’s a characterization present, through the humor and the dialogue, which serves the dramatic sincerity and poignant shifts of the film’s later stretches. Recall, here, that scene in which Julian, Hong and Sancho first arrive in their dorm to find that they’ll be sharing with three other men, each having to re-align himself, adjust to the cramped conditions and micro-aggressions of close-quarters living (it’s here where Radlmaier’s framing, tight by necessity, is at its most Fassbinderian). Reminded of the first season of classic Thatcher-era British comedy-drama series Auf Wiederhesen, Pet (1983), in which seven English construction laborers are brought together on a worksite (and in its dorms) in Düsseldorf, I laughed at the moment in Radlmaier’s film in which Sancho is given a cigarette from Georgian prole and assertive alpha Zurab (Zurab Rtveliashvili). Intimidated, Sancho begins to smoke it. “I thought you didn’t smoke,” says Hong, out of shot, from the bunkbed above. “Shhhh!”
What might it mean, this film asks, to pursue—as Hong, Sancho and Camille do in its final third—a “communism without communists”? And why must an image of self-organized laborers picnicking and reading by a river (grapes, wine, cheese) look like a performance rather than the real thing? Early on, before Julian and Camille arrive at Oklahoma, a group of millennials attends a dinner party hosted by Professor Botow (real-life Berlin-based Mexican filmmaker Carlos Bustamante). His young crowd gathered before him, Botow brags: at their age, as a Maoist, he was a father of two children (one Marx, the other Coca-Cola?) and had worked in a factory in order to re-educate himself: “Working class people are the biggest fascists!”
We are, in the way he is framed and presented (jacket on top of turtleneck), invited to laugh at Botow rather than with him. Likewise, when he refers to his guests as “overambitious couch potatoes” we might instinctively side with the millennials. But Radlmaier complicates one joke with another: later in the film, Julian is seen shirking his responsibilities as a collective laborer, comically feigning injury when confronted by Zurab. Another complication: while Botow is the parodic figure of a former activist whose one memory of those days is that he “fucked, fucked, fucked,” Julian’s own desire for Camille is pursued under the false pretense of artistic collaboration. Camille says, beginning to trust Julian: “I thought it was just a hipster excuse to date me.” “I look like that?” he asks. “Yes.”
We are in the realm of that other Marx. It was Groucho—and likely somebody else before him—who told the joke about not wanting to be part of a club that would accept you as a member. At the top of the dinner-party scene, Botow introduces his young guests to two cellists, who start up a stab-heavy string performance—the type from which, if you’ve ever found yourself in such straight-faced company at an inescapable private function, you might recoil. In the background, Julian looks away: bored, preoccupied. We surmise it is to Camille, the object of his desire, but it might just as easily be to other specters, to another life altogether: away from a milieu in which a term such as “proletarian” can’t be referenced without a snigger.