The 20th Century Needs No Narration in ‘The Compilation Film’


Among its many jaw-dropping moments, the recently released Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu—a feature-length mosaic of officially sanctioned images from the long reign of the Romanian dictator—offers a chance to remember another tyrant, “Dear Leader” Kim Il Jong, at his most flamboyantly lavish. Andrei Ujica’s three-hour immersion in Ceausescu’s bathysphere existence includes home movies of rigged bear hunts and state visits, most memorably, a trip to North Korea, where seemingly the entire population of soundstage-thin Pyongyang is on hand to play color guard for the visiting dignitary.

Deserved praise for Autobiography has inspired Anthology Film Archives to unite the film’s predecessors under the rubric of “The Compilation Film”: assemblages of footage acquired through exhaustive archive-dredging. Taken together, this series gives a good vantage of the major political currents of the 20th century—as mediated by anonymous cameramen and filmmakers, at least—currents represented, time and again, by images of humanity moving en masse.

In Esfir Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), the happy ending is a dam-burst swirl and eddy of unloosed crowds. An overlooked figure in Soviet film history, Shub might well be the mother of the compilation film: Fall, compiled for the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution, looks back on “Czarist Russia in the years of the black reaction.” Shub’s found-footage timeline covers the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty, as the aforementioned masses are herded by police, and Russia’s entry into World War I, as they’re regimented, before finally being unloosed by the czar’s abdication. Watching the jubilant, “historically inevitable” conclusion—Shub’s intertitles freely use scare quotes—I couldn’t forget writer Robert Warshow’s 1955 review of another propagandist, pro-Soviet compilation in the light of Stalinism: “If they had got the chance, they would have made a handsome montage of my corpse, too, and given it a meaning—their meaning and not mine.”

Produced with the benefit of more hindsight, Hitler’s Hit Parade (2003) moves to the beat of the Third Reich’s escapist pop, with saccharine strings drowning out backstage screams. Filmmakers Oliver Axer and Susanne Benze link the lockstep of Nazi expansionism to the chorus dancers, corny commercials, and outdoor aerobics of the ’30s and ’40s, in montages ironically set to the strains of the era’s chart-toppers. The enforced performance aspect of totalitarianism is likewise at the heart of USSR-born Sergei Loznitsa’s Revue (2008), which, repurposing industrial documentaries and state-subsidized folk culture of the Khrushchev vintage, offers views from a nine-million-square-mile Potemkin village.

There is an emphasis on material of and for children in both Revue and Wolfgang Kissel and C. Cay Wesnigk’s Strictly Propaganda (1991), which resurrects the (East) German Democratic Republic through its teacher-instruction films, kiddie shows, and other classroom brainwash. Both works prominently feature the Young Pioneers, a kind-of Communist scout organization, which, with their fist-pumping salutes in Strictly Propaganda, resemble nothing so much as Hitler Youth as Kissel and Wesnigk illustrate the de-Nazified, de-militarized East Germany’s gradual imitation of its anti-model. (At one point, some Young Pioneers are seen floating peace messages to West Germany via the Elbe, and you get the sense that partitioned Germany was a passive-aggressive roommate situation on an international scale.)

Watching all this, “One can’t help but to reflect on other forms of propaganda—including our own,” per Anthology’s blurb on Strictly Propaganda—and indeed, in everything but their Marxist-Leninist bent, these indoctrinating films recall the soporific social-programming educational films of the Eisenhower era. The difference is that Western democracies fostered autonomous pop as an antidote to official state-school culture—what W.T. Lhamon, in his study of American cultural style in the ’50s, Deliberate Speed, called “pest groups”: folk-pop forces within the host mass culture, defying the official dictates of the commissars.

Just the glimpses of the approved Soviet culture on display here are enough to induce catatonia: In Revue, a dreadfully unfunny “lyrical comedy about life on a collective farm” plays to circus-seal-like applause. Later, shipbuilding-institute students put on a puppet show of a Western rock concert to, according to a newsreel narrator, “relentlessly mock admirers of so-called art”—though more apparent is their note of fascination. When the needle drops on the Bobby Fuller Four’s version of “I Fought the Law” in the middle of Autobiography, it breaks through like a broadcast from another planet—chorale recitals about the glories of flax won’t stand the competition.