Dusan Makavejev's visionary insolence

WR Mysteries of the Organism is screened in London.

"Gentlemen, in our Democracy, everyone is entitled to a doughnut. Some get the doughnut, others get the hole in the doughnut.” 

A throbbing essay in visionary insolence, WR Mysteries of the Organism by Yugoslav director Dusan Makavejev, which will be screened tonight at BFI Southbank in London, mixes formal experimentation with radical lyricism in an incendiary cocktail of cinematic liberation. The film sets out to document the life and times of Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, Freud’s former pupil famous for his treatises on sexual repression and liberation.

Makavejev succeeds in translating Reich’s notion of the orgasm as a tool of psycho-social emancipation into images. The film articulates its irreverent narrative around free associations, creactive juxtapositions and deviant evocations - New York transsexuals sing Stalinist musicals; Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs roams the Manhattan grid masturbating a rifle, opening hostilities between civilized pliancy and creative insurgency. Eisenstein’s “dialectical montage” is hijacked by the unorthodox urges of the New Left; the orgiastic surrealism of spontaneity overcomes the tedium of Actually Existing Socialism.

Meanwhile, behind the Iron Curtain, a Soviet sportsman ("Honoured Artist of The People") beheads his impudent girlfriend in a grotesque attempt to preserve his Communist purity against the decadence of the Yugoslav "Third Way". The assembled workers are aroused, quite literally, by a young woman calling for genital happiness and denouncing Stalinism as “a puny lie disguised as a great historic truth”. Sexual repression is presented here as the main reason behind the failure of the October Revolution or, in a more Reichian fashion, "The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality". The exuberant slapstick style characterising the "Eastern Chapter" of the film epitomises Reich's and Makavejev's belief in the incompatibility of indoctrination and freedom, instinct and constraint. To have combined the didacticism of psychoanalytical thought with the power of images remains the film's principal achievement. It's a film whose very semantic matrix transcends geographical borders, a perfect example of cross-pollinating 1970s film, neither western nor eastern.

The late British film critic Raymond Durgnat wrote a book about WR (in the BFI's "Modern Classics" series), declaring it a film whose radical tenets he did not fully share yet by which he remained deeply fascinated. It is a captivating book, showing how a film that “yields great pleasure, emotional and aesthetic” upset the empiricist and pragmatic outlook of a devoutly analytical critic. The volume is a rare instance of an analytical approach succeeding in disclosing the inner workings of a visual text without neutralising its pre-linguistic impetus. 

WR was described by Makajevev as “a black comedy, a political circus, a fantasy on the fascism and communism of human bodies, the political life of human genitals, a proclamation of the pornographic essence of any system of authority and power over others”. All this prior to the moment when, in Raymond Durgnat’s words, “60s anarcho-libertarianism ebbed before the routinisation of sexual permissivness and the neo-puritanism of ‘Political Correctness’.”

"The invasion of compulsory sex-morality": Reich on the Russian Revolution (Photo: Getty Images)
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit