Immersed in death: on a packed commuter train in New York on the day JFK got shot, there is only one headline. (Photo: Getty Images)
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The assassin’s creed

The killings of Abraham Lincoln, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and John F Kennedy all seemed world-changing events. But is assassination anything other than an act of petty vanity?

It was a grey January day in St Petersburg in 1878 when Vera Zasulich, a young nihilist, made the short journey to the office of the city’s governor, General Fyodor Trepov. Here the general listened to petitions and examined complaints. A crowd of people had gathered in the cold. Zasulich waited in line for her turn to approach the great man. At last they spoke, and just as Trepov was turning from her to deal with the next supplicant, she pulled a gun from under her cloak and fired at him at point-blank range. The bullet burst into his pelvis, wounding but not killing him. Zasulich threw down the gun, stood quite still, and waited to be arrested. They beat her, of course, and then bundled her into a room, and then wondered a little feebly what to do with her next.

As they deliberated in the immediate aftermath of her deed, Zasulich moved from moments of dissociation and strangeness to an honest desire to offer advice to her baffled captors. Her words are quoted in a collection of revolutionary-era Russian memoirs, Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar, edited by Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N Rosenthal:

My foresight, and consequently my precise plan of action, did not extend beyond the moment of attack. But every minute my joy increased – not because I was in full control of myself . . . but rather because I found myself in an extraordinary state of the most complete invulnerability, such as I had never before experienced. Nothing at all could confuse me, annoy me, or tire me. Whatever was being thought up by those men, at that time conversing animatedly in another corner of the room, I would regard them calmly, from a distance they could not cross.

This mingled feeling of elation and satisfaction appears often in the personal accounts of assassins; the work has been done and, in the process, their own lives thrown away. A sudden liberation from the burden of self fills them; they ascend to a height above life. They have realised themselves in the perfection of a deed.

Zasulich’s act succeeded by virtue of its comparative failure. Her shooting of Trepov was an act of revenge, after he had ordered an innocent man to be badly whipped in the house of detention on account of a small act of insubordination. Put on trial for her retaliation, she found herself acquitted unexpectedly; indignation against Trepov and sympathy for Zasulich’s courage meant only one possible end to the trial, despite the weight of evidence against her. That she had only wounded her man no doubt also facilitated her acquittal.

At the end of the trial, there were wild scenes of jubilation in court. Almost everyone was elated; only the judge and Zasulich were suitably sober. The result depressed the judge, who knew that it made a nonsense of the law, and disheartened Zasulich, who had been deprived of her death. She was confronted by the terrible responsibility of living on; freedom had been returned to her.

Zasulich’s state of mind following her attempt at murder is symptomatic of the “archetypal assassin” from the French Revolution onwards, that is, the assassin who struck at a prominent political figure for idealistic and ideological reasons. It illustrates how the results of assassination were perhaps always less vital to the perpetrators than the sheer exhilaration and abandonment central to the deed. There is no question that they also looked for a kind of political “success” in such murders, but in fact such triumphs were always more limited and less vital than the psychological rewards: the desire, in a righteous deed, to justify the self and in the same instant to escape its trammels.

It is doubtful how far assassinations have worked as an instrument of political or revolutionary change. In most cases, such murders have made only a negligible impression on events; the chaos and instability they carry with them have nearly always meant more than the change brought about by the deed.

One of the Great Courses, those DVD lecture series advertised in the New York Review of Books or the LRB, is on Events That Changed History. Two of its 36 defining moments are assassinations – the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 and the killing of John F Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Both events look world-changing, but were they?

The assassination on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo is a textbook example of contingency in historical matters. Along the Appel Quay, where the visiting Austrian archduke, his wife and their entourage were scheduled to drive past, waited seven adolescent assassins, some of them still schoolboys, all determined to kill their man and spark a situation that might lead to Bosnia joining a Greater Serbia. The car swept by, passing the first assassin, who could not act, as a policeman was standing by him in the crowd. The second assassin was more fortunate, and lobbed a nail bomb that landed on the opened bonnet of the car. The archduke swiftly scooped it up and threw it back on to the road, where it exploded as it hit the ground. One soldier was injured by the blast; 70 holes punctured the car. The bomb-thrower bit into a cyanide capsule but the poison was old and its potency was gone. He pushed past the bystanders and leapt over the wall to drown himself. But the summer’s heat had shrunk the river, and it was too shallow to drown. Vomiting from the unstable pill, he was pulled down by a throng of people and bundled into the custody of the police. When they asked him if he was a Serb, he replied, “Yes, I am a Serb hero.”

Meanwhile the car drove on. The next assassin it passed was moved by pity for the royal pair and failed to fire his gun. The fourth assassin’s nerve failed him and he ran off home. The others watched as the car sped past too fast, and the moment was gone. Disappointed, one of the would-be killers, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, feeling hungry now, crossed the Quay and ambled on to the entrance of Franz Joseph Street; there, at Moritz Schiller’s food store, he stepped in and bought a sandwich. He was still sitting and eating it when the archduke and duchess pulled up in their car, right outside the store. They were coming back from the city hall and the driver had taken a wrong turning. They tried to reverse, but there was too little room to manoeuvre in the narrow street. Princip stood up, strode over to the right hand of the vehicle and, from a distance of four or five paces, fired two shots directly into the car. The first one killed the archduke; the second, intended for Oskar Potiorek, the governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, fatally wounded the duchess.

Some still believe that this product of accident and misadventure sparked a world war that killed millions. It is the case that some schoolboys playing the role of doomed heroes helped topple a civilisation; yet, on a grander political scale, the murder was very largely only a pretext for action. There had been brutal assassinations before. Such murders usually occurred within the body politic of a sovereign state, as an element in a coup or an outcome of insanity. By their transnational nature, the numerous anarchist murders from the 1880s to the 1900s offered no foreign country as a suitable target for retaliation; like the pirate, the anarchist was equally an enemy everywhere. As the assassins operated outside the boundaries of the nation state, the vengeance of armed retribution was meaningless in relation to the horrors of their actions. The murders in Sarajevo were entirely different. They occurred on Hapsburg soil but could easily be said to have their origin in the very existence of the Serbian state. The response to the killings potentially involved war – yet such a confrontation was always avoidable as long as everyone wanted peace.

However, far from aspiring to avert a war, the Austrians did all they could to invite it. The Austrian foreign minister, Count Berchtold, wrongly believed, or chose to believe, that the murders in Sarajevo had been carried out with the connivance of the Serbian government. With German backing, the Austrians were disposed to pick a fight. They thought they could bully the Serbs with impunity and quickly crush an upstart neighbour. They pressed for war, but even so meant only to settle scores with Serbia, a smaller enemy whose certain defeat would bolster the empire; they never intended the European conflagration that would burn down their power.

None of the young conspirators imagined that the assassination would provoke immediate war between Serbia and Austria; as for their deed sparking a worldwide conflict, it was beyond their powers to conceive such an outcome. Nedeljko Cabrinovic, the youth who threw the nail bomb at the car, lamented that “if I had foreseen what was to happen I should myself have sat down on the bombs so as to blow myself to bits”. Though he toughed it out in court, in private Princip was devastated by reports of the war. Yet, later, he could hardly believe that a world war could have followed on from their choices; he couldn’t really feel guilty for that bit of bad luck. They had aimed at a symbol, the embodiment of all their frustrations. They were too young and too naive to grasp fully the potential consequences of their actions; they were in love with the heroic deed, and their bloodily rose-tinted imaginations could not picture anything beyond that fair vision: at the trial, Cabrinovic remarked, “We thought that only noble characters are capable of committing assassinations.” Their most pressing motive in murdering the archduke and his wife was the desire to share in that nobility.

The “world-changing” consequences of the events in Sarajevo depended on the context in which the murders happened. The world was poised for war, and so the killings led to carnage. The deed resonated within the desires of others, and just then what others wanted was what they imagined would be the speedy resolution of questions of European dominance and prestige. If it had not been Sarajevo that pulled the trigger, it would have been something else, but war would have come in any case.

If assassination’s potency to alter history is questionable in Sarajevo, there must be even greater doubts in the case of the killing of John F Kennedy on 22 November 1963. Kennedy had mastered the new politics, offering charisma to the electorate. His final place in the national consciousness was as a symbol of all that was most desirable in the American myth. In terms of tangible achievement or foreign policy gains, however, he left almost nothing for posterity; at best, he founded the Peace Corps. The great legislative triumphs of the period, in civil rights, Medicaid, environmental law and social welfare, are all attributable to the much-disparaged and untelegenic Lyndon Baines Johnson.

In the cruellest interpretation, the single most important impact of Kennedy’s career is that his death handed Johnson, as his successor, the moral force to pass these necessary reforms – laws that Kennedy would have been unlikely to get through undamaged on his own. In foreign policy terms, it was almost certainly Kennedy’s weakness with Khrushchev that prompted the Cuban missile crisis, the resolution of which was his only victory. Even that success was not quite what the public perceived it to be, involving as it did the hushed-up quid pro quo removal of US missiles from Turkey. Meanwhile, Kennedy had already sparked an arms race with the Russians, and his policy on Vietnam helped to create the conditions for the disastrous war that followed. There were hints that he would have withdrawn from Vietnam if he had been re-elected; and later there were other hints that he had been murdered precisely because of this private intention.

To imagine that Kennedy could have ended the Vietnam war presupposes a strength of purpose in him of which there was little evidence in the first years of his presidency, other than the brinkmanship of the missile crisis and (on a much smaller scale) his confrontation with George Wallace over racial integration. In any case, Kennedy had fatally undermined the Diem regime in South Vietnam, with consequences that would have precluded such a sudden withdrawal. Otherwise, he inspired and launched the space programme – and that was about all.

Despite this paltry legacy, Kennedy still stands in the eyes of many as a “great president”, even one of the greatest. This owes more to marketing than delivery. Knowing that his Catholicism would prevent a straightforward coronation by the Democratic Party, he was forced to fight the 1960 election campaign on the basis of his national popularity. He had to win primaries and show his power. It was a new kind of strategy, and it hinged on the retailing of Kennedy. They were going to “sell Jack like soap flakes”.

On 26 September 1960, Kennedy triumphed over Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, on television; radio listeners were more evenly divided on who they believed had won the debate. On the screen, JFK had looked like a superstar, and the sweating, stubbly Nixon, as one journalist put it, “a real middle-class uneducated swindler with all the virtues of a seller of fountain pens in Naples”. The smear on the Democratic posters – “Would YOU buy a used car from this man?” – stuck. The Kennedys’ relationship with the press and with television, their youth, their attractiveness, placed them in a position of mediated confidence with the electorate. However, it was the faux-intimacy of the television image, the allure of cinema. In 1960, in an article for Esquire, Norman Mailer put it like this:

Since the First World War Americans have been living a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull . . . and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation . . . if elected he would not only be the youngest president ever to be chosen by the voters, he would be the most conventionally attractive young man ever to sit in the White House, and his wife – some would claim it – might be the most beautiful first lady in our history. Of necessity the myth would emerge once more, because America’s politics would now be also America’s favourite movie, America’s first soap opera, America’s bestseller.

The Kennedys were stars, and John F Ken - nedy died on-screen. The assassination was an experience broadcast on television; two days later Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald was shown live by NBC across homes in America. Within half an hour of the JFK shooting, 68 per cent of Americans had heard the news, carried to them by the media. The television set that brought the outside world into the domestic space displayed the pathos to a nation. All could feel involved; the deed became an image.

Yet it was an image that could not be assimilated or understood. In one sense, apart from the tragedy of a young man’s murder, it was precisely its lack of historical significance that rendered it so potent. The plethora of conspiracy theories around Kennedy’s murder responded to genuine mysteries and unresolved problems in the story; the theories were also a way to inscribe meaning into the event, as though an unseen betrayal underwrote it, and they might produce the simulacra of significance. For, just as the assassinations of the 1960s were often assumed to be manifestations of a vague “climate of violence”, so it was that their significance lay chiefly in their effect on American mentalities – even, as Mailer suggests, on the dream life of the nation. It was not the political consequences of Kennedy’s murder, nor indeed all the various assassinations of that decade, that truly mattered, but rather the way they sustained and exemplified an atmosphere of panic, or of social disintegration. They worried Americans with a sense of things falling apart, of a polis under strain.

In the eyes of many, political violence, random killings and unrest seemed a constant factor in American life from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. As the journalist Jack Newfield wrote: “We felt, by the time we reached 30, that we had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could produce, and they had all been assassinated.” The folk singer Dick Holler’s 1968 song “Abraham, Martin and John” links the deaths of Lincoln, JFK, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. It presents the four men as simple embodiments of goodness who were not allowed to live out their potential.

In America losing those individuals, irreparable damage was done to the possibilities of national political life. Other people failed to do what the man who was killed might have done. Similarly the history of assassination depends in two senses on the centrality of the individual: in the idea of the “indispensable person” who is assassination’s chosen victim, and in the fantasy that such murders gift their perpetrators with an undying, if ignoble fame.

Though there is a great deal of force to Newfield’s lament, the idea of the “indispensable person” runs counter to the strengths and resilience of democratic life. The American mood in the late 1960s was one of intense unease; and yet the fabric of social and political life held good. The anarchists who struck at presidents, monarchs or high-ranking officials were sometimes engaged in personal attacks, their killings a move in an ongoing vendetta between the government and revolutionaries. More usually they were simply aiming at the office itself: in their own judgement, murdering a symbol and not a person. Yet, seen as such, the deed was meaningless. The president was killed and another president took his place. The structures of power were always designed to take into account the fact of mortality, to maintain continuity; that death should be caused by an assassin’s gun altered little.

Even in the case of the many assassination attempts directed against Adolf Hitler, it is doubtful whether striking their target would have altered events significantly. Hitler’s would be assassins were as much involved in making a gesture, an indication of the survival of an internal opposition, as attempting to decapitate the Third Reich. Success would probably have led to succession by another, equally wicked Nazi. Where assassins did succeed in killing a leading Nazi – with the murder of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942 – the murder, for all its justice, merely prompted horrible reprisals, notably the massacres in the Czech villages of Lidice and Ležáky. Meanwhile, the “architect of the Holocaust” may have been killed, but the Final Solution continued apace.

In modern times, with very few exceptions (such as the killing of Abraham Lincoln in 1865), assassination has been a sideshow – although, I would argue, a highly significant one. Assassination has often been linked to a kind of “secret history”, contained in the romance of conspiracy theories. It seems instead that assassination belongs to another kind of concealed history – the history, in Norman Mailer’s terms, of the dream life of the west.

The assassins of the past 200 years were besotted with action, the power of deeds. It was part of the thrill of such action that no one could foresee to what it would lead. Killing was sufficient, even without the understanding of its consequences. Indeed, practical results were the last thing sought for by any assassin. For assassination long ago broke free of any idea of efficacy or political influence, and instead became the central expression of the extremists’ taste for action as such – a pure deed that annihilates both the victim and the perpetrator, even as it depends on the target’s fame and the fame and attention that it grants to the killer. It is an act of self-assertion that is simultaneously a self-negation.

In one respect, the historical importance of Zasulich’s action was limited: Trepov survived and the autocracy continued. However, as a muse of murder she proved a vital figure, her deed provoking attempts against the kaiser in Germany and arousing a broad campaign of assassinations in Russia which led to the murder of the tsar himself. Zasulich’s example was crucial in this swing towards the practice of terror. She was an inspiration to crime. A police official was murdered in Kiev in the spirit of emulation, and when in August 1878 a young man called Sergei Kravchinskii executed General Nikolai Mezentsev on the streets of St Petersburg, he was consciously following the line set by the courageous Zasulich.

For most within the movement, the heightening of stakes seemed inevitable and just. And yet, for Zasulich herself, there was no such easy acceptance of the killings. Soloviev’s infamous attempt to assassinate the tsar with a bomb at the Winter Palace in 1879 merely depressed her. As years went by, Zasulich’s position grew clearer. The assassin’s deed was without revolutionary merit. It led not to great social changes, but only to an ineffectual puff of violence. It exhilarated other revolutionaries, who sensed vicariously and inappropriately the retort of power. Conversely, it dismayed and sickened potential supporters among the masses, or rendered them passive spectators of outrage. The people were not roused to rebel by such deeds, but became mere witnesses to others’ glorious,  or infamous, violence. Worst of all was terror’s dependence upon a sickly illusion in the mind of the assassin herself.

Zasulich knew this at first hand. The assassin worked in a spirit of vanity or anomie: either conceited by an impression of their own potency or buoyed by the awareness of their own insignificance. The assassin embraced their victim’s death and their own, and both inspirited them with the weightless emancipation from the burden of having to live at all. Zasulich’s act of terror had sought to publicise another’s brutality; the danger was that such acts would only advertise their own horror. The injustice that prompted them would be forgotten in the impact of the assassin’s bullet. It was, she might have realised, only her own incompetence, in merely hitting Trepov in the hip, that had permitted her deed to appear noble.

Michael Newton is the author of “Age of Assassins” (Faber & Faber, £25)

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Rebel with a realist cause

Michael Winterbottom, Britain’s busiest film-maker, discusses cinema, social mobility and how we are returning to the 19th century.

In the early 1960s, Lindsay Anderson was enjoying the power and esteem that he had always thought the English would be too philistine to grant him. His Free Cinema movement, launched in February 1956 with a series of modest, hand-held documentaries and a strident manifesto, had mutated into “kitchen-sink realism”, a series of popular feature films that included Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and his own This Sporting Life. Anderson seemed dangerously close to becoming the  leading spokesman of mainstream British cinema. But then, as he recalled, “Realism gave way to the myth of Swinging London. The Americans, God bless them, put up a lot of money and the British made a lot of bad films.”

When, bored and broke, the Americans went home, taking many of his colleagues along with them, Anderson stayed behind. He made if . . ., which won the 1969 Palme d’Or at Cannes, and a sequel, O Lucky Man!, and then – nothing. For most of the 1970s, British cinema was virtually an oxymoron. But when the industry came back to life at the start of the next decade, with GandhiChariots of Fire and the formation of Channel 4 Films, he refused to celebrate or capitalise, preferring to tut and clutch his brow.

In November 1985, the month when his former protégé Stephen Frears first startled a general British audience with My Beautiful Laundrette, which updated kitchen-sink realism with new causes (multiculturalism, gay rights) and villains (Thatcher, the National Front), Anderson was making gentle progress on a backward-looking endeavour – a television documentary about Free Cinema, to form part of an initiative he despised called British Film Year. A born dawdler, equally petrified of success and failure, he was having trouble with the stills and inserts. “I finally get the operation organised,” he wrote in his diary, “by insisting that the attractively cherubic Michael Winterbottom be my assistant.”

When I spoke to Winterbottom last year, he told me, “Lindsay Anderson was a director I really admired and I wondered why he had made so few films. Then I met him. There was a lot of messing around” –bickering, procrastination, mischief. And perfectionism: “Even on the Free Cinema documentary, he ended up reshooting ­everything.” Winterbottom wanted to emulate Anderson’s work – the intransigence, the looseness – but he realised that in order to follow those examples and still have a career, he needed to make peace with prevailing industrial conditions and devise a plausible, even hard-nosed working method.

Three decades later, he is constantly in work. Alongside Frears, he is Britain’s busiest film-maker. At any given moment, he occupies two or more points in a process that goes something like: development, financing, casting, filming, editing, festival circuit, domestic release. But where Frears has graduated to working with Hollywood studios, Winterbottom relies on independent financing and employs a no-fuss, often hand-held, digital shooting style. David Thompson, the former head of BBC Films who is now an independent producer, told me, “Michael pioneered a way of working that we tried and failed to get other directors to adopt: if you can’t get the crew in a minivan, then you’ve got too many people.”

The results so far have included 24-Hour Party People, a comedy about the Manchester music scene that captured Winterbottom’s own philosophy of productive chaos, and 9 Songs, in which a climatologist recalls a relationship through nights at rock concerts and uncensored days in bed. Winterbottom’s most recent film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a documentary about inequality, presented by Russell Brand, was his 28th. And that doesn’t include The Trip, the BBC2 comedy series starring the comedians Steve Coogan – a Winterbottom regular – and Rob Brydon, which was released outside Britain as a pair of films, The Trip and The Trip to Italy: to date, his only sequel.

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Working alongside the producer Andrew Eaton, Winterbottom has established an atmosphere of rigour and determined focus that allows him to take risks. Eaton, who has known Winterbottom for more than 30 years, told me that “no other director comes to set with such a strong sense of what he’s trying to get combined with a complete openness to what could happen in the day”. When Winterbottom was making the family drama Wonderland in the late 1990s, he took his skeleton crew into London bars that were open for business. Punters became extras. “The people in a place are so much part of the environment,” Winterbottom said. “We were trying to get a different texture, to let the characters interact with the real world.”

Winterbottom and I were having breakfast in a London hotel restaurant. When I arrived, he had just finished a television interview about The Face of an Angel, a rumination on the Amanda Knox trial starring Daniel Brühl and Cara Delevingne, which opened in 2014 to baffled reviews. Winterbottom, who turns 55 in March, still looks like a cherub, but a cherub going grey at the sideburns. He is affable, even happy-go-lucky, but also remote – withdrawn. His gaze carries a slight air of wistfulness, as if he is distracted by some opportunity five yards beyond your shoulder. And though he talks very quickly, he is a specialist in prevarication and reversal. Assertions are parried, questions dodged. But when he’s comfortable, he’s fluent.

Winterbottom continued to tell me about the thinking behind Wonderland, which many consider his greatest film. He compared it to Notting Hill, which was being shot further west around the same time. “As soon as you go in and control everything, you’re destroying the essence of what London is. If you want to catch what normal life is like, you have to work in quite a small way, a hand-held way, in real places.”

Yet Wonderland is never dowdy. Shots of, say, an average night at the Slug and Lettuce or the bingo hall, or yet another frustrating afternoon at Selhurst Park, are offset by the lithe, buzzing images (a 16mm negative blown up to 35mm), the restlessly inquisitive editing and Michael Nyman’s soaring symphonic score. The result far exceeds anything made during the kitchen-sink period in the breadth of its humanism and the range of its social portraiture, and deserves to be recognised as one of the great achievements of British cinema.

The Scottish actress Shirley Henderson said that working on Wonderland, the first of six collaborations, wasn’t like being on a film set, with “caravans” and co-stars. “You were just waiting on a pavement somewhere.” To help Henderson research her role as the working-class Londoner and single mother Debbie, one of three troubled sisters, Winterbottom sent her on what she called “errands”: going clubbing in character, or visiting the sort of hairdresser at which Debbie worked. Henderson added the details garnered on these field trips to a screenplay, written by Laurence Coriat, that was treated as far from sacrosanct. Speaking generally of her work with Winterbottom, she said: “You know the lines – and you might get to say them, you might not. He might run the scene another five minutes after your lines are finished.”

I asked Henderson how Winterbottom’s toss-the-script-aside approach compared with the process favoured by Mike Leigh, who directed her in Topsy-Turvy. With Leigh, she said, “You improvise for hours to find a honed scene that you shoot the next day. With Michael, it’s a quicker process. You don’t rehearse as such. You’re improvising on film. If he’s not got enough, he’ll just go again and again and again.” At breakfast, Winterbottom, who recoils from analysis, defined his ambitions with a shrug: “Try to keep it simple, get as close to the characters as possible, encourage actors to be spontaneous.”

Wonderland was Winterbottom’s sixth feature film and marked a breakthrough for him, in particular a turn away from the professionalism of Welcome to Sarajevo, his polished, starry account of TV journalists covering the Bosnian War, in favour of a realist aesthetic. He told me that he doesn’t see himself as part of any movement – “What, like Free Cinema? No, no” – but his desire to find an alternative to conventional dramatic narrative connects him to a loose group of artists and writers intent on bringing more “reality” into their work. Prominent among them are the authors David Shields, who mentions Winterbottom in his manifesto Reality Hunger, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle series Winterbottom has been reading (“I’m very impressed”). But where Shields and Knausgaard have turned away from the novel in favour of more direct, less dissembling forms such as the memoir and the essay, Winterbottom’s desire to get as far away from artifice and as close as possible to hectic, complex, undramatic life has resulted not in a choice of one form that solves all the problems but a sensibility that he brings to a range of genres.

Winterbottom’s war against tidy artifice has taken various forms. Sometimes it is built in to a project’s conception: he made 9 Songs because he thought that his previous love story Code 46 had been timid in the way it presented sex. It has determined his approach to source material. When he was adapting Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles as Trishna, he combined the roles of the “spiritual” Alec and the “sensual” Angel because, he told an interviewer, “most people are a combination of both”. But with Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me, he took the opposite approach: he found Thompson’s portrait of psychosis so complete, so convincing, that he treated the book “like the Bible”.

Winterbottom’s widely acknowledged formal innovations are a means to an end. I mentioned the editing in his 2008 film, Genova, which constantly prevents exchanges and encounters from settling down into a set piece. He dismissed the idea that he was consciously experimenting. “When you’re making a film, you’re worried about the specifics of what you’re trying to do and then building out from that,” he said. The starting point of Genova is the dynamic between the dad and the two daughters. “I have two daughters [from his 13-year relationship with the teacher and novelist Sabrina Broadbent] and one aspect of the film, like with Wonderland and London, was to portray a relationship that I would recognise. The aim was to not make it dramatic, because your relationships at home aren’t very dramatic.”

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In his diary, Lindsay Anderson – who often quoted the ancient maxim “Character is destiny”– marvelled at Winterbottom’s ability to attend to things that mattered and ignore the things that didn’t. Where Anderson was an idealist and a perfectionist, Winterbottom was “wholly unsentimental” – “conscientious” in tracking down stills, his assigned task, but “quite happy to absent himself from crucial, if routine stages of finishing”.

It was partly a product of breeding. Where Anderson, scarred by boarding school, loved to defy those with power (having a private income helped), Winterbottom attended the local grammar school in Blackburn and grew up in kitchen-sink territory; a scene in John Schlesinger’s 1962 film A Kind of Loving was shot at the factory where his father worked. When he was a teenager, his favourite book was Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s novel about a farm labourer who dreams of going to Biblioll College, Christminster. Winterbottom made it to the real-world version – Balliol College, Oxford – where, in a desultory, distracted way, he studied English. (In 2012 he returned to Oxford to become the first Humanitas Visiting Professor in Film and Television.)

Winterbottom likes to say that he’s simply attracted to good stories and interested in the same things as “everybody else”, but The Emperor’s New Clothes, which came out in April last year, emerged from his personal history. A product of grammar schools and grants, he considers himself a beneficiary of the “social mobility and access” that burgeoned after the Second World War. (He campaigned for Jack Straw in Blackburn in 1979.) “The idea that to be ‘modern’, you need an unregulated free market that helps the rich get richer is bullshit,” he said, adding that its widespread acceptance has been “one of the triumphs of that ideology”. He continued, “We had a phase of about fifty years where what was ‘modern’ was the idea that things will get fairer – there will be a narrowing of the gap, maybe not in a radical way, but at least a general trend in that direction.

“It’s fairly hard to believe that we used to collectively own the water, gas, coal, trains, telephone. People were being taxed at 98 per cent on unearned income, 83 per cent on earned income. Instead, we’ve returned to the 19th-century idea that if you’re born poor, you’re going to stay poor.”

After his English degree, he completed a one-year course in film-making in Bristol. Then he needed a job.

“There was no way I would have been able to hang around and do ‘internships’,” he told me. “I became a trainee assistant film editor at Thames Television” – which is how he came to work for Anderson and where he was given his first professional directing job, on a pair of documentaries about the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, from whom he learned that if you establish fruitful partnerships and retain a clear sense of what you’re trying to achieve, film-making is “not that hard”. (Bergman may have been “just as complicated psychologically” as Anderson, “but when it came to the work, he was disciplined”.)

In 1993, after the Bergman documentaries and then a run of commissions in television drama, including the opening episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s ITV series Cracker, Winterbottom was itching to make his first feature film. Frank Cottrell Boyce, a friend from Oxford, had written a script entitled Delirious, about car thieves in Liverpool, but it was failing to attract a backer, so they moved on to a new idea: another crime thriller set in Lancashire, but with a difference – it could be done cheaply, with money cobbled together from public funding bodies. “All our anger and frustration about not making the other one went into it,” Winterbottom recalled. “We did it for nothing. It was a very stressful phase. And that was Butterfly Kiss” – in which a pair of chalk-and-cheese lesbians cause havoc on the M6.

In Icons in the Fire, an attack on “practically everyone in the British film industry”, in which Winterbottom is one of the few heads spared, the critic Alexander Walker recalled his surprise when the director followed up Butterfly Kiss with a “period drama”. But Jude – the first of Winterbottom’s three Hardy adaptations – was fast-moving and stark, not at all Merchant-Ivory. After Jude, there came, in swift succession, “Bosnia war reportage, period western, East End soap opera, Ulster social comedy, glam-rock clubland, overland asylum-seeking” – the films in question being Welcome to SarajevoThe ClaimWonderlandWith or Without You24-Hour Party People and In This World. (Walker forgot I Want You, which should probably be characterised as Hastings psychosexual noir – still, somehow, a genre of one.) “Bewildering,” Walker concluded: “at the same time, curiously courageous for a British director.”

***

Winterbottom has continued in this bewilderingly courageous way, combining speed with variety, adding to his genre hoard and keeping the operation small. While former collaborators such as Rachel Weisz and Kate Winslet have been starring in globetrotting thrillers and 3D blockbusters, or, in the case of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Peter Capaldi, playing Doctor Who, Winterbottom has carried on telling intimate tales about what he calls “home, family, things like that”; among them Everyday, a drama about a struggling mother (played by Shirley Henderson) that was shot over five years. Where his near contemporary Danny Boyle went off to make Slumdog Millionaire, Winterbottom made Trishna, an Indian adaptation of Tess, described by its star, Freida Pinto, who was also the lead actress in Slumdog, as “a hardcore independent project”.

Generally, his dealings with the US have been marked by resistance. On its release in 1997, Harvey Weinstein’s company Miramax distributed Welcome to Sarajevo – even screened it at the White House for Bill Clinton. But when Weinstein offered Winterbottom $1.5m to direct Good Will Hunting the director said the script wasn’t good enough. It took him months of conversations with the novelist John Irving to reach the same conclusion about another Miramax project, The Cider House Rules. (Each film won an Oscar for its screenplay.) Winterbottom didn’t make a film on American soil until 2009, when he went to Oklahoma to shoot The Killer Inside Me, a thriller whose violence against female characters prompted outrage and earned him a nomination for the Sexist Pig Award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. (He lost out to Mel Gibson.)

On two occasions – both before the sexist pig accusation – he had been approached by women bearing offers too good to refuse. In 2004 Angelina Jolie brought him A Mighty Heart, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s memoir about her husband, the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. Then, a few years later, Naomi Klein approached him to make an archival documentary based on The Shock Doctrine, her book about disaster capitalism. (Klein later changed her mind about the format – she wanted something more topical and responsive – and the film was made without her input.) But on the whole, the ideas for Winterbottom’s films have emerged from Revolution Films, the production company he started with Andrew Eaton in 1994.

In 2001 Winterbottom and Eaton were developing a project about illegal immigrants but couldn’t decide on a starting point. Then the 9/11 attacks happened, and within a few weeks Winterbottom and the writer Tony Grisoni were wandering around a refugee camp in Peshawar, looking for young Afghan men willing to play a version of themselves and do the trip to London for real. (“I thought it was going to be in English,” David Thompson, one of the executive producers of the film that emerged from the trip, recalled. “I was somewhat surprised when it came back in Pashto.”)

The year 2003 marked the high point of Winterbottom’s acclaim. In February, barely a year after Winterbottom had touched down in Peshawar, In This World – the asylum film’s eventual title – was accepted to show at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won three prizes, including the Golden Bear. When it was released in Britain, the critic Sukhdev Sandhu, who was born in 1970, called it the best British film of his lifetime. Soon afterwards, Winterbottom appeared in a Guardian critics’ poll of the best directors currently practising. The citation announced: “British cinema would be lost without him.”

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian critic who wrote that citation, has been less impressed with the films he has made in the past decade. “It’s all very good letting narrative and all those traditional things go hang,” he said recently, “but it does make for a rather miscellaneous experience in the cinema.” He described the films’ “rough-and-ready quality”, which he identifies in all Winterbottom’s recent work except for The Killer Inside Me and The Trip, as “more lax than loose”, and added: “I often wonder whether he’s thinking about the next project.”

Eaton identifies misunderstanding in both criticisms. To the idea that Winterbottom’s work since around Wonderland has been lax or slapdash: “Do you have any idea how hard it is to make stuff as natural as that, to have that flow?” To those who say Winterbottom makes too many films: “If Michael was a plumber, and you asked him to do work on your house, he wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m far too creatively exhausted, I couldn’t possibly do it.’ It’s just the next job.”

Thompson offered a more matter-of-fact reflection. “That’s just the way he works –he does these things in a white heat,” said. “He’s finished them before you realise he has shot them. It’s like writing a song. Some film-makers spend two years fiddling with a film. Michael would go crazy. And I don’t think the result would be any better.” (Bradshaw conceded that “part of his mojo is to keep moving – something we critics don’t understand”.)

Thompson added, “Some of his films work better than others – he knows that.” In 1997, when he had made four films, ­Winterbottom reflected on the benefit that Ingmar Bergman derived from a hefty back-catalogue: “There’s actually enough volume that if he does a comedy that doesn’t succeed, it’s merely a blip in the overall work.”

***

A few days after I first interviewed Winterbottom, I went to the Revolution Films office in Clerkenwell, central London, to meet Melissa Parmenter, the composer who is now his regular producer (Eaton serves as an executive producer). Parmenter has a fondness for rhyme: “totes mahotes”, “okey-dokey”, “good plan, Stan”. Instead of “meltdown”, she says “granny panic”. She described Michael Nyman’s music for Wonderland, not inaccurately, as “an insane score – the best score ever”.

At first, Winterbottom and Parmenter, who live together and have a four-year-old son, seem an unlikely partnership. Where Winterbottom can be evasive, perhaps defensive, Parmenter is open and unguarded. She seems clearer about who Winterbottom is than he is. She is also more outwardly passionate. During my talk with Winterbottom, he used the word “love” twice – about Nyman’s music and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller. Parmenter, by contrast, said she “loves”, among other things, The Killer Inside MeGenova, “the melancholy bits of The Trip to Italy”, Nyman, and “the fact that Michael does what he wants”. But under the Noughties colloquialisms and granny-panic veneer, Parmenter is grounded and – to use a phrase that she might – on it, a total convert to Winterbottom’s heads-down ethos. She resembles her own description of Tracey Emin, whose 2004 film Top Spot she produced: “She looked like she had no idea what she was doing, but she knew totally what she was doing.”

“We make quite different films,” she told me. “It’s weird. What’s Michael’s most commercial film? But he doesn’t aim for that. He just makes what he wants to make.”

I asked Parmenter why he is so good at winning permission to do that. “Well, the idea of all his films is interesting. I mean, Road to Guantanamo: who wouldn’t want to see the story of the Tipton Three? It’s got to be made. Or 9 Songs – we’re going to show real sex. Filming Everyday over five years – that’s an amazing idea. We went to Tessa Ross at Channel 4 and said, ‘We’re going to film these people doing nothing.’ She said, ‘Here’s £1.1m. Bye!’ Obviously we reported back to them.”

It must help, I said, that there hadn’t been any disasters.

“That’s down to Michael. He’s so aware of all levels of the film-making process. He’s got his fingers in all the pies. It gets a bit much sometimes. [As Winterbottom told me, “When you’re a director, everything that happens is kind of your fault.”] But if you’re doing a small film, you can’t say, ‘Actors aren’t allowed trailers’ – if there’s a trailer even anywhere near, he goes mental – and then turn around and say, ‘I don’t want to know anything about the budget.’”

When I caught up with Winterbottom last summer, he expressed some frustration that The Emperor’s New Clothes – the documentary with Russell Brand – hadn’t been shown more widely, and that The Face of an Angel – the Amanda Knox drama– had been rounded on by British critics. Yet it was clear that his heart wasn’t really in it: both films were well on their way to becoming past obsessions. He’d been up at 6.30 that morning, doing rewrites for a new project, Russ and Roger Go Beyond, a comedy starring Will Ferrell, about the making of Russ Meyer’s camp musical Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (I asked if Ferrell was someone he knew socially and he replied: “No, strangely not.”) Although the script originated in Hollywood and the production, based in Los Angeles, would almost certainly involve trailers, Winterbottom talked about Russ and Roger less as a necessary commercial compromise (“the money isn’t vastly better”) than as a much-needed break. He reminded me that “developing a film from scratch comes with a burden of effort”.

Still, it turned out that his heart wasn’t really in that one, either. Just before the end of the year, he quit. Someone muttered something about creative differences. Burdensome or not, it seems he prefers success – and failure – on his own terms: working under the Revolution banner with a small, familiar crew and room for improvisation with actors he calls friends. It is said he’s getting ready to shoot The Trip to Spain.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?