Director: Max Linz (Germany). Year of Release: 2022
A gangling man is walking around modern Berlin dragging one of those irritating bags on wheels behind him. A cellist in an upstairs room looks out of her window and immediately denounces him as a tourist. The man enters the local library and picks up more law books than he can properly carry. This becomes obvious when he drops them over the tables in front of him, disturbing everyone else inside the library.
Bismarck (yes, that one) is talking with Emperor Wilhelm I and Minister of Justice Leonhardt about the Paris Commune. Worried that the radicalism of the Commune will spread to Germany, they’re about to pass Paragraph 81, which will bring the act on high treason into law, and help them deal ruthlessly with their enemies. I guess this is why the film promotes itself as “an anarchic comedy on the origin of German criminal law.”
On the wall there is a picture of the composer Hans List (not to be confused with the non-fictional composer Franz Liszt), who took part in the Commune. The picture looks like a Wanted poster. Above List’s face stands the word “Composer”. Throughout the film, there s an ongoing and (let’s admit it) tedious running joke where people confuse the German words Komponist (composer) and Kommunist (you can work that one out for yourself).
Shortly afterwards, List wakes up within a modern day museum exhibition. He bears a striking resemblance to judge Josephine Praetorius-Camusot. In a similar fashion, the prosecutor looks like Wilhelm and the police officer guarding List looks like Bismarck. Because the authoritarianism of 150 year ago is not too different to what we experience today, right?
After a series of accidents, particularly after he unsuccessfully extinguishes a cigarette, List is sent to be tried by his Doppelgängerin. We have already been told the Eisenstein quote: “People went into courtrooms and forgot that it was not a theatre,” So it’s maybe little surprize that the court scenes are based less on a legal drama than on a Jerry Lewis screwball comedy.
In between the court hearings, there are brief forays into the outside world, with digs at the number of tourists and the lack of decent places to eat which have not been overrun by unwelcome visitors. This is not just a film about how past tyrannies are still with us, it’s also about new ways in which life in Berlin-Mitte has become polluted (Berlin Mitte resident note: the restaurants in the area were too expensive for normal residents long before the tourists arrived).
Meanwhile, at the opera, they’re playing List’s work “Die Elenden” (The Miserables – any similarity to other musical plays are presumably coincidental) about the Commune. We see scenes of Communards shooting from the barricades. List himself appears as an extra. The bureaucrats, who are busy prosecuting the composer/communist are eager to see the performance.
This is the sort of film that I’d normally love – right-on politics, references to Day’s of the Commune, one of Brecht’s more obscure plays, and a wild sense of fun. The problem is, I spent most of the time thinking “just what the fuck is going on now?” Or just despairing at the slapstick where people fall down a lot, and all the bad German puns. Even I can get slapstick. I don’t usually find it particularly funny, but immerhin. But bad German puns are another thing entirely.
One reviewer commented that maybe the best in L’état et moi is how it thinks of a silent movie. I think there’s a lot in this. There is one character in particular who spends pretty much the whole of the film sitting in the background making faces at the camera. You find yourself unable to watch the main action because of her mugging. I’m not sure this adds to the coherence of the film, nor even if she was under direction or just enjoying herself, but her scenes are universally hilarious.
For me, at least, L’état et Moi wants us to work too hard, particularly for an afternoon showing just after lunch. I didn’t want to be having to constantly work out which character was which, or why certain actors were taking on multiple roles. My addled brain was in the mood for mindless entertainment, rather than any attempt to engage with my brain. For this reason, I may not be the best judge of a film for which I was clearly not really in the mood.
Alternatively maybe it’s all a bit of pretentious nonsense, which doesn’t deserve such respect. This could be a film that wants to talk about revolutionary change, but only with those who it deems intellectually acceptable. It has been described as an Antifilm, which is presumably meant as a good thing. But sometimes I’d rather just watch a film for itself without having all my preconceptions challenged. Maybe I’ll watch it again and be excited. Just not today.
I may give L’état et moi another go, when I’m in a more conducive mood for meeting it halfway. Or I may just write it off as one of those experiences which somehow enhance your life, even though you never want to go through them ever again. We’ll see. Until then, my advice is to see this at your peril (though you may be pleasantly surprized).