Alejandro Rath’s Manifest is an ironic and witty re-enactment of the historic meeting between French writer, poet, and the father of surrealism, André Breton and Russian revolutionary, Bolshevik leader, and Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky. During their intensive collaboration, a new manifesto is born. The text Towards a Free Revolutionary Art (1938) was written fourteen years after Breton’s legendary Manifesto of Surrealism and two years before Trotsky was assassinated by a Spanish communist while in exile in Mexico. The time is shortly before World War II when Stalin was ruling Russia and Hitler in Germany.
Speaking to dead intellectuals
The film is more than a documentary. It is the director’s and actors’ Iván Moschner’s and Pompeyo Audivert’s conversation with dead intellectuals. It’s a love song to both Trotsky’s and Breton’s ideas and, at the same time, an irony about the obsession with Marxist and Freudian concepts.
The film is not black and white, it’s not shot in an old villa, Trotsky’s character doesn’t speak with a Russian accent. On the contrary – Manifest is coloured and staged in a contemporary setting, it is shot in Argentina (not Mexico), and the Russian and French intellectuals speak Spanish. However, the minimalist framing and carefully chosen compositions allow it to be perceived as an abstraction. Everything becomes a stage, an imaginary world, where time and places intertwine and overlap. It is a conversation that could take place in the head of someone busy with the ideas of two geniuses from the bygone century, or in a smoky bar where two people argue using Marxist and Freudian concepts. The moment and interaction are what matter. It is not about Trotsky’s bloody past or Breton’s life in bohemian Paris.
Everything becomes a stage, an imaginary world, where time and places intertwine and overlap
A filmmaker’s wish to interact with admired legendary intellectuals is nothing new. One of the most interesting but relatively unknown examples is Escaping Riga (2014), a docu-drama by Latvian director Dāvis Sīmanis. Although taking a slightly different aesthetic approach, this documentary is also composed of witty and ironic re-enacted scenes. The Latvian film juxtaposes the lives of two Riga-born legends – the genius film director Sergei Eisenstein and the influential political theorist Isaiah Berlin. Sīmanis argues that, although both men ended up in two different worlds – one emigrated to the totalitarian Soviet Union, the other to liberal Great Britain, there are a lot of parallels in their life-courses. The director constructs the film around themes of dreams, sex, success, and the uneasy relationship with the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.
Back to Rath’s Manifest. The film is filled with visual masquerades, puppet shows, film tricks, bizarre references, clever citations, and intellectual jokes. In all of them, Trotsky keeps emphasizing Marxist ideas and plays out his obsession with the revolution. Meanwhile Breton stays busy with his dreams and the psychoanalytical concepts of Sigmund Freud. One of the wittiest analogies is played out by the dog Maya, which belongs to the actor Iván Moschner (picturing André Breton). This scene is another proof that dogs do not speak, only in films made for children. In the dark documentary Animal Love (dir. Ulrich Seidel, 1995) domesticated animals sublimate the unfulfilled emotional and even sexual needs of their owners. In the stop-motion Isle of Dogs (dir. Wes Anderson, 2018), dogs reveal a major conspiracy theory. In Manifest the four-legged animal Maya escapes because she is inspired by Trotsky’s ideas. The dog wants to realize the revolution. She is determined to find other dogs and tries to convince them to get rid of their masters and build a society of equals.
The Revolutions of Today
Rath’s creative documentary perfectly shows that the present is magically connected to the past. What can we learn from the influential manifestoes written in the end of the 19th century and all throughout the 20th century – the Realist Manifesto by Gustave Courbet, the Symbolist Manifesto by Jean Moréas, and then later Futurist, Cubist, Vorticist, Dadaist, and Surrealist manifestoes? Like the manifesto written by Breton and Trotsky, they are all calling for radical changes, proposing larger of smaller revolutions. One of the more recent manifestoes that has gained a huge influence, followers and media attention was the «Dogme 95» written by Danish film directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. But what are the revolutions of today? Certainly, the climate activists are among the more visible ones demanding radical changes now. Perhaps we need a new, intellectually-charged climate manifesto that would add another dimension to the almost religious movement started by Greta Thunberg? And we do not even need to start from nowhere. Some ideas could be copied from the text by Breton and Trotsky. The truth, both then and now, is this: «Even in times of «peace», the position of art and science has become absolutely intolerable.»