PHILOSOPHY: Narrating his own reminiscences, Christian Labhart spans decades reflecting on the political earthquakes of his lifetime.
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: April 8, 2019

«I was sure of this: we would never be like our parents.» Christian Labhart is recalling 1968 in Zurich, the city in which he grew up and which felt the waves of counterculture revolution that had erupted in protests around the world. The Swiss director narrates his own reminiscences throughout Passion – Between Revolt and Resignation, which had its World Premiere at Visions du Reel in Nyon. The diaristic documentary is a decade-spanning reflection on the political earthquakes of his lifetime and his own ebbing and flowing relationship to activism, meaningful community engagement, and the vision of a more just organisation of society. It is both highly personal and a survey of moments that defined massive shifts in public consciousness around the globe, from Chernobyl to the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. What to do, when rebellious youth reach the age of the parents they defined their worldviews against, and their optimism for change has not been borne out by positive transformations around them?

Cataclysms and revolts

As a young man, Labhart’s newly embraced leftist convictions drew him to teaching jobs and a fascination with anti-authoritarian education models, as well as a stint on a communal farm run by seven people. We revisit snapshots of him demonstrating against nuclear energy in 1977. His description of himself in his hand-knitted sweater and Birkenstocks fitting in with the like-minded protesters is gently self-ironising as much as it is nostalgic for an idealistic youth. Reality, after all, did not keep step with their dreams. As he says: «We agreed on the utopia of a classless society, but not how to get there.» The violence of the militant Baader-Meinhof Gang in their targeting of former enthusiastic Nazis, the perceived failings of communist ideology in the East as the Berlin Wall fell, and the contamination of radioactive ash floating over Europe from reactor meltdown at a Soviet power plant, problematised these considerations all the more in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as the left found their peaceful idyll elusive.

Reality, after all, did not keep step with their dreams.

Passages from the work of seminal thinkers punctuate these more personal reflections and archival footage of cataclysms and revolts that have shaped the current era. This somewhat haphazard assortment of excerpts reflects shifting thought currents of Marxist thinking. A 1939 poem of gathering storm clouds over Europe (To Those Who Follow In My Wake) by playwright Bertolt Brecht, passages from Guy Debord’s 1967 critique of commodity fetishism Society of the Spectacle, and parts of a letter terrorist Ulrike Meinhof wrote from an isolation cell all feature, with post-industrial financial crisis and the notion of fear of refugees as intrinsic to capitalism entering the most recent flow of ideas through passages from Franco «Bifo» Berardi’s Poetry and Uprising and Slavoj Zizek’s The New Class Struggle.

As Labhart confronts our latest problems of new conflicts, and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean as have-nots struggle in an unequal global order, he confesses to battling the cynicism that comes with a sense of helplessness. More than a decade ago he turned to filmmaking, hoping to change reality by representing it (he is behind documentaries on many of Europe’s pressing issues, from the Kosovo war to Greece’s crisis under austerity). The opening line of Brecht’s poem, and the film, returns to our mind: «Truly, I live in dark times!» Have we moved forward at all from this sentiment from 1939? With the focus widening across decades, implicit is a recognition not of progress or liberation but cycles, and with the election of a string of oddballs and demagogues from Trump in the US to Sebastian Kurz in Austria, a possible darkening of a future with fascism again on the rise. «What used to be considered extreme right-wing thirty years ago is now mainstream,» the director points out.

«anger against injustice / Makes the voice grow hoarse»

The right side of history

Contradictions within himself and the question of whether the now-married father has slipped into a more «bourgeois» complacency bother the director; his realisation that while he welcomes Idomeni refugees in principle, he might not be ready to give up his house to them. But as a young generation fed up with old dictators rises up in Cairo, Damascus, and Istanbul he feels his inspiration returning. We see them in the streets beating on pots, a sound of resistance that resonates with all struggling for dignity. The essential role of the internet in orchestrating the 2011 Arab Spring and shifting the framework of activism is not delved into here, in a film more concerned with locating an unbroken thread in the human spirit to revolt, than pinpointing what has made recent protest different. Economic greed and fascism might eternally return, but then surely too do the means to overthrow them, and grit to outlast them. And such revolt is not simply the province of the young. Even if the times stay dark, the film ultimately suggests, being on the right side of history and fighting in one’s own way might just be enough to make a life worthwhile. Even if «anger against injustice / Makes the voice grow hoarse», as Brecht’s poem says.