Thursday, 24 February 2011

Marxism Today
By Phil Collins
BFI Gallery
4 Feb- 10 April

Phil Collins, a Turner Prize short listed artist, here looks at the legacy of the German Democratic Republic from the perspective of today in the midst of a capitalist economic meltdown. He has found three former teachers of Marxism-Leninism in the GDR (interestingly all three women) and he interviews them about their past and what the demise of the GDR has meant to them. He has made two short documentaries that run back-to-back at the BFI’s gallery on the South Bank. One film allows one of the women, who has a Ph.D in economics, explain to a class of sceptical students the basis of Marxist economic theory, particularly the idea of surplus value. She is a vivacious and very articulate communicator and gives a highly convincing and graphic demonstration. The other film is made up of interviews with the three ex-teachers, intercut with GDR-made documentary material, as well as shots of the bronze sculpture of Marx being (temporarily) removed from Berlin’s Marx Engels Platz during its renovation. What a welcome blast of fresh air to have here a young artist determined to search for a truth at variance with the mainstream narrative of a Stasi-run state where everyone was oppressed and unhappy. These three women relate how fulfilling their lives were in the GDR and how much they believed in the system. How the GDR’s disappearance was a traumatic shock in their lives, forcing them to retrain and cope with the exigencies of a capitalist system for the first time. One of them relates how the then Chancellor Kohl came to East Germany and offered bananas and Coca Cola to the naively celebrating crowds. ‘That’s why I no longer eat bananas or drink Coca Cola, she says forcefully and with dignity. These films should be seen by anyone who wants to understand that the GDR also had its supporters and why they believed in socialism. It is a highly effective antidote to the Stalinist caricatures that are usually peddled.
It is also beautifully filmed, mostly in close-up with an unusually static camera, and with no intrusive interrogation by the interviewer to interrupt the flow of what the three women have to say. Almost all of it is in German with excellently translated English subtitles, although one of the lecturers gives her interview in very good English.

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