The Films of Peter Watkins

07 / 12 / - 08 / 12 / 01
Screening / Talk


Today it remains almost impossible to organize for viewing and discussion the 12 completed professional productions from the 40 year body of work of seminal filmmaker/media critic Peter Watkins, despite their status either as Oscar Winning Documentary (War Games), or cult 60s Pop fiction (Privilege), or just in notoriety (Punishment Park). It appears to have taken the status of Harvard University and their recent film retrospective to convince film companies to search in their vaults and find what is often the last good film copy. This could serve as a clue that some may find controversial aspects to Peter Watkins intentions as a filmmaker.

Indeed from the beginning, Watkins work linked a revolutionary communicative potential in the role of filmmaking - which includes the production model itself - to transformations linking society, art, politics, the media. His first, amateur cinema works The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959) (A pacifist film on WWI centering upon the thoughts and fears of a young soldier ordered to the front) and The Forgotten Faces (1961)(a portrait of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956) already contain many of his strategies. His second professional film, the 1966 controversial The War Games (1966) describes the devestating effects of a possible nuclear strike in Britain, and was banned from BBC only to go on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary 1966. The ensuing films synthesize critical conventions of underground, alternative or third' cinema, as well as commercial cinema. The films often entail a community in the production itself, that serve as statements of collective engagement, rooted in the transforming, emancipatory dynamic of the 60s, and which often anticipated new relations set up in society between media, culture and politics. His most recent film project, La Commune (Paris 1871), where (non)actors develop their historical individual script and also fall on camera into collective discussions on the contemporary political scenario, still continues along these lines.

Public discussion between sections of La Commune (Paris 1871)
with members of La Rebond pour La Commune, Künstlerhaus Stuttgart

Haus.0 presents two evenings in Künstlerhaus on the work of director Peter Watkins. His recent film La Commune (Paris 1871) will serve as a navigator that links to several Watkins film screenings and discussions with members of the production and cast of La Commune (Paris 1871); the premiere of The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins (C 2001) a new documentary on Watkins by filmmaker Geoff Bowie (which includes La Commune making-of scenes), and available in the video plug-in for viewing on tape, a selection of Watkins early amateur films, professional films, and recent interview in Lithuania.

The haus.0 project began through contact with Watkins, who in turn suggested "La Rebond pour La Commune", a group consisting of participants of La Commune (Paris 1871), that formed during its production to continue the sense of collective discussion that was started in the film. Members Caroline Lensing-Hebben, actress in the production, and Patrick Watkins, whose roles included both Assistant Director and Casting, will for both days discuss the process of the film and introduce material.

For more information (in five languages) Peter Watkin’s website:

The two evenings presentations include:

The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins (C 2001)
D: Geoff Bowie
76 Min. Presentation Beta Pal, Engl. OV.With the current proliferation of TV channels, documentaries are enjoying an unprecedented boom, by audiences seeking an alternative to infotainment. But now documentary filmmaking too finds itself constrained by the imperatives of TV. The chief culprit is the so called "Universal Clock", a running-time restriction to meet the standardisation of the global market. This documentary intertwines the making-of La Commune, (dir. Watkins 2000) with the annual Cannes International TV market, setting in counterpoint the process of Watkins six hour epic with interviews of TV industry strategists defining standards and negotiating deals while adjusting their famous "universal clock" to meet the dictates of globalisation. Bowie's production is engaging in a dialectical interplay between that industry and Watkins critique of their distribution politics.

Punishment Park (US 1971)

D: Peter Watkins
88 min. Presentation: Engl. OV with German subtitles
With Mark Keats, Kent Foreman, Carmen Argenziano Watkins's study of social turmoil in the United States during the Vietnam era finds the Nixon administration establishing detention camps to curb protests from pacifists, students, black militants, and other disruptive elements of society. Invoking powers contained in the 1950 McCarran Act, the government offers convicted offenders the chance to avoid lengthy prison sentences with the option of a three-day stay in a Punishment Park, where prisoners must trek fifty-three miles across the California desert with no food or water while being chased by armed National Guardsmen authorized to shoot them on sight. The film was wholly improvised on location by the actors-nonprofessionals who actually held the political views they express in the film.

La Commune (Paris 1871) (F 2000)

Directed by Peter Watkins
video, b/w, 345 min. French with English subtitles
In March 1871 civil war rages in Paris. A journalist on Versailles TV issues a soothing, truncated report on the events that are tearing apart the French Republic, while a community access channel is set up by the insurgents. Inside a theater, some 220 actors, predominantly amateurs, impersonate the workers of the Popincourt quarter of the 11th Arrondissement and reenact the social and political debates that racked the Paris Commune. Despite the period costumes, the discussions are as often as not about contemporary problems-unemployment and racism - and many of the criticisms are aimed not at Versailles but at current government and society.

It is an odd tribute to La Commune that despite it's non-industry length at under 6 hours and its filmmaking approach, even a recent review in the industry flagship newspaper Variety gave it glowing reviews.

haus.0 videolibrary includes as well:

Peter Watkins, Lithuania 2001

36 min., english with french subtitles
July 1999. The director Peter Watkins is shooting in Montreuil the film La Commune -Paris 1871 in the former studies of Georges Méliès. Two years later, in the surrealistic decor of a pro-Soviet era theme park outside of Vilnius, Lithuania, Watkins reflects on this unique experience, speaking about his work, the genesis of film, his role as director, and more generally on the contemporary crisis of mass-media.

Privilege (1967)

D: Peter Watkins
GB 1967, 103 Min.
With Paul Jones, Jean Shrimpton, Mark London
With Privilege, Watkins merged documentary style with metaphor to expand his interrogation of media and politics. The film was a product of Universal's late 1960s European production program, which invited young European directors such as Watkins and François Truffaut to create low-budget features for the studio. More conventional than the director's debut efforts, it nonetheless retains his trademark first-person interviews and pseudodocumentary style. The story concerns Steven Shorter (Jones), a successful pop singer who is convinced by the government to perform violent theatrical rock that will distract youth from politics and social problems and lull them into a "fruitful conformity" with church and state. When Shorter withdraws after realizing he is being manipulated to control the public, his fans turn against him and he becomes an enemy of the state.

The Forgotten Faces (GB 1961)

D: Peter Watkins 17 Min.
In vivid documentary style, the film reconstructs the struggle of the Hungarian Freedom Fighters during the Rebellion in Budapest of 1956, including themes of mob violence against the Soviet controlled secret police, three of whom are executed. A truck disguised as a Red Cross vehicle is wrecked; a group of Freedom Fighters is ambushed by police snipers; students, workers, and soldiers are seen arguing and defending their political positions.

The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (GB 1959)

D: Peter Watkins 19 Min
The action is set on the battlefields of World War I and centers upon the thoughts and fears of a young soldier ordered to the Front for the first time. The opening line of the film tells the viewer what is to be witnessed: "the last day of my life" for the protagonist, the "unknown soldier" of the title. The rest of the film shows the experience of battle from the frightened soldier's point of view.