Radical History Review 82 (2002) 187-190
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Ian Christopher Fletcher
The Internationale, directed by Peter Miller. First Run/Icarus Films, 2000, 30 min.
I don't know when I first sang "The Internationale," but I do remember marching to the melody, played by a Radcliffe flautist who had learned it for the occasion, on a rainy May Day in Cambridge in 1976. That, and a favorite scene from a popular film of those years, Fellini's Amarcord, where members of the local antifascist resistance play the song on a Victorola from the church belfry, to the great consternation of the Fascists in the town square below. Even now, the song condenses for me the past, the present, and the future, all at once evoking feelings of defiance, struggle, and hope. When we sang it at this year's Pride march in Atlanta, one day before the opening of the United Nations special session on HIV/AIDS, it seemed as right and relevant as twenty-five years earlier, when we were marching as supporters of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola and the resistance in Chile.
In his wonderful new documentary film The Internationale, Peter Miller brilliantly recreates the history, memory, and meanings of a song that has shaped the imagination and practice of internationalism for over a century and whose continuing popularity is a sign of "globalization from below." Eugène Pottier wrote the original French verses of "The Internationale" in the aftermath of the Paris Commune in 1871, and Pierre Degeyter put the words to music a few years later. In an age of imperial expansion and "national awakenings," many translations, including two distinct [End Page 187] British and American English versions, enabled the song to spread around the world. It was sung simultaneously in many languages by Wobblies during the 1912 strike of immigrant textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and again by volunteers of the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. Serving for a time as the Soviet anthem after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, "The Internationale" gradually lost its wider affiliation with the whole anarchist, socialist, and labor movement and became more narrowly associated with the communist movement. However, its influence has been, and continues to be, felt in many not always recognized ways. For example, it furnished Frantz Fanon with the title of his great work of revolutionary, anticolonial theory, The Wretched of the Earth. The world was reminded of the power of the song when the students, without any sense of alienation, sang it in Tiananmen Square in 1989. This event inspired Billy Bragg, with the encouragement of Pete Seeger, to write new lyrics for a new generation and a new century.
Miller's documentary draws on moving interviews with Seeger, Bragg, and people from all over the world whose lives have been touched by "The Internationale." When it proved impossible to film a formal interview in Israel with Yehoshua Zamir, once a young socialist kibbutz member, Zamir simply mounted his own camcorder on the table in front of him, recorded his memories and feelings about the song, and sent the tape to Miller. The Russian music historian Vladimir Zak and the Filipina screenwriter Marina Feleo Gonzalez relate the song to the happiness of their childhoods and the tragic experiences of their fathers. The longtime U.S. labor and social justice activist Dorothy Healy places the song in scenes of her youthful activism in California's Imperial Valley, where many of the workers she was helping organize were already familiar with it as a part of the musical culture of the Mexican Revolution. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran Bill Susman recalls finding much the same shared musical heritage among his comrades at the battlefronts and in the hospitals of Republican Spain. He remembers hearing the song performed in Javanese, Hindi, Tamil, and Yiddish, among other languages.
The testimonies and reflections in The Internationale are enriched by a remarkable collection of sound recordings, film footage, and still images. At the beginning of the film, Miller creates an aural and visual montage by blending renditions of...