The Film Theatre worker lights your way, with the aid of a torch, down the darkened corridor to the cinema/classroom. You take your place at the battered school desk. The lecture has already started, but you pick it up quite quickly.
A middle-aged German tutor is lecturing to a class of 20-something students and the subject is Marx’s Das Kapital. You’re confused. The seminar is relevant and engaging enough, but the sense of surreality is heightened by the interspersed scenes. A statue of Marx is swung through a Berlin park skyline, pitching up on what looks like a children’s toy train. All the while our teacher is expounding on the difference between product and commodity, use-value, exchange-value and the theory of surplus value.
It could be a documentary from the Honecker era (East German Stalinism), but the nose-rings of the students and the Euro symbols that the tutor scribbles on the blackboard, instead of marks or dollars, tells you that we are in the now. At one point we are gazing at a few wisps of white cloud in an empty blue sky — all that is solid, melts into air?
The film ends and the lights go up, revealing a second room behind the “classroom”. You cross through and take a seat. “Marxism Today (Prologue)” begins. This consists of the testimonies of three former lecturers, all specialists in the “discipline” of “Marxism-Leninism”. Their narratives are broken up by documents from their personal lives, loves and travails, along with archive footage from the DDR state.
All three monologues inform us of professional lives led in a state of full-employment rights and free and well-funded higher education. They tell of the tricky transition from Stalinist state “socialism” to a full-on capitalist mode of production and how well, or badly, the teachers fared in adjusting to their altered material conditions.
The testimonies conclude with the story of the celebrated gymnast daughter of the third teacher. Her touching tale of a career blighted by injuries, incurred by a harsh training regimen, is lent a further bizarre quality by the accompanying footage. Colourful, ever-so-slightly kitsch, sped-up acrobatics lead to a finale of lithe young athletes spelling out Sozialismus in red and white lettering.
But Collins’ film art offers up no apology for the command and control regime of the former East German spy state, nor does it indulge in, or pander to, any form of Ostalgia. Instead, what we get here is a serious and interesting investigation into what happens to the lives of people committed to a singular, particular, ideological belief system, once History has cast them aside. What makes this all the more intriguing is that these teachers’ disciplines were also, ostensibly, the political and economic foundation stones of the society in which they taught.
At a time when interest in Marx’s analysis of capitalist economy is growing, this work acts as a timely reminder of the potency and relevance of Marx’s critique of political economy. It is left to Andrea Ferber (the lecturer from the first film: use! value! exchange!) to tell us in the second documentary how she put the theory of capitalism into practice after re-unification and became rich.
Revealingly though, she says that she never gave up the Marxist viewpoint and describes her first encounter with the teachings of Marx as akin to: “the window being opened and the fresh air entering.”