'Daniel': Sydney Lumet's film about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (1984)

Submitted by dalcassian on 23 June, 2014 - 11:18

Sidney Lumet's Daniel is an emotionally powerful account of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Communist Party USA members who were victims of a legal Iynching in the early '5Os, and of their children.

Many thousands of victims were ruined, blacklisted, driven to suicide and by other routes to an early grave by the 'McCarthyite' witch-hunts. The Rosenbergs were the only ones to be literally burned alive in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison, on June 19,1953.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested in 1950 and charged with 'conspiracy to commit espionage'. Linked by the testimony of others with Klaus Fuchs, the spy arrested in England in 1949, they were tried in March 1951 at the height of the hysteria generated by American reverses in the Korean war.

They were convicted on the testimony of peoplc who thereby bought clemency for themselves, including Ethel Rosenberg's brother David Greenglass and his wife

Whether or not the Rosenbergs were spies, there is no reason to doubt that it was the anti-communist hysteria that determined their sentence and its carrying out. Even the judge sentencing them could not restrain himself from accusing them of having 'given Russia the Bomb and thereby encouraged Russian aggression in Korea, where 50,000 Americans had so far died'.

The Rosenberg case is thinly fictionalised for the film by E R Doctorow, who made the screen play out of his 1971 novel, The Book of Daniel.

Daniel, according to one of the Negro spirituals sung on the soundtrack by Paul Robeson, was 'a witness for the Lord'. Lumet's and Doctorow's Daniel is the son of 'Paul and Rochelle Isaacson'. electrocuted as Soviet spies in 1953.

It is the mid-'60s and in the US the anti-Vietnam war movement is gathering force. Paul and Rochelle Isaacson's youngest child, Susan, is an activist, but at 20 she is neurotic, suicidal, withered up. In fact she is dying.

Daniel finally decides that she is simply inconsolable.

Disturbed from a self-protective immersion in private life by Susan's breakdown, Daniel sets out to seek 'the truth about the Isaacsons'.

The film weaves together two separable strands, the story of the children, working backwards from the '60s, and the story of the parents, working forward from the'30s.

Much of it is in sepa flashback to l953 and earlier, tracing Paul and Rochelle's road to the death house at Sing Sing prison.

One strand of the film traces the life of two members of the Communist Party of the USA during the '30s and '40s, until they get picked up during the McCarthyite witch-hunt and railroaded to the electric chair.

Typical of a generation, the Isaacsons meet durmg a street fight with police trying to break a picket line.

At college they trade polemical punches with a Trotskyist, discussing Stalin's German policy, which let Hitler to power. "We grant you your virtue", they say. You were right, but we are the movement. Communist political life is possible irrespective of the Party's politics. The Trotskyist is a 'simplistic sectarian'. They are - they naively think - being 'real politickers'.

They talk romantically about 'the masses' and 'men who work with their hands' - and about Stalin's Soviet Union.

We hear a lecturer at a CP camp defend Stalin's 1939-41 pact with Hitler. What is not in the film is quite what that pact meant for what the Communist parties did. CPs all over the world, and in the US too, making pro-Nazi propaganda. Down across the border in Mexico, the Stalinists embracing anti-Semitism and denouncing the 'Jewish Trotskyists'. Communist Parties making fervid "anti-imperialist" propaganda ones sidedly against Britain and France, echoing Nazi propaganda. In German-occupied Paris, on the eve of Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union, the CP negotiating with the authorities to publish a legal daily. there is a long list. And it is a chapter of horrors.

A large part of Daniel is made up of a convincing, if uncritical, pastiche of the mental and emotional world of the CPUSA in the '30s and '40s - nor only in sepia, but saturated with music, sentiment and high romanticism. It is, ultimately,a glorification of what it depicts.

Colourful, enthusiastic May Day marches, with the YCL singing 'We shall not be moved', adding their own lines: 'Stalin is our leader, we shall not be moved'.

The camaraderie of CP camps. Students fighting police to defend union picket lines as the modern American trade union movement is being created.

The infamous l949 Peekskill open-air Paul Robeson concert, in defiance of witch-hunt and blacklist, after which gangs of thugs attack parts of the audience as they are leaving.

Music does much of the work to evoke the emotional world of the CP. A coach-full of people singing a moving song about the German concentration camps of the early '30s, 'The Peat Bog Soldiers'.

Numerous Paul Robeson songs on the soundtrack, mainly Negro spirituals, do more than evoke the time. The spirituals are appropriate to the Party members' outlook.

For this is a closed-in world, the world of a special tribe, of a sect. Lumet and Doctorow recreate it and enter into it very well.

The members have 'dipped light' vision, but the main beam - like a large part of their minds and the critical intelligence that made them communists in the first place is switched off, dispensed with, surrendered to Pope Stalin.

'The Peatbog Soldiers' is sung at Peekskill in 1949, when indisputable proof of the existence of Stalin's own slave labour camps is already available and widely known. Many of the CP members are Jews, spiritual refugees from fascism: but Stalin's anti-semitism is already raging openly in the Czechoslovak and other East European purge trials, thinly disguised as a political campaign against 'Zionism'.

These CP members have gone through the war as American chauvinists, advocates of strikebreaking for the war effort, pioneers of the witch-hunting of anti-war Trotskyists, anarchists and others – the witch-hunt that will finally engulf and shatter their own seemingly imposing party. (It had 100,000 members in 1945).

The most moving thing in the film is the plight of the two children. What does it mean to the children to have their parents killed by the State? This is what gives the film its main power and force.

The children's last visit to Paul and Rochelle, who must come to the prison waiting room one at a time, is scarcely bearable. Paul barely keeps control of himself, desperately trying to avoid looking the children in the face. Rochelle has to cope with the question from eight year old Susan, 'When are they going to kill you?'

The ten year old Daniel tells his mother that he won't let them kill her. "I'll kill them first". But the State is as powerful as nature itself, and when we meet the grown-up Daniel a dozen years later he is dormant and quiescent.

Much of Daniel is about family feeling, and childhood loves and ties brutally ruptured; and about childish bewilderment and helplessness in face of the death of parents. The universal experience of a child's horrors and fears, intensified sometimes by suppressed wishes,
about the inevitability of the death of its parents – here not in the form of fears of natural death but through the sepia-tinted nightmare of the slow, inexorable closing of the State's deadly grip on Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, until it jolts the life out of them in the electric chair.

Daniel is a left-wing movie, not just a study of leftists. It tries to convey a sense of a movement with continuity and, maybe, development. The last shots show Daniel and his wife with their baby marching against the Vietnam war and a woman's voice under soundtrack sings a 1960s version of one of Paul Robeson's songs from the soundtrack of the 'sepia' sequences. The movement continues.

Daniel must be judged as what it is – a left-wing movie.

It has critical intelligence, and makes 'distancing' observations about the movement. 'The Party' is criticised for being slow to defend the Isaacsons. The film portrays the 1940s CPers accurately up to a point as blinkered zealots. Someone says: 'They had the faith.'

Yet ultimately Daniel winds up glorifying them and uncritically incorporating their myths into its own lightly fictionalised saga.

Of course it is reasonable for Lumet and Doctorow to appropriate the CPers conception of themselves, their myths, much celebrated incidents like the Robeson's Peekskill concert, and such a marvellous thing as Robeson's music, thus to evoke and portray the world of 'Paul and Rochelle Isaacson'. But they do not just use this culture to create colour, atmosphere and verisimilitude. They accept it uncritically, outside of any other political framework, and almost entirely on its own terms

The film winds up recycling and peddling a version of CP mythology, albeit with a certain backward-looking knowingness.

For example, the Isaacsons' sympathy and involvement with America's gruesomely oppressed blacks is stressed and deliberately used to add a sympathy-creating patina of virtue to these 'typical CPers'. Hatred of 'Jim Crow' runs through the movie.

Such attitudes and concerns were certainly typical of such people. Paul Robeson's voice and spirit properly sets the emotional tone of much of the film.

Yet all this is shot through with lies.

The American CP, which had a proud anti-racist record in the '20s, and even in the '30s - sold out the blacks, demobilised what it could of their movement after 1941, subordinated them to the war drive, cashing in its large (and deserved) credit with them as a donation to the political treasury of Stalin's wartime alliance.

But the film-makers are not obliged artistically to 'say everything'?

They are obliged to include such facts... unless they want to concoct and project a re-burnished piece of CP mythology. And unless they want to miss much of the point about the Rosenbergs.

The fate of the Rosenbergs was bound up with the fate of the American working-class movement in the '30s and '40s and with what the CP USA did in that movement.

The savage right-wing reaction within the labour movement in the late '40s it had been prepared for by that movement's inability to develop independent politics, away from reliance on capitalist politicians like Roosevelt and Truman (who initiated the witch hunt in 1947).

The CP's politics shaped - perhaps decisively - the evolution of the labour movement. The real US Marxists and communists of the '30s and '40s - those who were persecuted and jailed in the early '40s, with the CP trying to whip up a lynch-them mood against them. The Socialist Workers Party of James P Cannon and the Workers Party of Max Shachtman, who fought for independent working -cass politics in the USA during the war, had no doubt about it.

The history of the CPUSA in that formative 15 years of the US labour movement needs to be understood, not mythologised

Daniel has been hailed as a 'revival of radical Hollywood'. But you can't build anything solid on a quagmire,

The international labour movement is still too far from having broken with Stalinism for Stalinism's myths - shot through with lies and the echoes of treacheries - to be other than poisonous. They cannot be appropriated and used artistically as harmless antiques.

They are not just a matter of history and ancient memory, sympathetic sepia notwithstanding.

For in the last reckoning those like the Rosenbergs/lsaacsons were not automatons and cyphers, beings of a different kind to ourselves. They were thinking people who made wrong political choices. That they paid dearly as the Rosenbergs did cannot retrospectively en-nobble or justify their cause or their Party's deeds.

For the serious Left, our attitude to the poisoned mythology of Stalinism is a vital indication of what we intend for ourselves. And what we commit ourselves to.

• From Socialist Organiser, 1984

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