The Grand Tension of Peter Watkins

Michael Buening
Punishment Park

Peter Watkins is a stubborn, one-man army, relentlessly pushing the film medium in a direction that is more challenging, productive, and involving.

“I will never understand the urge people have to destroy.” -- Peter Watkins, as quoted by Patrick Murphy

Peter Watkins' war is anti-war. It is his most recurring, most passionately-evoked motif in The Cinema of Peter Watkins, New Yorker Video’s essential box set collecting his work from his "amateur" shorts in the early '60s to his first masterpiece, Edvard Munch. Specifically, Watkins struggles to highlight the persons within desperate struggles, to create the sense of a sea of individuality as a protest against divisive tensions. The face, framed from above the shoulders to the top of the head and facing the camera, is the most repeated shot in all his films.

Watkins' early shorts, Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959) and The Forgotten Faces (1961), illuminate the lives of World War I soldiers and participants in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. His professional breakthrough, Culloden (1964) uses investigative newsreel techniques to recreate a disastrous 18th century battle between Scottish Highlanders and the British army.

Edvard Munch

He subsequently explored different futuristic apocalyptic scenarios that echoed the splintering political climate of the late '60s and early '70s. The War Game (1965) posits a fictional nuclear attack on Kent. The Gladiators (1969) envisions a yearly war game that is held to diffuse Cold War global tensions and Punishment Park (1971) imagines that dissidents and protestors in the United States are rounded up and hunted in the Southwestern desert. Edvard Munch is the least overtly political of the films, but it, too, explores issues of societal tensions between artists, the sexes, families, and economic classes using a wholly original dramatic-documentary form.

Individually, New Yorker has already released these disks. Because of this the extras are better per disk than is usual for a large set, particularly for Edvard Munch which includes film footage shot by Munch using an amateur camera in the '20s. As a whole, the set is enormously worthwhile for the way in which it tracks how Watkins filmmaking skills, political ideas, and aesthetic sensibilities matured during his formative and early adult years.

Technically, the progress from film to film could be plotted on a chart. Diary of an Unknown Solider is influenced by Sergei Eisenstein's montage to a fault. The limitations of production meant there could be no synced sound. Instead, Watkins uses what becomes his trademark voiceover narration to describe the action, coupled with expressionistic sound effects. In The Forgotten Faces and then Culloden, he adapts a television news-style of interviewing and presenting the film’s subjects, using amateur actors for additional intimacy and naturalism. The shaven, scabbed, dirty, scarred, and flaking dry lips tell volumes about their characters. For these films Watkins utilizes the same lightweight camera and sound recording equipment that allowed cinéma vérité and direct cinema to flourish during the same time period. However, he uses the camera to satirize and criticize television news with a man-on-the-street style.


This was his first major stylistic development. Not yet fully developed, it also shows Watkins' problematic tendency to appropriate the same language of those he criticizes. His narration is meant to copy the declamatory prose of newscasts and newsreels with endless pronouncements such as: "This is the system of the clan." But it is Watkins' dry, crisp tone, as well, and he can be equally pompous and didactic in his criticism: "This is called grape shot. This is what it is does." While highlighting the tension between history as told by popular media and his own people-centered revisionist narrative, his techniques are still too centered in propaganda to be entirely successful.

With The War Game, Watkins transferred his newsreel-inspired method to create an imagined nuclear attack. The horror of the telling is grounded by a script supported by heavy research, combining reports on the aftermath of bombings on Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki in World War II with the British government’s little known plans for dealing with a nuclear attack. The film addresses the aftermath of the attack with a straight-forward bluntness that is still shocking today, and is a stark reminder of how rarely the news media tackles the harsh realities of war and violence.

The political uneasiness at the possible repercussions of The War Game led the BBC to ban it as “too horrific for the medium of broadcasting.” Though it was shown sporadically in theaters, the BBC ban held until 1985, and the drama surrounding its production is engagingly re-told by Patrick Murphy in an accompanying essay. The War Game was the beginning of a lifetime of frustration and what Watkins calls the marginalization of his work.

Watkins would subsequently become more vocal in his politics, coinciding with the gathering protest movements of the late ‘60s. His following feature, The Gladiators, echoes some of the glib, self-righteous sentiments of the period and reveal the risks of presenting an alarmist scenario as fact. In the alternative reality of this film, international peace is maintained by organizing "international machinery" for the "playing of military games" to "divert the natural aggressions of mankind". Basically all the major world military leaders gather and set a few of their soldiers loose in a self-destructive battle between the Communists and capitalist democracies.

A sense of humor is almost entirely absent from Watkins films. With The Gladiators, he attempts something in the absurdist vein of Dr. Strangelove, but the bludgeoning sarcasm is irritating. The heartless leaders joke while drinking tea. "Sophisticated" classical music accompanies the fighting. Overall, Watkins flattens complex geopolitical currents into simplistic Cold War metaphor about a “game” that is so obtuse and unconvincing as to approach the ridiculous. The War Game was based on heavy research; it’s not clear where this idea came from.

Punishment Park is in some ways very similar to The Gladiators, but Watkins made several crucial developments that would correct the less successful elements of his earlier film. It again posits an alternative reality scenario, where political activists are rounded up into internment camps and after a kangaroo court trial are offered jail time or participation in a game in “Punishment Park”, where they are invariably shot and killed. (The idea is based on the Japanese internment camps in World War II and a plan for similar camps for dissidents floating around Washington in the ‘60s.)

The Gladiators

Structurally, this film is more impressive than The War Game. We simultaneously watch one group of prisoners let loose in the park while the next set go through their trials, building to dual climaxes of sentencing and death. The action is heightened by the sound design, a constant barrage of jittery sound effects – a gavel, a typewriter, guns, helicopter rotors – evoking the militaristic, high stakes mind-set of the characters.

But the major aesthetic breakthrough was in Watkins' loosening of his style with the use of non-professional actors. In a taped introduction for the DVD Watkins says, "What was most important that in Punishment Park it was ordinary people...The kind of people whose thoughts are not ordinarily expressed in the mass media." As in The Gladiators, the characters in Punishment Park are ciphers meant to represent broad viewpoints. But with this film Watkins cast his actors mostly for their similarities to these characters and asked them to express their ideas and improvise on what they thought the opinions of their characters would be. Even though Watkins clearly sides with the dissidents, the judges, policemen, and soldiers are monstrous without being reduced to one-sided caricatures of conservatism.

The result is a much more convincing and relevant metaphoric film that comes close to achieving Watkins goal “to make an independent film about what was happening in the United States at that time." It has attracted some renewed attention for its obvious political correlations to the United States today, primarily the expanded unchecked powers of the Executive Branch and military prisons at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. As a grander statement, Punishment Park is a striking depiction of jingoism run amok and how extreme divisiveness can fray a country’s psyche.

In his writings Watkins complains that Edvard Munch is not considered as political as his other films. But the differences between it and Punishment Park are unmistakable. Watkins admitted that Edvard Munch is a personal film. In execution it reveals a tender vulnerability wholly lacking from his previous efforts. Politics is certainly one element, but only one in the wide swath of life portrayed.

The narrative loosely covers Munch’s artistic maturation from his teenage years to early adulthood in the late 1800s. (Coincidentally the Peter Watkins set covers his work for roughly the same age period.) But the ingenuous editing is constantly skipping through time, having the manifold effect of approximating visual stream of consciousness, Munch's accumulated experience and deteriorating mind set, mimicking his developing proto-modernist form, and reflecting the numerous tensions coursing between the characters and their community.

As in Punishment Park, he interviews the non-professional actors in a broadcast news style for their thoughts on marriage, relationships, and family. The players frequently break a scene to look into the camera, reaching out from their isolation and almost pleading for understanding. The young man (Geir Westby) playing Munch does it constantly. Watkins’ narration frequently ties this back to his paintings. "Faces are turned to the side. Human contact with the eyes is avoided." "Using his reflection in the mirror, Edvard painted the first of his self-portraits."

Watkins can be a difficult artist and in Edvard Munch, his portrait of an equally difficult and isolated yet eventually vindicated and proven painter, we can possibly gain some understanding of his struggles with the artistic process. With both artists, their work becomes more widely accessible as the political circumstances surrounding its creation recede with time. But the essential personal stridency of their viewpoints does not diminish. This is readily apparent in Watkins’ writings and self-interviews on his website, some of which are reproduced in the accompanying booklets and DVD extras.

The War Game

Reading his site, one can understand how Watkins has consistently courted controversy. The self-interviews are prefaced by a “Peter Watkins’ Standard Copyright and Usage Notice” that lists a series of requirements that must be "understood and complied with" before a journalist can reference his "texts". He writes, "These different conditions are due to the marginalization of Peter's work for 40 years by the mass media, who have mostly either attacked his work, accused him of paranoia or refused to allow his critical analysis of the media to enter the public discourse via the means of the media." The problem with rebutting accusations of paranoia is that it tends to make one sound paranoid. It's also terribly self-important. Watkins protests against the select use and distortion of his works by demanding that others only use them to support his views.

He often uses a line of reasoning common in socialist texts: claiming that society is being exploited and taken advantage of by an elite that is not operating in the "masses' interest", and then turning around and declaring that he does know what is in their interest. He also suffers from the seeming naiveté of the provocateur, who deliberately challenges the assumptions of society then appears flabbergasted when society is angered by it.

There is a grand tension between the stubborn individualism and humanistic communalism of his work that is never resolved. That Watkins is a provocateur is exactly the point and one of the great beauties of his art. He is a one-man army, relentlessly pushing the medium in a direction that is more challenging, productive, and involving.

In his essay, Patrick Murphy quotes something Watkins told him, “The War Game and Culloden are signposts to a direction that TV could have taken, but refused. Television could have been a plurality of forms and processes.” “Plurality” is key. Here, Watkins is not declaring what is the best option, but merely offering an alternative. He wants the audience to try and look outside the established media to examine the political and artistic implications of what is being made and how it can be different.

For his efforts, so far, but for some very small circles, Watkins has been rewarded with obscurity. Hopefully, those circles will continue to ripple outward.

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