Alongside the Art Turning Left exhibition that I wrote about in my previous post, Tate Liverpool are screening a short season of films with a broadly left-wing political theme, each one introduced by a lecturer in Film Studies from Liverpool John Moores University.  After viewing the exhibition I joined a small group to see a film that I last saw more than a quarter of a century ago at the old Merseyside Film Institute downstairs at the Bluecoat in the heyday of independent film-making and intelligent screening programmes.

How would Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, the story of eight eight key characters, all in their twenties or thirties and affected  in some way by the events of May 1968 in Paris, stand up when viewed from the future that its makers looked toward?  All I could recall of the film was an image of the main characters sitting around a table, talking and laughing as they prepared vegetables for a meal.

Around the table

Sitting around a table, talking and laughing

Some of them were dreamers
And some of them were fools
Who were making plans and thinking of the future
With the energy of the innocent
They were gathering the tools
They would need to make their journey back to nature.
Before the Deluge, Jackson Browne

Now that I’ve seen Jonah again, I can see why that image stuck in my memory.  Amongst other things, it’s about the shared experience of a generation who rebelled against materialism, inequality and corporate greed, who yearned for sexual freedom and, in many different ways, attempted to change politics and society. It’s the least caricatured account – deeply serious, warm and witty – of my generation’s hopes and disillusion.  More than that: the film seems even more relevant now, seen from our standpoint in the new world order of the 21st century.

In my last post I described how the Art Turning Left exhibition posed a series of seminar-type questions about art and social change. If you wanted to reduce Jonah  to a single seminar question it might be: how can we live free and ethically in an unfree and unfair society?

Some of them knew pleasure
And some of them knew pain
And for some of them it was only the moment that mattered
And on the brave and crazy wings of youth
They went flying around in the rain
And their feathers, once so fine, grew torn and tattered
And in the end they traded their tired wings
For the resignation that living brings
Before the Deluge, Jackson Browne

Daniel Cohn- Bendit, 22, one of the leaders of the ‘soixante-huitards’

Daniel Cohn-Bendit and other ‘soixante-huitards’

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 was made by Swiss film director Alain Tanner in collaboration with the writer, art critic and activist John Berger.  The script, which they wrote together, tells the story of eight people getting by in Switzerland, seven years after the greatest upheavals of May ’68, all of them trying, in diverse ways, to free themselves from the institutional and societal chains that oppress them. The film is bookended by quotations from Switzerland’s (least) favourite son, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, beginning with this:

All our wisdom consists in servile prejudices. All our practices are only subjection, impediment, and constraint. Civil man is born, lives, and dies in slavery. At his birth he is sewed in swaddling clothes; at his death he is nailed in a coffin. So long as he keeps his human shape, he is enchained by our institutions.

There used to be a phrase, back then in the 70s: ‘the long march through the institutions’.  While some, after the deluge of ’68, dropped out or went underground, many believed they could be agents of social change, working in areas of public service such as education, social work or health care.  Retired now, and looking back the years I taught in adult education, I like to think that my work made some contribution by making it possible for clever people denied opportunities to get a good education and a decent life.  In Jonah, it’s the character of Marco who represents this strand of the post-68 legacy:

It’s so simple. We work to earn a living. With our work, they make a profit. And with the strength left over, some of us try to fight the system. It’s simple. That’s how it is.

The eight characters in Jonah (whose names all just happen to begin with the letters Ma…) each try keep the rebellious spirit of ’68 alive; but, as the dreams of that false dawn fade and disillusion sets in, each is coming to terms with the realities of the 1970s in their own way.

Mathieu and Marco

Mathieu and Marco

Mathieu is a typesetter and union militant who has just lost his job in the ‘printing crisis’ as new technology is introduced.  His partner Mathilde works in a factory and looks forward to having a baby, the Jonah of the title. Searching for a new job, Mathieu meets Marguerite and Marcel, two organic market gardeners. They hire him to shovel the horse manure they use as fertilizer. Later, he abandons shit-shovelling and starts an alternative school for local kids in one of Marguerite’s greenhouses.

The organic farm owned by Marguerite and Marcel is at the heart of the film and invites echoes of the trilogy of novels that John Berger wrote between 1979 and 1990, Into Their Labours, which is set in the peasant farming community in the French Alps where Berger has lived on a smallholding for several decades. But there are key differences: the characters in Jonah are not peasants, but a bunch of bohemians and nonconformists, most of them more urban than rural.  Marcel is alienated from the machinations of humans and speaks eloquently of the unfathomable mystery of animals, especially whales.  Marguerite is a complex character, the least sympathetic of the film’s characters, who is committed to organic farming, whilst at the same time employs migrant Turkish workers and sells them sexual favours.

Max is a disillusioned Trotskyite currently working as a proofreader. Disillusioned, he has more or less abandoned  politics, but does take action when he learns of plans by a property speculator to buy land – ‘We’ll build luxury slums there’ – that includes Marguerite and Marcel’s smallholding. He makes copies of the documentation – obtained for him by the businessman’s secretary, Madeleine – and informs the residents of the threat to their homes and livelihoods.

For Max, ‘Politics are finished’. For the strikingly beautiful Madeleine, politics is irrelevant: she’s into Tantric sex. Max accepts her invitation to liberate himself through transcendent orgasm, ‘the explosion that opens the lotus on top of your head … the energies that join  to make the great emptiness.’ He enjoys the sex, but is sceptical of the philosophy: ‘I suspect you’re a jet-set hippie… Or else you’re looking for God’.

Madeleine and Max

Madeleine and Max

Although definitely flaky, Madeleine is given some good lines.  She tells Max:

Usually disillusion like yours comes around forty-five when hopes haven’t been fulfilled.  Men want history to go as fast as life. It doesn’t work that way. You complicate things, dividing them in two. Good and bad, useful and harmful. You think like a court a law, always judges and lawyers.  I’m whole and one: Death by fusion and dissolution in the universe.

Max’s response: ‘You’re hysterical. But I like you’.

We first meet Marco being introduced to his new class on the first day of a new job as a history teacher in a secondary school. Ceremoniously dropping the coiled length of a blood sausage on his desk, he invites a student to come forward and slice it up with his father’s butcher knife. Then, with the folds of the sausage now segmented, he launches into a lecture on history and the nature of time – how historians have divided time and how we experience time:

I’m going to talk about how the folds of time are made. In agricultural societies, time was thought to be cyclic. Each season repeated the same moment. Of course men aged. But only because they wore out. They were the fuel that made the seasonal machine work.

Capitalism brought the idea of the highway, the highway of time and progress. Progress means that the winners win not only the battle. They’ve also been chosen as intrinsically superior beings. Their superiority turned the cycles and seasons into a corkscrew; and the winners were the point of the corkscrew. With their point they opened the bottles of inferior cultures. Drinking till they had enough. Then they smashed the bottles.  A new kind of violence. Weapons had killed in the past, but now the verdict of history killed the winner’s history.

With this new violence came a new fear for the winners. Fear of the past. Fear of inferiors in their broken bottles. If the past caught up with the winners, it might show as little pity as they had shown. In the last century this fear became scientific. Time became a road with no bends. … And the road was marked with perfect regularity. Millions of years divided into eras, dates, days, working hours… clocking in clocking out like blood sausage.  Today the highway of capitalism is collapsing… for more reasons than I can tell you in this bit of sausage, this lesson.

Some things make holes in time. …Time bends so the holes coincide. Why are prophets misunderstood in their own time?  Because only half the holes are there. They’re between time. The holes prophets make to see the future are the same ones historians use to look at the past. The holes made by Rousseau today explain the 18th century.

In a review of Jonah for Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media in 1977, Robert Stam wrote:

Jonah explores the interwoven lives of these characters. It situates them within the social and economic landscape. We see the kind of work they do and witness their struggle to live a more human life in the face of bourgeois alienation. The eight central figures are simultaneously integrated into society, if only by the work they perform, and live outside of it. They are both in the mainstream and on the margins. Earning their daily bread in the capitalist kingdom of means, they have their eyes affixed and their ears attuned to a distant kingdom of ends. While few of them are explicitly leftist, their words and deeds suggest conscious and unconscious opposition to the system, an opposition which takes diverse forms – Mathieu’s union militancy, Marco’s anti-authoritarian pedagogy, Marie’s cash register sabotage, Madeleine’s ‘transgressions’, Marguerite and Marcel’s organic resistance to the land-grabbers, Mathieu’s alternative school.

Marco and Marie

Marco and Marie

Max’s lecture to his students summarise ideas in the postscript to John Berger’s novel Pig Earth, and it’s surely Berger’s influence which makes this film a meditation on time passing – how the world changes around us, and how we develop as individuals in our different ways and with our personal philosophies.

Max falls in love with Marie, a supermarket cashier who makes her contribution to evening out society’s inequalities by knowingly undercharging elderly customers.  Marie is a marginal character in the sense that, whilst she works in Switzerland, she is a native of France and so every evening, under Swiss law, she must return across the border.  She lives next door to a retired engine driver who she supplies with liberated groceries. The old train driver has a personal take on the nature of time:

Do you ever ride a train? What do you see? The landscape passing, like at the movies. I don’t go to the movies anymore. But, on the footplate, The landscape doesn’t pass by. You go into it. And into it. And into it. It’s like music. You go straight ahead, right to where the rails join.  And however far you go… They never join.

Later, after he has been sacked from his teaching job and begun work in an old peoples home, Marco observes that:

The old understand the value of time. When you have a lot, time is both future and past.  All memories are in the present. And all hopes too. But they don’t destroy the present.

In Revisioning Europe: The Films of John Berger & Alain Tanner, Jerry White writes:

Jonas is a film about the ways that time acts on everyone, and the responsibility that this action in turn demands of everyone: responsibility to the past (struggles and victories, half-forgotten though they may sometimes seem), responsibility to the present (to the people you live in community with now), responsibility to the future (to kids who are just being born, and whose experiences at the age on 25 can only be vaguely imagined).

Jonah was the last of three films written by John Berger in close collaboration with the leftist director Alain Tanner (the others were The Salamander (1971) and The Middle of the World, made in 1974). Berger and Tanner do not present us with a utopian vision: the consequence of Marie’s generosity of spirit is imprisonment, while Marco is sacked for his unorthodox teaching methods.  If anything, the film extols the virtues of stoicism and adaptability: like Rousseau in Emile who insists metaphorically that a child must be able ‘to brave opulence and poverty, to live, if he has to, in freezing Iceland or on Malta’s burning rocks’.  This is how to survive and preserve your individuality in a society that demands conformity.  In the film’s final scene, we see Mathieu on riding his bike on the way to work in the morning.  We hear his thoughts as he negotiates Geneva’s busy streets:

Oh Marguerite the witch, Oh Marco the philosopher, Oh Marie the thief, Oh Marcel the hermit, Oh Mathilde my love, Oh Max the former prophet, Oh Madeleine the mad … I’ll try to keep your hopes together so they don’t disappear.  I’m going back to work. I’ll be exploited. I’ll try to use your hopes as levers. I’m cold. I’m in the 20th century, Jonah. I’m only asked to keep quiet, to accept everything. I’m only permitted to do what I’m paid to do. I’m labour. Labour on its bicycle. Jonah, the game isn’t up. Look at our lives! From the day we learn to walk, to the day the army fires on thousands of us. From your first reading lesson to the last democratic decision: to yield nothing despite all threats. Will it be better for you? The better is systematically put aside. I say: nobody is to decide for us anymore. The first time nothing may happen. The tenth time there’ll be a committee. The hundredth time a strike, and another reading lesson for you, Jonah. As often as I ride to work…More. As many times as the days of my life.

Eight characters in search of liberation

Eight characters in search of liberation

In a an important sense the central character of this film is unseen (or seen just once, in a postscript dated 1980).  It’s Jonah, of course.  Mathilde’s pregnancy causes the film’s characters – and the viewer – to reflect on what kind of society Jonah might find himself in, in the year 2000. The boy will be called Jonah because his mother is ‘like a whale’. Mathieu says:

Jonah will come out of your womb. He fell out of the boat, the ship of fools we’re on. In the year 2000, Jonah will be 25. At 25, the century will disgorge him. Or vomit him up. The whale of history will disgorge Jonah, who will be 25 in the year 2000. That’s the time left to us to help him get out of the mess.

In the film’s last shot – now five years in the future – we see Mathilde, also heading to work.  She’s looks from the window of abus and sees the statue of Rousseau, who left Geneva at the age of 16, and who so irritated the city’s leaders that they burned his books. But later the city capitalized on his fame and erected the statue, which features a quotation from Emile, the last words we hear on the soundtrack.

In Emile, Rousseau portrays the education of Emile as a work in progress, believing that Emile should follow the truth that grows within himself rather than the rules imposed from without by society.  He writes:

Needs change according to men’s situations.  There is a great difference between natural man in nature and natural man in society. Emile is no savage to send to the wilderness. He is a savage made to live in cities.

Jerry White in Revisioning Europe: The Films of John Berger & Alain Tanner makes an interesting suggestion about how, in choosing this quote, Berger and Tanner highlight the connection between the land beyond the city where their characters have made a brief stand, and the city itself:

This, really, is the world of Jonah: Geneva. The countryside outside of its pale is part of this larger metropolitan existence, finally inseparable from it, regardless of whether people like Max succeed in derailing land speculation scams. The film is showing us here that Rousseau is really a harbinger of this modern consciousness, less an Arcadian poet with a fetish for primitivism than a thinker who was all too aware of the interconnectedness of wilderness and civilization.

Or, perhaps, it’s all contained in the words of one of the ‘two zeroes’, the two characters who seem to represent those labourers about whom Berger has written so much – peasants:

At six or earlier in summer you can hear birds sing. So many… As numerous as the headlines. They send messages all around us. They’re easy to hear if you don’t read the paper. But man has invented a terrible silence. Building it stone by stone, and no longer hears the messages around him. If he could hear them, he’d be a little encouraged.

Rousseau Geneva

In order to subject fortune and things to yourself, begin by making yourself independent of them. To reign by opinion, begin by reigning over it…. Freedom is found in no form of government; it is in the heart of the free man. He takes it with him everywhere.
– Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile

See also

3 thoughts on “Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000: how can we live free and ethically in an unfair society?

  1. Thanks for that. I have been trying to see this movie for years but it never seems to be shown where I live. It is available as a DVD but the price on Amazon is £34.69, which is way beyond my pocket.

    1. It’s a wonderful film – seeing it again, I think I’d rate it among my top ten favourites. At the Tate screening we were talking about its unavailability — the JMU people had obviously lashed out for the Amazon DVD (which still has the original dodgy English subtitles that occasionally break out into German or gobbledegook.

  2. Again, thanks for that. The film moved me at the time as it spoke to our generation, and now we have lived to see 2000 and how it plays out for us and the children we bore. The question for us now is this: We had our time of optimism, and our decades of focusing on the realities of food, kids, shelter and obedience. How do we find that old idealism to make something new? To be blunt, how do we die with pride, as an inspiration to generation Jonah?

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