By Adina Glickstein
At this year’s Berlinale, the program from the original International Forum of New Cinema was re-screened in full, presenting a slate of films from 1971 with half a century of retrospect. This first-ever Forum coincided with the year that the U.S. fully abandoned the Bretton Woods system, departing from the Gold Standard in a shift that arguably engendered the onset of neoliberalism. Martin Jacques identifies 1972 as the year that the top ten percent of incomes began to skyrocket while those of the lower third stagnated or fell; the establishment of the WTO, the dual leviathan of Reaganite-Thatcherism, and the push towards deregulation were all soon to follow. Against the background of the right’s resurgence, now just as before, the revolutionary threads of the sixties and seventies collected in this program offer a moment of revolutionary promise—an admirable struggle that persists under new terms despite fifty years’ frustration. Demands for liberty would soon give way to the push for flexibility, individual hedonism, and freedom-as-consumer-choice that now constitutes neoliberal ideology. Picking up on the currents of prior radicalism, the economic drive for deregulation reshaped social reality into a state of perpetual competition and self-commodification, the attitudes and affects once confined to the market becoming enmeshed in everyday life.
Naturally, the moving image was not immune. Two films about automobile manufacturing at this year’s Berlinale—Sochaux, 11 Juin 68 (France, 1970), presented in the Forum 50 program and Automotive (Germany, 2020) screening in Panorama—track the emergence of neoliberalism past to present, but with a crucial emphasis that is often obscured in the contemporary discourse on “immaterial” labor. By maintaining focus on the factory, these films make clear that post-Fordism doesn’t supplant, but rather appends, earlier models. Centering on industrial production, they underscore the physicality of labor that inheres even as “work” expands outward into an array of contemporary forms. The films’ shared setting also underscores their differences, formally and politically: while Sochaux represented a collective model of production in step with the spirit of ’68, Automotive documents the individual subjectivity that neoliberalism brought into fashion. By reading this shift as an index of the films’ disparate contexts, we might unearth the problems of individualization that must be addressed as we continue the struggle for solidarity into the future.
One key difference between Automotive and Sochaux lies in their models of authorship. Sochaux was produced collectively by the Groupe Medvedkine Sochaux, an offshoot of the radical left-wing SLON (Sociéte pour le lancement des ouvres nouvelles) that Chris Marker initiated in 1967. The film is polyvocal by design, its material gathered by disseminating equipment among workers at the Sochaux Peugeout factory, rejecting the common hierarchies of the production process. The Groupe Medvedkine’s participatory nature is reflected in the film’s formal heterogeneity. Verité footage of workers as they socialize between shifts conveys a sense of natural ease, never indicating the strained or surveillant work of a celebrity auteur descended from on high. One bit of b-roll witnesses the process of organizing in action as a man mills about a crowd and hands out papers—presumably advocating the strike on which the film centers—to a group ambling outside the factory. There is a uniformity to this group, a sense of one collective body: all men, standing rigid and erect, arms crossed and eyes trained downwards. One by one, they uncross their arms, glimpsing at the fliers. Some nod and smile, the stirrings of collective feeling traveling through the crowd. In an abrupt jump elsewhere in the film, newspapers and intertitles announce the deaths of two employees in strike-related standoffs, reaction shots of their coworkers’ outrage cutting in in quick procession.
Automotive, on the other hand, abides by a more conventional model of authorship. Director Jonas Heldt signs the film under his name, also crediting himself (among others) as a cinematographer, writer, and editor. This distinction is mirrored in the film’s organization: where Sochaux declines to focus on any single subject, Automotive consolidates its narrative around two women, two antagonistic forces. Predator and prey, capital and labor, they form a familiar configuration of discrete and opposed individual subjects.
First we meet Sedanur, a night shift worker whose temporary contract sorting parts on the Audi assembly line is unexpectedly terminated. “Work is a crazy system—you do stuff and get money for it all the time,” she muses as she’s pictured on the receiving end of a manicure. The film hones in on the young worker’s obsession with conspicuous consumption, Bavarian sports cars and impractical nails that she drums on the desk of the vocational training classroom where she studies to become a certified forklift operator. Perpetual reskilling: this is the reality she’s forced to undertake thanks to automation. Over dinner, her mother suggests that she look into retraining as a kindergarten teacher.
The instigator of Sedanur’s crisis, we later learn, is Eva, a headhunter on the prowl for new Audi executives who will outline a corporate strategy for even further automation. Eva acknowledges this inevitable encroach: taking a sip from a WeWork mug, she concedes that she, too, will one day lose her job to an algorithm. In the “smart factory” that Eva is helping to build, “machines organize themselves.” Immaculate tracking shots glide through a vision of this automated future made manifest: the Audi factory in Györ, Hungary to which Sedanur used to send parts. Its interior, sexy and ominous, is all chromatic surfaces dancing in sync. Somewhere between advertisement and admonition, this interlude is set to a coarse electro-synth soundtrack, an anachronistic dispatch from the twentieth-century. Fantasy of Fully-Automated Luxury Communism, or return of the Reagan-era repressed? Still employed, if only for the moment, Eva bemoans the instability—rebranded as desirable “flexibility”—that threatens her job from the relative comfort of a coworking space, palliatively generic. Under neoliberalism, neither woman wins.
In its more conventionally expository form, Automotive is a document of the economic and social shifts that have transpired in the last half-century. Its emphasis on two discrete characters, while entertaining and sympathetic, fits too uncritically into a contemporary order where “freedom” means individual liberty rather than collective liberation—a far cry from Sochaux’s portrayal of workers as a unified but multivalent body. Fifty years on, SOCHAUX, on the other hand, registers a revolution on the precipice of disillusion. Farocki identifies the quintessential moment of workers leaving the Lumiérè factory: briefly, the appearance of community flashes before us, the organized collective of workers lingering together before dispersing into public space. Sochaux conveys this fleeting sense of solidarity, precisely the collective impulse that, for Farocki, a meaningful portrait of cinematic labor must struggle to sustain. In Automotive, this threshold has been breached, the notion of solidarity unthinkable as workers are pitted against each other, atomized individuals competing in endless flux. Still, the film is powerful in its insistence that this new mode has not superseded the banality and brutality of the labor regimes that came before it. Viewing Automotive through the lessons of Sochaux, we can envision a future where Eva and Sedanur are allies, not adversaries—a collectivity that begins by shifting the blame for each of their anguish back towards the structural, rather than individual, forces that instantiated it.
Perspektive Deutsches Kino – Berlinale
Directed by Jonas Heldt
German, Turkish, English, Hungarian,
Directed by Groupe Medvedkine Sochaux