Whether it is subtle, obvious, state funded, ideologically independent, cinematic genius or simply bizarre, propaganda films tend to be devalued almost by default, even if some of them display characteristics that are genuinely worthwhile.
This is a list of films that I feel show the many variations cinema can project a political message and even when the ideology may be flawed, the cinematic value is enough to award merit.
Typical of a Humphrey Jennings film, “Listen to Britain” utilises the lyrical potential of cinema and embraces the poetic value of everyday life.
It is a documentary that observes a variety of different people in Britain and how they went about their business during World War 2. There is no narration or any obvious political persuasions (apart from a cloying introduction by Canadian broadcaster Leonard Brockington, to which Jennings asked to be removed).
Unlike his contemporaries Jennings preferred to obscure propaganda with poetic ambiguity. The film presents a myth of national unity, all classes coming together and leading Britain to victory.
Many officials felt the poetic significance of the film would distract people from its political message, and they were probably right. After viewing “Listen to Britain” it is not the message of national unity that stays with you but its eloquent lyricism.
One of the many films produced in China during the second generation (1930s) to show the devastating consequences of capitalism and how the only way to overcome its destruction was a socialist revolution.
“The Goddess” is by far the most subtle of the films made during this period and is possibly Ruan Lingyu’s (China’s super star of the 1930s) greatest performance.
The film is heart-breaking, accessible and a masterpiece of silent film-making.
Possibly one of the most celebrated anti-war films ever made and along with “The rules of the game” it is French director Jean Renoir’s most famous film.
The film made such an impact that Joseph Goebbels (Nazi Propaganda Minister) ordered all of the prints to be destroyed.
However, this is not why it made my list, it is the sheer quality of it that makes it stand out from the other numerous anti-war films of its time (and since). From its stunning poetic realist aesthetics to its subtle personification of the human identity, it is both a narrative tour-de-force and a technical triumph. Renoir overstates nothing, yet still manages to paint a social commentary that is rich in layered humanism.
Like most of Renoir’s poetic realist films (1930s – early 40s) it could be appreciated solely for its beautiful use of long shots and deep focus.
Surprisingly based on an old Japanese children’s story …
Usually when critics or cinephiles refer to anti-war films and Japan, they refer to Masaki Kobayashi’s “The Human Condition” film series. Nevertheless there is something about “The Burmese Harp” that applies cinemas’ unique way of embracing the sometimes allusive nature of human communication. There are so many scenes where characters (even ones that do not speak the same language) communicate solely because they are mutually familiar with songs.
A scene where a Japanese squad are trapped in a small cabin demonstrated this perfectly. Realising that the British army may attack at any minute they attempt to give off the impression that they are not suspicious by singing a song. To their surprise they hear the British soldiers singing along with them, resulting in a poignant and harmonious symphony between the two former enemies.
“I am Cuba” is a film you find on countless “greatest films of all time” polls, and centres around four short films expressing anti- Fulgencio Batista motifs.
This film captures the Cuban island just before it made the transition to a post-revolutionary society. Drifting from the city to the countryside, the film inspects the numerous difficulties caused by authoritarianism.
The film consists of long, mobile shots which depict almost wordless stories. It is possibly one of the most influential films of the past forty years, with many high profile filmmakers like Martin Scorsese in debt to its influence.
A documentary that is assembled in such a way, it resembles that of how a musician composes music.
Despite its painfully patronising portrait of the Russian politician Vladimir Lenin, its technical and rhythmical finesse makes it a candidate for one of the greatest documentaries of all time.
The film is structured around three songs that celebrate different periods of Lenin’s influence on Russia; before his political rein, during it and after his death.
“Red Psalm” focuses on a small group of Hungarian peasants in 1890 that revolt against their landowners. The film explores the Hungarian revolutionary movements during the 19th century and shows how harshly the poor were treated at the time.
The film is treated almost like a play, with a large portion of it being made up of folk songs performed by the socialist characters. Many film scholars even refer to it as a “Communist Musical”.
Like all Jansco films it is a masterpiece for its technical merits, possibly even being his greatest visual accomplishment. “Red Psalm” is a 84 minute film that consists of only 26 shots, each sequence is masterfully choreographed, resulting in a whimsical depiction of the both the Hungarian peasants and the beautiful landscape.
The second most famous Bengali film-maker (After Satyajit Ray of course) produced a lyrical and emotionally charged film, that even to this day the blood, sweat and tears that was put into its production can still be detected.
“The Cloud-Capped Star” is set in late Fifties Calcutta, observing the oldest daughter of a refugee family and her struggle to keep them out of poverty. It is an analysis of the harsh social conditions ascending the Partition of India.
Ghatak was a Marxist sympathiser, a master of visual compositions and an expert on montage theory (famous for his idealisation of Eisenstein).
The words “propaganda” and “cinema” cannot be uttered in the same sentence without mentioning Sergei Eisenstein’s montage masterpiece.
Influencing future generations of film makers is impressive, but to influence film technique is legendary and that is exactly what “Battleship Potemkin” is.
The film is based on a true story, where a Russian naval mutiny occurred, resulting in both a riot and police massacre. Interestingly enough when the film was released it was deemed too shocking for most audiences, not for its communist persuasions, but its use of violence.
It could be said that “Battleship Potemkin” was one of the first films that falls into the “shock cinema” motif.
Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub focused the majority of their careers on using their unique minimalist aesthetics to highlight the consequences of the class system.
Based on a Czech novel called Amerika (The man who disappeared) by acclaimed writer Franz Kafka, which is about a European emigrant who is forced to move to New York. The film makers modify the narrative to emphasise more on the class system issues and how American capitalism represses its poor.
Straub/Huillet’s techniques and aesthetics are powerfully unique (Influencing the likes of Pedro Costa), but they can sometimes be difficult for audiences to apprehend. Nevertheless “Class Relations” is by far their most accessible work.