New film “Manifesto” heralds one new era after another

One of the most creative and thought-provoking works at the Tribeca Film Festival this year was Manifesto, which examines historic artistic statements that have defined world culture. It was originally conceived as an art installation by Julian Rosefeldt, a renowned visual artist and filmmaker who has exhibited in museums and festivals worldwide, and here writes, produces and directs.

A manifesto is a public declaration of policy and aims by a party, group or individual. In this case, Rosefeldt focuses primarily on 19th- and 20th-century artistic manifestos—Dadaists, Futurists, Surrealists, Primitivists—in addition to communism, anarchism, and several more. Art is a visual representation of time and a philosophical and creative expression of history, here expounded by a wide range of formidable thinkers and artists—filmmakers, choreographers, painters, writers and more. They challenge the role of art in the world and society, and whether or not art should be in the service of humanity: Does it have social meaning and purpose, or is it simply a diversion for self-serving ‘artists’?

Rosefeldt chose to adapt his acclaimed art installation into his first full-length film in order to feature the astounding chameleon-like acting talents of Cate Blanchett. In 95 minutes, she plays at least 12 totally disparate characters, each spouting lines from these historical manifestos, from the banal to shocking, the sensible to seemingly senseless. The film begins with flashes of names of famous people in large print, à la Godard, who will all be represented in words from the many manifestos. It’s surely not accidental that Marx and Engels are the first two of the names that click off every second, alternating with the many faces of Blanchett, and including famous art quotes such as  “Art requires truth not sensitivity,” “All current art is fake,” and “Nothing is original.”

The prologue then shows a homeless man (remember, Blanchett plays all roles!) wandering through long forgotten decaying industrial structures, while the prophetic voiceover lays the groundwork for the rest of the manifestos to be examined. By placing one of history’s most popular and profound manifestos—the “Communist” one by Marx and Engels—at the beginning of the film, Rosefeldt establishes the basis for a deeper understanding of all further manifestos and their relationship to their time and class.

Marx and Engels’ manifesto contains political ideas that changed the world, and is followed in the film by another stunningly prophetic manifesto addressing art in relation to the class struggle with powerful ideas from the John Reed Club of New York and its 1932 Great Depression-era proclamation printed in New Masses magazine. “An old world is dying, a new one is being born. Capitalist civilization which has dominated the economic, political and cultural life of continents, is in the process of decay. It is now breeding new and devastating wars. The prevailing economic crisis is placing greater and greater burdens upon the masses of the world’s population—upon those who work with hand or brain. The present crisis has stripped capitalism naked! It stands more revealed than ever as a system of robbery and fraud, unemployment and terror, starvation and war. The general crisis of capitalism is reflected in its culture. The economic and political machinery, with the bourgeoisie, is in decay. Its philosophy, its literature and its art are bankrupt. In this period of change, the role of the artist can only be that of the revolutionary. It is his duty to destroy the last remnants of an empty, irksome aesthetic, arousing the creative instincts still slumbering unconscious in the human mind. Our art is the art of a revolutionary period, simultaneously the reaction of a world going under and the herald of a new era!” This was 1932!

Luscious hypnotic slow-moving pans of phenomenal architectural wonders, underscored by a hip funk electronic music track, utilizing banging metal and arc welding sounds, make the film itself one of the most creative accomplishments about the very act of creativity.

There is barely any dialogue or conversation in the film. Rather, Blanchett recites only text from manifestos, in the most unlikely settings, and makes it appear organic and appropriate. Sometimes it’s a random pairing of text and settings. For example, as a teacher in a classroom of young children, she spouts the conditional elements that make up the well known Dogma 95 doctrine that guided filmmakers like Lars von Trier to create selfless real works of art based on a list of simple rules. As she commands the students, “only handheld cameras,” they all reply in unison, “OK!” She reminds them, “don’t use artificial sound tracks,” and they all reply, “No.”

Another ingenious juxtaposition of manifesto and setting takes place on a TV set where the formula-looking anchor uses text from Minimalist and Conceptual Art doctrines and converses with her “on-the-scene” reporter (both played by Blanchett while calling each other Cate!), who is maneuvering an umbrella while fighting a heavy rain storm, explaining supposedly the weather conditions but actually answering by continuing the manifesto.

Manifesto is a film of such power and originality, a visual and mental feast, that it warrants multiple viewings in order to absorb not only the complex history of art world ideas. Its ingenious structuring places it among the most challenging films in years. It has been released recently in theaters across the country.

Let’s leave it to our readers to locate the source of the final quote in the movie: “To those who don’t understand us properly, we say with an irreducible scorn, ‘We, of whom you believe yourself to be the judges, will one day judge you!’”

The trailer can be seen here.


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.