Cinematic Critique of Capitalism

Cinematic Critique of Capitalism
Monica Vitti in RED DESERT
Cinematic Critique of Capitalism
Monica Vitti in RED DESERT

Cinematic Critique of Capitalism

In his regular film commentary, Milos Stehlik of Facets Multimedia looks at Cinematic critiques of capitalism…

Who doesn’t remember Michael Douglas’ famous line in the film WALL STREET, “greed is good?”

In reality, the depiction of capitalism in film is much more complex. Marxist film criticism would consider almost all commercial films to be little else than disguised capitalist propaganda. In a capitalist consumerist society, the function of this propaganda is to keep us happy and contended consumers – consuming as much, and preferentially even more, than our capacity.

Watching James Bond movies, we should aspire to drive cars and dress like Bond. After watching CASINO ROYALE, we should rush to get the same laptop computer as the one used by Bond. Obscured is the fact that the computer in the movie was blatant product placement, paid for by the computer manufacturer, Sony. The star system – what movie stars wear, where they shop and eat, how they consume – are aspirational models – no matter that a mini-industry of designers, clothing manufacturers, stylists, make-up artists, publicists and agents conspire to create that image.

Filmmakers have been tackling the theme of what the passions that fuel uncontrolled capitalism do to people for a long time. In Friedrich Murnau’s silent masterpiece, THE LAST LAUGH, Emil Jannings, the devoted porter of a fancy Berlin hotel, is demoted to lavatory attendant when he gets older. Human capital, in Murnau’s vision of the universe, is expendable. Murnau’s fellow countryman, Erich von Stroheim, was even more direct in his classic GREED—the morality tale of how money corrupts and destroys three innocent people. The critique of capitalism is inherent in Charlie Chaplin’s films like MODERN TIMES AND CITY LIGHTS in which Chaplin pretends to be a millionaire as he tries to raise money for an operation to restore a blind girl’s sight.

The great late Italian film director, philosopher, critic, poet, novelist and provocateur Pier Paolo Pasolini became perhaps capitalism’s greatest film critic. Pasolini decided that consumer capitalism was worse than fascism. The reason was this: fascism was oppressive openly. Because it was so visible, it offered something to struggle against. But consumer capitalism was much more dangerous, because it co-opted its victims. It eroded human values and created a society in which the citizens were, in fact, willing participants in their own exploitation.

Pasolini was not satisfied with just an analysis. He had a solution. The backbone of capitalism was the traditional family. The concept of the family rested on patriarchal values. How to destroy patriarchal family values? Through sex, the more unconventional, the better.

Pasolini’s best example of this is his film TEOREMA, in which Terence Stamp, playing an angelic stranger, arrives at the home of an industrialist, and proceeds to bring uncommon happiness to each family member by serial seductions of the mother, daughter, maid, son and father.

Both Pasolini, especially in his final film SALO: 120 DAYS OF SODOM and Luchino Visconti sought to examine the relationship between capitalism and fascism. Visconti’s baroque, operatic film of the rich, decadent industrialist German family, THE DAMNED, is a thinly veiled portrait of the Krups, who built armaments for Hitler. Visconti’s melodrama of who will succeed the ageing patriarch in control of the family fortune became notorious for its portrayal of the son, played by Helmut Berger, who successively rapes his cousin and then his mother.

For Michelangelo Antonioni, the toll capitalism took was on the emotions. In a brilliant sequence at the Rome stock exchange, Alain Delon fakes his way to profit while the exchange observes a minute of silence for a dead and revered exchange member. Later, we see, the cost – he is unable to love or commit. For him, capitalism means death of the soul. Antonioni extends this alienation analogy even further in RED DESERT, his first film in color, as Monica Vitti, psychologically damaged and grappling with reality, stands overlooking an industrial landscape, its smokestacks belching beautifully colored smoke, poisoning everything and everyone near. It is a scene terrifyingly beautiful, like staring into the devil’s eyes of an angel.

Perhaps most instructive are the propaganda films of the Nazi era. The subtext of film spectaculars like those directed by Veit Harlan, was that Germans were living in an Aryan paradise – blonde, heroic, well-to-do, perpetually happy, patriotic and full of joy and laughter.

It’s interesting to ponder why, after a season of serious dramatic films like THERE WILL BE BLOOD, which could also be construed as a critique of capitalism, Hollywood is now poised to make us happy with a spring and summer season of comedies.

In capitalist movie making, reality is not a profitable commodity.


Milos Stehlik’s commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or Chicago Public Radio.