He Saw It Coming

The forgotten filmmaker who anticipated our modern media madness

The filmmaker Peter Watkins is legendarily unknown. His movies are virtually never shown, except at rare cine­phile screenings, museum retro­spectives, and lefty campus events. Over the past few years, most of his 14 films have dribbled out on DVD, but until a screenwriter friend turned me on to him recently, I had no clue who he was. When I expressed amazement at the uncanny way his films, most of them dating back to the ’60s and ’70s, presage the contemporary cultural and political landscape—from Fox News to The Daily Show, from reality TV to the coverage of the Iraq War—my friend responded, “Now you know the secret source. All things come from Watkins. All.”

Watkins specializes in historical and current-affairs re-creations, but his real subject has always been the media—and on that subject he is a startlingly current filmmaker, even though almost a decade has passed since his last film. To the degree that he is known for anything, it is for a 50-minute film he made in 1965 called The War Game, which was underwritten by the BBC, then buried for 20 years, most likely at the behest of 10 Downing Street. A fictional account of a nuclear war’s consequences for the United Kingdom, The War Game tracks the conflict from its first horrifying impact on the county of Kent, through to the spread of disease and starvation, and finally to the breakdown of civil order and the imposition of quarantine and martial law. The BBC, in justifying its refusal to air the film, stated: “The effect of the film has been judged too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.”

The film was incendiary not merely because it showed the unshowable—that the then–Cold War era could yield a hot war for which England was uniquely unprepared—but because the whole thing was presented in documentary form. The War Game intercuts fake news footage of the disaster with apparently real-life quotations from scientists, bishops, and other authority figures whose fatuous reassurances (“In the next world war, I believe that both sides could stop before the ultimate destruction of cities so that both sides could retire for a period of post-attack recuperation, in which World Wars Four to Eight could be prepared”) stand in absurd counterpoint to the apocalypse unfolding before our eyes. (Watkins was four years ahead of Monty Python, and decades ahead of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, in ruthlessly mocking gasbagish expert commentary—only he didn’t think it was quite so hilarious.) This wasn’t an attempt to perpetrate a War of the Worlds–type hoax; instead, it was a deep, unerring analysis of how we use media to anesthetize ourselves against uncomfortable truths.

Watch an excerpt from Culloden

Watkins’s films don’t just posit that we are being lied to; they show exactly how. His first professional film, Culloden (1964), deploys his faux-documentary skills in the service of historical deconstruction, restaging the slaughter of thousands of Scottish Highlanders who fought under the Jacobite pretender Prince Charles against the larger, better-organized, and better-armed English forces in 1746. A tale of mass slaughter and ethnic cleansing, Culloden is leavened only by an adrenaline-fueled British historian who watches the bloodletting from behind a stone wall and comments on events (“This is incredible … The rebels are being literally blown apart!”), much as ’60s newscasters reported on the West’s attempts at post-colonial pacification. The resonances with the myth­olo­gization of the American Civil War are equally uncanny: among Watkins’s targets is the long-standing depiction of the defeated “Bonnie Prince Charlie” as a tragic hero, rather than, as Culloden portrays him, a blithering, self-involved amateur who allowed his men to die in the name of a dynastic feud they barely understood.

Watkins’s later films ratchet up the intensity of his media critique, dropping the contemporary press into wildly anachronistic environments. In his last film, the six-hour (!), French-language La Commune(Paris 1871), rival networks cover the events of that March as if they’re fodder for your local news, complete with man-in-the-street interviews (“I’ve got a message for the bourgeois. They’re gonna have a headache ’cos we’re here to kill ’em”) and expert commentary from bow-tied men a stutter step away from the ex-generals who fanned out across the airwaves in the months after the 2003 Iraq invasion, rationalizing the fiasco thousands of miles away.

Like a Centre Pompidou of cinema, Watkins is forever laying bare the arti­fice. Fiction and nonfiction merge: non-actors improvise roles in fictional accounts of factual events (the effect is very reality-TV); and the contrivance inherent in any media narrative is exposed as Watkins shows the cameras, the sets, his directorial technique. His endlessly recursive gambits serve as a metatextual critique of how fact and fiction are just different ways to impose narrative—and yet they never seem like academic posing; indeed, they carry an amazing emotional wallop.

It helps that he’s able to extract remarkable performances from nonprofessionals. In La Commune, the actors, many residents of working-class neighborhoods not dissimilar from the ones that bred the Communards, break character to discuss their roles. In Punishment Park, a 1970 faux-documentary loosely inspired by the trial of the Chicago Seven, young activists who bear more than a passing similarity to the likes of Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale improvise their way through a story that’s chillingly apposite to the age of Guantánamo and other black-box prisons. Shot in the style of much of the Vietnam War coverage of the time (shaky handheld cameras rushing through the underbrush, de-centered framing, panting newsmen), the movie follows two groups of prisoners who are allowed to race through the California desert in the hope of reaching an American flag 53 miles away, shadowed by county troopers and other uniformed goons. Ostensibly a “National Network” TV-news account of an alternative-sentencing program for political dissidents, Park gets great mileage out of the way the vacant, macho police types and government officials emasculate the media observers, who are left sputtering at an injustice they can do nothing to stop. (Hilariously, the officials have set up a catering tent in the desert—a poor man’s Doha.)

But Park also helps clarify why Watkins isn’t more widely known. His Village Voice–circa 1975 politics, which make parts of the film seem as dated as the most pretentious Lina Wertmüller, are at once sentimental and punitively moralistic—as if continuing in your bourgeois existence after watching one of his films is a form of ethical suicide. Nobody likes a didact. Or a martyr: Watkins reacted to his travails with the BBC like a delicate flower, too sensitive for this world. The director, now 72, repeatedly pursued self-exile: to Sweden, Lithuania, and Canada. Featured in a major retrospective in Toronto in 2004, he refused to attend after a Globe and Mail essay that called him a “genius” also took issue with his politics. Stunts like these, and his allegedly shirty interactions with potential financial backers, have made it easy for the industry to find excuses not to support his work.

But the world his early films anticipated is the world we inhabit now. Like no filmmaker before or since, Watkins captures the constant manipulation and counter­manipulation of the modern media, the push-pull of image projection and message management that has blurred the line between news and propaganda. His films are testaments to central truths of the current media environment: that mere logic is powerless against a brilliant projection of personality, that self-conscious “objectivity” and truth-telling are very different things, and that compelling narrative is impervious to facts. From the selling of the Iraq War to the selling of Sarah Palin, Watkins, like Orwell before him, shows how we are lied to, and how we lie to ourselves.