"Army of slaves, arise, arise!
The world is changing at the base ..."
-- "The Internationale"
As filmmaker Peter Miller purports in this 30-minute film, "The Internationale" might be the single most important political protest song of its time. Unfortunately, Miller's documentary is not quite as stirring as its subject matter.
The song dates back to the spring of 1871 and a French socialist movement known as the Paris Commune. Police brutally quashed the Commune, prompting one of its members, Eugene Pottier, to write a poem titled "L'Internationale." Seventeen years later, the six-verse poem was put to music by Pierre Degeyter.
And so a legend was born. While chiefly embraced by communist and socialist movements -- "The Internationale" became the official song of the Soviet Union following the Bolshevik revolution -- the song has been an enduring rallying cry for oppressed peoples everywhere. From the Spanish Civil War to China's Tiananmen Square in 1989, the rousing composition has been sung in scores of languages.
In tracing the history and importance of the song, documentarian Miller interviews folk stalwarts Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg (who has penned updated lyrics for "The Internationale"), as well as musicologists and several social activists who found inspiration in Pottier's lyrics. And yet The Internationale falls short of capturing the lyricism of the song and the ineffable impact it has wielded over the decades.
Still, The Internationale is too well-meaning and quirky a film to reject out of hand. Miller features clips of "The Internationale" being performed across the globe and interposes some fascinating archival news footage, including pro-Marxist rallies in the United States circa the 1930s.
The picture quality -- in 1.85:1 aspect ratio -- is serviceable, if flat, Much of the black-and-white newsreel footage, however, is in surprisingly decent shape.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is unexceptional, but it gets the job done.
The primary extra is a gem of a find. Hymn of the Nations, produced in 1944 by the U.S. Office of War Information, features legendry Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini leading a performance of Verdi's "Hymn of Nations." So why is this germane? Made to celebrate the fall of Mussolini's fascist government in Italy, this version of the Verdi composition incorporates national anthems of the Allied countries, including "The Internationale." Amid the Cold War, the song was later excised by American censors. This restored print, while in spotty condition, is a fascinating slice of history. Hymn of the Nations runs 28 minutes, 18 seconds.
Remaining supplemental material includes A Brief History of "The Internationale", which is in text form; written lyrics to "The Internationale" (in French, U.S.-English, British-English, Zulu, Spanish, Russian and Bragg's retooled version) and a director's biography. There are also trailers for 49 Up, War Photographer, Sacco and Vanzetti and Been Rich All My Life.
For leftist radicals, music historians and those who appreciate the offbeat, The Internationale is watchable but disappointing. The anecdotes of the interviewees are uneven; despite some wonderful newsreel footage and the captivating Toscanini performance, the documentary feels a bit of a slapdash affair.