The Diary of an Unknown Soldier (1959) and The Forgotten Faces (1961) are the two first films of Peter Watkins. These two short films might appear as less ambitious as The War Game (1965), Punishment Park (1970) and La Commune (1999); however, they already carry the essence of Watkins’ cinema both in their form and in their content.
The Diary of an Unknown Soldier is an internal monologue of a first world war British soldier deployed on the front in Eastern France. The spectator is a witness of his thoughts and fears before combat. Image and sound are not synchronized and the successive and fast series of shots participate to express the anguished wait of the soldier. The way the body is filmed and described in the script is remarkable as it heavily insists on the fact that war for soldiers — in opposition to high rank officers — is essentially a matter of bodies: their movement, their combination with the bullets and bombs trajectories and their relationship to the ground — in that case, the mud. The body is what the soldier is asked to supply to his or her army to accomplish the strategies thought about “from above.” In that matter, Watkins makes his soldier think the following while filming close-ups of parts of his body along with other soldiers’ (see the series of screenshots above):
That’s how I will probably die, left like a poor old rag on the battlefield. When you know this is going to happen to you, your body suddenly becomes something terribly precious to you. This flesh, soft and warm is yours; a personal belonging not to be discarded like an awful piece of meat. You find yourself thinking about this, realizing what a wonderful thing your body is, and what an awful and wrong thing it is to maltreat it.
The Forgotten Faces reconstitutes the 1956 Hungarian revolution — five years earlier — against the Soviet authority, which saw groups of young civilians taking over the city of Budapest before being mercilessly judged and killed by the suppressive forces sent against them. Watkins insists on the youth and the amateurism of the rebels, thus creating an ambiguity between the story in the film and the story of the film. Indeed, the actors and the film’s crew were also amateurs and the revolutionary actions of their characters propose a similar analogy to their own within the broader context of the cinematographic industry.
These two movies, both filmed as historic reconstitution, like every other films created by Watkins, help us to question the subjectivity of a work of art, but more broadly, of any form of discursive document. Both The Diary of an Unknown Soldier and The Forgotten Faces are introduced as fictions, yet they tell us more about war and revolution than any documentary with the illusion of objectivity as ambition (see past article about this same issue). Watkins, along with Chris Marker, seem like the filmmaker who use the best what Gilles Deleuze calls the power of false (see his 1983 seminar about cinema) in order to make us access to a few moments of graspable reality that history can only allow when it is in progress, or in other words, incarnated (etymologically, made flesh).