John Berger did not think of himself as a critic. When mentioned during interviews he often disputed the claim, countering with his own preferred expression: he was a storyteller. This was true in some very obvious ways. For the most part, Berger had stopped regularly reviewing exhibitions around 1959, following a stint as a critic for the New Statesman, and his work over the next five-plus decades would take many different forms: both novels and short fiction, poems, plays, television documentaries, feature films, essays, and image-text collaborations. But his rejection of the distinction went deeper, and was connected to crucial changes he had made in his life. In 1973 Berger moved to the French Alpine town of Quincy, where he lived until his death earlier this year. Following the writing of The Seventh Man, a collaboration with the photographer Jean Mohr on migrant workers being forced into the industrial centers of Western Europe, he felt he was too detached from peasant lives to continue writing about them. So he went to live among them.
Berger wasn’t simply a writer dropping in from nowhere, getting what he needed and retreating. Many years later, he would frame his move to Quincy as a calling and relate it back to his formulation as a storyteller. “I feel as if I belong here, if I belong anywhere,” he told an interviewer from the New York Times. “And I don’t miss the city, certainly not the social life. I mean, for fun in the city, people get together at a party and swap opinions. Opinions. Here, when people relax, get together, they drink, play cards and sing—sit in a room and sing. And of course, they tell stories.”
This attraction to the primacy of storytelling is what eventually led Berger to the Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner. Berger wrote a review for Sight & Sound magazine about Tanner’s film Nice Time (1957), which documents an entire evening in Piccadilly Circus, and was introduced to Tanner soon after by the filmmaker Lindsay Anderson, a mutual friend. Coming from different backgrounds, Tanner and Berger found a connection in their increased politicization and need to break from standard modes of making work. The two stayed in touch and eventually collaborated on a number of projects, most notably a series of three films — La Salamandre (1971), Middle of the World (1974), and Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976) — that melancholically reflect on the perceived failures of radical struggle, and the glimmer of hope in the distance of the future. The loose trilogy, along with other works by Tanner, will screen at Metrograph in New York beginning July 12.
As political films, the collaborations between Berger and Tanner are immediately distinguishable from what other artists were making in the aftermath of 1968. In an interview surmising his work with Tanner, Berger used Jean-Luc Godard as a counterpoint and returned to his idea of storytelling. “My own formulation about Godard is that he is the great film critic of our time, but, unlike most film critics, instead of writing his criticism in words, he makes films which are criticism of film,” Berger told an interviewer from Cineaste Magazine in 1980. “Alain, on the other hand, is essentially a storyteller — it’s a different function.” What this meant was that politics in the films they made together were not always direct. While Godard’s work became increasingly confrontational and dogmatic, Berger and Tanner’s critiques of society were buried in humanistic narratives that, as the critic Dave Kehr wrote, brought “thinking and caring together again.”
The most fruitful way to think about the Berger and Tanner collaborations is to see them as a continual sketch, with each film building on the last. The two would write the scripts together, often starting from a simple prompt and expanding from there, with Berger removing himself from the filming process and only coming back during the editing. La Salamandre (1971), the first feature they made together (Berger had contributed narration to a short documentary about Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh in 1965), is the loosest of their films, concerning two writers — one a journalist (Jean-Luc Bideau), the other a novelist (Jacques Denis) — who come together to script a television program based on the purported attempt by a local working-class woman, Rosemonde (Bulle Ogier), to murder her uncle. Rosemonde is the first of Berger and Tanner’s female outsiders, floating from job to job in rebellion against a world that only views her as a worker or a sex object. The more the two writers attempt to figure her out, the more she rejects their naive characterizations. “I’m not quite normal,” she tells one of the writers during an interview session for their project. “At least that’s what people say.”
But for Berger and Tanner, Rosemonde’s transformation was the epitome of post-1968 freedom. And she became the model for the characters of their future films, many of who are female. Alienated from collective struggle and finding themselves in a time of political stasis, they find politics in their small disruptions to bourgeois society and in relation to forces of control. In Middle of the World, Berger and Tanner’s second collaboration, an opening narration calls this moment, where disillusionment marked a turn toward apoliticism, a period of “normalization,” where hopes remain but are subsumed. “Only words, dates, and seasons change,” an unidentified female says. “Nothing else.” This is seen through the story of Adriana (Olimpia Carlisi), an Italian waitress working in a rural area of Switzerland. At the café where she serves drinks, she fends off the creeping hands of men playing cards and is told by an older waitress to stay away from any political discussion because “politics and business never mix.” Soon, she begins an affair with Paul (Philippe Léotard), a local politician who is married.
Like with Rosemonde, Berger and Tanner present Adriana’s story as one of self-realization. As her relationship with Paul progresses, it becomes clear that her future is being prepared for her without her consent. It is everything a woman of her means is supposed to expect: a good-natured man, marriage, a home. Paul plans to divorce his wife, putting his political career at risk, to start another life that mirrors the previous one. But Adriana is not trapped. She refuses the only future that Paul can see for them, to be consumed by Paul’s need for a life of middle-class convenience and comfortability — he tries to woo her at one point by listing the appliances he has in his home — keeps her possibilities alive. She has a choice, and makes one.
The three features Berger and Tanner made together are essentially films about class. Characters are struggling to live life after political failure, finding ways to resume their resistance to a value system that remains ever-present and crushing. Berger, as a writer and as a human being — the two were never truly separated — was engaged in a similar process. His work became increasingly focused on the poor and working class following his move to Quincy, and he was searching for a form to match his subjects. This resulted in the simplified prose and traditional narratives of the Into Their Labours trilogy, a series of novels he completed following the end of his collaboration with Tanner. According to Berger, Tanner at the time was moving in the opposite direction. He wanted to make films with a “looser structure” that were “more experimental in their narrative.” The tension between their divergent positions resulted in their final film, and certainly the most well known of their collaborations, Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000.
The most explicitly political of the work Berger and Tanner made together, Jonah tells the story of a group of former radicals: one has become a teacher (Jacques Denis), bringing radical ideas into a rural classroom; another (Rufus) finds work on farm while his wife (Myriam Boyer) hopes to bring another child into the world; the owners of the farm (Dominique Labourier, Roger Jendly) sell chemical-free produce at the local farmer’s market; a former journalist now working as a proofreader (Jean-Luc Bideau) subverts land speculators in his spare time and meets a woman (Myriam Mézières) who finds radical potential in tantric sex; a young woman (Miou-Miou), working as a cashier, gives discounts to the elderly and other people in need. The film is built around long takes and evolving conversations between the group, and uses dream-like sequences, newsreel footage, and occasional off-screen narration that breaks into the realist narrative.
These characters come together, forming something like a collective living space, and find that they can keep hope alive through their small actions. But can these actions bring about change? It’s the question that is at the heart of Jonah, and one that the film answers with a sense of political optimism. As the conventional world puts pressure on the characters to give up their radical dreams, the future is contained in a young child named Jonah. A central image of the film is a mural, painted on a stone wall at the farm and depicting many of the characters. Their image and their values are marked in history, positioned like idols. But as time passes, the mural starts to fade. One of the final things we see in the films is the young Jonah scribbling over these former student radicals with chalk. How you see this ultimately depends on your cynicism, perhaps. You can look at this as Jonah erasing the past, and see a bleak future where the child comes to represent all that his parents and their friends rejected. Or you can view this as Jonah presenting a new way forward, to advocate, as the writer Geoff Dyer once said of Berger’s writing, for a way to “redraw the maps.” When one flame dies, another starts to burn.