Long before chart-toppers We Are The World and Feed the World, French woodworker and lyricist Eugene Pottier accomplished what Michael Jackson and Sir Bob Geldoff only feigned at doing: igniting a social movement and uniting the world with a simple song. With the words to the 1871 Internationale, the Frenchman moved generations across the world to listen to their hearts and stand up without fear against oppression.
Soon the song spread to virtually every nation and was sung in a multitude of languages. Workers, socialists, anarchists, and just about any radical group across the globe could be seen raising a fist while singing the stirring lyrics that inspired hope in the face of despair: "Arise you prisoners of starvation. Arise you wretched of the Earth," they sang. "The international working class shall be the human race."
Director Peter Miller's half-hour documentary, The Internationale, airing on PBS this Saturday, July 27, is a bittersweet look at the phenomenal power of a song and a seemingly lost ideal that humans can overcome conflict by joining together without political or class distinctions. The film traces the spread of the radical anthem from the idealistic days of the American Socialist movement, to its embrace by the Bolsheviks as the official song of the Soviet Union, to its modern rendering as a historical relic.
Once it became associated with the Soviets, the song changed from a valiant adagio to a stultified dirge. "Making something official is worse than banning it," legendary folk singer Pete Seeger points out. "It becomes an establishment song."
A compilation of emotive interviews and old newsreel clips, the tightly timed documentary shows, without sinking into the depths of nostalgia, just how powerful a song can be. Miller talks with Russian music scholars, doomed student activists in Tiananmen Square, and American labor movement organizers in animated conversations that serve to enhance the song.
While Miller's film praises Pottier's lyrics, it also views the song in a modern post-Marxist context. When the Bolsheviks "officialized" the song, they weighed it down with historical association to a dead political empire. Irish punk/folk singer Billy Bragg is featured in the film talking about his work releasing the song from its Soviet-era baggage and making it relevant to the modern struggle for human rights.
"You have nothing if you have no rights," Bragg sings. "The international ideal unites the human race."
At its heart the film is not so much about a song as it is about a heady ideal that perhaps was impossible to achieve. As the Soviet era or perhaps the Cuban Revolution may prove, the leaders of the populist movements have proven themselves to be unworthy of the sacrifices of their people. But as Bragg and Seeger point out, the humanistic spirit of the song will live on.
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