Issue 3

Transnational Satire: Communism v. Capitalism

Introduction and Historical Background

Despite the United States’ desire to keep communism contained, it could be found everywhere in the post-war world. This essay will explore the transnationality of communism through satire, specifically Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (1967), Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (1961) and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). These three films examine the ideological battle between capitalism and communism. Forman’s allegorical film is a reflection of Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, and it was also part of the Czech New Wave, which was a movement associated with filmmakers like Forman who had no ties to the communist party, and also had no desire to nurture Czechoslovakia into a socialist paradise[1]. The Firemen’s Ball was released in 1967 as a mere comedy, but was banned in 1968 after the Soviet invasion. On another side of the world came Wilder’s film, which exists in the comic juxtaposition between East and West Germany. Wilder himself came to America after he escaped Nazi Germany, and for this reason was skeptical of totalitarian states, and thus the communist states at the time[2]. Tied to this fear of communism was also the fear of nuclear war, which is directly dealt with in Dr. Strangelove. Based on Peter George’s 1958 novel Red Alert, the film morphed the horrifying tale of a rogue general who commands an attack on Moscow into a satire. While these films all deal with communism, they are more strongly rooted in tragic events, and yet all invite laughter. In dealing with the battle between communism and capitalism, these films are able to offer a nuanced critique of humankind in virtue of laughing at tragedy.

Communism v. Capitalism

Communism in Czechoslovakia was met by Milos Forman with a desire for change. Despite The Firemen’s Ball starting out as a mere comedy, the political allegory cannot be ignored. Forman stated, “I didn’t want to give any special message or allegory. I wanted just to make a comedy knowing that if I’ll be real, if I’ll be true, the film will automatically reveal an allegorical sense”[3]. The film follows a board of old firemen who organize and run the annual Firemen’s Ball, and consequently prove to be disastrous fools who mirror the aging bureaucracy of the time.

Toward the beginning of the film, a member of the board discovers that one of the prizes from the ball’s auction table has been stolen. Upon this discovery, he starts to question another member about where this prize has gone. However, this member asserts that it could not have been him because he was too busy holding the ladder for the person trying to put a fire out on the banner hanging from the ceiling. The two board members continue to argue, the ladder gets ignored and eventually falls, and this leaves the man on top doomed to hang from the rafters. As he shrieks for his life the banner continues to burn. The camera shifts its attention to the banner, which features a happy town in celebration, slowly disappearing into the flames. Upon this image, the title graphic is superimposed, setting the stage for the rest of the film. Indeed, this short scene at the beginning enters us into the world of the film, in which the old, slow firemen argue over silliness, all while (quite literally) the young people are left to hang helplessly. The banner, which burns beside the helpless young man, depicts the deterioration of the system of Czechoslovakia; while the elders want to hang onto their communist ways, they ultimately cannot offer any help as they watch the system burn. This is a representation of what Forman has to say about allegories:

That’s the problem of all governments, of all committees… That they try and they pretend and they announce that they are preparing a happy, gay, amusing evening or life for the people. And everybody has the best intentions. And everybody’s prepared to be happy, to help. But suddenly things turn out in such a catastrophic way that, for me, this is a vision of what’s going on today in the world[4].

It is, in many ways, a mistake to expect the best out of humans, because humans often fall short of delivering greatness despite having great egos. The entirety of The Firemen’s Ball follows in the footsteps of the aforementioned scene, and thus this quote.

There are two fixations in the film: the missing auction prizes and the beauty contest. Both of these things have overarching similarities, in that they are traditions that the old firemen are desperately trying to impose control and order over, and also that these traditions get slowly dismantled over the course of the film. The auction is probably the clearest metaphor for examining the tension between communism and capitalism within the film. The auction has its roots in a socialist ideal of everyone putting in money for the purpose of everyone having an equal opportunity to go home with a gift, but it seems as though human nature is actively working against them and this idea. The prize table is out in the open, which proves to be naive because prizes continue to be stolen by attendees, and thus the superficial desire to commit to helping fellow men ultimately is overridden by the selfish nature of humans.

This concept of the auction is flipped on its head toward the end of the film when a house fire calls for the firemen to leave the ball and do their jobs. The people of the ball, quite strangely, follow the firemen to watch as the house becomes engulfed in flames. Because the firetruck cannot move due to snow, the firemen are helpless in saving the house. They save the old home-owner, but he is forced to watch his home burn as the firemen aimlessly shovel snow onto the fire. Once everyone returns to the ball, board members go around asking attendees to give up their auction tickets for the old man. Some give up willingly and some need a bit more convincing. When the old home-owner is given the auction tickets, along with the “solidarity” of everyone in the room, there is nothing to be excited about. The home-owner says nothing but, “I need money.” A very pretty picture has been painted by having everyone come together and sacrifice their own individual gains for someone who has lost everything; however, this is just a facade because they have not actually done anything to help him. This superficiality of the people’s “goodwill”, “kindness”, and “comradely feelings” heightens the people of the ball to a new moral level. However it clouds the fact that his individual problem is not solved by their kindness.

The beauty contest is another tradition that, in the past, has been full of beautiful and willing women, but proves to be a hassle this year. There is the girl who is forced to participate by her father, the giggling bimbo, and the girl whose mother will not leave her side, among others whose facial expressions indicate that they would rather be doing anything else. The board members spend the first half of the film searching for the perfect women to showcase in the beauty contest by comparing legs, breasts, and other objectifying criteria. However, the board members fail and their picks for the contest turn out to be sub-par. Not a single girl smiles in the room and they must learn how to correctly march. The real disaster follows when it is time for the actual event. The first girl, forced by her father, reluctantly makes her way to the stage. The next, the giggling bimbo, stops halfway there in a fit of laughter, and eventually runs out of the room. What follows is mass chaos, with men and women running all around the ballroom, and leaving the beauty contest to rest in a kind of limbo. All of the contestants run upstairs to hide in the women’s bathroom, in which the board members follow them but end up getting blocked by this barrier. This, once again, is a tradition that is being ransacked by the youth.

There is a tremendous amount of juxtaposition between the old generation and the new one, and this is showcased through time and form. The older generation is slow: they are slow in making decisions, slow in getting their jobs done, and, most importantly, slow in adapting to change. The fact that the auction prize thefts are occurring throughout the entire film is just one instance that shows these firemen do not know how to address the pressing issue of the night: the fast thieves, which they are too slow to catch. The fire very quickly destroys a man’s home and life, but the firemen are slow to put it out; they are slow to find women for the beauty contest, subsequently are slow to fix the destruction caused by the girls, and are proven fools when something as simple as a women’s bathroom is the threshold between failure and victory. These women, however, are very fast to ruin the event and can do it in a matter of five minutes. Overall, these traditions are aching to break, and while the young society does not seem to have a problem with that, the slowly adapting elders are holding on for dear life and imposing these traditions on the youth. It is an exact reflection of communist Czechoslovakia of the time, in which there was a duel for a desire to change and a desire to remain the same. In the end, the desire to stick with communist tradition could not keep up with a rapidly changing world.

While The Firemen’s Ball is about the Czech communist party in an allegorical sense, Wilder’s One, Two, Three deals with the battle between capitalism and communism in a much more direct way. The film features James Cagney as C.R. MacNamara, a capitalist working for Coca-Cola in West Berlin just before the erection of the Berlin Wall. MacNamara, who is trying to win appreciation and honor from his boss in Atlanta, is given the task of watching his boss’ daughter who has just been sent to Berlin. This proves to be a greater task than expected because the 17-year-old Scarlett turns out to be a hot-blooded southern belle who has been engaged four times. Under the (faulty) supervision of MacNamara, she ends up marrying a communist from East Berlin, (or as Scarlett asserts, “He’s not a communist he’s a republican! He’s from the People’s Republic of East Germany!”). It is up to MacNamara to turn Otto Ludwig Piffl into a capitalist before his boss finds out.

The film opens with a narration from MacNamara, explaining that on August 31, 1961, while Americans were watching baseball, the border between East and West Berlin was sealed off, inviting the audience to note the “shiftiness” of the non-Americans. The juxtaposition of the American way of life and the communist way of life starts from the very beginning. In saying that the Americans were watching baseball while the wall was being built is to offer up a comparison of two countries, one of which is able to enjoy the simple things in life and bonds over small but important cultural values, and the other being governed by totalitarian rule. Furthermore, the American way of life gets imposed onto West Berlin. MacNamara says, “The Eastern sector, under communist domination, was still in rubble… The Western sector, under Allied protection, was peaceful, prosperous, and enjoyed all the blessings of democracy.” During the first part of his narration, the audience sees the people of East Berlin parading and holding pictures of Khrushchev. Balloons that say, “Go Home Yankee” fly out of their hands, and the camera ascends with the balloons into West Berlin. The camera pans over an industrialized city, full of cars and big buildings, and upon the words, “enjoyed the blessings of democracy,” the camera pans over to a billboard depicting a half-naked woman in a Coca-Cola ad.

It would be silly to call this a celebration of capitalism. Both MacNamara and Otto are caricatures who embody all of the quirks and faults of capitalism and communism, respectively. However, even if neither are safe from satire, it is clear that capitalism prevails. While MacNamara in West Berlin is the stereotypical capitalist, he is smart and he gets stuff done. He is able to trick his secretary to stay with him and maneuver an entire scheme that turns Otto into a (perceived) capitalist, and thus, as his wife states, imposes his own Marshall Plan. He is also able to cement a Coca-Cola deal with the Russians, making true the statement, “Hitler blew it but Coca-Cola will do it!” With all the faults that MacNamara has, there are certain capitalistic qualities that also defend his character. The same cannot be said for the Eastern communists. Otto is a likable character, in part due to the clear love he has for Scarlett, but the film does not defend his communist beliefs. East Berlin is ruled under a totalitarian regime, and when he enters the city with “western propaganda” pinned on him by MacNamara there is no forgiveness for him. He is brought straight into an interrogation room and is tortured by listening to the song Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini until he admits that he is an American spy. Otto is eventually driven to admit this falsehood and MacNamara, driven by the insistence of Scarlett, is the only one who can save him. He enlists the help of the Russians he made the Coca-Cola deal with to help get Otto back to Scarlett. He does this by making another deal with the Russians, but after they realize that he did not deliver what he promised, they get in their car and chase MacNamara through East Berlin, all the way up to the border. Throughout the chase, MacNamara’s car stays in perfect condition while the Russians’ car falls apart. This is, again, a juxtaposition of communism and capitalism, in which communism fails to catch up with the capitalist Americans.[5]

Even the structure of the dialogue and the jokes model western model capitalism. Lopez argues that One, Two, Three potentially has, “the most historical puns per minute of footage”[6]. It is almost overwhelming how many references to world events, such as Russia’s relationship with Cuba (“They send us cigars, we send them rockets”), and imperialism (“Africa for the Africans!”).[7] We come to expect these puns, and essentially, the film mass produces these puns for the sake of the viewers.

     But much like with The Firemen’s Ball, critics hated One, Two, Three.  “The film…gave the impression that Wilder wanted to mock that which to rest of humanity seemed a tragedy. When the film opened in Berlin, one newspaper published ‘that which we find heartbreaking, Billy Wilder finds amusing’.”[8]

The most heartbreaking tragedy of all finds its home in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which deals directly with the threat of nuclear war. The inciting incident takes place when an American general goes rogue and sends a command out to American planes to prepare for an attack on Moscow. This would be the first battle that occurred between America and the USSR during the Cold War. This preemptive attack soon proved to be a disaster because of the Doomsday Device: A Russian weapon triggered by any sort of nuclear attack, and incapable of being disabled by humans. Once it is triggered, mutually assured destruction is guaranteed, making it the perfect deterrence machine.

It is clear that Dr. Strangelove is satirizing the state of the world, which is being grasped by the fear of nuclear war. The driving force behind this is the tension between capitalist and communist super powers. Dr. Strangelove offers a unique interpretation of how the fear of communism feeds the fear of nuclear destruction. The general that ignites the whole disaster spends a majority of his lines speaking about the communists coming to steal his “precious bodily fluids.” The fluoridation plot, supposedly a spectacular communist scheme to infiltrate the United States, is the motivation for the General to go rogue and ultimately destroy the world in a fiery holocaust. This is entirely absurd, and exactly the point that the film seeks to make; the nature of continuous assurance that the enemy will strike first will make a person go insane, to the point that conspiracy theories become viable explanations for horrible times.

Thus, Kubrick does not vilify the communists, he only uses the present fear and hatred of this ideology to destroy the world. The Americans fear a communist takeover full of brainwashing, and in a way the communists succeeded; the paranoia that became associated with both communism and nuclear war ultimately drove the Americans to a breaking point, and did lead to the end of the world. However, at the same time the film does not discharge its assumption that the communists are evil. It has to take a stance that the communists are the enemy in order to point out certain absurdities in the government, life in America, and nuclear war, but it never fully admits that the fear of communists is unjustified paranoia. In other words, Dr. Strangelove benefits from the fear surrounding communism in order to satirize the state of the world, but it never satirizes the fear itself, and even suggests that fear is the appropriate response to the situation.

The end of the film exemplifies this extraordinarily well. Dr. Strangelove explains to President Muffley that the only option to ensure survival is to continue civilization in a mineshaft for the next 100 years. Whilst the Americans are trying to figure out logistical problems, such as whether or not citizens will find the will to continue on in spite of envying the dead and how to prevent a communist sneak attack and a mineshaft gap, the Russian bureaucrat in the War Room sneaks away to take pictures of the War Board. With this single scene, the film suggests some justification for fearing the communists; they offer as much trouble and espionage that could lead to destruction of the world. “[It] is the Soviet system itself which is dangerous and likely to annihilate the planet.”[9] Even in the midst of the end, the communists are still curious to know American strategies. The film invites the audience to see the absurd extent that paranoia can affect people in even the most powerful positions, and the audience laughs at it. However, in the end, when justification is provided for the paranoia, that same paranoia gets inflicted on the audience itself. Then the most likely ending is revealed: the mass nuclear destruction of the Earth.

As stated, these films are rooted in tragedy. A part of this tragedy is that neither economic systems presented provides a satisfactory structure for humans to live by. Although capitalism is favored in the films, either explicitly or through foolery or the fearfulness that comes with communism, none of the films outright endorse capitalism. In fact, the picture of capitalism is brutal. The reason why critics hated The Firemen’s Ball, including US critics, is because they found it to be a disgusting, pessimistic view of humans[10]. The “disgusting human relations” is found inherently in the capitalist nature of certain scenes, such as the attendees that cannot hold back their selfishness and steal the gifts, or presenting the act of giving up the auction tickets as useless when the homeowner needs money more than anything else. Forman never praises this human nature, rather he presents it as real, no matter how uncomfortable that realization may be. Furthermore, capitalism in One, Two, Three does not end up benefiting MacNamara.  He has been working for Coca-Cola for over fourteen years, and in the hopes of pleasing his boss by turning his new son-in-law into a respectable capitalist, Otto is given the job MacNamara has been yearning for. After spending years dedicating his life to the company and working hard to please his boss, he is not rewarded for his hard work. While The Firemen’s Ball showcases the naïve nobility of communism, One, Two, Three showcases the cruel nature of capitalism. Dr. Strangelove performs the gross orgy that results from a clashing of ideologies, which is also formally shown in the many examples of phallic imagery, such as the opening scene with the dancing planes and the end with Slim Picken’s character riding the bomb down to Earth.

These films are, broadly, about the failure of humans and their economic support systems, and they specifically deal with real-world tragedies such as the building of the Berlin Wall (in which people died by trying to jump over the fencing[11]), and nuclear war, which is a tragedy beyond comprehension. Perhaps they would not seem so tragic if there was some sort of reward, such as the raising up of capitalism as the purest system available to humans, but none of the films offer this. They all take on extremely controversial topics that typically cause discomfort, and yet these satires deliver laughs in the face of horror.

What’s So Funny?

These comedies are funny for Aristotelian reasons. In Poetics, Aristotle argues that tragedy elicits fear and pity by illustrating man in his greatest form, and then showcasing his fall[12]. According to this criterion the discussed issues should form the films into tragedies: communism as the great ideology that is founded on the greatness in man, but ultimately fails because the greatness in man is no match for the selfishness of man; people were being killed by trying to escape into West Berlin, and these citizens were being subjected to a totalitarian government; and finally, the world was facing a real threat of nuclear war, whether it was from the United States or USSR. The humor in these films is grounded in the irony of the situations presented, and thus make for perfect satire. Wilder explains,

A man running down the street who falls down and gets up again, is funny. A man who falls and doesn’t get back up is not funny. His fall becomes a tragedy. The building of the wall was one of those tragic falls. Nobody wanted to laugh at the East-West comedy in Berlin, while there were people who, risking their lives, jumped out of windows to jump over the wall, who tried to swim through the sewers, got shot, and even died from a gunshot. But I couldn’t explain to the audience that I made One, Two, Three in different circumstances to those when the film was released[13].

It is precisely true that these characters do fall, but the reason why they do not elicit the same emotions as tragedy is because they do not fall very far. These characters are simultaneously high and low; they are elevated to great positions (particularly great positions of power), only to reveal their incompetence. Forman furthers this point when speaking specifically about the Czechs,

You know, to laugh at their own tragedy has been in this century the only way for such a little nation placed in such a dangerous spot in Europe to survive. So humor was always the source of a certain self-defense. If you don’t know how to laugh, the only solution is to commit suicide[14].

This seems like an accurate description of mental distress of the time period. Not only did the Czech people have to deal with the disasters in their countries, but the entire world was in a very tense place. Interestingly enough, Red Alert author Peter George ended up committing suicide because he could not face the threat of nuclear war and who would be the people in charge. If one cannot break down their fear and is just too close to reality with these topics, of course they could be driven to suicide[15].

However, George’s fears are exactly what make the films funny: the reality of it all. An aging, stubborn bureaucracy, the separation of East and West Berlin, and nuclear weapons killing everyone at the hands of foolish politicians and military men are certainly not situations destined for fantasy. There is a breakdown of the illusion of greatness to reveal that these systems and humans may not be so great after all, making for the perfect comedies for the time period.

Conclusion

The Firemen’s Ball; One, Two, Three; and Dr. Strangelove all offer commentary on mankind and its world. The tension between communism and capitalism is a great arena to discuss what kind of absurdities exist that infringe on man’s “natural” ability to be great. However, it would be naïve to stop the analysis there. Particularly with Eastern films, the West tended to interpret the films solely based on anti- or pro-communist grounds[16]. There are definite social implications of this statement that are beyond the scope of this essay, but it is worth noting that this type of analysis is a simplification of what is happening in these films. These films do not only have political stances on communism and capitalism, they are proclaiming a rejection to both systems until they submit to accepting capitalism. These three satires are complex social statements, which ultimately paint humankind in its natural state while the audience sits back, watches and laughs nervously.

[1] . Geoffrey Nowell-Smith Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s New York: Bloomsbury, 2013, 174

[2] Pelaz López, José Vidal, “Filming history: Billy wilder and the cold war” Comunicación y Sociedad: Revista De La Facultad De Comunicación 25  2012 (1): 113-36, 3

[3] Peter Hames, The Czechoslovak New Wave 2nd ed. New York; London: Wallflower 2005 120

[4] Ibid, 120

[5] López, Vidal, “Filming history” 11

[6] Ibid, 14

[7] Ibid, 14

[8] Ibid, 8

[9] Pierre Sorlin, “The cinema: American weapon for the cold war” Film History 10 1998 (3): 375, 380

[10] Peter Hames, The Czechoslovak New Wave 2nd ed. New York; London: Wallflower 2005 124.

[11] López, Vidal, “Filming history” 9

[12] Aristotle, “Poetics by Aristotle” The Internet Classics Archive | Poetics by Aristotle, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html

[13] Ibid, 9

[14] Hames, The Czechoslovak New Wave 107

[15] Dan Lindley, “What I learned since I stopped worrying and studied the movie: A teaching guide to stanley kubrick’s dr. Strangelove” PS: Political Science and Politics 34 2001 (3): 663-7, 666

[16] Hames, The Czechoslovak New Wave 126