The Battle of Algiers

15/05/2024

The Battle of Algiers is, from a certain point of view, a structuralist masterpiece, even if in the process we must make secondary what is often assumed the most important of structuralism’s claims: that we shouldn’t think of our relationship with the world as cause and effectual but rather binary. Instead of seeing a causative link between things in the world and the naming of them in language, their meaning comes from difference. As Jonathan Culler says: “...social and cultural phenomena is based on two fundamental insights: first, that social and cultural phenomena are not simply material objects or events but objects or events with meaning, and hence signs; and second, that they do no have essences but are defined by a network of relations.” (Literary Theory) These insights were practised in linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure, anthropology by Claude Levi-Strauss, psychoanalysis by Jacques Lacan, literary theory by Jacques Derrida, philosophy by Michel Foucault, Marxist theory by Louis Althusser and cultural studies by Roland Barthes. 

   While this notion of the binary is very important, it is a couple of concepts by Louis Althusser that chiefly interest us: the distinction between the repressive and ideological state apparatuses, and the notion of interpellation. It will help us comprehend the cause-and-effect aspect of The Battle of Algiers. The repressive forms include prisons, police services, the army and the judiciary; ideological ones, the press, the church, the education system and any other institution that can prop up the state without using more forceful measures. Interpellation recognises how “...human individuals were to be understood not as the self-conscious sources of their social life, but rather as ‘bearers’ of a system of social relations which exist prior to and independent of their consciousness and activity.” (The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philsophers) If Rousseau famously proposed that we are born free but are everywhere in chains, Althusser would have insisted we were never born free and, structurally, are caught in differential systems that define us. 

           But rather than focusing on the pessimism such remarks may elicit, let us see in The Battle of Algiers a political optimism while also acknowledging structural ideas upon it. These ideas might help us distinguish the film from numerous tales of the oppressive in mainstream movies; of figures who overcome various adversities individually, or become martyrs — but again individually. Let’s call this the one man-changes-history film, and whether Mel Gibson helps along American independence and returns to his homestead in The Patriot, or finds himself on a gibbet at the end of Braveheart, the purpose is the same: to speak of men who shape history. It was indeed a Scot who helped perpetuate such ideas, with Thomas Carlyle saying: “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” (‘On Heroes, Hero- Worship, and the Heroic in History: Six Lectures’) 

        A more structurally inclined thinker would muse over not so much how great men have shaped history but how history has shaped great men. What does it mean to become a great man? Rather than seeing Napoleon, Churchill and Lincoln as important individuals whose strong wills, wonderful rhetoric and strategic skills made them powerful, one instead looks at the social forces, economic circumstances and technological shifts that allowed them to possess that power. This might not be exclusively a problem that structuralists were concerned with, but they were determined to undermine humanist preoccupations. “Structuralism was deeply anti-humanist...the structuralists declared that man is what he is made by structures beyond his conscious will or individual control.” (The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers) Or as Gilles Deleuze proposed: “structuralism is inseparable from a new materialism, a new atheism, a new anti-humanism....this is how we understand the imaginary character of man for Foucault or the ideological character of humanism for Althusser.” (‘How do we Recognize Structuralism?’) 

        It might seem a stretch to regard The Battle of Algiers as anti-humanist, or to claim it as atheist: the revolution was after all Islamic, and the film uses music to play up a very human pain. “The movement, led by the newly formed FLN, issued a leaflet stating that its aim was to restore a sovereign Algerian state. It advocated social democracy within an Islamic framework and equal citizenship.” (Encyclopedia Britannica) Ennio Morricone’s score acknowledges the humanly tragic on several occasions, and for both the Pieds Noirs (French Algerians) and the Algerians. While the music is tense and suspenseful during and after various cops are getting shot early on in the film, we might assume that director Guillo Pontecorvo is leaning humanistically on the side of the Algerians. The high-angled and lingering shots over dead bodies to funereal music appear at this stage to be the exclusive domain of the oppressed. But we should remember that those who have been killed thus far have been figures of the repressive state apparatus, while children and women are amongst those slaughtered when the French-Algerians set off a bomb in the casbah, in the Algerian district of the city. But later, when Algerians set bombs in various cafes and clubs around Algiers, in the wake of the explosions Pontecorvo uses Morricone’s funereal music again. The film might side with the Algerian cause but it isn’t oblivious to the human costs on both sides. 

      Yet we should note that structuralist anti-humanism shouldn’t be taken as a pejorative, or at least as a rejection of what we usually call humanity. The problem is more the assumptions we make about what makes someone human. Think of how frequently in film pain and suffering are usually the domain of those with whom the audience identifies, a useful way of generating the necessary outrage for a killing spree to take place, with our go-to Braveheart as good an example as any. When the dastardly English get slaughtered they don’t deserve any better and we might assume it isn’t only because they are soldiers (the Scots are soldiers too) but that they are villainous soldiers rather than heroic soldiers — and Braveheart isn’t going to be much concerned with their decapitation. If history is written by the winners, empathy is reserved for the good guys. When The Battle of Algiers was screened at the Pentagon in 2003, it indicated that Bush wished to understand the nature of the enemy, but his talk of evildoers was never going to let him comprehend the complexity of the Iraqis. The film’s screening “unleashed a small media storm, as journalists reacted with skepticism and scorn: was the Bush administration at such a loss in Iraq that it needed to draw lessons from a 40-year-old Italian movie?” (LA Review of Books). The problem was more that Bush couldn’t; that his well-versed assumptions about evil didn’t allow Bush and his administration to understand the structures that would examine, fundamentally, how a society and culture work. Getting rid of the terrible Saddam Hussein didn’t transform Iraqi society into a functioning democracy, and leaders more aware of the limitations of great man theories would know that a society is more than the force of a given individual. 

      The Battle of Algiers shows how a people is formed more by structural repression rather than by the presence of a heroic leader. An early shot gives us a topographic understanding of the second-class nature of Algerian citizenship before the revolution: the camera in long shot sweeps over the city and shows us the elegant and wide boulevards usually reserved for the Pieds Noir and towards the huddled housing up on the hill that we promptly notice is populated by Algerians. When Althusser (who was himself born in Algeria, from a French family) spoke of interpellation, he didn’t want people to accept their subjugated status; he wanted to point out that strong individualism wasn’t likely to make much difference. What mattered was collective action and often based, in revolutionary situations, on collective oppression. As Althusser put it in an interview: “It is always true that those who are at the top cannot govern anymore, and those who are at the bottom cannot continue to be governed like this anymore.” (Verso.Books.Com) It isn’t a powerful individual who changes reality but the intolerable nature of a given situation that demands it. Most films about historical change will acknowledge the deprivation that insists on change, but it is often as though the material circumstances filmically are simply there to generate a heroism we can root for rather than material conditions we need to understand. 

  If Gandhi, for example, is a very competent historical biopic it is partly because it comprehends the tension between those two places, and Braveheart a bit of a cartoon because it doesn’t. In The Battle of Algiers, after the subtitle telling us this is the casbah, Pontecorvo shows the streets. In voiceover we hear a message from the freedom fighter organisation the FLN, speaking of how Algeria must be decolonised. As we see images of the innumerable poor of all ages, any message promoted through the words we hear are contained and made vivid by the children crouched in the alleys, men mulling around presumably unemployed, and the ruinous state of the buildings. 

  Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) might be viewed as our main character. He is the chief figure we see in the opening sequence that will then flashback to a couple of years earlier, where we quite quickly see him punching out a Pied Noir who trips him up as Ali tries to escape from the police. But the film is just as often focusing elsewhere. It might be a useful rule of thumb when thinking of how structurally as opposed to individually focused a film happens to be: what percentage of the film’s running time is given over to the central character if there is one at all? The Battle of Algiers has scenes that might be seen as irrelevant digressions in another work -the marriage of the young couple; the alcoholic beaten and pushed down the steps by the children; the old man sitting on the pavement that the French Algerians start hounding from their balconies. 

       These scenes very much leave Ali La Pointe behind and he is even more peripheral in the second half of the film — where the French colonel (Jean Martin) comes to Algeria with a strategy for destroying the radical organization. He explains how the structure works with no more than three people in the FLN knowing anybody else, and thus minimising exposure: one member if forced under duress to give names will only be able to give two. The colonel explains how with the aid of torture and with an awareness of the structure, his paratroopers can work their way up that structure and destroy the organisation. As the colonel says, “terrorist groups are like tapeworms — they keep reviving unless you destroy the head.” Yet though the colonel is a brilliant military strategist and works out how the group functions, we might wonder if he is too beholden to great men notions; that he will systematically work his way up to the top and get rid of the threat. 

   Yet if Althusser is correct when he says that those at the bottom can no longer be governed like this, then using the full force of the repressive state apparatus isn’t likely to address the problem but instead exacerbate it. It is often only when the ideological state apparatus has failed that repressive forces are used. This makes sense for two reasons: firstly, the cost of imprisoning many millions and the cost of court cases would be prohibitive. Secondly, if you can convince people through education and the press their lives are fine, they will not be causing problems and will also be working for the benefit of the state. They will be hardworking, compliant citizens, knowing their place. However, if those citizens recognise the repressive state apparatus at work, there is a reasonable chance they will revolt. 

     Before the end of the film it looks like the French have won: all the key people in the FLN have been killed. However, the film jumps forward a couple of years and the people are on the streets. The film doesn’t explain why, and yet we might find this protest explicable in loosely structuralist, Althusserian terms, with the entire country now radicalised after the various injustices the film has shown. It is as though now everybody will have seen the full force of the repressive state apparatus, a little like Ali earlier in the film when he is imprisoned for petty theft. The film shows a man going to the guillotine, and the film cuts from his execution to the walls of the prison before cutting to and zooming in on Ali. A radical has been made, and we might wonder how many others in the prison who witnessed the killing will have become revolutionaries as well, and how many more became so after seeing the repressive tactics of the French paratroopers who, out of violent victory, generate a wider defeat.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

The Battle of Algiers

The Battle of Algiers is, from a certain point of view, a structuralist masterpiece, even if in the process we must make secondary what is often assumed the most important of structuralism's claims: that we shouldn't think of our relationship with the world as cause and effectual but rather binary. Instead of seeing a causative link between things in the world and the naming of them in language, their meaning comes from difference. As Jonathan Culler says: "...social and cultural phenomena is based on two fundamental insights: first, that social and cultural phenomena are not simply material objects or events but objects or events with meaning, and hence signs; and second, that they do no have essences but are defined by a network of relations." (Literary Theory) These insights were practised in linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure, anthropology by Claude Levi-Strauss, psychoanalysis by Jacques Lacan, literary theory by Jacques Derrida, philosophy by Michel Foucault, Marxist theory by Louis Althusser and cultural studies by Roland Barthes.

While this notion of the binary is very important, it is a couple of concepts by Louis Althusser that chiefly interest us: the distinction between the repressive and ideological state apparatuses, and the notion of interpellation. It will help us comprehend the cause-and-effect aspect of The Battle of Algiers. The repressive forms include prisons, police services, the army and the judiciary; ideological ones, the press, the church, the education system and any other institution that can prop up the state without using more forceful measures. Interpellation recognises how "...human individuals were to be understood not as the self-conscious sources of their social life, but rather as 'bearers' of a system of social relations which exist prior to and independent of their consciousness and activity." (The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philsophers) If Rousseau famously proposed that we are born free but are everywhere in chains, Althusser would have insisted we were never born free and, structurally, are caught in differential systems that define us.

But rather than focusing on the pessimism such remarks may elicit, let us see in The Battle of Algiers a political optimism while also acknowledging structural ideas upon it. These ideas might help us distinguish the film from numerous tales of the oppressive in mainstream movies; of figures who overcome various adversities individually, or become martyrs but again individually. Let's call this the one man-changes-history film, and whether Mel Gibson helps along American independence and returns to his homestead in The Patriot, or finds himself on a gibbet at the end of Braveheart, the purpose is the same: to speak of men who shape history. It was indeed a Scot who helped perpetuate such ideas, with Thomas Carlyle saying: "Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here." ('On Heroes, Hero- Worship, and the Heroic in History: Six Lectures')

A more structurally inclined thinker would muse over not so much how great men have shaped history but how history has shaped great men. What does it mean to become a great man? Rather than seeing Napoleon, Churchill and Lincoln as important individuals whose strong wills, wonderful rhetoric and strategic skills made them powerful, one instead looks at the social forces, economic circumstances and technological shifts that allowed them to possess that power. This might not be exclusively a problem that structuralists were concerned with, but they were determined to undermine humanist preoccupations. "Structuralism was deeply anti-humanist...the structuralists declared that man is what he is made by structures beyond his conscious will or individual control." (The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers) Or as Gilles Deleuze proposed: "structuralism is inseparable from a new materialism, a new atheism, a new anti-humanism....this is how we understand the imaginary character of man for Foucault or the ideological character of humanism for Althusser." ('How do we Recognize Structuralism?')

It might seem a stretch to regard The Battle of Algiers as anti-humanist, or to claim it as atheist: the revolution was after all Islamic, and the film uses music to play up a very human pain. "The movement, led by the newly formed FLN, issued a leaflet stating that its aim was to restore a sovereign Algerian state. It advocated social democracy within an Islamic framework and equal citizenship." (Encyclopedia Britannica) Ennio Morricone's score acknowledges the humanly tragic on several occasions, and for both the Pieds Noirs (French Algerians) and the Algerians. While the music is tense and suspenseful during and after various cops are getting shot early on in the film, we might assume that director Guillo Pontecorvo is leaning humanistically on the side of the Algerians. The high-angled and lingering shots over dead bodies to funereal music appear at this stage to be the exclusive domain of the oppressed. But we should remember that those who have been killed thus far have been figures of the repressive state apparatus, while children and women are amongst those slaughtered when the French-Algerians set off a bomb in the casbah, in the Algerian district of the city. But later, when Algerians set bombs in various cafes and clubs around Algiers, in the wake of the explosions Pontecorvo uses Morricone's funereal music again. The film might side with the Algerian cause but it isn't oblivious to the human costs on both sides.

Yet we should note that structuralist anti-humanism shouldn't be taken as a pejorative, or at least as a rejection of what we usually call humanity. The problem is more the assumptions we make about what makes someone human. Think of how frequently in film pain and suffering are usually the domain of those with whom the audience identifies, a useful way of generating the necessary outrage for a killing spree to take place, with our go-to Braveheart as good an example as any. When the dastardly English get slaughtered they don't deserve any better and we might assume it isn't only because they are soldiers (the Scots are soldiers too) but that they are villainous soldiers rather than heroic soldiers and Braveheart isn't going to be much concerned with their decapitation. If history is written by the winners, empathy is reserved for the good guys. When The Battle of Algiers was screened at the Pentagon in 2003, it indicated that Bush wished to understand the nature of the enemy, but his talk of evildoers was never going to let him comprehend the complexity of the Iraqis. The film's screening "unleashed a small media storm, as journalists reacted with skepticism and scorn: was the Bush administration at such a loss in Iraq that it needed to draw lessons from a 40-year-old Italian movie?" (LA Review of Books). The problem was more that Bush couldn't; that his well-versed assumptions about evil didn't allow Bush and his administration to understand the structures that would examine, fundamentally, how a society and culture work. Getting rid of the terrible Saddam Hussein didn't transform Iraqi society into a functioning democracy, and leaders more aware of the limitations of great man theories would know that a society is more than the force of a given individual.

The Battle of Algiers shows how a people is formed more by structural repression rather than by the presence of a heroic leader. An early shot gives us a topographic understanding of the second-class nature of Algerian citizenship before the revolution: the camera in long shot sweeps over the city and shows us the elegant and wide boulevards usually reserved for the Pieds Noir and towards the huddled housing up on the hill that we promptly notice is populated by Algerians. When Althusser (who was himself born in Algeria, from a French family) spoke of interpellation, he didn't want people to accept their subjugated status; he wanted to point out that strong individualism wasn't likely to make much difference. What mattered was collective action and often based, in revolutionary situations, on collective oppression. As Althusser put it in an interview: "It is always true that those who are at the top cannot govern anymore, and those who are at the bottom cannot continue to be governed like this anymore." (Verso.Books.Com) It isn't a powerful individual who changes reality but the intolerable nature of a given situation that demands it. Most films about historical change will acknowledge the deprivation that insists on change, but it is often as though the material circumstances filmically are simply there to generate a heroism we can root for rather than material conditions we need to understand.

If Gandhi, for example, is a very competent historical biopic it is partly because it comprehends the tension between those two places, and Braveheart a bit of a cartoon because it doesn't. In The Battle of Algiers, after the subtitle telling us this is the casbah, Pontecorvo shows the streets. In voiceover we hear a message from the freedom fighter organisation the FLN, speaking of how Algeria must be decolonised. As we see images of the innumerable poor of all ages, any message promoted through the words we hear are contained and made vivid by the children crouched in the alleys, men mulling around presumably unemployed, and the ruinous state of the buildings.

Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) might be viewed as our main character. He is the chief figure we see in the opening sequence that will then flashback to a couple of years earlier, where we quite quickly see him punching out a Pied Noir who trips him up as Ali tries to escape from the police. But the film is just as often focusing elsewhere. It might be a useful rule of thumb when thinking of how structurally as opposed to individually focused a film happens to be: what percentage of the film's running time is given over to the central character if there is one at all? The Battle of Algiers has scenes that might be seen as irrelevant digressions in another work -the marriage of the young couple; the alcoholic beaten and pushed down the steps by the children; the old man sitting on the pavement that the French Algerians start hounding from their balconies.

These scenes very much leave Ali La Pointe behind and he is even more peripheral in the second half of the film where the French colonel (Jean Martin) comes to Algeria with a strategy for destroying the radical organization. He explains how the structure works with no more than three people in the FLN knowing anybody else, and thus minimising exposure: one member if forced under duress to give names will only be able to give two. The colonel explains how with the aid of torture and with an awareness of the structure, his paratroopers can work their way up that structure and destroy the organisation. As the colonel says, "terrorist groups are like tapeworms they keep reviving unless you destroy the head." Yet though the colonel is a brilliant military strategist and works out how the group functions, we might wonder if he is too beholden to great men notions; that he will systematically work his way up to the top and get rid of the threat.

Yet if Althusser is correct when he says that those at the bottom can no longer be governed like this, then using the full force of the repressive state apparatus isn't likely to address the problem but instead exacerbate it. It is often only when the ideological state apparatus has failed that repressive forces are used. This makes sense for two reasons: firstly, the cost of imprisoning many millions and the cost of court cases would be prohibitive. Secondly, if you can convince people through education and the press their lives are fine, they will not be causing problems and will also be working for the benefit of the state. They will be hardworking, compliant citizens, knowing their place. However, if those citizens recognise the repressive state apparatus at work, there is a reasonable chance they will revolt.

Before the end of the film it looks like the French have won: all the key people in the FLN have been killed. However, the film jumps forward a couple of years and the people are on the streets. The film doesn't explain why, and yet we might find this protest explicable in loosely structuralist, Althusserian terms, with the entire country now radicalised after the various injustices the film has shown. It is as though now everybody will have seen the full force of the repressive state apparatus, a little like Ali earlier in the film when he is imprisoned for petty theft. The film shows a man going to the guillotine, and the film cuts from his execution to the walls of the prison before cutting to and zooming in on Ali. A radical has been made, and we might wonder how many others in the prison who witnessed the killing will have become revolutionaries as well, and how many more became so after seeing the repressive tactics of the French paratroopers who, out of violent victory, generate a wider defeat.


© Tony McKibbin