“The factory is a prison,” says a militant on the picket line in Elio Petri’s La Classe Operaia Va in Paradiso (The Working Class Goes to Heaven a film whose jarringly abrasive depiction of life in a factory reminds me a bit of Jonas Mekas’s harrowing presentation of life in another sort of prison, a military one—The Brig. While full of humor—and therefore not nearly as unrelenting in its assault on the spectator as The Brig—The Working Class Goes to Heaven, like the Mekas film, effectively uses a dissonant orchestration of jerky hand-held camera movements, aggressive close-ups, a constant barrage of noise, and a histrionic acting style (full of violent hand gestures, sudden head jerks, and abrasive voices whose habitual mode of speech is the shouted expletive) in order to give the spectator a gut-level feel of the brutalizing system —in this case, industrial capitalism—which, in a very real sense, imprisons the film’s protagonists.
And, in fact, Petri’s factory-prison and Mekas’s military-prison have much in common, for both impose their ironclad regimentation on human beings in the name of machine-like efficiency. And neither in the military nor in the factory are you allowed to question just where that machine-like efficiency leads. A machine, after all, doesn’t ask questions. And if in the process of becoming as “efficient” as a machine, you become a little less human, well, as drill sergeants and shop foremen would say, tough shit!
What is human nature anyway? Massa, the factory worker (colorfully portrayed by veteran actor Gian-Maria Volonte) who is the chief protagonist of The Working Class Goes to Heaven, gives a little discourse on human nature in the film’s first sequence. For him, man is thought of in crudely mechanical terms: “You put in a little raw material called food; various machines in the body go to work on it; and the final product that comes out the other end is ... shit! Man is a perfect little shit-factory. Pity there’s no market for the stuff; we could all be capitalists.”
That’s a cynical, dehumanizing attiude, to be sure; but, as the film brings home to us constantly, working conditions in a factory are overwhelmingly dehumanizing. And, as Petri emphasizes, the machine patterns of factory life not only impose themselves on the worker physically—buffeting him relentlessly in the factory’s frenetic rhythms and cadences of movement and noise—but also may impose themselves on him conceptually—channeling the worker’s consciousness into very linear, mechanical models of thought which limit his ability to understand and transform his situation.
In many ways The Working Class Goes to Heaven is an extended analysis and dramatization of a situation which was only sketched, however pointedly and insightfully, by Godard in the assembly-line sequence of the Dziga Vertov Group’s British Sounds. Exploring, like Godard, the effect of factory working conditions (particularly the constant barrage of machine noise) on the consciousness of the worker, Petri has found a way to demonstrate dramatically from the standpoint of the individual worker what Godard suggested intellectually—through a provocative juxtaposition of various elements on the sound track. Already assailed by more than enough noise on the factory floor, the worker may simply tune out or even resent any attempt to raise his political consciousness—particularly when, as in The Working Class Goes to Heaven, the militants’ agitation (with bullhorns in front of the factory gates) may very well sound to the beleaguered worker like just more abrasive noise. In short, the alienation of the worker on the job is so pervasive that it effectively impedes the development of the Marxian political consciousness that would enable him to understand and to start changing his situation.
Bombarded with noise on all sides, the worker’s resentment may even be exacerbated by the bitter recognition that the militants are right in pointing out the unnatural bleakness of a workday routine which begins before sunrise, ends after sunset, and, day after day (at least in the Northern Italian winter), imprisons the worker in a sunless world where, as Petri emphasizes, the rhythms of nature are overwhelmed by the rhythms of the ma־ chine. Moreover, as Petri subtly points out, management—adding their paternalist verbiage to the barrage of noise—actively encourages the workers identification with his machine. As Petri’s workers enter the shop each day, a taped public-address message wishes them buon giorno and, in a little peptalk, encourages them to treat their machines with “tender loving care,” reminding them that the key to “a good productive workday”—and to the piecework bonuses that go with increased output—lies in each worker’s intimate relation to his machine.
Massa may be bitter about his workday routine, but he has taken on some of the qualities of a machine and is a super-productive worker. He boasts that his name heads the factory list each month for total output; he gloats over the extra money he earns on the piecework system. Contemptuous of the other workers who cannot keep up with his productivity, Massa even lets himself be used by the shop supervisors to set extremely high, frenetic rates of output which are then imposed on everyone as “shop standards.” Although he is slightly ill at ease about doing this, Massa obviously can’t resist the opportunity to show off and lord it over his fellow workers—especially since, as a reward, he extracts from the overseers tacit approval to smoke a cigarette in spite of the strict “No Smoking” rules.
Asked to break in a couple of new workers, Massa explains that the secret of his productivity is concentration. “You gotta pick out something that’ll hold your concentration. Me, I concentrate on Adalgisa’s ass over there,” he says, pointing to a factory errand girl. Thinking of that ass and what he’d like to do with it, he explains, enables him to work up just the right rhythm with his machine, so that once this basic rhythm is established—”a piece ... an ass ... a piece ... an ass”—he can gradually increase the pace to turn out the maximum number of pieces.
It is through this crude male-chauvinist sexual imagery that Petri introduces the film’s underlying theme—that sexuality is the characterological ground that will tell us the most significant information about how and to what extent the machine patterns of the factory workday permeate every aspect of the worker’s life. Using this scene’s obviously sexual associations of the thrusting motions of the machine, Petri develops throughout the film the way even the worker’s ideas of sex are geared to the productivity paradigm of his relation to his machine.
Sex, like everything else for the worker, is thought of in terms of output. Quantity is emphasized. Massa is always bragging emptily about how many times a night he can do it, with no concern for the quality of experience shared by two persons. (After subjecting a young virgin from the factory to a joyless quickie in the front seat of his car, Massa insensitively boasts how she ought to be grateful to be “broken in” by someone as good as he is; and he likens his “performance” to that of his car—a remark which Petri has made ironically appropriate by staging the scene in the cramped quarters of the front seat of Massa’s car so that the girl’s initiation into sex seems to be accomplished as much by the gearshift lever as by anything else.)
At first glance Petri’s emphasis on sexuality in The Working Class Goes to Heaven might seem a direct extension of his treatment of sexuality in his preceding film, Investigaton of a Citizen Above Suspicion; but a closer look reveals, I think, some striking differences. As I have argued in Chapter 13, Petri’s Investigation seems to me to share with several other recent films an oversimplifled view in which homosexuality—or latent, unacknowledged homosexual tendencies—are suggested as the root cause of fascism. In any case, the methodology of Petri’s Investigation is the familiar one of examining an individual’s behavior in search of clues that will suggest the underlying psychological causes (invariably childhood traumas) of that behavior.
Surprisingly, however, in The Working Class Goes to Heaven Petri boldly changes direction: for once the “present factors” of neurosis are not glossed over as merely superficial symptoms of an older, “deeper,” unresolved Oedipal complex. For once the methodology is not infinitely retroactive; and instead of invoking a rather crude psychosexual determination, Petri in this film explores the way in which even the supposedly deep-seated character structures of sexuality are not necessarily “fixed” once and for all in earliest childhood, as most Freudians would maintain, but may on the contrary be constantly in process of formation even well into maturity and perhaps all through one’s life. And, significantly, what Petri concentrates on in The Working Class Goes to Heaven are the relations between sexuality and the machine patterns imposed on the life of the mature adult factory worker in industrial capitalism.
This approach to the relations between sex and politics is long overdue;40 and what is especially thought-provoking in Petri’s film is his thorough examination of the concrete, tangible effects of the factory work experience on the character structure of the individual worker. If the worker seems a little neurotic, Petri is clearly saying, no need to go back to his childhood relations with mama and papa; just go take a good look at your nearest factory. For a factory worker in his middle or late thirties like Massa, that work experience, day after day, year after year, all his adult life, is bound to leave its mark on his character.
And, sure enough, Massa has quite a few problems. His home life is unstable and obviously less than wholly satisfying. Separated from his wife (who has custody of their young son, and who is now living with one of Massa’s coworkers), Massa is currently carrying on a listless affair with Lidia, a divorced hairdresser with a young son (about the same age as Massa’s own son) ; they live with Massa in his apartment.
This particular family arrangement serves to point out the way industrial capitalism tends to reduce people, even in their most intimate relations to one another—such as marriage and parenthood—to interchangeable parts in the big social machine. Moreover, this family arrangement has certain financial ramifications. While contributing to the financial support of his own son (and Massa seems just a little resentful about handing over money to his wife’s new lover), Massa also finds himself having to support Lidia’s son. When asked why Lidia’s ex-husband doesn’t pay to support his own kid, Massa can only reply—with a mixture of scorn and resignation—that the guy is a clerk and therefore doesn’t make enough to support a kid. Thus Massa’s productivity is a vicious circle: as a particularly fast and efficient worker, Massa earns more money than most men; but precisely because he makes so much and the wages of so many others are barely above subsistence level, he finds himself having to assume more financial responsibilities than would normally be his.
Finally, Massa’s productivity causes him trouble in still another way. His fellow workers, envious of his high output and resentful of his collusion with the overseers in the speed-up, begin to heckle and harass Massa in the factory. When this happens, Massa’s ternper really boils over, and contemptuously shouting that he’ll show them what “a real Stakhanovite” can do, he furiously pushes himself to work faster than ever. Sputtering with rage, Massa quickens his already frenetic work pace—grabbing each piece with his fingers well before it has stopped turning in order to move on to the next piece a few seconds faster. Suddenly, however, in his anger, Massa loses concentration for an instant, loses the rhythm, and, missing his timing by a split-second . . . loses a finger in the moving parts of the machine.
With this accident Massa’s life undergoes a profound change. The loss of most of one finger itself is not disabling: he’ll be able to go back to work after a brief layoff for the hand to heal. But during this enforced respite, Massa has time to think. Suddenly removed from the relentless rhythms and exhausting pace of the factory workday, Massa can pass his time in a more relaxed but also disoriented way—paying a visit to his son to show off the now four-fingered hand, and also visiting a grizzled old ex-worker, Militina, who is living out his old age in a mental institution.
This latter experience, however, proves most disquieting to Massa. For one thing, he recognizes in himself some of the same behavior patterns—a compulsive ordering of the silverware whenever he sits down to table—which Militina, probably echoing some psychologist’s report on his own case, offers as the first hint he had that he was going crazy. (Militina also makes the excellent point, however, when asked just when he actually went crazy, that “It’s others who decide that.” )
Equally disturbing to Massa, however, is the disorienting ambience of the mental institution (which Petri has accentuated by staging this scene in a fenced-in compound that even seems to have a wire-mesh roof ). In fact, so disorienting is this encounter with Militina that in the course of their conversation their roles somehow get reversed, with the result that Massa, who came in blustering with self-confidence to cheer up old Militina by bringing him a book he had requested (Quotations of Chairman Mao) and to give him news of the rising sentiment for a strike at the factory, ends up listening with awe to the supposedly crazy Militina give a very forceful and articulate critique of the workers’ petty, opportunistic strike plans and point out vividly the need to overthrow the entire capitalist system. Militina’s spirited monologue includes his recounting that what ultimately got him fired from the factory and put in a mental institution was stepping out of the assembly line one day, grabbing a passing boss by the neck, and shouting “For God’s sake tell me what product I’m working on or I’ll strangle you!” Massa is so confused that he almost forgets that it’s he, and not Militina, who is supposed to leave the mental institution when the visit is over. (And to add to his surprise and confusion, Militina’s parting request to him is simply “Next time, bring guns!”
In one way or another, the visit to Militina gets to Massa, for when he returns to the factory to resume work (and is greeted by an unctuous supervisor who welcomes back “such a productive worker”), Massa inexplicably takes his own sweet time, singing while he works, apparently not giving a damn any more about productivity. When asked by one of the time-study overseers if he can’t work fast any more because of the missing finger, Massa contemptuously demonstrates that he can work as fast as ever, but bursting into anger he declares that he no longer sees any sense in busting his gut to fill the pockets of the bosses. This outburst— along with his new snail’s pace—quickly gets Massa in trouble; and he is ordered to report for an interview with the factory psychologist, who asks him what a certain obviously phallic-shaped figure suggests to him.
With a vague awareness of what he’s getting into, Massa acknowledges that it reminds him of a “cock,” but then to cover his tracks he warns the psychologist not to think he’s having any troubles with his sex life. “Any rumors you might have heard about me are false,” he declares, not realizing he is giving himself away as he goes on to explain that if he can’t make it with Lidia it’s simply because she’s such a bitch, and that, in any case, he can do it as many times a night as ever with other women.
This brief interview with the plant psychologist is a nice touch —revealing as it does both the facile application of psychoanalytic dogma (the rote ferreting out of Freudian symbolism) and the fact that a worker’s psychological problems only get attention when they begin to interfere with his output on the job and thereby endanger the boss’s profit margin. Moreover, it’s interesting that Massa, who is now starting to see the absurdity of his old compulsive productivity as a worker, is unable to see that his attitude toward sex shares that same obsessive concern for output —and this insight into Massa’s problems is not likely to be recognized by the plant psychologist, whose job is to reintegrate the problem worker back into the productivity pattern and who therefore will simply not even consider the possibility that this obsession with productivity is a large part of the problem itself.
Meanwhile, the workers have called a general meeting to hear various proposals for a strike. The large Communist union, attempting to take advantage of—and at the same time head off— the rising momentum stirred up by the Maoists who are agitating each morning at the factory gates, has formed a united front with the two small noncommunist unions who are calling for an increase in the incentive pay rate on piecework. A more militant stand is taken by the small group of workers aligned with the Maoist stu־ dents: this faction calls for an end to the piecework system. Massa, arriving a few minutes late at the meeting, impulsively speaks out in favor of the more militant position, calling for abolition of piecework in spite of the bonuses he himself reaps by his extraordinary productivity. Dramatically waving his now four-fingered hand in the air, he shouts that it isn’t worth it, that the system makes everybody a victim!
Despite the impressiveness of Massa’s sudden turnabout, the vote is overwhelmingly in favor of the reformist proposal of the union leaders; and the workers again opt for the more moderate, union-sponsored proposal of a limited strike (two hours per day) instead of the total shutdown called for by the Maoists. Massa’s disgust and disappointment at the outcome of the meeting, how־ ever, are then somewhat compensated for by his taking quick advantage of his newfound popularity—by seducing the factory virgin in the car-seat encounter referred to earlier.
As the strike begins, Massa plays a leading role in physically preventing the white-collar workers from entering the factory. First he hauls a frightened time-study overseer out of the employees’ bus and extracts from him a hasty pledge to honor the picket line. Then Massa leaps on the hood of the shop supervisor’s car to prevent him from entering the parking lot—an act which touches off a melee as the riot cops, who have obviously been on hand all along though hidden from view, charge the striking workers with clubs flailing. The strikers are forced to flee; Massa offers his apartment as a refuge for the Maoists. This gets him in trouble, however, with Lidia, who resents finding the apartment filled with bearded longhairs, fears that they’ll steal her trinkets, and gen־ erally disapproves of their politics. Shouting “I’ll never be a Com־ munist,” she indignantly exclaims, “I want nice things and I’m willing to work for them. I want a fur and I’ll get one because I deserve one.” Taking the TV set and her son with her, she storms out, while Massa, trying to cajole her into staying, promises “I’ll get you a fur.” The Maoists, fearing that Lidia’s wrath might prompt her to reveal their whereabouts to the police, quickly leave —sententiously citing “revolutionary caution.”
Back at the picket line the next day, the strikers are told that management wants to negotiate. However, when Massa tries to pass through the factory gates with his fellow workers to attend the negotiating session, he is prevented from entering and is handed a notice of dismissal for his role in the previous day’s riot. Confused and frustrated, Massa runs along the fence that surrounds the factory, trying to find an unguarded spot where he might climb over to join his comrades. Petri expressly emphasizes Massa’s sense of panic at this sudden disorienting of his life by having the camera truck giddily apace with Massa as he runs along the fence. Massa gets small consolation from a comrade who yells to him from inside the gate that his immediate reinstatement has been added to the workers’ demands—adding, however, that “the negotiations are likely to be long and complicated: you’ll just have to be patient.”
Disconsolate at being cut off from “his” world, Massa passes seemingly endless days in this limbo state. The negotiations drag on. Earlier, when laid up with the hand injury, Massa hadn’t minded having the time to reflect on his situation as a worker; but his layoff then was only temporary. He knew he would soon go back to work, even if less dedicated to productivity. Now, however, faced with the prospect of never being able to return to his familiar place, Massa experiences tremendous anxiety. After all, it’s the only job he knows. Moreover, separated from his wife and son—and now deserted by his mistress (and her son)—Massa fears that his whole world is falling apart. And to top it off, there’s his nagging awareness that his sex life wasn’t really that good—and now he’s even got to put up with the psychologist’s transparent attempts to read a castration complex into his loss of the finger.
Desperately seeking reassurance and help, Massa even finds himself rebuffed by the Maoist students. Carrying on their struggle on several fronts simultaneously, in the local high schools as well as in the factories, the Maoists bluntly tell Massa that his case doesn’t interest them “at a personal level, only at a class level”— pointing out that their own personal careers and health are being sacrificed to the cause.
Thoroughly confused and demoralized, Massa visits Militina once again at the mental institution. Now fearing for his own sanity, Massa listens numbly as Militina recounts a dream of knocking down the wall to Paradise. “Wherever there’s a wall,” shouts Militina, “knock it down!” Still in a funk, Massa leaves, but not before handing to Militina a big red package looking suspiciously like guns.
Back in Massa’s apartment we come to the real crisis, the central moment of the film—the individual worker, isolated and powerless, reduced to stasis and despair. The unshaven, abject Massa morosely takes stock of what little remains of the threads of his life: innumerable knick-knacks, four alarm clocks, “magic” candies by Ronson (never used ), a “loving couple” vase, a few worthless stock shares tucked away in a basement closet, and a huge inflatable Donald Duck belonging to Lidia’s son. Suddenly overwhelmed by the absurdity of this existence geared to mindless accumulation, Massa grabs Donald Duck and tries to wring his neck—only causing the duck to emit a screeching sound. Finally, in a fit of fury, Massa presses his burning cigarette into Donald Duck’s body, causing Donald slowly to deflate. (At which point the San Francisco Festival audience broke into loud applause.)
His frustration now spent, Massa wearily slumps down on the couch, and, without bothering to undress, pulls a blanket over himself and falls into a fitful sleep, only to be awakened shortly thereafter by Lidia’s unexpected return. Petri moves the narrative swiftly at this point, signaling the couple’s reconciliation simply by cutting from Lidia’s unexpected arrival (with the abject Massa asleep on the couch) to a shot of the two of them being awakened in their double bed, an indeterminable amount of time later, by the buzzing of the doorbell.
This time it’s the jubilant union delegates, who tell the dazed Massa that the strike is settled, that he’s been reinstated, and that the workers have won “a great victory.” “It’s the first time in our region that a worker fired for political activities has been reinstated.” The irony of this is beautiful. All through the film, we, along with Massa, have gradually achieved a gut-level awareness of just how dehumanizing life in a factory really is; and now the “great victory” of the reformist unions merely allows a worker who was fired for rebelling against the intolerable system to go back to work under that same intolerable system . . . and be thankful for the chance. “And what’s more,” the union men add, “we won the pay increases on piecework.”
So the next day, life at the factory returns to normal. Once again the workers, Massa among them, file through the factory gates while Maoist militants with bullhorns try to stir them up: “The sun isn’t even up yet and you’re going into the factory. When you come out it will be night. You won’t see the sun today.”
But the film doesn’t quite end yet. In a brief concluding sequence we see Massa back at work. Only now, instead of turning out pieces on his own machine, he’s at work on the assembly line. As always, there’s a lot of machine noise, but Massa manages to shout loud enough to communicate with the man next to him, telling him about a dream he had the previous night. As Massa recounts the dream, the man next to him repeats the story, in turn, to the next man down the line, and so on. Massa’s dream, very similar to the one Militina recounted to Massa earlier, is about breaking down the wall to Paradise.
When they hear it was a dream about Paradise, the workers each ask, “How about me, was I there too?” And the word gets passed on that all of them were together in Paradise. Another question gets passed back up the line to Massa: “What were we doing?” But before we get a chance to hear the answer the camera suddenly picks up a worker pushing a cart and, in a panning movement, follows him as he goes down the assembly line. At the end of the line he swings the cart into place, adjusting it to pick up the finished product as it rolls off the assembly line.
But just as he gets ready for the pick-up, the film ends : the shot freezes. We never see the finished product. It remains a mystery, although a huge finger painted on the wall points down ominously and insistently to the spot where the end product of the worker’s labor should be.
Having some of the qualities of a dream itself, this conclusion seems to suggest that even workers’ dreams are likely to be linear, mechanical models wherein all it would take to achieve a workers’ paradise would be—as Militina in his younger days had demanded—knowledge of what product they were working on. Unfortunately, as old Militina now realizes, it isn’t that easy: the task of achieving a workers’ paradise requires, among other things, guns . . . and the willingness to knock down walls.
But the walls that present the biggest obstacles, as Petri’s film provocatively emphasizes, may be the walls imposed on the workers’ minds—barriers erected by an industrial capitalist system which insidiously perpetuates the vulnerability of the exploited worker by imprinting its machine patterns on even the deepest level of his character.