September 5, 1916
directed by D.W. Griffith
Two entire societies, in distinct epochs, shown side by side. One in an American town 1916 AD, the other in Babylon 539 BC, the year the great city fell to Persia. The characters have generic names, like “the Dear One” and “the Mountain Girl.” Ancient scene and modern scene follow each other, and the editing accelerates as the movie progresses, until it is as if we experience them simultaneously. As the various plots develop, the motivations of these generic individuals shrink from us, leaving only the impression that they must obey a common logic, a horrible logic of accumulation and annihilation.
For 1916 so far was nothing but horror. In Europe, after two winters of stalemate, both sides exploded again in new offensives: Verdun, the Somme, and Brusilov. Intolerance traces this still unnameable, unaccountable horror back through history to ancient Babylon. Both stories, ancient and modern, are fractured again with two additional stories – the story of Christ, enemy of intolerance, and the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris 1572, the ultimate act of intolerance. But what is intolerance?
Tolerance is the Enlightenment idea that people of different religions should not kill each other. Tolerance condemns the violence between people of differing religions whose cultures are otherwise similar, and thus does not cover violence against a colonized, deported, or exterminated people. Intolerance is the great crime to liberal bourgeois society, because it utterly negates the right of the individual, but can only come into existence through the acknowledgment of the individual. The victim of intolerance is always seen as a full person, but his individual ideas that are so dangerous as to the invalidate the person’s right to existence.
In the modern story, what is not tolerated is the right of the worker to a fair wage and his enjoyment of social gathering. Our modern story is unambiguously progressive, depicting the class struggle between mill workers and Capital. David Wark Griffith remained a staunch Democrat in 1916 and basically made a propaganda film for his party in that year’s presidential election. The Democrats were the party of the South. They were resolutely anti-industrial, patriarchal, anti-black, anti-woman.
But this election would not be as easy for the Democrats. 1916 had many more women voters than 1912. Against Woodrow Wilson’s re-election bid, the Republicans put up Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who had spent the last six years outside the campaign world and appealed to Conservative and Progressive Republicans alike. The election was close, being finally decided by California, where suffrage had been won. Woodrow Wilson won a second term.
The activist women of Intolerance, who are fighting for inclusion in the public sphere of bourgeois society, are as much the villain of the modern story as the head capitalist himself. Women have allied with Capital, whose ugly representation, the mill boss, sees the fun the workers have with alcohol – their genuine social experience, their dancing – and joins in the temperance movement. Intolerance of youth itself. The class struggle climaxes in the brutal suppression of the striking workers and the individual calamities that follow from the disobedience. A mother has her baby taken from her. An innocent man is condemned to death for a murder he didn’t commit.
This story starts as the dominant narrative, forcing all three other plots into a supporting role, but as the movie develops, the modern story becomes too intricate to merit attention to each detail, and the stately Babylon story takes the greater role. There is not nearly as much plot in Babylon. There is only splendor and opulence. The Babylonian Courtyard is the greatest set the cinema has yet seen, dwarfing even the ancient Semitic film sets of Carthage in Cabiria. At the center of this enormous city on the Euphrates, the citizens swarm about, buying food, dancing, and worshiping Ishtar, the Babylonian Venus. This scene makes so much more sense than anything in the modern story, because in 2014, this is our true home. The modern world has become Babylon, and we sit behind our walls, indulging in pleasure and increase, waiting our doom. The Courtyard is the very center of imperial capital.
Intolerance was very popular upon its release in 1916, which was a very good year for progressives, but as 1917 began American Capital found that despite all it had spent in the Battle of the Somme, not to mention the entire generation killed or completely fucked up, the Allies had only won back 50 square miles of France. For the capital to be recouped, a total Allied victory was necessary. America would have to join the war. The causus belli of a Germany/Mexico alliance was easily established, the American public began to turn against the Germans, and war fever set in. The pacifist and the progressive cause were both lost. The movies turned to anti-german propaganda.
The film, reflecting its progressive socialist impulse, failed to reproduce the capital required to produce it. Griffith had pushed his idea of film as far as he could, and created an artistic masterpiece for the Progressive Democratic party, even securing the Presidential election. The war however, severed the Progressives in the United States as it had severed the socialists in Europe. Griffith eventually cut Intolerance into two separate films, abandoning the film’s crucial formal logic. The ruins of the enormous set remained at the lot, decaying over the next four years, until the set had sustained enough decay to be affordably dismantled.
The fortunes of the left were much different in the East. Everything in Russia was much worse. More casualties. More disaster. More famine. A more authoritarian government with a secret police. Tsar Nicholas assumed commander-in-chief role to rally his army, leaving Rasputin and the Tsarina in charge. In February the workers at Putilov in Petrograd went on strike, and in the next few days were joined by other workers, women, and teachers. They continued to protest and amass. There were few soldiers available to contain the riot, and those who were summoned for that task soon defected to the protest. The tsar was forced to abdicate and handed the crown to his brother, who declined. The government had fallen, and two competing bodies sprung up in its place.
The Petrograd Soviet was formed representing the workers, soldiers, and teachers, and wrestled partial control from the Provisional Government. Russia experienced eight months of liberal democracy, but the war continued on, along with famine and countless other sufferings. Moreover, the peasant population already lived in communes and had little understanding or respect for bourgeois civic institutions. The Bolshevik party agitated for full Soviet control of the state, and in October carried out a coup d’etat. Having won in the name of the Soviets, they consolidated power into one-party rule. They made peace with Germany, who ordered harsh terms of land and grain. Before 1918 was over, Germany lost the war, and the Allies could now support the White Army in its civil war against the Red Army.
Intolerance was smuggled into Petrograd in the midst of this civil war, and Lenin, upon seeing it, declared cinema the great modern revolutionary art. The Soviets studied Intolerance and began to develop its logic into one of their own. Griffith’s influence now towers above cinema on both sides of the world and is beyond any ideology or system of economic relations.
- Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon. Straight Arrow Books, 1975.
- Drew, William M. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Its Genesis and Vision. McFarland, 1986.
- The Griffith Project, Volume 9: Films Produced in 1916-1918. British Film Institute, 2005.
- Habermas, Jürgen. Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Polity, 1962.
- Hansen, Miriam. Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film. Harvard University Press, 1991.
- Schopenhauer, Arthur. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Second Edition. Frankfurt, 1844.