Jonah After the Year 2000: How to Live and Love, Then and Now

By Joanne Barkan

jonah-who-will-be-25-the-year-2000-alain-tanner.jpgJonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, 1976

Alain Tanner's 1976 film Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 qualified as an instant classic among my cohorts – American leftists of the Sixties generation. Ask a few if they saw the film years ago, and you'll probably get reactions like the ones I recently got:

"Sure, I loved it!" – Marshall Berman

"I sure have seen it. Three times." – Jim Sleeper

"Not only did I see it, maybe three times, but I adored it so much I wrote about it at length for Film Quarterly... " – Todd Gitlin

Jonah is a low-budget, French-language film, set in Geneva with a screenplay by Tanner, a Swiss director influenced by British and French avant-garde cinema, and British essayist-novelist John Berger. These are not exactly ingredients for a box-office bonanza in the United States, but Jonah got some play, garnered rave reviews from the New Yorker's Pauline Kael and other high-powered critics, and won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Screenplay of 1976.

To someone hearing about the film for the first time, Jonah's subject might sound done-to-death: the Sixties generation a decade later, trying to live decently and hold onto ideals. A dozen other U.S. and European films have done it. The best-known American versions – John Sayles's Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980) and Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill (1983) – use the most common format: a group of friends from college meets a decade or so later for a weekend reunion. The setting is the house of one of them, and the activity is soul-searching about career, love, sex, politics, and lapsed values. There's a little bed-hopping, a lot of tears, and, finally, fond farewells. (Sayles once wryly pinpointed the main difference between his film and The Big Chill: Kasdan's characters are more upwardly mobile.)

Jonah was-and still is-something else, an altogether different cinematic genre. It opens conventionally enough: Max, a main character, buys a pack of Gauloises in a tobacconist's shop and comments on rising prices. Cut to a tracking shot of an imposing statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Geneva's most famous citizen and Jonah's intellectual escort. As the camera moves past the statue, we hear an off-camera voice quoting Rousseau:

“All our wisdom consists of servile prejudices; all our customs are nothing but enslavement, constraint, and coercion. Civilised man is born, lives, and dies in slavery; at birth he is sewn into swaddling clothes; at his death he is nailed into a coffin. As long as he retains human form, he is enchained by our institutions...”

Some 110 minutes later comes the second-to-last scene of the film-another shot of Rousseau's statue with another voice-over quotation:

“... needs change according to men's situations. There is truly a difference between the man of nature living in a state of nature and the man of nature living in society. Emile is not a primitive to be consigned to the wilderness. He is a primitive made for living in the city.”

The two quotations set up the psycho-political guideposts of Jonah: on the one hand, an implacable condemnation of human society as it is; on the other, a decision to act as if the game's not up, as if the future could be better, as if a new generation might do better (hence the reference to Rousseau's Emile or On Education). Between the two shots of the statue, we watch a succession of self-contained episodes in the lives of eight characters, all of them looking for ways to avoid constraints and coercion; all of them completely engaging. Tanner described them in the preface to the published screenplay (English translation, North Atlantic Books, 1983):

“We have nicknamed our characters the "little prophets," first because their prophecies are little, and second because they themselves are not conscious of being prophets in the traditional sense of the term. They never announce their prophecies, which only exist for them at the individual and existential level...The danger of the great prophecies is megalomania and the absence of scruples...”

The political musings in Jonah are as diverse as the thoughts of the characters. No one has an integrated theory, an ideology, or certitude; yet no one but Max even feigns cynicism, and not even Max withdraws completely. Political observations crop up unsystematically – during an explanation of Tantric sex or an argument about an alternative school or a decision to take a job; while making an onion tart, posing for a mural painting, or naming a baby; in a snippet of newsreel footage or a voice-over quotation. They include ingenious riffs on time, dialectics, prophesy, revolution, and history. Take, for example, the extraordinary sausage scene which, I'd wager, no one who's seen Jonah ever forgets:

Marco is the chubby, tousled-haired history teacher with the impish smile. He walks into his first class at Geneva High School, heaves a suitcase onto his desk, and pulls out a metronome and an eight-foot-long blood sausage. Peering through heavy black-framed glasses and brandishing a meat cleaver, he tells the students, "Never forget that my father is a butcher and that my mother sings light opera very well." He asks a student to chop the sausage into segments to the rhythm of the metronome. He starts his lecture:

jonah-who-will-be-25-the-year-2000-alain-tanner-2.jpgJonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, 1976

“So these are the pieces of history. What should we call them? Hours? Decades? Centuries? It's all the same, and it never stops. The sausage is eaten with mashed potatoes. Is time a sausage? Darwin thought so, even though the stuffing changed from one end of the sausage to the other. Marx thought that some day everyone would stop eating sausage. Einstein and Max Planck tore the skin off the sausage which, from then on, lost its shape...”

In another scene, Madeleine cleverly sums up for Max the difference between her Tantric practice and his pessimistic utilitarianism, a product, she claims, of his Protestant background: "You transform your religion into morality – and me, I destroy morality through religion." Another scene explains the title of the film. Seven of the main characters are having dinner together when Mathilde announces that she and Mathieu are going to have another child. Everyone suggests a name. Mathieu likes Emile "because of Jean-Jacques." Marcel proposes Jonah: "He fell from the ship, from the beautiful ship of fools we navigate on." Jonah strikes everyone as the right name. As Marco puts it (actually, he sings it), "The whale of history will spit out Jonah who will be twenty-five in the year 2000. That's the time left for us to help him get off the shit-pile."

For fans in 1976, Jonah's appeal derived much less from an "it's-about-us" identification and much more from the intelligence and wit of its politics, the charm of its characters, and its inventive non-linear structure. In an interview in Cahiers du cinema (no. 273, Jan-Feb. 1977, reprinted in English in the North Atlantic volume), Tanner explained that "the starting point of the film ... was the definitive ... choice of eight actors." (All but one – France's wonderful Miou-Miou – were unknown to American audiences.) With photos of these actors as a catalyst, Tanner and Berger developed characters and wrote the screenplay.

Here's how the film is put together, starting with the main characters:

Max: disillusioned writer and ex-New Left cadre who works as a proof-reader at a left newspaper and is hooked on roulette as an escape from himself.

Madeleine: devotee of Tantric sexual practice who is working as a bank secretary until she can finance another trip to India.

Marguerite: no-nonsense owner (along with her husband) of an organic truck-farm which she's determined to keep afloat.

Marcel: Marguerite's husband who finds photographing and drawing animals more interesting than conversing with humans.

Marco: high-school history teacher whose ingenious teaching methods and left politics get him into trouble.

Marie: French "border-worker" (she's not allowed to spend nights in Switzerland) who undercharges low-income seniors at the Geneva supermarket where she works.

Mathieu: unemployed typographer and union cadre who believes in the transformative power of creative, enlightened education.

Mathilde: Mathieu's wife, an assembly-line worker, who gives birth to Jonah (their fourth child) toward the end of the film.

Plot fragments link the characters together: Max meets Madeleine, who gives him documents about a bank scheme to buy up farm land just outside Geneva; Max warns Marcel and Marguerite that their farm is targeted; Marguerite hires Mathieu as a farm hand; Mathieu and Mathilde move their family into an apartment on the ground floor of the farmhouse; Marco lives near the farm and occasionally drops by; Marco meets Marie when she deliberately undercharges him at the supermarket.

jonah-who-will-be-25-the-year-2000-alain-tanner-3.jpgJonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, 1976

Why eight names starting with “Ma”? To reveal the characters' fabulous (of a fable) status, according to Tanner (Gitlin, Film Quarterly, Spring 1977).

Most narrative films are a succession of scenes in which one or more characters appear, but movie directors usually try to mask this episodic quality, aiming for the illusion of a seamless narrative flow. Tanner heightens the episodic. His scenes are like a string of little theater pieces with no transitions between them: one ends, the next begins. They jump from one character or combination of characters to another. By the end of the film, each main character has crossed paths with the others at least once, but only some of their individual storylines merge. All eight characters appear together only once.

The film's structure has a purpose, and Tanner, of course, had a theory. As he explained in Cahiers:

“I have always tried to reject realistic writing and reading [of films]. It's true by contrast that I call on... a feeling of the real, for example, recognisable characters. But these elements only appear within the strict limits assigned to them-in the guise of reference points for the audience. They are precisely circumscribed within the little "pieces" of the film, inside the scenes, but they never operate at the level of total structure ... .To disengage each time the fiction gets into gear permits the spectator to catch the ball on the first bounce and prohibits him from burying himself in his semi-conscious state. It gives him back his place and establishes the dialogue.”

To keep the viewer from being passively sucked into the story, Tanner relies on the sequence shot: a relatively long, uninterrupted camera shot that is not edited (that is, not cut and spliced together with pieces of other shots). Since the time of D.W. Griffith, filmmakers who've wanted to create the illusion of seeing with the human eye (rapid, flexible movement; constant shifts in focus) have used editing techniques. But in Jonah, as Tanner explained,

“Each scene is constituted solely from one shot, and the minimal cutting only intervenes in the case of a few intercut close-ups... absolute technical necessity, or deficiencies of the actors vis-à-vis the text... [The sequence shot] fits the epic structure (in the Brechtian sense) of the film, a sequence of scenes closed in on themselves in order the better to reply to each other... The unity of the sequence shot makes it easier to detach the links of the chain.”

The score by Jean-Marie Sénia also distances the viewer from what is happening on screen. No waves of orchestral music or familiar songs manipulate the audience's emotional responses. The sparse percussive scoring – a single chord, a few bars of melody, a character breaking into song-pull the viewer out of the narrative. Tanner achieves the same effect by abruptly switching from color to black and white for five or ten seconds whenever a character slips into a reverie. As Mathilde works under the grim stare of the assembly-line foreman, a black-and-white shot shows him lying on a table, completely relaxed as she massages his back. Madeleine says to Max, "Have a dream and tell it to me." He closes his eyes and sees black-and-white newsreel footage of street fighting in Paris in May 1968. The sequence shots of Rousseau's statue are in black and white.

Tanner uses a black-and-white shot as the coda to a key scene – the only scene in which all eight characters meet: the start of the mural. Singly or in pairs, they enter the farmhouse yard which is bounded by a tall stone wall. The children stand Max up against the wall so they can trace his outline in chalk. He poses with his arms completely outstretched. (Madeleine quips, "It's the prophet crucified. The prophet of '68.") Mathieu imagines a completed mural which we see as a black-and-white camera shot: full-scale portraits of the eight main characters painted on the wall in a childlike style. We see the completed mural just once more, this time in colour. It's the final shot of the film, captioned "A Day in 1980": a five-year-old boy in red overalls is drawing on the mural of the eight little prophets. It's Jonah.

The film has an open-ended narrative. Presumably Mathieu and Mathilde's family is still living on the farm in 1980; it hasn't been sold to developers. But the viewer can't say for sure what the adult characters are doing by then. No cinematic convention (passionate kiss + swelling music = they live happily ever after) tells us what to assume.

It's not surprising that Jonah's no-certitudes brand of politics engaged leftists who had no certitudes in 1976. The film was convincingly exploratory, even future-oriented, because- unlike the later Return of the Secaucus Seven and The Big Chill – it wasn't about the disappointments of a group of Sixties veterans. Aside from Max and perhaps Mathieu, we don't know what the characters in Jonah were doing a decade earlier. When Cahiers asked Tanner about the relationship of Jonah to "the survivors of '68, of the shipwreck," he responded that "the events" of May 1968 had much less importance than the after-effects. The events "brought out hopes and caused hidden desires to flower which have remained on the surface ever since. And that's what it [Jonah] is about, rather than the fate of the 'shipwrecked.'"

The hopes and desires at the heart of Jonah – dignity in work, education for democratic citizenship, environmental stewardship of the planet, non-material fulfilment-still occupy the democratic left; we're still living in the extended aftermath of the Sixties. I think this accounts in part for Jonah's attractiveness for viewers today: the politics still resonate. But in addition, the characters retain all their charm. And other qualities are more apparent now – at least to me. I can't think of a movie since Jonah that has more successfully portrayed humane interconnectedness within a community without going sentimental. As for its innovative artistry – screenplay, camera work, acting, and musical score – Jonah has had no heirs among political films released in the United States. Tanner and Berger achieved a uniquely successful mix of serious ideas and story. In short, Jonah, which turns thirty-two in the year 2008, has barely aged.

Jonah will be shown in London at the Ciné Lumière on Saturday 10th May, with Alain Tanner present (

Joanne Barkan is a writer. She lives in New York City and on Cape Cod. Many thanks to her and to Matt Moore of Dissent Magazine, in the Winter 2004 issue of which this article first appeared.