A Film about Sacco and Vanzetti

Context N°19

by Viktor Shklovsky

In 2006, Dalkey Archive Press published Mark Binelli’s Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, an irreverent recasting of the lives of America’s most famous anarchists as slapstick comedians and silent-film stars, a la Abbott and Costello. As Binelli points out, however, he is far from being the first to fictionalize Sacco and Vanzetti for his own ends (though probably the first to do so in a comedy): other culprits include Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, Howard Fast, and Woody Guthrie. To this list we can now make the surprising addition of Viktor Shklovsky, who wrote the following for the journal Sovetskii ekran in 1927, imagining the luckless duo’s “martyrdom” as an Eisensteinian melodrama about the class struggle. It appears here in English for the first time.

There ought to be a film about Sacco and Vanzetti. The main difficulty is shooting in America, which necessitates putting together a shooting script that combines soundstage footage and American newsreel footage, especially footage of demonstrations in support of Sacco and Vanzetti, and American industrial footage. The outline might be as follows:

Rank-and-file Italian-American revolutionaries Sacco and Vanzetti attend a demonstration. One of them leaves his wife behind, promising to return home by evening. During this time a robbery-murder takes place. Sacco and Vanzetti are arrested at the demonstration. I would suggest using excerpts from Korolenko’s short story ‘‘Speechless’’ to develop the plotline and portray the demonstration.

Sacco and Vanzetti are jailed. They are convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Across the hall in another courtroom is the real murderer, a tramp charged only with vagrancy. He is sentenced to 2-3 months. He knows about Sacco and Vanzetti’s case; their cell becomes the focus of his attention. At the end of his sentence, upon his release, he reveals that he is the real murderer. Forced to retract his confession, he is placed in solitary confinement, then committed to an insane asylum. Rumors of the tramp’s confession spread through the prison grapevine, and then out of the prisons and throughout the factories. Reaction shots on the factory and shop floors follow.

Note: The initial demonstration is taken from Korolenko so that we can show the park in the background.

Now we depict American industrial machinery. Electric power plants along the Niagara, power lines, all of it terminating in the electric chair.We don’t want to film industrial machinery in general—just evil machinery, class-oriented machinery. The life of the city can be depicted through telephones. Telephone receivers feed off of accumulators in a circuit including ammeters: whenever anything happens in the city the number of phone calls increases, and the needle in the ammeter goes sharply to the right.

All the exposition should be done technically. In order to eliminate the possibility of vindication for Sacco and Vanzetti the real murderer is executed, but for another crime.

At this point we have to show the electric chair, but as tactfully as possible, not to elicit a visceral response in the audience, but to show that the city is anticipating Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution, that throughout the city or in a given neighborhood, with the inclusion of a stage-set as powerful as the electric chair and the electrical circuit, the light flashes, showing how different class-oriented individuals respond at that instant. It is these minor details that shed light on the human factor in the events.

As long as Sacco and Vanzetti are alive, it’s possible to indicate plot continuity and the passage of time during which they are tried and imprisoned. I think this is possible if we film the prison warden’s quarters. Seven shots of the warden’s wife leafing through fashion magazines with different styles can indicate the passage of time through annual changes in fashion, from the point of view of a more or less disinterested witness. This can easily be conveyed to the audience because when we market a film abroad the year of the release is always determined by male fashions.

Workers’ efforts to save Sacco and Vanzetti finally lead to one last chance: a stay of execution by the governor. The governor decides to permit Sacco a visit; Sacco can meet with his wife. His sole question: four words. Her response: a single word. The newspapers are going to press—everyone is waiting to hear what a man who’s been in prison for five years has to say. Newspapers make predictions. Reporters wait outside the prison. The abruptness of a Barbusse can work here. Sacco: ‘‘Workers still rule Russia?’’ Sacco’s wife: ‘‘Yes.’’ At this point their reunion is cut short.

The printing presses are waiting urgently for word from the reporters. The reporters file their copy, the presses fire up. But the next days’ papers appear with a blank space instead of a headline. Not one paper publishes Sacco’s question.

Demonstrations follow. Twelve clocks, set at twelve different times. We show twelve different places, twelve different demonstrations in defense of Sacco and Vanzetti.

But in the end their fate is sealed. The execution order comes, but there is a strike, and the power is cut. Cut to an antiquated power plant. The prison guards declare themselves “friends of electricity,” but the executioner has fled.

I think that the whole thing should close with the execution and the mob battling to storm the prison. There ought to be a spark of electricity that marks the instant of the execution itself.

I believe that such an ending need not be hopeless in tone, given that the entire affair speaks not only of the fate of two men, but of the class struggle itself.

The actual shooting should consist of about 50-60% montage shots from stock newsreel footage, in particular industrial footage, and about 40-45% stage sets with actors.

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Translation by Adam Siegel
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