The Best Libertarian Film Is …

by Benjamin Marks, Capitalism.HK and Economics.org.au editor

Easily, the best libertarian film — yes, I have seen every film — is: Monsieur Verdoux (1947). This is a film so neglected that even libertarians have failed to acknowledge its existence. The film is readily available to everyone, and has been for generations. It is not some obscure foreign-language film; in fact, it features the most famous Western person ever.

Prompted by Orson Welles, Charles Chaplin produced, directed, wrote, composed the music and starred in this loose re-enactment of the real life of Henri Désiré Landru. (During WW1 Landru advertised in the lonely hearts section of Paris newspapers that he was a widower and desired to meet a widow with view to matrimony. In 1921 Landru was convicted of murdering 10 women and the teenage son of one of them.)

The eponymous protagonist, played by Chaplin, is one of those rare creatures: a brazen benevolent beguiling bigamous bluebeard (I’ve always wanted to say that). He is the sole income provider for his wheelchair-bound wife and their young child. After losing his job and failing to find employment elsewhere, he gains access, under various fraudulent guises, to the money of wealthy single women by befriending, marrying and — continuing the progression — killing them. His only motive is the welfare of his family; that is, his first wife — often referred to as the “invalid” wife (not the best word choice) — and their young son. When they die, his shenanigans draw to a close.

It is not clear how his family died — a provocative thing to leave unsaid. Verdoux may have killed them for humanitarian reasons, believing the world unfit for them to live in, especially since most of his investments failed. In circumstantial evidence, or to show that it would have been “in character”, he shuddered when he saw a baby’s shoe being knitted and he committed many less direct mercy killings. I think it more likely that they died as an accidental result of Verdoux’s poor finances, of a disease that the fragile were particularly susceptible to in those days. I believe this because it is more commonplace, not because the court proceedings and newspaper headlines shown in the film do not list his family among his victims, for I lack faith in such sources. In any case, the film’s message would not change.

The death of Verdoux himself and his wife and child, gave him occasion to reflect upon his actions. In Verdoux’s introduction, from beyond the grave, to the story of his life, he says “unfortunately I did” act on “undaunted optimism”. So for Verdoux the moral of the story is: undaunted optimism is not good. He is largely right that this is the moral of the story, but, as we will see, there is far more to it than that.

Verdoux believes that government is criminal and disadvantages those who fail to ambitiously capitalise on its inherent corruption — in other words, that the only way to make a living is to make a killing. And so, for his family, he tries to capitalise on it the same way government and those in league with government do, but with one difference: he does it alone. This makes for satire, for we see government in miniature — it is like sending supporters of government to a shrink. This same juxtaposition is displayed when we see Verdoux saving a caterpillar, which parallels government apprehending comparatively small-time criminals (and also parallels government treating vices as crimes). Verdoux, when he sees he has failed, says it is not because he acted criminally, but because he was not ambitious enough personally or was unwilling to associate with those who were. But this reasoning for his failure matures after his death, where he comes to realise that “undaunted optimism” was his failing, not insufficient optimism, which would have been required if he was to aim for the bigger things he implies shortly before his death that he would need to do to succeed.

Common Criticisms Corrected

The second scene of Monsieur Verdoux is often criticised for being so unpleasant that even when misfortune strikes the characters, no sympathy is felt for them. Far from criticising this inability to gain the sympathy of viewers, it should be praised. Does it fail to make you laugh? Is it because none of the characters are appealing or sympathetic in any way? How interesting and unique for a situation like that to be intentionally written and directed. What the scene does is pique a minor mystery, suggest that the possible victim is not someone to lose many tears over, and introduces Chaplin’s character.

The repeated (tracking) shot of the train wheels rolling is often criticised as a cheap and unimaginative way to signify travel. This is an unimaginative criticism. The fact that we see the wheels rather than the scenery signifies the focussed and efficient manner that Verdoux went about his work. Another important message the wheels communicate is how easily speed, distance and the wheels of progress can separate one’s family from one’s actions, and that people often go to great lengths, often thousands of kilometres, to separate their action from its results, preventing as easy a comparison between domestic and professional behaviour. It also hints that Verdoux: is a government in training; rails against the country, yet sticks to the straight and narrow; does not have a license to drive, but may have a license to kill; and, as the cliché about Mussolini went, ran the trains to schedule.

The common misinterpretation of Monsieur Verdoux as a frivolous tragicomedy unworthy of critical thought may partly be explained by the shock of seeing an uncharacteristically unsentimental Chaplin film overwhelming the critical capacities of viewers. Chaplin pretty much abandons his sentimental storylines, which had brought him fame and riches. And Verdoux, although sentimental of certain family and professional values, is unmoved, or satisfied in a nonchalant way, by the fraud, theft and murder he commits. However, this attempt to apologise for these incompetent viewers of Monsieur Verdoux fails, as it could easily be argued that The Kid (1921) contains all the elements of Monsieur Verdoux. The Kid also deserves attention from libertarians because it contains the best example in film of Bastiat’s important broken window parable.

Some people confuse Chaplin’s arrest, trial and execution as a vindication of the moral order of society. Actually, Chaplin handed himself in when he could have easily eluded capture, admitted his crimes freely and had a clear conscience.

A professional value that he displays is professional courtesy to a like-minded colleague. He gave her some seed capital (although he did not take advantage of her), which ended up being his best investment, for she went on to marry a munitions manufacturer. Verdoux, however, was not, as is often claimed, a ruthless moneymaker, for he did not cash-in his richest investment. He was a family man. Soon after his family disappeared, so did he; such was his total dedication to his family.

Some reviews I have read are so reluctant to accept or unable to comprehend the libertarian message of Monsieur Verdoux that they consider it a defence of murder, as if Chaplin would have made a film defending war and the status quo, unlayered and with full sincerity. The darkness of the film’s humour is precisely in Verdoux’s obvious criminality combined with his lack of any generally expected and traditionally expressed feeling of guilt; he is neither boastful nor contrite. The film’s profundity is mainly because of two factors: (1) Verdoux still acknowledges that he is guilty; and (2) Verdoux sees that government behaves the same as he, just on a larger scale, without admitting guilt. In short, the profundity of the film is due to its lack of utilitarian moralising in appraising government and lifestyle. As Nietzsche said, “as easy as it would have been in these instances to make guilt the lever of the drama, just as surely has this been avoided.”

According to all other reviews I have read, which are largely based on the comments of the protagonist — why anyone would attach such weight to the comments of so disreputable a character I do not know —, Monsieur Verdoux is a critique of both capitalism and war. However, the criticism of capitalism is superficial and misguided: superficial, because although it is critical of what it calls capitalism, nothing is earnestly suggested to replace it; and misguided, because the business cycle and war-profiteering are not features of capitalism, but of government intervention in the money supply and government adoption of “business”, which should be called thievery, mercantilism or corporatism rather than business, capitalism or freedom. And the film’s criticism of war — the warfare state — is real and significant, but not as explicit — ignoring parts of Verdoux’s commentary — as its criticism of the welfare state, which the entire story illustrates.

In 1947 the welfare state was not what it is now, or it was only so as a result of wartime measures (that were rarely repealed), so perhaps Chaplin’s identification of the warfare state rather than the welfare state was more relevant then. Obviously, WW2 had just finished. And Landru killed during WW1.

In any case, today his wheelchair-bound wife and young child would still be the recipients of theft from wealthy women (and others). The theft would be different now to what Verdoux did, because, as Verdoux said, “numbers sanctify”; they would be “entitled” to it. The legalised theft (taxation) of the welfare state is on such a large scale that its very scale dissuades many from even questioning the use of force involved, and majority support or passive acquiescence is considered to magically prove justice. But if anything the fraud that “numbers sanctify” makes it far more fraudulent and pernicious than Verdoux, who at least had good manners and gave each individual victim something that they wanted in return, and his crimes were obviously on a smaller scale. To add insult to injury, today the criminal act is done by people in the name of the victim (taxpayer), as an expression of the rights and freedom of the victim; it is even claimed that the victims’ ancestors fought wars to defend this very situation — which, if true, is a good reason to: be antiwar, differentiate between precedent and goodness, and dislike one’s ancestors.

It is true that the welfare state does not necessarily directly kill its victims. Verdoux, also, did not always kill those he victimised; but once you admit, in principle, that you are entitled to the money of single women (for a needy cause), or that you might as well take some of their property away from them, taking away all their property, including their very bodies, is not such a big step and is congruent with the principle involved. If you are justified taking away some of their property under false pretences (for a needy cause), then you are justified taking it all. (“Needy” is a subjective term that can mean absolutely anything: there are happy homeless people and suicidal millionaires. Yet “neediness” is what the welfare state is based on.)

Obviously, the principles of the welfare state and the warfare state are the same. The left-wing criticism of the warfare state is incompatible with their support of the welfare state, and vice versa for the so-called right-wing. And those who oppose conscription, in principle, should also oppose the conscription of the money of people (taxation). Generally, the welfare state refers to government at home, the warfare state to government abroad. Like the welfare state, which is not just about stealing, wars are not just about killing; they are both ostensibly for welfare interests, and ignore the absence of consent by those forced to fund and interact with its unfair comparative advantage in “allowable” use of force. To return to and conclude the point I was making: it is correct to call Monsieur Verdoux an antiwar film; indeed, no antiwar film is better; my quibble is with the lack of emphasis by reviewers and within the film on its critique of the welfare state.

Many reviews object to Verdoux’s contextual commentary (i.e., comparative moralising), claiming that it takes away from the aesthetically pleasing subtlety of the storyline, breaks character and does not add anything of value. Yet these same reviews call the film anticapitalist and fail to address its relevance to the welfare state; so much for their faith in subtlety, their belief that allusiveness is far from elusiveness. Besides, Verdoux’s commentary is very well delivered, adds humour to the film and is perfectly congruent with his character; for he is often pleading and preaching when communicating, and never one for small talk, nonsense jokes or empty manners, except when aiming for something on a different level. Plus, Verdoux explaining the satirical message of the film to us himself heightens the satire, for we see what is essentially a politician both telling the truth — that is, admitting his guilt and even incriminating himself—and being humble — that is, admitting his failure and possible reasons why, and lessening his prospects of regaining anywhere near his previous position.

The same critics who dislike Verdoux’s description of his behaviour, seem to all prefer Chaplin’s slapstick to his attempts at profundity, saying they most like the scene in the boat with Martha Raye. Slapstick can be profound, but in this case it is used quite simply and explicitly. Verdoux’s commentary is far more subtle and profound. If Chaplin had used slapstick to communicate the same message, he would go around taking the law into his own hands, lynching politicians, giving them slaps to the head, etc. When critics object to both the subtlety and the directness of something, it is difficult to know how to respond; though they seem more deserving of a slap to the head than reasoned argument. Anyway, even if Monsieur Verdoux is too blatantly presented, its message for countries with large welfare and warfare states makes it profound, or at least its bluntness excusable.

For a final illustration of critics failing to comprehend the film: Verdoux does not practice comparative moralising to defend himself; he uses it merely to explain his actions and incriminate government. Critics incorrectly claim he is defending himself, and then go on to claim that he is wrong to do so. On top of this, the critics themselves probably defend government using different applications of comparative moralising. For example, they want the arts, including films, to be subsidised by the government, because art is educational and cultural, and other educational and cultural activities are subsidised by the government. It does not enter into their reckoning to question government in its entirety, which is the central message of Monsieur Verdoux. It requires critics to engage with the film and not be mere voyeurs. The final shot has Verdoux walking away from us and earthly existence to the guillotine; unlike Verdoux, we are still here.

The ambiguity of what we should do is made clear by Verdoux’s failure to preserve his family; and also his satisfaction drinking rum for the first time, even though he is already prepared for his execution. He does not regret his choices, but he admits there were alternatives. This provokes us to reflect on how much of a pain in the neck many choices are, and that there is sometimes a fine line between going too far and not far enough. After the film ends, issues remain; the ending is not a solution; more questions are raised than answered; matters are summarised, not concluded; they remain unresolved, but come to a head.

My Aim

My aim in writing about Monsieur Verdoux is not to spoil it for potential viewers, or at least not primarily; you’ve all had a chance to watch it and have either failed to watch it critically or succeeded in not watching it at all, so if I do spoil it for you, the punishment is deserved; it is you I spoil, not the film; and a film of its quality, importance and structure cannot be so easily spoiled anyway; besides, I really do the opposite, illustrating the film with a correct and rewarding interpretation. Neither is my aim to provide all the reasons why the film is my favourite, many of which are not to do with its libertarianism.

My ostensible aim is to bring it to the attention of libertarians to aid them in convincing people to cease supporting the welfare state. Before — or, in addition to — advising people to read unpopular economists with difficult names, they can prescribe a Charlie Chaplin film. Perhaps that would be of some benefit. Although one must admit that Monsieur Verdoux is not the catchiest of titles. A better title would be: The Bluebeard and His Babes; The Great Dictator: A Prequel; Chaplin Breaks His Silence; or Chaplin Kills Women to Feed Family, Maybe Kills Family Too — the last two titles would have worked better at the time of the film’s original release, as it would leverage off the publicity Chaplin’s private life was receiving at the time.

Libertarians could ask the following three questions of welfare state supporters who, having seen the film, do not think Verdoux acted justly:

  1. If Verdoux only took, say, 15% of each woman’s money, then would his actions be just?
  2. If a majority/large number of people behaved like, a majority/large number of voters voted for, or a government endorsed Verdoux, then would his actions be just?
  3. If Verdoux robbed women, not merely for his own needy family, but for many other needy people too, then would his actions be just?

Obviously, if they answer these questions in the negative, it should not be difficult to convince them of the libertarian position, for defence is a welfare issue too, and once you have convinced them of that, the job is done; unless they want a government to save endangered frogs and pronounce the Christianity or State-sanctioned sanctity of gay marriage. True, some arbitrary “moral” justifications for government are still not addressed, but at least the fact that tax is theft has been established. People can still support the theft, as long as the theft is from other people or themselves in the past, but they cannot maintain that it is voluntary. You could argue that Verdoux’s partners were willing, but it is a bit much to claim that everything was voluntary and honest. The partner’s might have been sexual animals — just as, apparently, we are all political, social and sinful animals—but the women were still victims.

Ideas for Attracting Viewers

The best feminist film ~ This last paragraph makes Monsieur Verdoux not merely the greatest libertarian film, but also the greatest feminist film, for nowhere else are women’s rights so bluntly defended in the face of populist family values. It also discredits feminist affirmative action schemes, for they are well-intentioned and aggressive, just like Verdoux. It would have been superb if Verdoux chatted with women advocating affirmative action schemes (which are intended for needy women), and then proceeded to rob and—for both its dramatic effect and to ensure Verdoux would not be caught—murder them (so that their estate can help a needy family). By saying that it is the greatest feminist film ever made, we should be able to get everyone who wants to be politically correct to watch the film.

Chaplin’s best film ~ Convincing people to watch the film should be easy, even though its U.S. release flopped and it hasn’t got the attention of many other Chaplin films, despite it being his best, even according to Chaplin himself, who said, “Monsieur Verdoux is the cleverest and most brilliant film I have yet made.” That Chaplin thought it was his best film should be enough to convince them. If it is not, then tell them it is very different to other Chaplin films.

Better than The Great Dictator ~ A very large number of people have seen Chaplin’s most popular film The Great Dictator (1940). Most people who see it are disappointed by its simplistic and romantic political message. I am tempted to think that it is actually a sarcastically overly-romantic film, and so is actually very cynical and conservative. In any case, the fact is, many people who see The Great Dictator are disappointed by what they see as a lack of great political commentary. So it should appeal to them that everything they wanted The Great Dictator to be, Monsieur Verdoux, which was Chaplin’s next film (seven years later!), is.

Excelling in the same way that many “cult” and “classic” films do ~ Many people unfamiliar with Monsieur Verdoux appreciate films with the same sentiments — that is, films which are unromantic or amoral, and either justifies that position or uses utilitarian arguments congruent with it — to wit, films which argue: that success is due to luck or cheating, that idealism is detrimental, that confrontation is complicated, that resolutions are either unsuccessful or immoral, and that problems are often insoluble—in short, truly conservative films. Such films are obviously greatly outnumbered, but their novelty value, provocative power, profundity and realism have attracted some of the best talent and most respect. There is such a wide variety of films with these features that a keen movie-watcher is sure to be a fan of at least one of them, so the libertarian desperate to attract viewers to Monsieur Verdoux should find plenty of leverage to help them advertise. It could be argued that Monsieur Verdoux is similar, better and more relevant than any such films. I go through them in the expanded version of this essay at www.MonsieurVerdoux.info.

Conclusion

We are just one large viewing of Monsieur Verdoux away from the libertarian revolution. Sit back and enjoy.

Monsieur Verdoux is the kind of film that people will be better able to appreciate on second viewing, because it should be cheaper then, in a pure free market.

About Editor

Editor of Capitalism.HK

Posted on March 8, 2012, in Marks and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. More film recommendations, please.

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