Dead Man’s Wheel and American Choice ’68 (1968)
In an interview with Sheila Rowbotham, published in her book Looking at Class. Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain written with Huw Beynon, Marc Karlin recalls his early films of the late 1960s before he entered into collective film-making with Cinema Action and the Berwick Street Collective . Sadly, no prints or negatives have been found in the Karlin’s film and video archive. This tantalising interview is the only lead so far.
Marc spent most of his childhood in Paris, Le Perreux. After being schooled in England, he later returned and became embroiled in the events of May 1968. A few years earlier, Marc filmed a conversation with an American deserter from the Vietnam War, Philip Wagner, who had landed in London on behalf of the Stop It Committee. By 1968, Wagner was in Paris. Marc, having been dissatisfied with the first film, decided to film Wagner again, this time with a French deserter from the Algeria War.
The film was called American Choice ’68. When he began to edit the film May 68 exploded. There was a strike of editors, who promptly sent Marc to a railway depot to ‘shoot reels for the revolution’. He struck up a friendship with a train driver and began filming him. The film was called Dead Man’s Wheel and focuses on the driver’s incredibly repetitive work routine. The film ends with the driver explaining this to students at the Sorbonne.
Karlin describes the scene, ‘He started explaining his work to the students, miming what he did in the train. Every fifteen seconds he had to clasp and unclasp the wheel, otherwise the train would stop. It was to stop him falling asleep and was called ‘dead man’s wheel’: he explained how ill the drivers were, because of this every fifteen seconds. It just tortured them. As he explains this, you can see the camera going round the students: they are completely bog-eyed about the worker, May 1968, the possibilities, the world that he came from. It was a hell of an introduction for me, that moment. A moment that you try to expand for years and years – but obviously you can’t‘.
In Marc’s obituary John Wyver writes the film ‘combines a deep respect for one human being with an analysis of one political, social and cultural moment’. Marc states he was very proud of the film and reveals it was shown at the NFT and remained popular in France. The hunt continues.
Sources – Looking at Class. Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain, S, Rowbotham & H, Beynon, (Rivers Oram Press:2001)