Text: In the series: 200 years since the French Revolution

Text: “What do you see?”

Text: The Death of Marat and other images from the post-1789 era, with commentary by Oskar Negt - -

Alexander Kluge: Marat. His name comes up a lot. Who is that?

Oskar Negt: Well, Marat is always mentioned as one of the characters in the triumvirate that shapes the French Revolution. And he is undoubtedly the one with the closest and most intimate connection to the social problems, the plebeians, the people, ….

Kluge: So there are Danton, Robespierre …

Negt: Danton, Robespierre, Marat. In that sense he is more a social revolutionary who is not all that interested in playing the game, or in the National Convention, which is after all a revival of the Forum Romana and the Greek Agora.

Kluge: Instead he has newspapers, the popular assembly ...

Negt: Newspapers, popular assemblies, he spoke in person at these assembly meetings. Much more often than Robespierre. Robespierre is the face of the National Convention, and the Jacobin Club … whereas Danton also used to speak to the masses a lot. But Marat is without question the social rebel, and thus represents one of the crucial trajectories of the French Revolution.

Kluge: In a rather unpleasant and denunciatory way. As prosecutor.

Negt: I mean, that’s a problem of course. Robespierre and Danton were the same in that regard. But within the context of this revolution of the bourgeoisie, Marat has the air of a proletarian. We tend to attribute virtues to him that don‘t really have any foundation in the actual historical figure. I feel that Marat’s story is also the account of a suppressed aspect of the French Revolution.

Kluge: Even during his lifetime, it’s a kind of counter-propaganda.

Negt: During his lifetime already. During his lifetime.

Kluge: And everything that we actually know about him is overshadowed by a legend, by the story of his death.

Text: Oskar Negt

Negt: Yes, his death. His murder. His murder at the hand of a woman, Charlotte Corday … We know a lot about the circumstances that led to his death. But we know little about the reasons and motivations behind it. We know a few things about Charlotte Corday – we know that she grows up in a rather pietistic family, and that she loses her mother very early. We don’t know how much she actually understands about the consequences of her actions. It’s a tragic situation that has inspired poets such as Peter Weiss to write about this murder. And perhaps some aspects actually become more authentic in retrospect than what we see in the official historiography.

Text: Charlotte Corday and her knife - -

Text: She walks in / Marat sits in the bathtub - -

Text: “I have a list of suspects - -"

Text: “Close the curtains, I don’t want to be interrupted!”

Text: Marat, stabbed in the bath - -

Text: Charlotte Corday is arrested - -

Text: Narrative according to: Jules Michelet, History of the French Revolution, 7 Volumes, Paris 1847 –

Negt: Okay. “Besides, she had no mother; she died when Charlotte was very young; maternal caresses had never been received by her; in her young years, she never had that woman’s milk, which no other can supply,” he writes here. “The soul of the young Charlotte sought its asylum at first in devotion. She especially loved two young ladies, noble and poor, like herself. She also saw something of the world. Her real friends were books. One thing which rendered Mademoiselle Corday’s appearance so striking, and impossible to be forgotten, was, that this infantile voice was united to a grave beauty, masculine in expression, but delicate in features. The Girondists had no influence over her.”

Kluge: The Girondists had … Who did … ?

Negt: “The Girondists had no influence over her.” Let’s see … “This contrast made the effect double, both to fascinate and awe. They looked and approached, but in this flower of the time, there was something intimidating, which was not only of time, but of immortality. She already lived among those who gave their lives to live eternally. The Girondists had no influence over her. The greater part, as we have seen, had ceased to be friends of each other. She had seen Barbaroux twice, as a deputy from Provence …” and so on …

Kluge: And she was executed?

Negt: She was executed, yes. But I can’t recall the details right now.

Kluge: But it was never quite clear if she was a royalist, or why she actually killed him.

Negt: “After the suppression of convents, finding that her father had married again, she took refuge in Caen, with her aunt, Madame de Breteville. And it was there she adopted her resolution. Did she undertake it without thought? No; for a time she was restrained by the remembrance of her aunt; this good old lady, who had maintained her, and whom, in recompense, she was so cruelly going to compromise. One day her aunt discovered a tear in her eye. ‘I am crying,’ she said, ‘for France, my relations, and you. As long as Marat lives, who is sure of their existence?’ She distributed her books, except a volume of Plutarch, which she took with her. In the courtyard she met the child of a workman who lodged in the house; she gave him her drawing book, and embraced him, letting one tear fall on his cheek. Two tears! Enough for nature. In this garden, full of sun, enlivened with a joyous crowd, and amongst the gambols of the children, she sought and found a cutler, where, for forty sous, she bought a knife, fresh ground, with a bone handle, which she hid under her handkerchief. Behold her in possession of her arm; how would she use it? She wanted the judgment which she was delivering against Marat to be executed with great solemnity. Her first idea, the one which she conceived and thought over at Caen, and brought to Paris, had been to make a striking and dramatic scene. She wanted to kill him on the Champ de Mars, before the people, before the heavens, on the celebration of the 14th of July, on the anniversary of the defeat of royalty, to kill the king of anarchy. Like a true niece of Corneille, she would have accomplished to the letter the famous verses of Cinna:”

Kluge: Which are?

Negt: “Tomorrow, he will make a sacrifice on the Capitol …” I’m reading it in German, this is the German translation … “Tomorrow, he will make a sacrifice on the Capitol. He himself shall be the victim. Thus we avenge a world, under the eyes of the gods.” She saw herself as a tool, a mission …

Kluge: A Joan d‘Arc.

Negt: To save France. “The festival having adjourned, she adopted another idea, that of punishing Marat at the place of his crime, when, having destroyed national representation, he dictated the vote of the Convention, setting aside some for life, others for death. She wanted to strike the blow on the summit of the mountain. But Marat was sick and did not go anymore to the Assembly.”

Kluge: The fateful day arrives …

Negt: “She must, then, go to his house, seek him at his fireside, penetrate the anxious watchfulness of those who surrounded him; she must, though it would be a painful thing, become an intimate, and deceive him. This was the only thing which had cost, or left her, a scruple or remorse. The first note she wrote Marat was unanswered. She then wrote a second, which showed a kind of impatience, the progress of passion.”

Text: Description of Marat’s apartment

Negt: “The first floor was very dark, opening on the court, filled with old furniture, dirty tables on which the newspapers were folded up, gave one the idea of the dark lodging of a workman. Farther on, you are surprised to find a little parlor, opening on the street, furnished in blue and white damask, of a delicate and handsome color, with beautiful silk curtains and porcelain vases, generally filled with flowers. This was plainly the abode of a tender and attentive woman, who appeared to be anxious that a man, like Marat, devoted to work, should find a place of rest. This was the mystery in the life of Marat, which was afterwards disclosed by his sister; he was not in his own house; he had no home in this world. ‘Marat was at no expense,’ as his sister Albertine says, ‘for a divine woman, touched with his situation, when he was fleeing from cellar to cellar, took and hid in her house the friend of the people; she devoted her fortune and sacrificed her rest to him.’ A promise to marry Catherine Evrard was found among Marat’s papers. He had already married her before the sun and before nature.”

Text: Oskar Negt

Kluge: Married not by a priest or a civil servant but before the sun and before nature.

Text: Clothing and appearance of Charlotte Corday

Negt: “She had on a white dress, and but one luxury which showed the woman, the lace of the cap was left to float around her cheeks. And lastly, there was no paleness, but, on the contrary, her cheeks were red, and her clear voice gave no sign of emotion. She submitted to the but little benevolent scrutiny of Catherine, who, at the noise, had half opened the door, and wanted to prevent her entrance. The debate was heard by Marat, and the sound of that silvery and clear voice reached him. He had no dread of women, and though in the bath, imperiously ordered that she should enter. The room was little, and dark; Marat in the bath, was covered with a dirty cloth, and had a board on which he was writing, only leaving his head, shoulders, and right arm free. His gray hair, covered with a handkerchief or napkin, his yellow skin, and thin limbs, and his large toad-like mouth, did not look much like … “

Kluge: Michelet wrote this?

Negt: Yes. Toad-like mouth … what is that?

Kluge: What is a silvery voice?

Negt: I don’t know.

Kluge: So she had a silvery voice. And toad-mouth is in the bathtub.

Negt: “...did not look much like a man.“ It’s not a very kind description that Michelet provides here. Even though Michelet’s account is otherwise very precise and graphic, this friend of the great French Revolution seems to see Marat in the same light as his contemporaries saw him, as a representative …

Kluge: Denunciatory, aggressive, and so on ...

Negt: Yes.

Kluge: A womanizer, he liked to seduce women. Pulls them into the bathroom ...

Text: The crime scene  - -

Negt: “She had promised him news from Normandy – he asked for them, and especially the name of the refugee deputies at Caen, and wrote them down as she named them. Then, having finished: ‘That is all right; in a week they will be on their way to the guillotine.’” They … he means the deputies. “Charlotte, finding in these words an addition of strength, and a reason for striking, drew the knife from her bosom, and plunged it up the handle in the heart of Marat.”

Kluge: There was a board – so you couldn’t reach him from this direction, but from here …

Negt: That’s how it’s marked in the paintings. Here, from above.

Kluge: Past the clavicle into the heart. Here, up here.  

Negt: “The blow, falling thus from a height, struck with an extraordinary accuracy, passing near the clavicle, through the lungs, opened the head of the carotids, and a stream of blood gushed out. ‘Help! My dear friend!’ was all that he could say, and expired.”

Text: Robespierre‘s execution

Text: Danton’s death

Text: The King’s Palace

Negt: Here we have a map of the park of Versailles. It’s designed in a very linear, geometrical way. But not everything is fully organized. It looks like there are rivers here or marches, definitely not paved roads …

Kluge: It looks like a construction site.

Negt: Yes, looks like a construction site. But obviously designed in a way that points towards a center, a center of power. All these kings shared the notion that there has to be a center from which power radiates outward.

Kluge: A center that is surprisingly empty in itself.  

Negt: It is suprisingly empty, but perhaps that makes it appropriate for representational purposes. Here, these driveways, if you pay attention to how far this path stretches, first through this gate …

Text: The Mill of Valmy / The Battle of Valmy decides the fate of the revolution - -

Negt: Twelve. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve.

Kluge: One, two, three, four, five, six. And you are out. Five. Ten. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten..

Text: Revolution board game, Insel-Verlag, Frankfurt 1989

Text: Scenes from the French Revolution - -

Text: According to Jules Michelet’s description, with commentary from Oskar Negt