Table of contents INTRODUCTION





CHAPTER ONE: Against systematisation.

 The link between existentialism and Loach's work as a filmmaker may not seem  obvious at first sight, but the study of some of the most famous Existentialist philosophers will enlighten this. Even if there are many philosophers who belong to the existentialist tradition, I will concentrate on Sören Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, because they stand for the main tenets of existentialism, and because each of them has explored it in different ways. Sören Kierkegaard(1813-1855) is the first to think individuals' consciousness as an existing entity, which tends to change, because of its very existence. He sought to restore authentic faith and stood against "state servants priests". Martin Heidegger(1889-1976) chose to focus on men's realisation in time, as individuals living in a society. Jean-Paul Sartre(1905-1980) chose to define existence as a project in which men are fully responsible for their actions, thus becoming a very engaged and politicised philosopher. Their writings give an accurate account of what Ken Loach depicts in his movies: the individual caught in the web of an oppressive system, whether embodied by religions, states, or political parties.
Existentialist philosophers all agree on the need to replace men and their authentic needs at the centre of philosophical research. This reasoning is best embodied by the following statement by Kierkegaard: "It would be sensible if thinking was the least different possible from being a man".
[2] When Kierkegaard began to write in 1840, his contemporaries were all studying other writings: those of George Wilhelm Hegel, whose main project was to create systems for everything, to eventually prove that the world could be idealized. What he thought was that reason could explain every phenomenon as a concept, men being phenomena as well. Consequently, every human act could be accountable for, as man had become a rationalized concept.

This is exactly what existentialists denied and rejected, and Kierkegaard was the first to do so, as he lived approximately at the same time as Hegel: "Existence cannot be systematised."[3] According to him, men cannot be thought in terms of systems, because systems are abstract constructions, whereas men are singular, unique individuals who face concrete situations, and who experience life in different ways. The problem with excessive systematisation is that it creates uniformity. Generally speaking, existentialism is a reaction against a set of suffocating and oppressive habits, resulting from western culture and institutions.[4] In many respects, this applies to Loach as well. If we consider Family Life(1971), the schizophrenia Janice develops can be seen as a response to the wish of her family to shape her in a certain "acceptable" way. The fact that her parents (her mother more particularly) do not understand her provokes her refusal to cope with a day-to-day life she cannot stand anymore. Besides, the parents force her into having an abortion, and even if it is true that the movie quite clearly supports legal abortions (as in Up the Junction, in 1965), it also means, more symbolically, that the society and the morals they stand for want to get rid of people like Janice, of people who try to secure themselves from an entrapping existence. The baby she is denied stands for the life she is denied to lead, as well.
Emmanuel Mounier, in Introduction aux Existentialismes, suggests that existentialism is, to a certain extent, a philosophical awakening. If not to philosophical, Ken Loach invites his spectators to social and political awakening, to social awareness: in Raining Stones(1993), when Bob goes to see his father-in-law, there is a sign that fits just in the middle of the two men who are discussing Bob's financial troubles, and the sign says: "Is there a Socialist alternative?". It is clear that Loach wants us to wonder over the question, because he wants us to recognize the world he depicts as ours, and he wants us to provide an answer to the question by ourselves. He clearly requires from us a certain amount of awareness, if not engagement.


CHAPTER TWO: The engagement of the self.                                       

The social awakening that Loach wants to initiate finds an echo in the Existentialist philosophy. Indeed, what is required so that man can live his life fully, in all its dimensions? Facing its own existence, answer Kierkegaard and Sartre.
Man has to make his own choices, or he does not live in terms of what "existence" really means. According to Sartre in particular, existence is a field of possibilities, and Man is responsible for picking up his own direction in life. He cannot hold anyone else responsible for his problems, so he has to play an active role in his life, and not being passive in front of hardships. Kierkegaard reckoned that, above all, it takes bravery. Ultimately, this must lead the "learner" to question the society in which he lives, because he is supposed to have an active part in building it, the way he thinks it will be better for him to live harmoniously with others.
In some of Loach's films, like Looks and Smiles(1981), or Raining Stones for instance, what is shown is men and women who are mainly in trouble because of a hierarchical society that denies them their basic needs, but also because they do not realize how it could be different for them. This is where it gets interesting, because if these characters are not aware of what's going on and how to change it, spectators, on the contrary, are made aware of what is wrong-whether it's institutions, unemployment, misunderstandings…In Raining Stones, when his father-in-law states that "it's raining stones for those people", Bob answers: "And they're all falling on me". He certainly has a pessimistic, if not fatalistic, perception of his own life. In an essay entitled "Failure and Utopianism: Representations of the Working Class in British Cinema of the 1990s", the critic John Hill wrote that Loach's latest films are pessimistic indeed:

 While not denying the power of Loach's vision of misery and frustration, there is something remorseless about the way in which the narrative imposes its determinist grip. In comparison to much of Loach's earlier work, the plot is tighter in its construction and the inexorable drive from bad to worse is more pronounced. A sense of pessimism dominates almost completely.[5]

 This is not true if one considers that what Loach really aims at is to make the spectator wonder how it could have been something else, something more positive and satisfying. Loach does not give any obvious answers, but on the other hand he certainly gives the reasons why he thinks his characters lead an unfulfilling life. There is no doubt that Loach invites the viewers to take the active part that some of his characters do not take in order to face their problems.  He also invites the viewer to provide the missing answers that would help explain why institutions are crushing individuals, despite being made to help them in the first place. In that sense, even his saddest films have a very positive aspect and a very positive impact on viewers. Loach was asked about what he sought to achieve with his films, whether it was merely a "case of sadness at the situation", and he answered that "the best thing you can do is to leave people with a question or to leave people with a kind of sense of disquiet."[6]
Yet Loach does not want spectators to feel only pity or compassion. Even if he certainly aims at getting them emotionally involved, his final and principal aim is to make people aware that they are responsible for the world they live in, and that as such, they are able to change it for the better. Loach's films have been a politically engaged but undoubtedly reliable testimony of Britain's social situation for years, and viewers are always expected to say, at the end of his films: No more Joes, Janices, Bobs, Maggies…or whoever might be in the same situation. Loach wants his viewers to think about the responsibility they have in what they see. The existentialist theme of people being responsible for their acts and for the world they live in is probably best exemplified by a statement Jean-Paul Sartre made in 1945, during a conference entitled "L'Existentialisme est un humanisme":

Ainsi, la première démarche de l'existentialisme est de mettre tout homme en possession de ce qu'il est et de faire reposer sur lui la responsabilité totale de son existence. Et, quand nous disons que l'homme est responsable de lui-même, nous ne voulons pas dire qu'il est responsable de sa stricte individualité, mais qu'il est responsable de tous les hommes.[7]

Here is now what Loach said, in 1998, when (once again!) asked about what he sought to achieve with his films:

 A sense of "That's my world, I'm part of it, and they're part of me"-it's not about some other people, it's about the world I am a part of and a world I am responsible for. And in a way, that knowledge is responsibility, I think. You can't know about that and then walk away from it-I hope.[8]

 Even if Ken Loach always puts an emphasis on his belonging and his believing in Marxism, it is really clear that he is very close to the existentialist thought as well. The theme of responsibility is central to both of them.
On top of the lack of social consciousness as being one of the English society's troubles, Loach also blames excessive capitalist policies for putting working-class people into financial turmoil, and establishes a connection between this and the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's conservative agenda that dramatically cut public spending. Thatcher's perfect embodiment of the upper middle class is what Loach has been rejecting for about thirty years, as she widely promoted free-market economy and believed in materialism (in the pejorative sense: possessing as an essential finality in life).[9]  Again, this is also a theme widely tackled by existentialists, Martin Heidegger having been the first of them to concentrate his study on the entrapping "bourgeois" middle class society that Loach depicts in Family Life. Heidegger thought that in order to part from a systematizing and uniformazing society, individuality was an essential part to become an authentic "existant", a theme later developed by Sartre, when he talked about the notion of project:

 Car nous voulons dire que l'homme existe d'abord, c'est à dire que l'homme est d'abord ce qui se jette vers un avenir, et ce qui est conscient de se projeter dans l'avenir. L'homme est d'abord un projet qui se vit subjectivement.[10]

Even if it is present, to a certain extent, in Loach's movies, individuality is not prominent. What matters most to Loach is the focus on the pressures put on working-class people, needing people. These pressures reveal the underlying background that shaped Britain in the 1980s: a huge sense of material need, as well as a rush for spiritual landmarks.     


CHAPTER THREE: Question of religion.

 It has been made clear in Chapter Two that Loach and Sartre had quite a few things in common, concerning their vision of the world and the role man has to play in it. They have another thing in common which is their belief in marxism, even if Loach was often reluctant to admit it fully, for fear of being easily labelled, whereas Sartre used to claim that he was a marxist, and he studied extensively Marx's works, his criticism of religion and his approach to materialistic history.
Jean-Paul Sartre is the main representative of atheist existentialism, which he thought to be "more coherent" than other branches of existentialism.[11]He thought that there was no point in believing in God, because nothing would be changed as men could not be saved but by their own acts. Besides, if God does not exist, then there is no such thing as human nature, since there is no one to build one…Therefore, men are fully responsible for the meaning they give to their lives, and to themselves: 

L'homme, tel que le conçoit l'existentialisme, s'il n'est pas définissable, c'est qu'il n'est d'abord rien. Il ne sera qu'ensuite, et il sera tel qu'il se sera fait. Ainsi, il n'y a pas de nature humaine, puisqu'il n'y a pas de Dieu pour la concevoir.[12]

In many respects, this can be applied to Loach's films. We do not get any sense of spiritual quest or religious belongings, because basically that is not the point. What we have instead is a description of people struggling to live decently, or people failing to cope with hostile or narrow-minded institutions, as in Cathy Come Home(1966) or Ladybird, Ladybird(1994), for instance. The films are deeply settled in a material reality: people don't need spiritual guidance, they need shelter, food, and understanding from their fellow citizens. From a pictorial point of view, Loach hardly ever shots any churches, whereas he provides plenty of outside views of factories, demolished buildings, stations, building sites, and pubs…in other words, symbols of the industrial heritage, of the working class. It is as if he denied religion a part in the industrial landscape. Even when there are some religious metaphors, the metaphor turns out to have a different meaning. In My Name Is Joe(1998), Joe appears to be a Christ figure because he acts as a redeemer when he pays for Liam's debts. He is a sacrificial figure, because his act endangers his relationship with Sarah. But his sacrifice turns out to be vain: Liam commits suicide, his relationship with Sarah is broken, and he goes back to drinking. The question Loach seems to raise is one of wondering what a sacrifice is if people who are concerned by it do not value it the way they should.
However, there is one film that is problematic if one assumes that Loach never describes religion as potentially being helpful in the lives of those he depicts, and it is Raining Stones. It is about a father, Bob, who is on the dole and gets into trouble because he cannot pay back the money he has borrowed from a loan-shark to buy his daughter a communion dress. If the film does show some sympathy for him, Bob is also pictured as stubborn and irresponsible, because he has been offered a second-hand dress and he still wants to buy a new one. Many critics have assumed that religion was his last "luxury". What Loach was aiming at with this movie was showing that on the one hand, religion is all about social conventions, and habits and pride (Bob's wife recognises she had a brand new dress for her communion, so Bob says her daughter must have it the same way): there is the communion dress, but there is also the shoes, the cake, the drinks, the party…It is about appearances (Bob keeps saying: "I will know" when his wife objects that nobody will know if the dress is second-hand), and certainly not about spiritual guidance: Bob's daughter Colleen does not understand a single word of the passage of the Bible she  is reading in the church, and Bob is absolutely unable to explain to her the passage about Jesus sharing his last meal with the apostles, because he does not feel concerned. Religion is not helpful for him ("That does not put any bread on the table, does it?") and Loach does not picture it as an entity existing beyond men.
On the other hand, he pictures religion as being made of men, and as belonging to a certain cultural tradition. It is not a priest who "saves" Bob, it is Father Barry, a man who belongs to the Labor priests tradition, a man who knows about working-class people, who knows how tough is life for them. Thus Father Barry does not act as a priest; he is not narrowed by religious considerations about telling the truth. There are other realities that he has to consider as well: loan-sharks should not exist. On top of that, Loach gives his own version of reality: a father should be able to buy a communion dress for his daughter, but capitalist societies do not enable working-class fathers to do so.
Religion is presented as something having to do with men, and not with God. There's no miracle, and there will not be any. Priests are men who stand for a compassionate, understanding figure, trying to support desperate people like Bob.
In this respect, Loach is really away from the traditional narrative pattern of "fatum". "Fatum" is the Greek word for "fate", and it has shaped western literature and ways of setting up stories for centuries. Greek mythology is undoubtedly the most famous reference. In Sophocle's Phedre, the heroine Phedre is famous for saying that she cannot do anything about the troubles she has caused, because her family has always been cursed, and Gods had decided a long time ago that she had to die anyway. Generally speaking, Greek tragedies are based on the concept of fatum: people struggle against their destiny because they are unhappy, but they cannot escape it.
There is nothing like that in Loach's movies: no pre-established destiny to curse or to hold responsible for one's lot, but people's acts and the possibility to change things. In any of his films, people are unhappy, but the reason why they are unhappy has a face. It is represented by a man or a woman who usually get the main protagonists into deeper troubles. In Cathy Come Home for instance, the family becomes homeless, but there is no curse: the people responsible for their homelessness are those who come to throw them out of the house, who wear  grey suits, who seldom have any human facial expression, who eventually stand for lifeless figures. In Ladybird, Ladybird, Maggie loses her children one after the other, and they are taken away by the authorities. But the spectator gets a sense of Maggie's responsibility: if she had been more cooperative with those authorities, the way Jorge behaved, she may have not lost all of them. What is more, her constant anger is a reason why she loses control of her life, and the spectator knows it even if he understands her anger, because it is legitimated by the situation. One could say of course that this approach is very similar to, if not taken from, Marx's dismissal of religion. Obviously, it would not be the only similarity between Loach's political ideas and Marx's, even if Loach may not deserve to be considered as marxist in every way.


CHAPTER FOUR: Marxism and Existentialism: question of politics.

 Ken Loach has always been recognized as a marxist film-maker by the media (even if he's reluctant to acknowledge it). Yet, within marxism, he makes a great distinction between stalinism and trotskism. This is made clear in Fatherland(1986), in which the issue of politics obviously prevails on the film's aesthetics. At some point, the main character, Klaus Drittermann, walks past a wall on which is written: "Stalinism is not Socialism-Capitalism is not Freedom". Even if the marxist criticism of capitalist countries is present in this movie, Loach explicitly recognizes and even denounces the excesses of stalinist governments, when Klaus is forced to leave Eastern Germany because the lyrics of his songs are too critical of its government. Here is what Ken Loach said in 1994 when he was asked whether it was true he was a trotskist:

 C'est une question délicate. Si je réponds: "Oui, je suis trotskiste", ça sera utilisé contre moi par ceux qui ne comprennent pas le trotskisme. Si je dis non, je trahis des amis et des gens que je connais. Bref, disons que l'on ne peut pas vraiment comprendre une partie de la politique internationale actuelle si l'on ne connaît pas la lutte des trotskistes contre Staline…Le plus grand héritage de Trotski est probablement le mouvement ouvrier.[13]

But his way of picturing the Marxist concept of class is quite original, in that he makes fictions where individual stories prevail on collective didactic actions, except maybe for his last movie Bread and Roses(2000), in which collective action is seen as the only way to undermine employers' abuses as well as to make lower- social classes exist in the eyes of those who usually ignore them. The upper classes are best embodied by the skyscraper in which Maya and Rosa work. It is always pictured in low-angle shots, which accentuates its size and makes Maya and her peers look even tinier in front of the massive capitalist American institution it stands for. This is Loach's most marxist film, if one considers that the setting up of the strike takes over the individual stories of both Maya and Rosa.
All in all, it seems that Loach is parting away from marxist theses by focalising on individuals, on "small random acts".[14] What is very interesting is that he does so whether shooting a fiction or a documentary. For instance, The Flickering Flame(1996) –about the Liverpool dockers' strike in 1995- is very telling of his concern for individualities: he would be expected, as a marxist film-maker, to film large shots of people waiting on the picket line, with a sound-track explaining why they were doing so. But these expectations are turned down as there are hardly any "mass" shots. Instead, spectators get images of different people, each of them telling their different account of the strike, each of them identified with his name on the left side of the screen. They are talking about the way the strike went on, what they expected from it, what support they expected from the TGWU (the dockers' main union) and how it failed to support them. On top of that, there are shots of the dockers' wives, explaining what consequences the lack of money had on families. What is shown is not only workers, but also human beings who speak about all the consequences on their personal and familial lives. The documentary is not a simple report of facts; it's a reaction to facts.
This multi-dimensional account of the Liverpool dockers' strike is also telling of how Loach links the universal to the particular: he takes time to let people express themselves in front of the camera, and their stories build up what is, for Loach, working-class History. In this respect, it seems that Loach is close to the "historical materialism" approach of Marx: a society is shaped by its economic structure and the evolution of this structure. Thus, history is not a matter of men fighting for ideals or ideas, but a set of social rules determined by economic  forces that shape individuals. Indeed, Loach's characters are caught in systems in which they are driven to act because of financial or social troubles. Their problem is that they do not fit in the norms. But Loach goes far beyond the Marxist approach. Sticking to stories of individuals, he gives the spectators a sense of how politics affect privacy, and what appears to be an individual tale stands in fact for the story of working-class people. This is his idea of how the universal affects the individual. Loach usually describes people without any specificity, everyday people who are not expected to do anything wonderful, but try to escape a certain kind of Darwinian determinism, as seen by liberal capitalists: Loach shows that what a capitalist society thinks is a weak element can sometimes find a way through, and eventually have its own private victory. What he thinks must be shown is the possibilities of action: Loach undoubtedly admits that men are a product of their own history, but that must not prevent them from playing an active part in it. There is a certain fatalism that he wants to point out as something paralysing and narrow-minded: the feeling that things cannot be changed, that nothing can be done, seems unbearable to Loach, who likes to tell the story of people who struggle in spite of a lot of adversity: in Ladybird, Ladybird, Maggie and Jorge fight in order to keep the guard of their newly-born daughter Zoe. In Riff-Raff, Stevie keeps dreaming of his market business in spite of the lack of money, he keeps working with dignity even if he had to sleep outside for a while. There is much hope in Loach's movies; they invite the spectators to trust themselves through the characters, because they can identify easily with all of them. Again, this is very similar to existentialism; the possibility to act in order to be responsible of one's lot is related, in Loach's films, to the feeling of belonging to a society where action, collective or individual, is possible. As a consequence, preserving one's civic rights is fundamental, and Loach makes it his role to denounce when those rights are baffled. His movies are like pamphlets, with the help of images and "mise en scène".


[2] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941. First published in 1846.
[3] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 2.
[4] See  Emmanuel Mounier, Introduction aux Existentialismes. Paris, Gallimard, 1962
[5] in Robert Murphy (ed), British Cinema in the 90s (London, BFI Publishing, 2000), p183
[6] Interview with Simon Hattenstone, The Guardian, 28 Oct. 1998
[7] Jean-Paul Sartre, L'Existentialisme est un humanisme (Bussière à Saint-Amand, Folio essais, 1996), first published in Paris, Denoël, 1945.
[8] Simon Hattenstone, The Guardian, 28 Oct. 1998
[9] See Lester Friedman, Fires were started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (London, UCL Press, 1993), p17: "Thatcher vowed to reduce the regulatory role of government and bureaucracy, attacking welfare state dependency by reducing social spending (…). She also aided the wealthy by easing the capital gains tax and cutting the top tax rate on earned income."
[10] Jean-Paul Sartre, L'existentialisme est un humanisme, p30.
[11] Jean-Paul Sartre, L'Existentialisme est un humanisme, p.29
[12] Jean-Paul Sartre, L'Existentialisme est un humanisme, p.29
[13] Vincent Ostria, "Entretien avec Ken Loach", Cahiers du Cinéma n° 484, Oct 1994, p.36
[14] Simon Hattenstone, The Guardian, 28 Oct 1994.


Table of contents INTRODUCTION