Film Review: The Revolutionary

Film-length interview with Sidney Rittenberg, an American who became a high-ranking Chinese Communist, is artistically anemic but provides a thrillingly unique viewpoint on the disillusion and terror of the 20th century’s most tragic revolution.

The story of how a well-meaning Southern boy became hopelessly entangled in the soaring rhetoric and idealism, as well as the Medici-like intrigues and slaughters, of the Chinese Revolution makes for a thoughtful essay topic but an undercooked documentary. Sidney Rittenberg was a smart, idealistic kid from a prominent Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina, who became a labor and civil-rights activist during the 1930s. The wartime draft sent him into a Chinese-language program at Stanford, which he graduated from after peace had been declared. Rittenberg went to China anyway, first as a soldier and later an observer for a United Nations relief organization. Falling quickly under the romantic spell of the Chinese Communist party, he answered their request to be an “engineer” to “build a bridge from the Chinese people to the American people.” It’s a bridge that Rittenberg, who would ultimately spend some 15 years in solitary confinement, never quite managed to build. “History rolled right over me,” he says. “I wanted to be a revolutionary.”

The Revolutionary is little more than an hour-and-a-half interview with Rittenberg, punctuated only by the occasional break for visual relief from propaganda posters and some blackouts assumedly timed for public-television broadcast. But Rittenberg, in his 90s during the making of the film, makes for a witty subject, with his reedy accent, jocular humor, and honest appraisal of his own naïve assumptions about the titanic forces that Chairman Mao—whom he memorably defines as “a great hero…and a great villain”—would unleash. He also has the advantage of having a high vantage point in the Chinese Communist Party, which he joined with no hesitation after a 45-day, 500-mile hike into the interior of China to meet Mao.

Initially, Rittenberg seems to be a man still under the spell of the party’s great experiment. He is unstintingly generous in his appraisal of the party’s revolutionary intentions early on, humanizing the leaders with memories of watching movies with them at the American mission; Laurel and Hardy were a favorite with these men, including those like Mao who would later lambast such things as counterrevolutionary trash. Like them, Rittenberg was a true believer. Even his first six years spent in prison, after Joseph Stalin fingered him in 1949 as an American spy, didn’t dim his enthusiasm for the Revolution: “I was part of a movement for human progress, I thought.”

Later on, Rittenberg is more unstinting in his critique of the brutal excesses of Mao’s different programs. He describes how in the famine-inducing Great Leap Forward of the early 1960s, Mao first announced a relaxing of limits on speech, only to then round up all the intellectuals who took him at his word and spoke out. It’s the Cultural Revolution that followed, though, which makes for Rittenberg’s most fascinating material. He paints a caricature of himself as a high-ranking official blessed with unimaginable luxuries like travel and hot water who can’t imagine that the fairytales of upward progress and ever-present threats from counterrevolutionaries aren’t true. His take on the Cultural Revolution being a dark mirror to the Protestant Reformation—Mao having unleashed his youthful cadres with their Little Red Books of his sayings to demolish the formal structure of the Communist Party—is a thoughtful one that tries to find a method behind the savagery of its mob violence.

By limiting itself so severely to just Rittenberg’s take on things (his second wife appears very briefly, and is only named in an offhand fashion), and crafting itself in such a cheap and infomercial-like manner, The Revolutionary makes itself a curiosity of a text for foreign-service junkies rather than a fully imagined documentary in its own right.