An astounding performance by Sidney Rittenburg as he describes his loving and horrific 35 year relationship with Communist China.
Irv Drasdin’s documentary consists of an unvarnished straight up interview with Sidney Rittenburg, the only American ever to have joined the Chinese Communist Party. An unlikely candidate for the role of international provocateur, Rittenburg led one of the most fascinating lives imaginable.
Born in 1921, American Rittenburg became a political activist as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina and led significant American labor movements. This might well have been his life, had not the US Government thrust him into a new plan. Although he had only a passing interest in China, the US Army threw a Chinese language textbook in front of him and put him into military training as a Chinese specialist. In his own words, he fell in love with the Chinese language. The die was cast.
Although he entered the war too late to be a part of it, Rittenburg arrived in China just in time for the Chinese revolution. He met Mao Zedong in 1946 and in the course of Mao’s 6000 Mile March to his guerrilla base in the caves of Ya’nan province was won over by charisma and romance of the communist revolution. After Mao gained control, he recruited Rittenburg to build a “bridge” to America, in retrospect, probably as a hedge against the increasing Soviet influence in China.
By 1949 he was a confident of the inner most power structure of the China’s emerging controlling political party. Nominally a member of the Communist Party, he received what was to be the shock of his life when he was falsely denounced by Stalin as a capitalist conspirator in 1949. The political forces of time dictated his fate and he spent five years in solitary confinement, released only when the lunatic Stalin died in 1955.
The lucidity with which Rittenburg describes this event and others like it is enthralling. He was a wide-eyed, enthusiastic socialist when he was publically denounced by those he considered his comrades and sentenced to a life that frequently drove its victims insane.
In his own words, he sat across from his insanity, in his cell, and listened to those around him being driven mad by the physical and psychological brutality visited on them daily. Perhaps he was driven insane at that time, and was insane throughout this entire film.
In any event, his description of his life and times is extremely, even astoundingly, clear and lucid. His monologue is consistently as clear, unvarnished and void of self as a news broadcast by Edward R. Murrow, amplifying the extraordinary events that followed.
His release from prison crystalized his place in Mao’s China. He was given a key position of leadership in the country’s Broadcast Administration, in charge of the English-language section of Radio Beijing, a key propaganda position. Even more incredibly, he demanded and was granted full membership in the Communist Party. From 1955 he had access to classified documents, and was firmly cemented into the forge of Chinese political policy.
In 1957 Mao instituted the “100 Flowers Bloom” program that founded many schools of the arts and further underscored the importance of the Broadcast Administration, Rittenburg rode this wave and further anchored his position as part of the ruling elite. He became one of the elite of Chinese society, a unique amalgam of American culture and Chinese indoctrination, a revered darling of the political and propaganda ruling class.
However, there were ground swells of trouble as traditionalists scorned the new China. When the Cultural Revolution came in 1966, intellectuals like Rittenburg, and especially foreign intellectuals like him, were the first go and were accorded special abuse and condemnation.
During his next nine years of solitary confinement in prison from 1968 to 1977 he would experience and witness psychological torture that would render many of his fellow prisoners walking dead to this day. In 1976 Mao died, the Gang of Four was arrested and Rittenburg was released. He returned to America, virtually penniless, but started a flourishing Chinese business consultancy that has developed into a key business with the emerging dominance of the Chinese economic establishment.
His mixed feelings about his extraordinary life are reflected in the quote, “History rolled right over my body. I really think if I had gone to China and just worked in English and not had any part in politics and not joined the party I would have been able to make more of a contribution and do less damage. I think that’s true. But that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to be in the Party. I wanted to be a revolutionary.”
In the end, what he found was that he was never really a part of China, but an outsider valued for what he could provide at the time and place. Then, again, perhaps that is the role accorded to all Chinese, a place that most Westerners can barely conceive. Hero, sucker, cannon fodder or guiding light, the label will be up to you when you see this remarkable film.
Produced by: Irv Drasnin, Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers
Written by: Irv Drasnin
Featuring Sidney Rittenberg
Release Date: April 12, 2013
MPAA: Not Rated
Run Time: 90 Minutes