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On 28 January 1919, at the height of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, about a hundred people gathered in a small hall in Munich to hear the sociologist Max Weber deliver a lecture. Towards the end of his oration, which was later revised, expanded and published under the title ‘Politics as Vocation’, Weber described politics as “a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” His lecture examines the sphere of the political from the perspective of the leader: the individual who “with both passion and perspective” continues to pursue their goals despite being confronted by the resistance of a world which “from his point of view is too stupid or base for what he wants to offer.” Fresh from his own electoral defeat in the wake of a botched campaign to become a representative for the liberal German Democratic Party, Weber dismissed nine out of ten politicians he had encountered as “windbags who do not fully realise what they take upon themselves but who intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations.”[1] Only occasionally, Weber tells his audience, only very rarely, do we encounter an individual who truly recognises the depth of the responsibilities of political activity, who truly combines in himself an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility, and who—despite the opposition he experiences, despite the resistance of the hard boards—continues to patiently and slowly work towards his aims.

Weber’s formulation was later used for the title of a collection of 133 short stories by Alexander Kluge, published in German as Das Bohren harter Bretter (translated by Wieland Hoban into English in 2017 as Drilling Through Hard Boards). In these stories, Kluge meditates on the realm of the political; not just the political actions and intentions of political leaders, but the people around those leaders: diplomats, assistants, advisors, party administrators and functionaries, minor bureaucrats. In one of the pieces in this volume, a reported conversation with a fictional “experienced politician” called Gertrud Reinicke, Kluge writes that, despite the appeal of Weber’s phrase, politics is in fact about “letting things happen”:

Only through contact with the matter itself could an opposing movement, a political intervention, be initiated. Politics is not action but reaction. People themselves are active. And again: if the answer was too hard, one looked for the soft spot right next to it where a compromise was possible. In that sense, she added, it was never really a matter of trying to operate on something rigidly resistant. She would not liken political practice as she knew it to drilling away at something hard. That would be uncommunicative.[2]

Politics, as it appears today, is not sitting alone, working meticulously and slowly to bore a hole through all resistance. It is remaining in the constant stream of information and communication; seeking out compromise, speedy resolution, forward momentum.

Where does politics happen? What does it look like when it’s happening? What are the conditions necessary for politics to happen in a developed capitalist state in the early decades of the twenty-first century? We might think that politics is everywhere; that every act of ours, in some way or other, has political ramifications and inflections. We might equally think of politics as a distinct and perhaps rarefied sphere of human action; a sphere of activity which unfolds at particular times, in particular places and with the participation of particular people. It might also be tempting to think of politics as the appearance and mobilisation of bodies in a public place: politics is what happens on the picket line, at the protest, in the occupation. These are certainly political moments, events at which anybody can enter into the sphere of politics. But these moments are occasional, erratic, and the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time politics involves meetings. It happens behind closed doors, in air-conditioned rooms with neutral carpeting, with glasses of water on the table, with a projector and a keyboard and mouse, maybe a lectern, with notepads and pens and speeches and presentations and graphs and polite agreement to defer some of the decisions until another—later—meeting.

Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall (2020) is a four-and-a-half-hour long examination of the daily functioning of Boston’s City Hall. A significant portion of the film follows then-mayor Marty Walsh (since appointed to the role of Secretary of Labor under Joe Biden’s presidency) as he attends meetings with various community groups, meetings with organisations of future leaders, meetings with civic organisations, meetings with the veterans association, meetings about climate change, meetings about social justice, meetings about housing projects, meetings about a celebratory parade after the Boston Red Sox win a World Series, meetings about racial inequality, meetings about transportation, meetings about the homeless population, meetings about drug addiction, meetings about investment, meetings with striking nurses, and meetings about the need to organise other meetings. We see a fair amount of Marty Walsh speechifying. He’s quite a likeable figure: personable, down to earth, open about his past struggles with alcohol addiction and his childhood diagnosis of and recovery from cancer. Over the course of the film we spend a lot of time with Mayor Marty, and we see a well-meaning man trying his best in the face of social issues which will always exceed his capacity.

As with Wiseman’s previous work, City Hall has no narration, no plot, no storyline. Wiseman is an unobtrusive presence: he shoots with a small crew and accumulates an enormous amount of footage, which he then edits down to a more manageable 270 minutes or so. Paradoxically, his own invisibility has become characteristic of his style: once you’ve seen one of his films, which explore the behind-the-scenes activities of significant public institutions—At Berkeley (2013), which covers the debates and protests around tuition fee rises at the University of California, Berkeley; or National Gallery (2014) which captures the daily functioning of the museum in Trafalgar Square, for example—you will recognise the Wiseman touch anywhere. It is there almost fully formed in his first film, Titicut Follies (1967), a harrowing depiction of life in a state hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts, and he has persevered with more or less the same techniques and concerns throughout a career spanning almost fifty years.

Wiseman’s late style is not particularly different from that of the early Wiseman. If anything, contrary to the typical understanding of late style—a highly personal breaking-free from the constraints of the established social order by an artist in complete control of their medium; an oppositional refusal of reconciliation and closure—in Wiseman’s late works he is even less present than in the earlier films. Titicut Follies uses precise and rapid jump-cut editing in such a way that the viewer can’t help but feel revolted and horrified by the institutional treatment of the mentally unwell in the 1960s. In the early work Wiseman’s own opinions emerge, almost in spite of him, in the decisions taken in the editing room. With City Hall, on the other hand, it’s practically impossible to gauge what Wiseman makes of the meetings he’s filming. Wiseman places the camera in the room and leaves it rolling. The function of the editing is to condense the conversations that are taking place in these meetings, but he never rearranges chronology and he allows discussions (sometimes interminable discussions) to run their course. At times I felt like a lot of the meetings were comprised entirely of platitudes: the vocabulary of social justice mobilised in defence of the status quo. But is this my own critical projection, or is this what Wiseman wants us to think? Does Wiseman think Boston City Hall is an exemplar institution, a shining beacon of functional municipal democracy? This is the wrong question: a documentarian in a deep sense, Wiseman shows us what is happening and tries to withhold judgment. We can guess what he might think, but it has to remain a guess. The point, I suppose, is that we make up our own minds about these institutions, which are always flawed, always more complicated than we might imagine.

Many of Wiseman’s films are undeniably boring. At least, that has usually been my experience of them. But it is not the kind of boredom that makes me want to do something else, or turn the film off. It is not an irritating boredom. Instead, to watch one of Wiseman’s films is to enter into a particularly dense relation with duration and endurance. If you believe what you read on social media, the last twelve months or so have completely depleted many people’s ability to focus on anything for more than five minutes. The pervading atmosphere of distracted tension, boredom, and frustration has eviscerated attention spans. Who can read a whole book? Who can watch anything longer than a TikTok? In these conditions, it is not easy to sit down to a film as long as City Hall. Watching it felt like a perverse challenge in stamina and attention. City Hall is also a film depicting a world before COVID-19: the civic structure of Boston City Hall going about its normal business with no anticipation of the catastrophe that’s just around the corner. This gives it the feeling of a time capsule: nearly five hours without spotting a single face mask or bottle of hand sanitiser.

Despite its occasional tedium, then, there is a kind of comforting feeling of normality to the experience of watching City Hall: this is a glimpse of the pre-pandemic world to which many people would love to return. Perhaps this is where the actual politics of the film might start to emerge a little. City Hall was filmed during Trump’s presidency: a period which—in the imaginations of the establishment liberals of the Democratic Party—was an aberration to be speedily resolved by a return to business as usual: a return achieved, in some eyes, by the election of Joe Biden. Wiseman has said in interviews that since the politicians depicted in his film actually believe in democratic norms, it can fairly be interpreted as an anti-Trump film. The subsequent appointment of Marty Walsh in Biden’s government is important: Walsh’s pre-mayoral background is that of a union bureaucrat; he’s on the side of organised labour, but in a way that is not exactly threatening to the current state of industrial relations. City Hall depicts a world of hard-working and well-intentioned administrators and civil servants engaged in a significant effort to improve living conditions in the city of Boston. It is clear that the task is above them—would perhaps be above any group of people, no matter how good their intentions—but they stick at it regardless, slogging away at thankless administrative work.

More than anything, City Hall reminded me of a period in my life a few years ago when, in a state of sloth, I binge-watched The West Wing: that load-bearing wall of the stable liberal fantasy of a benign and competent government. In City Hall we see communication, discussion, compromise: the kind of forward momentum which seems to go nowhere, which achieves very little. We see a particular kind of politics in action: the well-oiled machine of the municipality ticking over, running more or less smoothly. If there’s a crisis, it can usually be dealt with by a series of actionable points decided by various functionaries. Wiseman’s film offers viewers a deep and lengthy insight into a world of communicative rationality, and it is a remarkable achievement. But the world depicted appears to be one of very little action and very little change: the main ambitions in Boston City Hall are a return to normality, a sustaining of the conditions which themselves have lead to the problems the city’s civil servants are working so hard to resolve. Here the political manifests itself in a state of perpetual activity. But what does this constant busyness actually achieve? And is it enough?


Max Weber, “Politics as Vocation” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (Routledge, 1948), pp. 127–28.

[2] Alexander Kluge, Drilling Through Hard Boards, translated by Wieland Hoban (Seagull Books, 2017), p. 8.


Andrew Key lives in Sheffield and works in social care. He writes the Roland Barfs Film Diary. Other work has appeared in It’s Freezing in LA!, New Socialist, 3:AM Magazine, Splice and Review31, among other publications.