Regen (Rain) is a black-and-white short film by Joris Ivens and Mannus Franken about a rain shower in Amsterdam. As a masterpiece of Dutch avant-garde cinema, it is an impressionist and lyrical example of a city symphony, a film form that organizes urban images according to musical guidelines by combining experimental, documentary and narrative techniques. In 1932 Ivens asked Lou Lichtveld to write a score for the originally silent film, and a second sound version was made by Hanns Eisler in 1941. The film shows the effects of a natural phenomenon on the modern city with its motorized traffic and crowds, and reveals the transforming and aesthetic qualities of this everyday event by depicting the city before, during and after the rain. In a poetic play of light and shadow, reflection and refraction, the film studies the urban textures and semi-transparent surfaces such as skylights, tram windows and canals. During the rain shower, the entire city is covered with a second, semi-reflecting surface, generating a new and modern mediated vision not unlike cinematic perception. Reflected images appear on rain-soaked streets, puddles and canals. The city becomes a screen that Ivens’s camera uncovers and doubles.
Joris Ivens (Georg Henri Anton Ivens), nicknamed “The Flying Dutchman” for his globe-trotting career, was a Dutch documentary maker. His political commitment and deft use of montage helped to shape documentary practice as he recorded and championed generally leftist political causes on every continent but Antarctica. Ivens was born in Nijmegen, Holland, to a prosperous Catholic family who ran a photographic supplies business. While studying to take charge of the family business, Ivens became both politically active and fascinated with film culture. In 1927 he helped to found the Amsterdam Filmliga [Film League], which brought him into contact with avant-garde films of the day and with visiting filmmakers, including Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin. A Filmliga visit to Berlin experimental abstract animator Walter Ruttmann (1887–1941) allowed Ivens to see Ruttmann’s new documentary feature, Berlin, die Sinfonie der Grosstadt [Berlin, Symphony of a Great City] (1927), one of the first films to attempt to portray a city solely through edited shots of urban life and physical details. The film’s influence on Ivens persisted throughout his career.
Joris Ivens made his first documentary films in the late 1920s, working alone with a hand-held 35 mm camera. In 1945 he commented that the time of the one-man documentary was over, such were the complications of script, sound, cameras, editing, commentary and music. Even a team of two or three people could not manage it. By 1967 he had thought again, and concluded that technical changes made documentary something for a small team, “a collective of people who understand each other”. (1) Now, 16 years after Ivens’ death, we are back to his starting point, and one person can quite easily make a documentary on his or her own, from the images and sound to the editing and even the production and distribution.
But the idea of what a documentary should be has changed radically, and much of Ivens’ work sits uneasily with present ideas. Now that the camera can be grafted to the documentarist’s eye, with practically unlimited video time, anything other than recorded observation, with direct sound, is considered to be in bad faith. Such films are constructed from what is “seen”, during a lived experience. If there is commentary at all, it is personal, the subjects explaining themselves or the filmmaker voicing his or her thoughts and feelings.
In contrast, Ivens’ films were often scripted, with events reconstructed or acted out, the better to tell a story or to deliver a political message. More often than not, the sound was designed in a studio, with a commentary and score to explain or accentuate what is on the screen. If the story demanded, newsreel footage would be pressed into service, in some cases making up the majority of the film.
Technical and economic constraints meant that Ivens had to work in this way, and in order to embark on a film at all he had to make concessions to both his camera and the film’s “sponsors” (whether governments, unions, companies or political organisations). But in many ways Ivens was aiming for the same result as today’s observational documentarist: to put on screen what is seen or felt during a lived experience. That these experiences were frequently political in nature leads his films to be classed as either militant polemic or propaganda, depending on the political persuasion of the critic. But they are all faithful to the underlying idea that there is a human reality that can be captured on film and shared.
The people who make digital, observational documentaries sometimes appear to have forgotten that they are a part of cinema, and that they can draw on all of the techniques and strategies that cinema provides, without betraying the goal of objectivity. Ivens never forgot this, never ceased to experiment and update his repertoire. If he had lived to see the digital age, it is unlikely that he would have been content to press record and wait for something to happen.
BeginningsGeorge Henri Anton Ivens was born in 1898, in Nijmegen, a Dutch town close to the German border. His father owned a series of photographic shops, and it was with a view to joining the family business that Ivens – Joris to his friends – studied economics in Rotterdam, photochemistry in Berlin, camera construction in Dresden and lenses in Jena. When he returned to run the family store in Amsterdam in 1924 he was under the spell of the artistic life he had experienced in Berlin, of which the cinema was an integral part. During his time in Berlin he particularly recalled seeing the films of GW Pabst, EA Dupont and FW Murnau.
Amsterdam offered a rich cultural life, although it was not always possible to see the latest experimental films. Inspired by a private screening of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mat (Mother) (1926), Ivens and his friends started the Filmliga, a society dedicated to showing films that for artistic or political reasons were not otherwise distributed in the Netherlands. This included the abstract films of Walter Ruttmann and Hans Richter, René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924), Germaine Dulac’s La Coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman) (1928), plus the films of Alexander Dovzhenko, Sergei Eisenstein and Alberto Cavalcanti. Among the earliest documentaries, the Filmliga screened Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and, later, Victor Turin’s Turksib (1929). More importantly, carrying out the Filmliga’s business allowed Ivens to meet many of these directors in person.
In a family of photographers it is unsurprising that Ivens came early to filmmaking, and the beginning of his filmography is made up of intimate home movies, plus De Wigwam (Wigwam) (1912), a school-boy Western made with family and friends. His decision to make films of a more serious sort came from the combined experience of the avant-garde films being shown by the Filmliga and the work he had to do selling cameras for his father. Through 1927 and 1928 he embarked on a number of film experiments exploring techniques of subjective filming, including a bar seen through the bottom of a beer glass, and attempts to replicate the movement of walking and ice-skating. Alongside these experiments he also discussed fiction projects, although these never got beyond screen tests of an actress friend.
Stolen HoursHis first completed film is similarly a search for a visual language. De Brug (The Bridge) (1928) is based on a systematic analysis of the movements of a railway bridge in Rotterdam that can be raised and lowered to let a boat pass underneath. He chose this subject because it repeated the same action over and over, and would be the same every time he could snatch an hour from work (and a few metres of film) to go and shoot it.
The film announces its agenda from the very start, with a presentation of three different views of the camera itself, as if in a technical drawing. It then proceeds to examine the bridge from all angles, up and down its towers, along the rails, in amongst the winding gear. But alongside this inevitable, almost abstract mechanical process is a story: a train is speeding towards the city; it must stop and wait for the bridge to be raised; when the bridge descends, it can continue on its way. For all his analysis, Ivens cannot give himself up entirely to the abstract.
The same can be said of Regen (Rain) (1929). At the visual level it is an abstract exploration of water falling on water: rain on the wet streets of Amsterdam, on the canals, on the bonnets of cars, and so on (including, it seems, on the skylight above Ivens’ bed). As with The Bridge, the film was shot over many months, although this time the subject was not the same every time Ivens went back. Is it therefore a greater leap to construct from this material, as Ivens did, a film that tells the story of one rainstorm over Amsterdam? Perhaps, if the sole aim is abstract analysis. But if your aim is documentary, to represent the lived experience of a rainstorm, the leap is essential.
The result of the film club experience was that young filmmakers saw the great possibilities that the cinema had to offer, without being encumbered by conventions or genres. They had strong feelings about what was and was not good filmmaking, but almost no sense of anything being out of bounds. In a world where newsreels were made by cameramen standing a respectful distance from the event in question, it was obvious that a better film could be made by using close-ups, by moving along with the action, as in fiction films or in the purely abstract.
Ivens was no different, and it is possible to see his early films as a complete cinematic response to a particular situation. This approach can be seen in the fiction film Branding (Breakers) (1929), made between The Bridge and Rain in collaboration with Mannus Franken, who dealt with script and actors while Ivens took control of the camera. He adapts the dramatic camera angles of Soviet political cinema to a pair of lovers walking in the sand dunes, shoots “newsreel” footage of villagers going to church on a Sunday, and takes his camera into the sea to follow a suicidal fisherman who has lost his fiancée (and almost everything else) to the village pawnbroker. In this story one can also see the first stirrings of social themes in Ivens’ films, later developed in an account of poverty in the bogs of Drenth, a film now lost. (2)
Working and Not WorkingThe success of The Bridge, and later Rain, brought Ivens commissions to make films from the Dutch Building Workers’ Union and for companies in the Netherlands and beyond. He fulfilled these by setting up a film production unit within his father’s company and recruiting a team of collaborators from among his friends. This group included Helene Van Dongen and John Fernhout, who went on to have long careers in cinema in their own right.
For the union Ivens made a series of films known collectively as Wij Bouwen (We Are Building) (1930), which, when screened together, last for several hours. The aim was to promote the work of the union, celebrate the work of Dutch builders, and encourage a sense of solidarity pride among members. Some of these films simply show building methods, such as pouring concrete to make a floor in a building or driving piles, the various methods explored from all angles in the same way (and to the same effect) as in The Bridge. Others show the activities in the union’s head office, its summer camps, or surveyed recent Dutch architecture. While there are longueurs in this work there are also striking sequences, such as destitute workers queuing to receive union assistance.
Among these films one stands out, and has had the strongest independent existence. Zuiderzeewerken (Zuiderzee Works) describes the methods with which the Dutch set about reclaiming land from the vast northern inland sea, building dykes, pumping out water and creating new agricultural land. Its worth as a historical document is undisputed, the harsh manual labour it shows is clearly more shocking now than it would have been at the time. A key sequence shows the workers weaving a huge wooden raft, which is dragged out into open water and sunk as an anchor for a dyke – sunk with hundreds of rocks thrown by hand from the accompanying barges. Again Ivens wraps up the abstract examination of processes with a story, the race to close a particular section of dyke, man and his machines against the sea.
Throughout We Are Building, Ivens makes sure that the worker is shown alongside his work, that the camera shows his point of view. Ivens was always particularly gratified when workers told him after seeing the films that this was how they saw the work, and even more so when a Soviet worker accused him of lying when he claimed to have directed a scene of rock breaking, because a bourgeois could never have shown so well how it felt. (3) But it is also striking that Ivens includes the workers eating and sleeping, putting down their tools and leaving work as well as the work itself. His sympathy with his subject informs the images. - Ian Mundell
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