The old man, the hero of this tale, was born at the end of the last century, [i.e. the nineteenth century] in a land where man has striven to tame the sea and harness the wind. He travelled the 20th century, a camera in hand .He has witnessed the stormy history of our time.(1)
In 1988, Joris Ivens completed his final film, Une histoire de vent (A Tale of the Wind). It was co-directed with his partner, Marceline Loridan. It was 76 years since he had made his first film, De Wigwam (Wigwam) in 1912. In between he made over fifty films – some were short, some were multi-part works, others more traditional feature length. He filmed in Europe, Asia, Australia, and America – North and South. He made the definitive documentary on the Spanish Civil War, as well as documenting the USSR’s early moves to Socialism, the Japanese invasion of China at the end of the 1930s, the Vietnamese war with USA, and the transformation of China under Mao, and Cuba under Castro. As in the words quoted above from the start of A Tale of the Wind, Joris Ivens can truly be called the man who documented the twentieth century.
But he did not have a straightforward career of acclaim and glory. He had films banned, or mutilated. Many of his films were clearly in support of Communist regimes around the world, and this almost automatically meant vilification and harassment at the time of the Cold War. His own Dutch Government withdrew his passport over his attacks on Dutch colonialism.
Towards the end of his life, however, he regained official respect and recognition, with his passport returned and honours from the Dutch Government. A Tale of the Wind was screened at the Venice Film Festival in 1988. And now, in his home town of Nijmegen, Holland, the European Foundation Joris Ivens preserves and restores, nurtures and celebrates his rich filmmaking career. One of its activities has been the publishing of a five-disc DVD set, a selection of over 15 hours of his films from his first to his last, from 1912 to 1988, from Europe to Australia, from Chile to China. It is a rare chance to assess his career, as well as to revisit some of the seminal events of the twentieth century.
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Joris Ivens was born in 1898 in the Dutch town on Nijmegen, into a family that had already been photographers for two generations.
My grandfather had started to make portraits with the invention that Daguerre had generously given to anyone who wanted to work with it: those penetrating portraits of quiet people where pose and expression counted for more than drama and originality.
His son, my father, studied the further developments of photography to establish a commercial base: selling apparatus, photographic materials and beginning a chain of camera shops. There was never any question but that I would follow him in the business, so from my first hour I was tied to photography. (2)
This privileged access to cameras directly resulted in his first film, De Wigwam, made in 1912, when Joris was just into his teen years. Under his direction, his family members play out a story of Indians attacking peaceful settlers. If it is reminiscent of anything, it is the early Biograph shorts made by D.W. Griffith and other Biograph house directors at the time, as well as the then very popular books of James Fenimore Cooper and Karl May. Simple and unsophisticated, one element seems a portent of the films to come. Most of the action is shot at a fixed distance from the drama; we see the figures, but don’t get close to the faces, so we don’t get a sense of these figures as people – Indians and white settlers both. This may seem much to expect from a teenager making a film when the cinema itself was only a few years older than he was. But this distance from the people in his films is an interesting characteristic of his later films, something he attempted to overcome. (3)
It is almost a miracle that this film still survives, given its age, and the sad fate of so many films from that era, as well as the potential risk it must have faced to last through the impact of two World Wars on the Netherlands. Its inclusion in this set (in an original version, and a 1931 reworking) makes it a fitting starting point for this overview of Ivens’ career in film.
As a youth, Ivens was in the Army Reserves during World War I. After the war, his studies were chosen with a view of joining the family business. After studying aspects of economics and trade he went to Berlin, to the University of Charlottenburg to study technical aspects of photography. Unsurprisingly, Ivens in his autobiography, The Camera and I, recalls the seminal impact of this experience on him.
Four years after the armistice Berlin was an exciting place to be, both in a good and bad way. There was intense political activity, ranging from the fight and search for a new permanent form of democracy to the bitter reaction which became the basis for fascism. Upheaval and conflict expressed in a vast cultural and artistic activity, produced not one, but a dozen revolutionary styles of painting. It was the time of Expressionism and Dadaism… It was the time of experiment in architecture, in poetry, in theatre and in music. … The names of [Arnold] Schönberg, [Paul] Hindemith and [Hans] Eisler were known not just in Germany, but throughout Europe. (4)
During this period, Ivens marched alongside workers in Dresden, “the first German battle against fascism,” (5) and saw a lot of films, including “the first important work of [F.W.] Murnau, and of [G.W.] Pabst: Der Letzte Mann [The Last Laugh, 1924] and Die Freudlose Gasse [The Joyless Street, 1926]; realistic films, social films, ‘art films’. My interest in those days was that of an ordinary spectator. I never identified these complex productions of studio and theatre with my own life.” (6)
But he surely was not an ordinary spectator. The family background had without doubt made him more alert to the techniques of filmmaking. With access to equipment from his father’s photographic firm, he started experimenting with making films. He was also involved in organising the Filmliga, a film society for friends also fascinated by the new, sometimes avant-garde, films being made at the time. Some of these (for example, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Мат (Mother, 1926) were being banned by the Dutch censor for public exhibition. These Filmliga screenings opened Ivens to new cinematic techniques and ideas, as well as to the political, social and cultural ideas and values being explored in these works.
Several of his “studies” are still extant, such as a four minutes long Études des mouvements á Paris (Studies of Movement in Paris, 1927). Silent, this looks at examples of hectic, metropolitan motion in Paris, from a range of camera positions – at ground level or a bird’s eye view, from a driver’s point of view, from a fixed camera or a mobile camera shooting from inside a car. These are, as the title indicates, simply studies, but with the passing of over eighty years, they have become something more, a fascinating record of Parisian streets over eighty years ago.
The learning from these studies is reflected in several films he made on the cusp of the sound film. De Brug (The Bridge, 1928) is a portrait of the Hefbrug, Koningshaven in Rotterdam. Regen (Rain, 1929) is a poetic representation of the passage of a rain storm over the city. Philips Radio (1931) is a commercial, commissioned piece that today we would call a PR film. And Nieuwe Gronden (New Earth, 1933) is a record of one of the great engineering/infrastructure projects of the early twentieth century, the reclaiming of vast areas of land from the North Sea in the Zuiderzee project.
All films reflect a fascination in, and innate understanding of, geography, the relationship of elements of a city, or a landscape, the impact of urban spaces on people and how people fit into an environment. The Hefbrug, the subject of The Bridge, is not a specially beautiful or monumental bridge. But Ivens’ achievement is to convey the importance of this bridge for the whole of Rotterdam. We have a sense of the commercial imperatives behind the bridge, and the intricacy of the mechanism needed to swing the bridge or raise the rail decking to allow ships to pass through. There is always a solid sense of context throughout the 14 minutes of the film. It opens with shots of a camera and cameraman, immediately establishing a point of view for what follows. Again we have a mix of close-ups, and long shots, bird’s eye views and low angles. The sense of the bridge’s structure, its ways of operating, how it fits into the overall transport infrastructure of the city – all are conveyed through the visuals. It is a powerful example of how a silent film can convey its message without words.
The Bridge was, as Ivens recognized, an important learning experience for him. In making it, he came up with procedures that helped him edit his material. He learned how to film movement. And he learned the overriding importance of knowing your material.
I learned that when you film repetitive movement such as the action of a counterweight on the bridge, you have to observe this for a longer time and with greater attention than you would think. I learned from The Bridge that prolonged and creative observation is the only way to be sure of selecting, emphasising, and squeezing everything possible out of the rich reality in front of you. The filmmaker’s discovery that he was not smart enough the day before is more depressing than in any other medium of art.
…Space, light, height, wind and open air does not appear in a shot of its own accord, it has to be put there. There are lots of in between stages from shooting to public projection – developing, printing, editing, commentary, sound effects, music. At each stage the effect of the shot can be changed but the basic content must be in the shot to begin with. (7)
Branding (Breakers, 1929) was a “simple love story of unemployed fishermen filmed in Katwyk, a small coastal fishing village. It was co-directed with Mannus Franken and is only represented in the DVD set by scenes in several extra items. The bad weather the crew experienced in shooting Breakers inspired Ivens next film, Rain. Or perhaps Rain reveals how much Ivens was fascinated by natural phenomena – almost forty years later he would set out to film the wind.
How do you “know” the rain? Is it a hand stretched out to feel the first drops? Or holding an umbrella? The way the rain turns the pavement into a mirror, the splash when a car goes past or a downpipe overflowing? As in The Bridge Ivens uses images shot from almost every imaginable angle and position to explore the sense of a city passing from sun to rain and back to a clear sky with the birds returning to their perches on the railings.
These early films had been made using the resources of the family photographic business, often shooting at weekends. Further experimentation followed, notwithstanding the extremely positive reception of both The Bridge and Rain in avant-garde and cultural circles at the time. One uncompleted experiment attempted to see if a completely subjective film could be made. “The camera has to be completely subjective, not just moving freely in space observing action as a third person. …The lens becomes the human eye… The experiment was finally stopped when we realized that it would be too expensive to do it properly.” (8)
Russian director Vsevolod Pudovkin had visited Holland to introduce his film Mother to the Filmliga, and had seen Rain as a work in progress at that time. This resulted in an invitation for Joris Ivens to visit USSR, a visit that eventually led to a film about a major Soviet industrial enterprise. But before making this, Ivens accepted a 1931 commission to make in effect an early example of the Public Relations film, Philips Radio. This monitors many of the manufacturing processes at the large Philips electrical plant in Eindhoven. Perhaps most fascinating is to watch the glass-blowers making the large valves that were then part of radio sets.
Ivens was subject to a number of restrictions, including a ban on filming in the homes of workers. He had been interested in visiting the home of a glass blower, “or some other workman in the plant, to show his personal life, and what he did with his salary. I was told that it could not be part of the film… As the film progressed I found the conditions and restrictions conflicting more and more with my own convictions…. I knew that Eindhoven was actually a company town, that the wages were low and that the workers were far from satisfied.” (9)
Philips Radio shows Ivens reacting to the new technology of sound film. The title is not presented as a title card, but spoken, for example. A particularly pertinent music score (Lou Lichtveld) underlies the whole film, supplemented at telling moments with sounds of production or traffic. But otherwise, much of the storytelling is stubbornly silent-film. Different sections or processes are introduced by title cards, and there is no narration. It is, overall, a corporate film, its emphasis fully on the manufacturing processes of the factory, with a sense of marvel at its modernity. We do see workers involved in these processes, but not in a way that invites us to see them as anything but as units in the factory.
Many of these qualities are repeated in the film he was to make next, in USSR , Komsomol. (1933). (10) Again, he focused on an aspect of industrialisation, as it was occurring as part of a planned economy in the new, socialist way of organising labour and industry in USSR. His subject was a monumental enterprise, a centre for steel in Magnitogorsk in the Urals, with a focus on how the Communist Youth Organisation was involved in building a whole new industrial complex, with mining, smelting and all associated infrastructure.
There can be no doubt that this was an uplifting experience for Ivens, living with and filming enthusiastic young people, inspired by a belief in their country’s future. His film, however, is less inspiring. Again, he is fascinated with manufacturing, and he seamlessly conveys the processes involved from recruiting new workers from all round the Soviet Union, mining, and smelting, and ultimately manufacture (dramatised by the use of model tractors rolling off an assembly line.)
However, hanging over the whole film today is an unconvincing air of propaganda. A prologue characterizes capitalist countries in crisis with strikes and demonstrations. This has an element of truth – it was, after all, the height of the Great Depression. But the film is often filmed with an almost hysterical use of tilted camera, and images that almost anticipate Leni Riefenstahl’s work. We have title cards hailing the “enthusiastic and heroic” workers, although these characteristics are not particularly represented in the imagery of the film. Rather, these are people just doing factory work – no more, no less than those we saw in Philips Radio. This culminates in a highly wrought finale with the workers doing voluntary overtime at night to meet the benchmarks of their plan, replete with very cinematic flares lighting the scene, while they sing (happily) about doing the party’s bidding.
This time, the score is by Hans Eisler, who in a long career also wrote music for works by Bertolt Brecht, and was nominated for an Oscar for his score for Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die (1943). Natural sounds – a warning bell, an explosion, the sound of newly freed ore tumbling down a slope – become a part of this soundtrack. But narrative techniques are still, basically, those of the silent era, with title cards still being used to carry commentary or scene-setting information.
Back in Holland for his next film, his need to propagandise comes out again, in Nieuwe Gronden, about the massive project to reclaim land in the Zuiderzee. His camera is captivated with many aspects of the project – a pipe bubbling water, the pattern of the mud, the stones used to build the dyke. A key moment is the plugging of the dike. The dramatic editing, the music (again by Hans Eisler) create and sustain an atmosphere of suspense and excitement.
Then the project is complete, the land is reclaimed. A crop can now be planted on land that was once part of the sea-bed. This sequence is a fitting completion to the engineering project the film has been about. But Ivens adds a political coda. The wheat harvested from the reclaimed land is subject to speculation by international financiers. The capitalist system and the grain market collapse and while thousands starve a wealth of food is wantonly destroyed to protect the market. This final episode is a provocative way to conclude a film that has ostensibly been non-political. But it can be justified, and its accusations are still relevant today. The politics are better substantiated here than in Komsomol. The final scene of New Earth again features workers demonstrating in protest marches, practically a bookend with the opening sequence of Komsomol.
Borinage (1934), co-directed with Henri Storck, documents the misery in a Belgian mining community. The misery in the community was, to him, an embodiment of the failures of capitalism. Many strong images in the film act as a powerful indictment of the working conditions, and the way that the mine owners exploit their workers, and control all aspects of their lives. Ivens’ commitment is very strong. But some of his weaknesses are also now emerging clearly. He is aware of the need to give his subject a “story”, and to focus on the humanity of the people living this life. Some dramatised scenes are quite effectively restaged – such as an eviction – even though, in the mining town, he had problems finding anyone willing to impersonate the bailiff. But over all this, Ivens’ political tone is crushingly heavy. His camera seems to stay distant from the workers, and a sense of personality or individuality does not emerge, either in the film or its subjects. He imposes a prologue about the capitalist crisis (using stock footage of events such as the needless destruction of food) and end titles proclaiming that the only relief is through socialism. The final image is of Lenin. Three-quarters of a century later, it is a powerful document weakened by its propaganda.
The next decade was to bring his most memorable and important films. The Spanish Civil War was a cataclysmic world event. In the mid-thirties, Ivens was working in America, on a project for the Rockefeller Foundation. There one of his jobs was cutting pre-existing newsreels about the War. These seemed to be predominantly from the Franco forces. It is no surprise that Ivens’ sympathies were with the anti-Franco, Republican forces. Ivens sensed that the Republicans had no sense of the power of film as a weapon for international public opinion and support. This evolved into a project to make a documentary film about the war, from the Republican viewpoint. The result is the justly famous The Spanish Earth (1937)
The film has a simple, effective structure. It starts near a small village, and the dry land from which the peasants try to make a living. Irrigation would make it fertile, and allow it to grow food to defend Madrid. The village is also strategically important, because the road through it leads directly to Madrid. Battle sounds, and images of soldiers going into action make us aware of the greater conflict raging in the world outside the village. Ivens is aware of the power of giving his audience an emotional identification – and we are introduced to Julian, a peasant boy/soldier on leave. Ivens hoped to use Julian as a thin continuity line linking home and the front. For some scenes, such as Julian’s return to the village, he used re-enactment. He wanted more scenes with Julian, but in the heat of the war, Ivens was unable to locate him, later on, not knowing if he was wounded or killed. (11)
On its release, the film was certainly noticed. This was before television brought such conflicts into all homes every evening. For many, it was a work of great power, as well as effectively raising awareness that there even was a Civil War going on in Spain. There were critics of its partisan point of view. Ivens wrote, “I was surprised to find that many people automatically assumed that any documentary film would inevitably be objective. …Do we demand objectivity in the evidence presented at a trial? No, the only demand is that each piece of evidence be as full a subjective, truthful, honest presentation of the witness’s attitude as an oath on the Bible can produce from him.” (12)
Sound recording in the field was still primitive in 1936. This is a factor in the documentary style of the 1930s, when many films relied on a “voice of God” commentary to communicate most of the information. Ivens was sensitive to the role of such a commentary. Ernest Hemingway was an almost obvious choice to write it, and he was involved with Ivens and the film from early in the shooting. “He felt that if he was participating in the making of a documentary film, he had to stay with the crew no matter where they went or how dull it might be at times.” (13)
In an early, unreleased version Hemingway’s commentary was read by a young up-and-coming Broadway actor, Orson Welles. But sensing a dislocation between this sonorous voice and the experience of Spain, Ivens made a new version with Hemingway himself. The Welles’ version is included as an extra in the DVD set, confirming that Ivens made the correct decision to use Hemingway’s rougher, less polished, but “more authentic” voice.
Ivens now felt a strong sense of purpose in his work as a documentary filmmaker – as a militant filmmaker. “After informing and moving audiences, it should agitate-mobilize them to become active in connection with the problems shown in the film…. A documentary film maker has the sense of participating directly in the world’s most fundamental issues – a sense that is difficult for even the most conscious film maker working in a studio to feel.” (14)
In 1938 this commitment took him to China. “From the viewpoint of straight coverage of historic events, the Chinese film was the logical sequel to the Spanish film. Friends in New York and I felt that it was the same kind of fight: the people’s war in Spain against an aggressor, and the people’s war in China against Japan.” (15) The commentary tells us, “Europe and Asia have become the western and eastern front of the same assault on democracy.”
The resulting film, The 400 Million (1939) is very much a film of, and for, its time. It is clearly didactic, pro-Chinese/anti-Japanese Fascism. At a time when many in Europe and America would have had no real understanding or awareness of the nature or impact of Japan’s invasion of China, this is certainly appropriate. Scenes of bombing, bodies, rubble, fleeing refugees would have had a great impact on audiences not as inured to such images as today’s audiences. Again, in his filming and editing, Ivens creates an historical, a geographical, and a human context. Several important people such as Dr. Sun Yat Sen and Madame Chiang Kai-shek are featured. Contemporary audiences would have recognised them.
It covers a broad canvas, and moves smoothly over a vast range of material. There is no attempt at a personal story, such as of Julian in The Spanish Earth. But, in terms of clarity and communication for its contemporary audiences, that is not a problem. However, Ivens did bemoan the fact that many audiences were not interested in its subject. “The Nazis had just marched into Prague and the public didn’t realize that this was the same war, as the one we were showing in our film – or they didn’t want to know.” (16) Ironically, it also had problems with censorship in some American states, England and France, possibly still hesitant about giving offence to Japan.
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Pare Lorentz is a major figure in American documentary. The Plow That Broke the Plain (1936) and The River (1938) were commissioned by agencies of the American government to promote aspects of the New Deal. Lorentz was contacted by Pare Lorentz to make a film that would be known as Power and the Land (1940). Its purpose was to promote electrification of rural areas, especially farms. Its sponsor was the Rural Electrification Administration of the US Department of Agriculture. Ivens worked with a real family, contrasting their lives before and after electrification. We see milking by hand and by lamplight, harvesting, washing clothes, cooking the evening meal.
And yet, despite using real farmers, there is a cool disconnect with the people. Ivens’ camera is usually to one side, observing, not emotionally involved. In scenes such as the family at its evening meal, there is no real dramatic interaction within the family. There is little sense of eye-contact – with each other, or with the audience. It is an effective film, but it doesn’t transcend its material in the way that the two Pare Lorentz films do, or the way that Humphrey Jennings, working in England at the same time, could harness an emotive, personal quality in his wartime propaganda films.
Ivens was involved in other projects in USA during World War II, though several of these did not come to fruition, often due to factors connected with the war. The war also led to his next position. He was invited by the Dutch Government to head the Netherlands’ East Indies Film Commission. For this, Ivens came to Australia in 1945. Out of this appointment came the film Indonesia Calling (1946) – but it was not the film that the Dutch Government expected or wanted. Ivens’ sympathies were clearly for the peoples of the now-former Dutch East Indies, not the Europeans who wanted to re-assert colonial rule after the defeat of the Japanese occupiers. The story behind the film is now the subject of its own film, Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens in Australia (John Hughes, 2009).
Indonesia Calling documented the fight by the Indonesian people for their independence. As the commentary (written by Katherine Duncan (17) and spoken by Peter Finch) declares, “They are still fighting against Dutch blockade, forced agreements, unprovoked military aggression.” Ivens explored the impact of the Dutch colonial past, emphasizing the wealth taken from the islands over several centuries, for the benefit of the colonialists, not the Indonesians.
Technically, Ivens is evolving as cinema technologies develop. This has a much freer use of sound, for example. As well as the commentary (informative, and certainly not objective), sound from a range of sources is integrated – from a radio, from other film sources, or mixed in to highlight some of the dramatic re-enactments. This incorporation of re-enactments allows Ivens to conclude the film on an uplifting event, the march of unity across Sydney Harbour Bridge, with a mix of nationalities among the marchers, Australian servicemen, Asian seamen, and so on.
The film is seminal work, not only in Ivens’ work, but also in Australian film history. It is certainly one of the first overtly political films made and distributed in Australia. For this, there were attempts to ban it from overseas distribution. Moreover, most of the people involved in its production were subject to long, in some cases life-long, surveillance by Australia’s suspicious security bodies. This aspect is explored in depth in John Hughes’ strongly recommended film. Hughes has also written about this for Senses of Cinema. (18)
Interviewed by John Hughes, historian Graeme Cutts discusses a conversation he had with Joris Ivens. He asked Ivens how he felt about his film, seeing that Indonesia had developed into a repressive regime, as bad as the Dutch. Cutts reports Ivens as affirming that, “The film is made at that time, for that time…. What happens later is another kettle of fish.”
This comment, certainly a justifiable viewpoint, is relevant in looking at other works by Ivens. The polemical political comment in earlier films such as Komsomol, Borinage and New Earth is not comfortably integrated into other aspects of the films, and for viewers today limits these films impact. There is a sense of being lectured with slogans, rather than convinced with information. After making Indonesia Calling, and having his Dutch passport cancelled, he had to look elsewhere in the world for work. He made a number of films in the newly emerging ‘socialist democracies’ of Eastern Europe. (These are not represented in the DVD set.)
Later in the 1960s and 1970s he returned to Asia. In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war, he made Le 17ème Parallèle (The 17th Parallel). Here, when Western coverage of the war was dominated by American sources, was a voice representing the North Vietnamese, in a study of life for people living on the 17th parallel which marks the border between the two Vietnams. He shows us their resilience, their inventiveness in extracting resources from a downed bomber, and their ordinary daily life – washing their hair, children’s games. A scene of an American bombing attack is edited with clarity, and detail, and builds up a comprehensive impression of the impact of such an event on the lives of the people affected. At the same time, it is somewhat cool. There is no dramatic sense of tension or suspense, or an involved concern. This coolness marks the whole film. There is, for example, no non-diegetic music trying to move our emotions. True, this allows the logic of events to work to sway us, but it means we stay distant, that the film remains an artifact for its time, not something that has effectively acquired a value beyond that time.
Later Ivens returned to China, and made a monumental series of films about Mao’s China, under the heading Comment Yukong déplaça les montagnes (How Yukong Moved the Mountains, 1976). Two films from this collection are on the set, La pharmacie N° 3: Shanghai (The Pharmacy: Shanghai) and Une histoire de ballon: le lycée no 32 à Pekin (The Football Incident) Immediately, it is apparent how Ivens has adapted to, and adopted new documentary styles and equipment. There is no “voice 0f God” commentary, as in Spanish Earth, for example. Instead, there are some reflections made to seem like the musings of the person behind the camera, effectively personalising the point of view at the start. The camera is like a fly on the wall, filming aspects of everyday life, as though it were not there. In one case, it is the daily life of a pharmacy, in another an incident in a school where a student kicked a football after the bell for class.
The Pharmacy: Shanghai is about eighty minutes long, and allows us to observe many aspects of life in China in the 1970s. In the opening sequence, Ivens moves from ‘our’ view from our hotel window, down into the streets of Shanghai, where we pass people exercising in the parks, buying soup, packing parcels at the post office, before we reach our destination, the pharmacy. This ability to create a sense of location – apparent as early as The Bridge – is even more pronounced here. The film develops a detailed picture of a particular institution in Mao’s China, its staff, its clients, its way of operating, its management structure, and its relationship with the rest of society.
But Ivens is also profoundly unquestioning of what he is filming. In both films there are lengthy dramatic scenes of some of the most unconvincing political polemic. The joy with which participants involve themselves in public self-criticism seems to come more from Mao’s little red book than from their hearts. These are slogans and platitudes, not insightful reporting. This sense is magnified by the international version, where a single, monotonous voice-over translates all these lengthy conversations, instead of sub-titling.
In his last thirty years, Ivens made other films, with a less political purpose. These have lasted better, and demonstrate his ability to explore a city, a river, a piece of infrastructure, even a wind, in an all-encompassing way. La Seine a rencontré Paris (The Seine Meets Paris, 1957) is absolutely true to its title. This is the Seine, only where it passes through Paris. So we see cranes unloading barges on the city’s outskirts, until we reach the better known tourist domain of inner Paris. Here, we see tourists, or locals fishing from the embankments, or a fashion shoot. He is sensitive to the changing weather, too. It’s not all balmy, summery poster weather. At one point on our journey, a storm erupts stirring memories of Rain from almost thirty years earlier. For his commentary, he uses a poem by Jacques Prévert, spoken by Serge Reggiani.
…à Valparaiso (Valpairoso, 1963) finds Ivens working in South America, in Chile’s main port. This time, Chris Marker, better known for his own documentaries, writes the narration. In a short film, Ivens covers so much – the scenic and the social, urban problems and municipal uniqueness, its past and its present. (19) Ivens leaves viewers with a strong sense of the city and its hills and stairs, its cable cars, the climbing and descending, climbing and descending. His awareness of, and endorsement of, political activity is there in a scene of a Workers’ Committee discussing a problem of water supply. There is also a palpable sense of air, and the sea. And blood. An appropriately melodramatic scene in a café erupts into a knife duel over a game of cards – and the film erupts into colour. This smoothly links the present and the past, as Ivens uses images of the area’s bloody past, of Spanish explorers killing natives, and other foreign nationals exploiting the area. Cartoon images of Uncle Sam gleefully meddling in Latin America are like a portent of the CIA’s upcoming role in the fate of Salvador Allende. (And if you look carefully, you can even see Allende’s name on one of the street walls.)
A small boat out at sea leads us in the port of Rotterdam in Rotterdam – Europort (1966). Again, Ivens juxtaposes many images to build up an impression of a city. At times the breadth of things touched upon is surprising. Wartime, a football game, a deserted lane-way, a hang-glider, teens queuing for a Beatles movie. Many images do not build into traditional documentary-film sequences, but touch on much of humanity – domestic and industrial, now and the past, land and sea. His idea is that this one port is made up of so many elements. And perhaps the best link for all these elements is as intangible as the red hang-glider that flies through the final shots of the film.
In Pour le Mistral (For the Mistral, 1966) faces a difficult challenge, to make a film about something that cannot be seen – a wind. But Ivens knows how to create a sense of place – and a wind can perhaps only be sensed in relation to where it is blowing. The first quarter of the film is devoted to this role, with views of mountains, fields, barriers (we realise later) against the Mistral. When it does blow, we first sense it through dogs barking, seagulls battling against its force, a ship riding up and down in the now choppy sea. People have to resist the wind, carry on with life’s normal tasks like posting a letter or riding a bike. During the force of the mistral, the film bursts into colour (as in …à Valpariso), then some minutes later, the screen expands into full ‘Scope. At first, the ‘Scope images are abstract, rushing, embodying the impact of the wind.
And then, calm returns to the world. Aerial shots rhyme with images at the start of the film, the camera moving over the hill-top village, to a café where men play cards in the dappled Provençal sunlight, summer after the mistral.
Twenty years later, and after the heavily political Mekong films, he returned to the subject of wind for his last film, A Tale of the Wind. It was co-directed with his wife, Marceline Loridan. Of all his films, this has the strongest sense of Joris Ivens’ own person and personality. This is possibly Loridan’s influence, as often the camera seems to caress Ivens’ almost ninety-year old face, framed with a wonderful mane of white hair.
Loridan has an interesting life in her own right. Born in 1928, thirty years after Ivens, she was deported by the Nazis first to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, then to Theresienstadt. She features in a memorable scene in the 1961 film by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin Chronique d’un été(Chronicle of a Summer) in which a young person is embarrassed into silence when a young woman tells him the tattoo on her arm is her camp number, put there by the Nazis. That woman was Loridan. She had worked closely with Ivens in the How Mekong Moved the Mountains sequence of films that they made in China in the mid-seventies.
They went back to China for this film, again about the wind. “We are mad to be filming the wind. Filming the impossible is what is best in life,” Ivens says near the end of the film. But of course, with Ivens, it is not just about the wind, or filming the wind. This is a film of magnificent landscapes, particularly desert landscapes, with rolling sand for miles, an emptiness where a wind may be seen coming by ripples in the sand, or sand rising in front of the wind.
Ivens also senses the history and culture of the area. “Monkey”, the famous Chinese legendary character, threads his way through the film, popping up at unexpected moments. We glimpse village life today, as well. There is a sequence where the villagers hold a rally to increase agricultural production, and we see school children singing propaganda songs. But there is a different perspective here compared to similar scenes in the Mekong films. Here, the tone is not polemical or even ironic, but observing, not criticising or ridiculing.
This time, there is a scene with an ironic tone, when Chinese bureaucracy really irritates him. He wants permission to film in the terracotta warriors tombs, and makes us fully aware of his frustration at a process that went on for eight days (and three minutes of screen time.) What a contrast to the scenes in The Pharmacy: Shanghai, where any procedure of Chinese bureaucracy or commerce or government is presented with an almost worshipping tone.
Later in life, Ivens re-evaluated some of his earlier political attitudes. I don’t think he resiled from the commitment to humanity and justice that had brought him to oppose fascism and to support communism in its early days. It is fitting to allow him a final word, taken from a television program filmed in 1983, and included in the DVD set.
I realise that I witnessed the entire 20th century. I view communism and socialism differently from contemporary youth. It was just after WW I. People didn’t have anything. The generals had killed… The whole system had cost millions of lives. And the fire kept burning inside me for a long time. More intelligent or more critical people broke with socialism sooner than I did. But I have nothing to do with them. I am who I am with my own conscience….
- Foreword by Joris Ivens on Une histoire de vent (A Tale of the Wind, 1988)
- Joris Ivens, The Camera and I (Berlin: Seven Seas Publishers, 1969), p. 13
- See below, discussion of The Spanish Earth.
- Ivens, op.cit. p.16
- ibid, p. 18
- ibid, p. 18
- ibid, p. 28 – 30.
- ibid, p. 41
- ibid, p. 62
- Sometimes known as Song of Heroes, or Youth Speaks. Some filmographies give different dates for several of Ivens films (e.g. The Great Directors article in Senses of Cinema). I am using the dates given in this box set from Europese Stichting Joris Ivens.
- Ivens op. cit. pp. 124, 125
- ibid, p. 137
- ibid, p. 113
- ibid, p. 137-8
- ibid, p. 141
- ibid, p. 182
- Duncan’s first name is spelt with a C in a number of sources, such as her security file, glimpsed in Hughes’ film.
- For a fuller discussion of …à Valparaiso see http://sensesofcinema.com/a-valparaiso/
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The European Foundation Joris Ivens has been responsible for the preservation and restoration of the work of Joris Ivens. It has published the 5 disc-DVD set used in the preparation of this article, Joris Ivens Wereldcineast. Printed material associated with this is in Dutch, but all material (films, and extras) are English-friendly. It can be ordered directly from the Foundation at:
German and French editions have also been issued:
An American edition is reported to be in preparation, but no further details are available at present.