A Way of Seeing (4/4)

Joris Ivens’s
Twentieth Century

Although his political ideas evolved at the same moment as his aspirations for filmmaking, Ivens did not combine these developments from the start. In early 1928, Ivens began shooting The Bridge. For him this film was primarily a study in movement, composition, and film language. After its premiere performance, the film was received with loud acclaim and was marked as an avant-garde masterpiece. Ivens began spending less and less time on his work for the CAPI enterprise and became more and more involved in filming. Certainly after making Rain, his reputation as a filmmaker was established. He received an assignment from the General Netherlands Construction Workers’ Union to make a film on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of the union. After Poor Drenthe, We Are Building is the first documentary series by Ivens showing his involvement with the workers, even though it is still directed towards their work and not so much their way of living.

With Philips Radio (1931), the first Dutch sound film, some change is already noticeable. Ivens was commissioned to make this film just after a trip to the Soviet Union: “We know you just returned from the Reds,” the publicity manager of Philips said. “[W]e have much discussed that journey and . . . . Indeed, they are communists, but they make superb films and we thought that when Pudovkin and others invited you to show your films, that you must be worth your weight in gold.”27 Ivens also wanted to pay attention to the laborers, but Philips didn’t allow him to film outside the factories and to “disturb the private lives of the personnel.” Philips Radio, baptized Sympohnie Industrielle by the French, becomes one of Ivens’s masterpieces in which social critique, if it exists, is only very implicit. But his fascination with industrial progress is very clear, as it was in The Bridge and in Zuiderzee.

Directly after the Philips film, Ivens got the chance to combine this fascination for industrial progress with his passionate conviction: i.e., his socialist and communist sympathies. As a result of his first trip to the Soviet Union, he was asked to make a film there. With the film Song of Heroes (“Pesn o gerojach,” or “Komsomol,” 1932) he was able to represent his political belief in socialist utopia. Cooperating with, among others, Hanns Eisler, who produced the sound track of the film, he made a film about the building up of the socialist Soviet state on the basis of the construction of the blast furnace town of Magnitogorsk by the Komsomol youth. “It was exactly what I was looking for: young people and steel.”28 The film sparkles with enthusiasm and propaganda for the socialist cause.

In the evolution of documentary, Paul Rotha distinguishes four traditions: the naturalist (romantic) tradition of which Flaherty is the most illustrative exponent, the realist (continental) tradition, the newsreel tradition (Vertov), and the propagandist tradition (Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Grierson).29 On the basis of Ivens’s first films, Rotha places him in the “Realist (Continental) Tradition,” springing from the avant-garde with such major works as Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926) and Ruttmann’s Berlin. According to Rotha, Flaherty’s idyllic, romantic films are of “secondary interest,” because there are “larger and more urgent problems in the world,”30 and Vertov’s work falls only in a “broad interpretation of documentary.”31 Given the attention Rotha devotes to the other two traditions, the realist and the propagandist (that is, at least, to the films that fall into these categories), he probably estimates the films in these traditions as falling into a more narrow definition of documentary. They do fall better into the task Rotha gives the documentary in the subtitle of his book: “The use of the film medium to interpret creatively and in social terms the life of the people as it exists in reality.” The films of the British documentary film movement, like Drifters (1929), Industrial Britain (1933), Coal Face (1935), Night Mail (1936), match this task perfectly, which is not strange since Rotha was himself a part of this movement. But all the films of Ivens, his later films included, also answer this task.

This is very evident in his first real social documentary, Borinage (“Misère au Borinage”), which he made with Henri Storck in 1934. Borinage addresses a miners’ strike and the abominable living conditions of the laborers in the Borinage. Ivens’s social and political engagement appears the same year in the treatment of Zuiderzee, which, together with a newly added act, the stirring music of Hanns Eisler, and the title New Earth, was given an explicitely social and political message. With his many films made in the short period between 1927 and 1934, Ivens was not only one of the major exponents of Rotha’s realist tradition, but also one of the major figures of the documentary tradition in general. First inspired by such avant-gardists as Ruttmann, Clair, and Dulac, he himself became an inspiration for other documentary filmmakers. This became even more evident with his next film.

After a stay in the Soviet Union, Ivens left in 1936 for the United States where, after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Contemporary Historians, Inc., was established to enable the production of what was later to become The Spanish Earth (1937). Recorded at the Republican front in Spain, this film is still seen as one of Ivens’s most important works, characterized by powerful photography and editing, sober commentary by Ernest Hemingway, and a clear partiality against Franco’s fascism. This partiality was one of the strong points of his films, but also the point for which he was most criticized.

I was often asked, why hadn’t we gone to the other side, too, and make an objective film? My only answer was that a documentary film maker has to have an opinion on such vital issues as fascism or anti-fascism—he has to have feelings about these issues, if his work is to have any dramatic or emotional or art value. . . . If anyone wanted that objectivity of “both sides of the question,” he would have to show two films, The Spanish Earth and a film by a fascist film maker, if he could find one.32

The Spanish Earth is also a good example of the dialectics between the realist and the formative tendencies Kracauer distinguished: the film is a truly realist account of the events on the Republican front, but Ivens uses his cinematographic skills to shape this realist account into an aesthetically very strong, and therefore maybe even more convincing, film work. Kracauer recognized the interrelation between the tendencies he opposed, the realist and the formative, and maybe we can regard Ivens’s work as the best illustration of this interrelation and its dialectics put into practice. We can define this practice as his style, for we can discern it in many of his films, not only his political films such as The 17th Parallel, but also in his poetic works like . . . A Valparaiso (1963).

A year after The Spanish Earth Ivens made another anti-fascist film, The 400 Million, this time on the Sino-Japanese War, again with music by Hanns Eisler. Subsequently Ivens made a number of films in the United States itself which alternate anti-fascist convictions (Our Russian Front [1941], Action Stations! [1943]) with fascination for industrial progress (Power and the Land, a New Deal propaganda film for rural electrification [1941], and Oil for Aladdin’s Lamp, a publicity film for the Shell Company [1942]).

Within a relatively short period in his film career, Joris Ivens had already made a clear mark on the documentary film, and since that time he has generally been regarded as one of the designers of this “movement,” as the documentarists called it themselves. But Ivens himself was also formed by his “historical experience”: besides having co-developed the language of the documentary, he continued to devote this medium, with even more passion, to his ideals and the progress of society and against the repression of weaker groups in society. He was not always thanked for this, and it partially defined the future of his career and his special relation with the Netherlands.

In spite of his communist sympathies, the Dutch government appointed Ivens as Film Commissioner for the Dutch East Indies to film the liberation of Indonesia. However, in Ivens’s opinion the Netherlands were not concerned with the liberation of Indonesia, but with its re-colonization. He considered this a breach of contract on the side of the Dutch, resigned his position, and went on to make a filmic pamphlet against Dutch policy in Indonesia. Indonesia Calling (1946) meant a breach with the Netherlands: Ivens was considered persona non grata by the Dutch government, which took his passport for a short period and gave him renewals for only three month periods. His first official return to the Netherlands after 1936 was in 1964. He was given a film assignment by a private company in the Netherlands in 1965 (Rotterdam Europort, finished in 1966), but only officially rehabilitated in 1985, when the Minister of Culture, Mr. Brinkman, referring to Indonesia Calling, stated that “history proved you more right than your adversaries then.” The problem with the Dutch government, however, did not hamper his film work. He had already filmed in various corners of the world and was now given an assignment to film the reconstruction of Eastern European countries stricken by the Second World War and on the brink of a socialist future (The First Years [1949]). Ivens now found himself at the center of a place where his ideals for a better society could be realized.

Until 1957 Ivens continued to work in East Germany, making one of the largest productions in the history of East German documentary cinema, Song of the Rivers (“Das Lied der Ströme,” 1954). Ivens’s films of this period, however, were predominantly characterized by propaganda for communism, and less by his artistic qualities; not only because Ivens still followed his passionate convictions and let them partly drown out his artistic aspirations as a documentary filmmaker, but also because he was given less freedom to develop them. He was never very explicit in his reactions to the events in Budapest 1956, but it is probable that they mark the first cracks in his Stalinist beliefs, maybe enhanced by Khrushchev’s process of de-Stalinization. To his brother he wrote: “What a long, worrying, and sometimes horrible period is necessary in order to come to a better world, to change an economic and a social system to achieve better and more humane relations between people.”33 He never wanted to comment on the events in Prague 1968, but his turn towards China and Maoism probably illustrates his disillusionment with the failing Soviet ideology in which he so believed, and which had determined the historical experience that formed this belief.

In 1957, Ivens returned to Western Europe and made the poetic The Seine Meets Paris in France. This, however, did not mean a turning away from his political and social engagement, for his films that follow are characterized by an alternation of poetry and politics, realist and formative tendencies and free productions and commissioned films. In 1958, while working as a lecturer at the Beijing Film Academy, he made both the poetic Before Spring and the political pamphlet 600 Million with You. After a commissioned film for the Italian state oil company ENI, Italy Is Not a Poor Country (“L’Italia non e un paese povero,” 1960), once again stressing his fascination for technology, he made both the pro-revolutionary An Armed People (“Pueblo armado”), as well as the more poetic travel letter to Charlie Chaplin, Travel Notebook (“Carnet de viaje”), in Cuba in 1961.

In Cuba, he was also asked to teach at the ICAIC. This invitation, in 1960, was also a chance to dive into a fresh revolutionary climate, which promised to be the new hope and example for the socialist world, especially the Latin American world, and which closely matched Ivens’s ideas and hopes for socialist progress. This was also the period in which the Cold War came to its zenith, with Cuba as a temporary center.

Communism seemed to be in fashion in parts of Asia and in Latin America. The latter was especially threatening for the United States. Two ideological blocks faced each other:

Like the USSR, the USA was a power representing an ideology, which most Americans sincerely believed to be the model for the world. Unlike the USSR, the USA was a democracy. Unfortunately it must be said that the second of these was probably the more dangerous. For the Soviet government, though it also demonized the global antagonist, did not have to bother about winning votes in Congress, or in presidential and congressional elections. The US government did. For both purposes an apocalyptic anti-communism was useful, and therefore tempting, even for politicians who were not sincerely convinced of their own rhetoric.34

Ivens had already experienced this anti-communism during his stay in the United States in the 1940s, when he was listed up and frequently followed by the FBI.

The possibility of socialist democracies in Latin America, as well as American aggression in Asia, led Ivens to follow his convictions and translate them into film. In 1964 he made an election film, The Victory Train (“Le train de la victoire”), for Salvador Allende to stress this hope. Allende, however, did not win the election. In the second half of the 1960s he made several militant films in Asia to demonstrate against the politics of the United States, and to support the people of Vietnam (The Threatening Sky [1965]; The 17th Parallel, with Marceline Loridan [1967]; Far from Vietnam [1967]) and Laos (The People and Their Guns [“Le peuple et ses fusils”, 1970], also a collective work).

For The 17th Parallel, Ivens used a 16mm synchronous sound camera for the first time. This was Marceline Loridan’s choice, for she already had some experience with it. This time Ivens was not an innovator, but used techniques already explored by others while giving them a new dimension through a very specific use. The 1960s are further more characterized by the two extremes in his work as a filmmaker: before the above-mentioned, starkly militant films, Ivens also made two special film poems: . . . A Valparaiso (1963) and The Mistral (“Pour le mistral,” 1965).

His close collaboration with Marceline Loridan began with The 17th Parallel, and continued till his death in 1989. This cooperation resulted in, among other things, the monumental twelve-hour series How Yukong Moved the Mountains (“Comment Yukong deplaça les montagnes,” 1976), about the influence of the Cultural Revolution on everyday life in China. Ivens had already witnessed the promise of the Great Leap Forward in 1958, without seeing the great famine of the following two years. In filming the Cultural Revolution, and especially its influence on the daily life of the Chinese people, Ivens and Loridan wanted to provide answers to the questions of ignorant Westerners by letting the Chinese speak: “It is important that in this film it isn’t me or Marceline who does the talking but that 80 percent of it is the Chinese people.”35 Sudden changes in China’s political situation made it almost impossible to film additional material, but new changes in 1976—Mao’s death and a more moderate political course—made the longing for information on China greater. Yukong offered much of the information wanted, although the films were soon outdated.

Towards the end of his life Ivens took more of a distance from the “passionate convictions” that so determined his film work. His historical experience and the many changes in the world of this century moved him to a more reflexive position. He was almost nineteen at the October Revolution of 1917 and died just before the final collapse of communism. “I used to say that communism was not a faith, but there is much of that in it. I stuck too long to my utopias, until I saw that History is not developing according to a book that was written at the beginning of this century.”36

Ivens crossed a world that underwent many radical changes in this period. He witnessed and filmed many of those changes, giving his interpretation of reality, and always giving hope for a better world, a socialist world. His films reflect the beauty and the atrocities of this world, the poetics and the sorrow. His films are also illustrations and examples of documentary film history, of which he was one of the designers and one of the main characters. And his films, although subjective, have become documents.

Together Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan made many films, including their last, poetic, contemplative, sometimes ironic and testamentary A Tale of the Wind. A highly-praised pinnacle of his imposing oeuvre, which A Tale of the Wind orignated in five continents and witnessed the turbulent twentieth century.



27. Joris Ivens and Robert Destanque, Aan welke kant en in welk heelal: De geschiedenis van een leven (Amsterdam: Meulenhof, 1983): p. 116; my translation.

28. Ivens and Destanque, p. 101.

29. See Rotha, pp. 79-101. “Broadly speaking, documentary falls into four groups, each of which demands individual estimate because each results from a different approach to naturally existing material.”

30. Rotha, p. 107.

31. Rotha, p. 88.

32. Ivens, Camera and I, pp. 136-137.

33. Quoted in Schoots, p. 337.

34. Hobsbawm, p. 234.

35. Interview with Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan in Delmar, Joris Ivens: p. 71.

36. Joris Ivens in an interview with Hans Schoots, De Groene Amsterdammer, 7 May 1986, p. 12.

Kees Bakker

Film researcher and coordinator of the Joris Ivens Archives for the European Foundation Joris Ivens. Studied film and performing arts at the University of Nijmegen, and has been teaching film theory and film history in the same department. Is currently preparing a dissertation on “Representation and Interpretation of Reality in Documentary and Television News—Towards a Hermeneutic Approach of Audiovisual Media.”