Three by Joris Ivens (1931-1963)

A trio of shorts by the Dutch communist gadabout.

Philips Radio (1931): Notable as the first Dutch sound film—apparently the decision was made to add sound late in the production despite Ivens’ own misgivings—and as a kind of odd man out in the Ivens filmography to some extent, being a commissioned job by the former lightbulb manufacturers turned general electronics corporation (parenthetically, did you know Gerard Philips, who founded the company, was related to Karl Marx? I didn’t until just now. Hugely amused for some reason) as a PR exercise to make them like all high-tech and stuff. Noted communist taking the company coin? Hmm. Anyway, there have been various attempts to read the film as a critique of the production line it depicts, and yet I’m not 100% convinced; the film’s really an exercise in late 20s avant-gardism, and it kind of revels in the pictorial potential of the technology on show more than anything, how it gives rise to particularly interesting imagery. Not sure about what political message to take from it. In 1931, though, there seems to have been less trouble deciding about that: some critics found its focus on the machinery rather than the people using it objectionable, and Philips themselves seem to have been a bit alarmed that it had backfired, even though Ivens had pretty much given them what they wanted…

New Earth (1933): Immediately noticeable is the voiceover, which is conspicuously lacking from the previous film; also rather more obviously a “documentary” than the last film, which is as much an experimental film as anything. This film takes us out of the factory and into the fields, or at any rate the fields being reclaimed from the waters; New Earth is about the draining of part of the Zuiderzee in the Netherlands in order to regain that amount of former sea bed for agricultural use. Ivens had already done a film on this theme just a few years earlier, and this seems to be at least a partial rework of that; Ivens’ Senses of Cinema page observes that he employed pre-existing newsreel footage as well, and further charges him with faking some of it albeit without saying what. Anyway, this time round the political message is much clearer; the footage of the actual dyke construction and so forth is pretty neutral—I don’t think either the communist or the capitalist mindset has a monopoly on celebrating human achievement of this sort—but the concluding harangue about the overproduction of grain is much less so, with Ivens blasting the “millionaires” for growing too much of the stuff and driving its price down, leading them to destroy most of it and artificially inflate the price while millions of people are starving. Unsubtle, and kind of abrupt after the first three-quarters of the thing, but at least you’re in no doubt as to Ivens’ sympathies, which would be somewhat more clearly expressed from now on in his work.

Valparaiso (1963): Not that those sympathies earned him many friends; Soviet authorities frowned on him, Chinese authorities too, the American government refused him a re-entry visa after he left there in the mid-40s, the Dutch cancelled his passport after objecting to his film about Indonesia, and he himself was unhappy about the stuff he did in the Eastern bloc in the early 50s. So this film finds him obviously much later in his career, somewhat back in the ascendant, and teaming up with Chris Marker for a bit of a travelogue of the somewhat faded Chilean port city of Valparaiso. This was by some distance my favourite of the three films I’ve been considering here; rather less aggressive than the two older films, though still manifesting essentially left-leaning sympathies with the poorer folk of the villages built on the hill around Valparaiso, the higher up you go the poorer the villages are. Life is not exactly easily lived in this film, with the geography and the climate being considerable obstacles (indeed, there were major fires in the place just last year). Ivens presents this in somewhat poetic fashion (mostly in black and white but with a stunning transition to colour near the end), with the presumably staged bits being fairly obvious; I wonder if the overall tenor is more down to Marker than him. Good stuff either way.

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