In this conference various members of the Yale Film Studies faculty, their friends and graduate students get together to look at a group of films made in different European countries at roughly the same time. What do they share? In general, this year was remarkably coherent, although there was one rather odd outlier: Esfir Shub’s K.Sh.E. (Komsomol – Sponsor of Electrification) (1932). The discussion was—as usual—provocative and helpful.
I often provide a version of my panel remarks in the “Short Pieces” section of my website. This didn’t quite work this time around since our panel tried to discuss Ivens’s Rain (1929), Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s People on Sunday (1930) and Esfir Shub’s K.Sh.E. (Komsomol – Sponsor of Electrification) (1932) in relationship to each other. The results were awkward on my end. Instead, I offer a few post-conference thoughts, indebted certainly to the weekend’s discussion:
AFTER THE CRASH
Regen (Rain) (Joris Ivens and Mannus Franken, 1929, the Netherlands, 14 mins.)
Bezúčelná procházka (Aimless Walk) (Alexandr Hackenschmied, 1930, Czechoslovakia, 8mins)
The screenings were bookended by two films that have much in common: Joris Ivens’s Rain (1929) and Alexandr Hackenschmied (Hammid)’s Aimless Walk (1930). They are part of a rich web of city symphony films and can be profitably connected with Jay Leyda’s A Bronx Morning (1930/1) to constitute a triology. (Since Leyda was an American, we didn’t show his film but there is a close connection.) All inevitably reacted to Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). Ivens apparently started work on Rain in 1927 and did not complete it until late 1929—perhaps under the pressure of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). In tts opening shots of roof-tops and a departing ocean liner, Rain seemed to gesture quietly towards another avant-garde city film––Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1921). As a short, Manhatta provides the model for depicting a more geographically limited area of the city. Its representations of New York hold in tension the relationship between the metropolis and nature, between the large-scale city and individual people. These binaries—like the tension between movement and stasis in the film––are purposefully unresolved.
I have always seen Ruttman’s portrait of Berlin as a remarkable articulation of the urban life as analyzed by Georg Simmel in his famous essay “Metropolis and Mental Life.” Its density and scale generates an alienation that makes the city highly impersonal and indifferent (the woman who suicides) but also allows for diversity and idiosyncrosy among its inhabitants. Rain offers a counterpoint. The city of Amsterdam and nature are much more in tune with each other. Ivens often films from low angles—the cobble stones, the raindrops in contrast to high angle shots of the streets looking down. If Berlin––like other city symphony films—structures its shots around the arc of a single day—from morning to night, Rain is structured around the principle of a single rain storm—a relatively brief, composite shower. Ivens’ decision to shoot in the rain is already an inversion of previously city symphony films for its predecessors are filmed (at least primarily) on days when the light is good—and there is no rain. This allows for a sharper image and greater depth of field. Rain thus suggests a tripartite form of represetations. There is, of course, the city itself—which Ivens sees every day and now shows us in filmic form. Through camera lens and editing, it is already once or twice removed—a representation of the city. However, by filming in the rain and with his frequent shots of pools of water and the canals, there is this third view of the city—its watery reflection. If cinema is a window onto the world, we also see it through Ivens’ bedroom window as rain hits the panes of glass. The view of the roof tiles across the courtyard simmer like a watery mirage. The city is in some sense a cinematic city avant la lettre –not because it is a concentrated nexus of 20th century modernity of which cinema has a synechdocal relationship, but because it is a city of reflection and refraction—and (implictly) of Chritian Huygens’ magic lantern.
Jay Leyda’s A Bronx Morning (1930) is worth mentioning here. Leyda, born in 1910 and 12 years younger than Ivens, met and worked with Ivens in the Soviet Union. A Bronx Morning won the prize that got Leyda there. Leyda’s film seems in dialogue with both Ruttman’s Berlin and Manhatta. Berlin opens as the train takes the viewer into the center of Berlin. A Bronx Morning opens as the subway, a more pelbian and quotidian form of transportation, takes use away from city center to the Bronx—one of New York’s outer boroughs. It focuses on a geographically limited area, like Manhatta, but one that is again ordinary. One can only imagine the affinity that these two filmmakers felt when the met and saw each others films. Both were committed Marxists—though Leyda would never would say as much in print or in public—and both had made short city films that lacked overt political content. They could come under attack from more militant critics. Ivens, to be sure, made films with Communist idelology on prominent display but he also made documentaries such as When the Seine Encounters Paris (1956), which is very much in the tradition of Rain.
Leyda, who also would work with Vertov (briefly—he was not a Vertov fan) and Eisenstein (a relationship that lasted until Eisenstein died—and beyond), had an uncanny ability to connect with artists of (often future) prominence. He was, after all, Walker Evans’ roommate. He assisted Ivens on Borinage while they were both in the Soviet Union –and also worked on his “autobiography” The Camera and I.
Did Hackenschmied see Rain before making his film Aimless Walk? An interesting question and one worth pursuing. But I can’t do that here. Hackenschmied, born in 1907, was closer to Leyda in age. His film, apparently filmed in the summer of 1930, perhaps owes some small element of inspiraiton to Rein Que Les Heurs (1926) and People on Sunday (1930). By this I simply mean that Hackenschmied introduces a male character who is somewhat dishevealed and quietly reflective if not depressed. He could be unemployed as if the city has spit him out. Thus he looks at the city rather than works in it. As he moves about the city, he serves as a stand in for the filmmaker himself. Hammid sometimes shows us what he sees—even from his point of view. Aimless Walk is well underway before he is introduced. The film opens in a way that is within the well-established terms of the city film and encounters its protagonist, as if by chance, on the tramway. If he is Hackenschmied’s avatar within this film, this character encounters his double inside the diegesis—whom he witnesses in the park as he walks away. Here then is another tripartite structure (like Rain): the filmmaker—his avatar/protagonist, and the avatar’s own double. One cannot help but think that Hackenschmied is evoking another film about his chosen city: The Student of Prague (1913; 1926), in which the student is confronted with his proliferating double.
K.Sh.E. (Komsomol – Sponsor of Electrification) (Esfir Shub, USSR, 1932) 54 mins.
The outlier in this weekend of screenings was Shub’s K.Sh.E which was released in late 1932: its penultimate scene –ceremonies surround the opening of the hydro-electric damn—was shot in October 1932. It counterpart was not Joris Ivens’ Rain (1929) but Song of Heroes (Komsomol) (1932/3). Scenes in Ivens film conform much more to a combination of narrative progression and idelogocial rhetoric. Shub’s film is more open in that the scenes are more loosely organized. There is a scene, for instance, in which the Americans working on the project are relaxing by the waterside on a Sunday (presumably)—in bathing suits, playing a record. How are we to analyze the film? Six American engineers working on the project would receive the Order of the Red Banner of Labor. One of them, Hugh Cooper, gave a speech that is delivered during the opening ceremonies. Is it satiric or just documenting the presence of these international allies who were ready to work for the Soviets before the US recognized the Soviet government. Likewise the concluding scene shows a scientist demonstrating problems with high voltage electricity. Shub’s film is a collection of interesting moments—documents of this effort. It is filled with Stalinistic slogans and represents them in the manner of a collage. The Ivens fim seem as a mode of representation seems closer to what Stalinist culture would want, though even here it has a roughness that may not have been entirely pleasing. Now, as the Shub and Ivens Komsomol films become more available, comparing their stylistics and their reception should be fruitful. Certainly Shub’s effort strikes one as more experimental.
Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer,1930)
Prix de beauté/Beauty Prize/Miss Europe (Augusto Genina,1930)
Ze soboty na nĕdeli/From Saturday to Sunday (Gustav Machatý, 1931)
There was another provocative trilogy of films that was part of this weekend’s program—and three holes in my knowledge. The starting point was Siodmak and Ulmer’s People on Sunday, which premiered in Februray 1930 and was a hit. In a clear reference to Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. it claims to be a film “without actors.” They are supposed to be nonactors though one of the women is a movie extra—and another a model. Their performances are highly credible and the women (as well as the men for that matter) look like young, attractive actresses. (a few appeared in another movie or two associated with the behind the screen talent but IMDb suggests that none had sustained careers). There are sections of the film that are nonfiction in a way consistent with Berlin: Symphony of a Great City or Vertov. In a way, the decision to probe more deeply into the pysche of youthful Berliners is operative reason to create this narrative of any old Sunday when little—or quite a lot—happens. Between the actuality sequences of the city and the neo-realist-like scenes with the five unknown actors, there is a third group of scenes and characters –people are are treated like the unknown actors for a scene or so but are not part of the film’s narrative. These include the schoolboys playing a spanking game and the Vertov-evoking scene of the photographer taking photos of people (including Valeska Gert, who did have a career as a performer in cabaret. These intermediate figures are important for smoothing the disjunction between actuality and fiction.
The disturbing element of this film—and a central issue in the other two—is the misogyny of these lower-middle class men, which is directed at the two youngish women. Christi for all her claims to be an extra is taken aback by Wolf’s phyiscality as he forces a kiss from her as they swim. He then turns to her best friend, Brigitte Borchert, who is more accommodating. She lets him chase her into the woods, where making out turns into full-throtle sex. The camera pans off the couple to a debris-littered field and Wolf leaves the encounter with a badly torn shirt. Brigitte seems ready to make the best of it and hopes it might be something more than a one-off encounter. She asks for a date the following Sunday. Wolf seems to agree but then quietly acknowledge plans to go to a football game with his best friend, instead. These men are on the make and not particuarly attractive. Erwin, the taxi driver, leaves his girlfriend at home: they had had a fight over how she wore her hat. He didn’t like what she did with the brim and so they stayed home. They seem stuck in a destructive relationship neither can quite escape.
Sean Axmaker, writing for Turner Classic movies, remarks that “Under the bubbly surface of innocent flirtations and breezy fun is the story of budding romance and a portrait of life at the end of Weimar era. There is no political subtext to the film…” But is this true? If so, then the film would seem to revel in the men’s treatment of these women. Or perhaps the film is aware of something darker under the “breezy fun.” If so, these filmmakers (including Billy Wilder) already are concerned with issues they would explore in film noir.
Genina’s Prix de Beauté (1930) would seem to move further and perhaps more critically in this direction. André adores his girfriend Lucienne (Louise Brooks) but is jealous and controlling. This begins to spin out of control when Lucienne enters a beauty contest and wins. Although she abandoning media attention and an interesting life to make Andre happy, she becomes isolated and miserable cooped up in her apartment all day. When she tries to reclaim her glory by going into the movie business—he kills her. Andre is typesetter for a newspaper. So once again we have a working-class/lower middle-class guy who is abusive towards women—particularly the woman he wants to serve as a simple complement to his needy ego. (Actually, he is quite abusive to his best friend Antonin as well.) The double meaning of the title is lost in the two English-language titles. Is her death “the price of beauty”? Or is it the price she paid for not seeing more clearly the demented jealousy and insistence of male control that drove him to this act. He cannot cope with a woman who succeeds and experience adventure in ways that he cannot—even though she is ready to bring him along for the ride.
It is hard not to see Gustav Machatý’s From Saturday to Sunday as a response to these two earlier films. The gesture towards People on Sunday is obvious. Prix de Beauté opened August 1, 1930. From Saturday to Sunday opened May 1, 1931. The two young women are not exactly svelte, elegant movie stars. Although one had an acting career, the main female lead did not. Nany clearly has a number of male friends for whom she trades sex for an evening’s fun and some extra cash. She virtually forces her friend Mana to accompany her on a date. When the men escort the girls to the hotel, Mana flees—into a rainstorm and into the arms of Karel—a typesetter. Karel ultimately charms and seduces. They end up in bed and It seems that they are destined for each other. A misunderstanding—a note from Nany leads Karel to believe Mana is a prostitute––leads to rejection and Mana’s decision to kill herself. Reflects on the situation, Karel is able to overcome his wounded pride and masculinist jealousy. He returns to her apartment, rescuing her from her attempted suicide using gas. Its movement between classes and various types of entertainment venues, as well as its carefully wrought portraits of these people, make it an uplifting film—suggesting elements of hope which somehow I allign with films such as Rain and A Bronx Morning.
 Of course Ivens’s The Bridge (1928) had already dealt with a circumscribed space of the city.