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June 06, 2008

100 British Documentaries by Patrick Russell: Review

100 British Documentaries by Patrick Russell British Film Institute 2007: Review

100 British Documentaries Cover

Cover of 100 British Documentaries. The cover image comes from Kötting's Gallivant 1996. It features his Grandmother and daughter who has Joubert syndrome. She speaks in yelps and some sign language. She isn't expected to live into adulthood. The film took 3 months to make as they travelled around the country it combines bringing out the everyday with much formal experimentation and is a film that Russell clearly thinks highly of.


I recently purchased a nice little book from the BFI Screen Guides series called 100 British Documentaries by Patrick Russell who is Senior Curator for non-fiction film with the National Film Archive. The book doesn't set out to be about the very best of British documentaries, although very many of the ones covered are, rather it sets out to cover the scope of the documentary field since British documentaries started being made. The earliest one covered is from 1896 on the Yarmouth Fishing Fleet and covers 2 very recent documentaries Touching the Void 2003 and Supersocieties (Life in the Undergrowth) 2005. Many well known documentaries such as Night Mail (1936)are covered as well as many lesser known ones. In this sense it is a careful examination of the genre not a "Best of guide". One good thing about the book is its compact size and the way it has a range of fairly short entries which makes it an excellent book for reading in the bath or on train journeys which can easily be interrupted. One can pick out themes such as Second World War documentaries or documentaries of postwar politics: a Hugh Hudson party political documentary on Neil Kinnock (1987) is covered and a rather longer film Tracking Down Maggie (1994) on Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher is also included for example.

Russell makes it clear at the outset that he has chosen his selection: 

...because each illustrates something specific about the many forms British documentary has taken, and the numerous use to which it has been put, as it has developed historically

city ruins from Land of Promise Rotha

From Paul Rotha's Land of Promise (1946)

This seems to be an excellent academic criteria upon which to base a choice and gives the book an underlying committment to developing knowledge about the twists and turns of documentarism over the decades. Russell is clear that these films may not necessarily the best, neither are they necessarily his personal favourites. Russell makes it clear that there are many good  documentaries missing. However the tome isn't meant to be a complete history of the Britiish documentary. Hopefully this is a step towards that. However at over 270 pages there is plenty to get stuck into and in terms of signalling imprtant aspects of documentary development this is a 'must buy' book for British cinephile and film students alike. It was recently reviewed in the June issue of Sight & Sound. Mark Cooke the reviewer who also read it on a train ride suggests the book is flawed in that it doesn't represent architecture or issues about sexuality in the changing 20th century. I agree these are both important issues but in fairness the book squeezes an awful lot in and hopefully will contribute towards a greater academic interest in British documentarism, beyond the 'greats' of the 1930s.

What Counts as Documentary?

Russell spends a little time commenting on the documentary form itself at the beginning of the book. Rather than just being as truthful a representation of "actuality" which is what many consider to be the ideal documentary form there can be a considerable amount of experiment:

Hybrids are the rule not the exception (p3)

notes Russell. Many of the films discussed in the book are experimental + documentary, documentary + entertainment, documentary + politics, promotional and educational tools. Russell points out that narrative structures can be very different as well. In brief the documentary is an ever changing field of expression and this book through its use of examples elaborates upon this very effectively.

Well Known and Well Loved Documentaries

Some of the best known documentary film-makers are included such as Paul Rotha with two of his films covered: The Face of Britain (1935) and Land of Promise (1945) which is the name of an excellent multi-DVD collection of British documentaries which has been recently released by the BFI and will be covered on another occassion. The titles of these films cover a period when Britain was struggling with the aftermath of the Depression and was still a country of deference, compared with 1945 when the country had undergone something of a sea-change with the Labour Party gaining a landslide victory in the aftermath of the defeat of Hitler in Europe but before the Atomic bombs had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki irrevocably changing the nature of the world to come. The social democratic moment and a land of social unity was in the air and the successful prosecution of the war had put the building of a welfare state and a planned economy with nationalisation of the worst run industries firmly on the agenda.

Listen to Britain 1

From Listen to Britain (1942)

Another very different stylist of the documentary Humphrey Jennings is also represented with perhaps his best and most poetic work Listen to Britain (1942) with editor Stewart MacAllister also on the credits being one of his wartime films. For my money it is is easily the most powerful propaganda film I have ever seen and knocks the infamous,lamentable and much over-rated Triumph of the Will by Riefenstahl into the proverbial cocked hat. It is a film which through its very essence could not be made by an authoritarian regime. If effective propaganda is about creating foundational national myths then this one is unlikely to be surpassed.  Also by Jennings is his well known A Diary for Timothy (1946) following the birth of a baby boy made at a time - 1944/1945- when Britain was in a war weary mode and just looking forward to getting the job done and starting to rebuild Britain as a better place for all. Timothy was to become a teacher later in life signifying the hopes for the future that are inevitably bound up with education. The film was produced by Basil Wright and had a script from E. M. Forster with a voice over by Michael Redgrave.

Drifters (1929) by John Grierson was the foundational film of what was to become the British Documentary Movement Other films from this important grouping are also represented such as: The Song of Ceylon (1934) Housing Problems (1935), Night-Mail (1936) with the famous poem by Auden driving its rhythms and Today We Live : A Film of Life in Britain (1937) by Ruby Grierson (John Grierson's sister) and Ralph Bond.

Political Themes

March to aldermarston 1

March to Aldermarston (1958)

Many important political documentaries are also covered which signify very important moments in the social history of post-war Britain upuntil the present. March to Aldermarston (1958) was given a collective credit but is widely recognised to have had the guiding hand of  Lindsay Anderson behind it.  CND and the anti-nuclear Movement was to become a powerpul political force in the UK and as such represents a deep polarisation that was to exist in the country for decades until the Cold War collapsed. Nightcleaners (1975) Berwick Street Collective represents the shifting gender balance in Britain, for it was during the 1970s that Equal Pay Legislation came in that decade. It also signifies the battle to unionise marginalised areas of the labour force and to get recognised the importance of women in doing that work.

A Conservative Party election Broadcast of 1979 from the image campaign managed by Saatchi and Saatchi is included. This powerful campaign was undoubtedly important in providing some impetus to set Britain down the political path of Neo-liberalism as the way out of the recession triggered by oil crisis but which really marked an end to the long economic boom of the West since the end of the war. In that sense this marks a turning point in British post-war politics, economics and society. 

Handsworth songs 1

From Handsworth Songs (1986)

Handsworth Songs (1986) John Akromfrah represents the changing ethnic composition of Britain which had been going on since the 1950s and unlike two other documentaries covered in the collection was made by a radicalised person from one of those communities. The film covers the Handsworth rioting of the mid 1980s and used several different formal techniques. Russell suggests that it lacks a strong enough interior logic to make it more than the sum of its parts. On this basis he considers the film as being overrated seeing a sort of 'inverse racism' at work. I didn't get to see the film at the time and I'm not certain about its current availability. I certainly remember the riots and despite Russell's criticism that the the film is hiding behind an academic "jargon" in a BFI publicity handout of representing

"... the riots as a political field coloured by the trajectories of industrial decline and structural crisis"

that is really what it was. The hand of Stuart Hall the then director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies defended the film against (predictably) Salman Rushdie who according to Russell thought it pretentious. Russell points out that the film in his mind has dated badly and that it is still praised because there is still an invidious situation of ethnic under-representation. This leaves us some food for thought.

Lockerbie a night Remembered

From Lockerbie:  A Night Remembered (1998)

Lockerbie: A Night Remembered (1998) can be read as signifying the continuous exposure to terrorist violence faced by Britian and the West in general since the 1960s whther from the Red Brigades, nationalist movements such as the IRA or religious fundamentalist inspired violence such as the London Tube bombings as as 9/11 of course. McLibel (1998/2005) signifies the growth of corporate power embodied in Macdonalds throughout the 1980s and 1990s and the fight back which individuals have made on a continuous basis.

Other Themes

Many other themes can be dug out of the book such as music documentaries from Let it Be (1970) to Johnny Cash in San Quentin (1969) -which is a British film perhaps surprisingly -. this marks the swinging sixties and the rowth of pop and rock music as an important cultural force.

Let it Be 1

Setting up the roof concert at the end of Let it Be

One obvious theme is coal mining. A Day in the Life of a Coalminer (1910)is the first of these, Cavalcanti's Coalface (1935) follows. Mining Review Fourth Year Number 12 (1951) is a report from the recently nationalised caolmining industry which under private ownership had become outrageously exploititative and also underininvested. Lastly there is The Coal Board's Butchery (1984), a Miner's Union campaigning video against the pit lcosures put into operation by the Thatcher government. As such it encompasses a key turning point in British society which has lead to the diempowering of the Trade Union movement. As was recognised by the Miner's leaders at the time it was a battle against neo-liberal politics and as such was much more than about coal miners jobs. Deindustrialised Britain has been the net outcome.


There are many other themes to be dug out of the book. It represents excellent value and is an enjoyable way of spending some time. It's breadth deals not just with the various forms of documentary film making themselves but provides a range of insights into British culture and society in a poignant way. One can only hope that the BFI put together a matching set of documentaries to accompany the book. That would make a truly excellent package.

January 04, 2008

Glossary of Documentary Film Terms

Glossary of Documentary Film Terms

From the Kinoeye Reference Section

Aleatory techniques. Aleatory technique is when the element of chance is incorporated into the film making process. Action and sound may not have been planned or scripted. The British film maker Humphrey Jennings was renowned for this.  Even in fiction films this technique has been used. Jean-Luc Godard used improvisational interview techniques with his actors which questioned the distinction between acting and being and also the division between documentary and fiction.

Cinema Verite. A type of observational film which uses available light, fast film stock, handheld lightweight cameras, portable sound recording and a minimum of other equipment to record profilmic events. Aleatory techniques are very important to this style. The style became widely known after being introduced by the anthropologist / filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Jean Morin in Chronicle of a Summer (1961). Rouch saw the camera as a participant in the unfolding of events which makes cinema verite quite different in approach to Direct Cinema. Rouch believed that the camera functioned as a psychological stimulant which although it altered behaviour in front of the camera arguably revealed deeper underlying truths about personalities. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) can be understood as a precursor of this approach. The camera did boast of its own presence and influence upon the profilmic events. The Sorrow and the Pity (1970) by Marcel Ophuls can be seen as another example.


City Symphony film. This developed as a sub-genre of documentary film. They are often abstract films loosely structured around the theme of the day in the life of a city. The use of montage provides a sense of rhythm and movement. Rien que les heures (1926) Alberto Cavalcanti was shot on the streets of Paris. It was the first of the ‘City Symphony’ films made in Europe during the 1920s and preceded the better know Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) by Ruttman. It was very influential amongst the documentary movement at the time. Man With a Movie Camera: Dziga Vertov (1929) is far more than just an impressionistic view of the city. The film is an optimistic perspective on the importance of industrialisation and modernisation. Vertov also brings in a strong element of reflexivity in which the film is shown as being made as well as showing the audience and the place of exhibition.

Crown Film Unit. In August 1940 the GPO Film Unit was remaned the Crown film Unit directly under the Ministry of information thus becoming a directly propaganda organisation. Many of the films were made by Humphrey Jennings as well as Watt and Jackson. After the war documentaries were stil made but the energy, belief by government and and social consciousness had dissipated. The Unit was closed in 1951.

Direct Cinema. A type of observational documentary practice which developed in the USA during the 1960s. Profilmic events were recorded as they happened without rehearsal or reconstruction. Unlike cinema verite the practivce sought to be as unobtrusive as possible giving rise to the term ‘Fly on the wall’ coined by the film-maker Richard Leacock. Stylistically they feature long takes and minimal editing and try to keep a chronological structure to preserve profilmic events as effectively as possible. Subjects are allowed to speak for themselves and the camera observes ho0ping to record a privileged moment which will display the truth of the person behind the words.

Documentary. The term was invented by John Grierson when reviewing of Flaherty’s Moanna (1926). Any film practice that has as its subject persons events or situations that exist outside the film in the real world also referred to as non-fiction film. The first films ever shown to the public were documentaries exhibited by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895. They were very popular for some some with travelogues being especially popular. As editing techniques developed fictional narrative films gradually eclipsed documentaries. Documentary then survived inside the institution of cinema as newsreels. Pathe News began these in 1910 and soon other major companies began making them. Nanook of the North: Robert Flaherty (1922) was the first ever full length feature documentary. It demonstrated that fictional techniques could be used in a documentary.

Nanook of the North DVD Cover

Few full length documentaries have ever been made. Woodstock : Michael Wadleigh (1970) was one that managed to be distributed in mainstream cinemas. Documentaries differ from fiction because they refer to the historical real. The documentary theorist Bill Nichols describes the pleasure derived from watching documentary as ‘epistephilia’ or knowing about the real world. Fiction film cannot substitute for the hooror of an on-screen assassination or the explosion of the space shuttle challenger or the planes flying into the world trade centre. There is no need to suspend disbelief. Initially for many the fact that real events were caught on camera meant that documentaries were somehow unbiased. Nowadays it is widely accepted that documentaries are biased, as a result those seeking more objectivity take more concern with how the subjects of the documentary represent themselves. Blandford, Grant and Hillier (2001) argue that documentary isn’t a genre citing Nichols who comments that:

Documentary as a concept or practice occupies no fixed territory. It mobilises no finite inventory of techniques, adresses no completly known taxonomy of forms, styles, or modes’.

Nevertheless on the arguments that Neale uses to describe 'Art Cinema' as a 'genre' by virtue of its exhibitionary and distribution target audience, documentary with all the sub-generic forms has a more powerful case to be described as a genre. Interestingly Bill Nichols himself has included two articles on documentary including one by himself under 'Genre Criticism' in his seminal Movies and Methods Vol 2 (1985).

Empire Marketing Board (Film Unit). Existed to market the British Empire. John grierson headed the film unit between 1928 - 1933 when the whole board was wound up. It produced nearly 100 short films including The Drifters (1929) by Grierson himself and also Industrial Britain 1932) by Robert Flaherty. The Public Relations head Tallents went to the GPO and took Grierson and the film unit with him.

Ethnographic Film. Anthropological documentary that seeks to present and describe other cultures with a minimum of interpretation and ideological distortion. The first feature film usually considered as a foundational ethnographic film was Nanook of the North: Robert Flaherty (1922). However it romanticised the Inuit people. This type of approach to documentary film making can often be seen as condescending by representing indigenous people as ‘exotic others’.

Fast Film Stock. This describes how sensitive the emulsion is to light. Fast film stock is more sensitive to light and is rated at 400 ASA and above. Slower film stock can start as low as 50 ASA. Fast film was very useful in low light conditions and shooting could take place without artificial lighting. The disadvantage of this was that the film would look grainy compared to slower speed films.

Free Cinema Movement. This was a short lived movement in the late 1950s in Britain which tried to develop a different approvoach to documentary cinema. It had a powerful effect upon the British New Wave feature films which emereged soon afterwards. It was founded by Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. The term was used to designate a number of documentary films they made during the 1950s. The ideals held in common were that documentary films should be made free of all commercial pressures. That they should be inflected with a humanistic and poetic approach. This gave the work of Humphrey Jennings over that of John Grierson. Both anderson and Reisz were critics for the film magazine Sequence . The magazine criticisd British documentary for being conformist and feature filmmaking for its lack of aesthetic innovation. They also criticised the monopoly practices of British cinema. They also criticised the predominant genres of war films -which seemed to glorify war and avoid the horrors - and weak comedies. Their own shorts were largely self-funded although some grant money from the BFI was forthcoming. Ford UK was also a significant source of funding. Ford commissioned a series of documentaries ‘Look at Britain’. Free Cinema was responsible for Every Day Except Christmas : Anderson (1957) and Karel Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959). These filmmakers believed in representing working class culture as it was lived. The editing was very rhythmic dliberately connoting Jazz which had become an important part of working class subculture. Stylistically these 3 directors were smilar and 4 out of the 6 films they made had Walter Lasally as the cinematographer. The directors they were influenced by included John Ford, Marcel Carne, Jean Cocteau, Jean Gremillon, Humprey Jennings, Jean Renoir, Vittorio de Sica and Jean Vigo.

GPO Film Unit. This started under Grierson in 1933 after the Empire Marketing Board was wound up. It became the main institution to be associated with documentary film in the 1930s. It had a wide brief only some being linked directly to the Post Office. The films were heavily influenced by montage alongside a committment to representing ordinary people. It was propagandist in so far as it existed to serve the needs and purposes of the state. After Cavalcanti joined the unit there was also experiment with sound montage. Tensions arose between exponents of developing new forms and those who emphasised a more straightforward aproach. Later 1930s films tend to be less experimental than the earlier ones. There was also the development of drama documentaries. Many of the Unit’s conceptions were based around a similar public service principle to the BBC. In 1937 Cavalcanti took over the unit. In 1940 the unit was renamed the Crown Film Unit under the Ministry of Information.

Handheld Camera. Rather than using a tripod, dolly or crane the camera operator had far more flexibility and mobility. Images produced handheld weren't stable before the development of the steadicam. This created a certain look and feel usually associated with cinema verite and Direct Cinema both of which sought to follow profilmic events as they happened.

Woman with Steadicam System

This Steadicam system allows film makers to significantly reduce the unstable feeling of handheld cinematography. Handheld photography can now be used as an artistic device to impart a feeling of reality for the viewer. A good example of this is the sequence in Saving Private Ryan where the American troops are pinned down on the beach by Nazi gunfire as they launch the invasion of France.

Observational Cinema. This is a type of cinema in which the camera follows the profilmic events as they happen intending to reveal truths about these events. Ethnographic film, cinema Verite and Direct Cinema are all types of observational cinema. The question of whether and how much the film exploits, manipulates or documents the social actors are central. The films are seen as relatively truthful as they aren’t constrained by the technological limitations of older equipment which required dramatic reconstruction and a voice of god narrator.

Portable Sound Recording. Sound recording of location sound remained a problem until the 1950s when the break through in electronics which saw the development of the transistor meant that locational synchronised sound and filming was possible. This encoured styles such as cinema verite and Direct Cinema. The Swiss Nagra sound recorder was very popular with the French New Wave.

Profilmic Event. This is a theoretical term for the reality in front of the camera which is photographed. In observational documentary such as Direct Cinema / Ethnographic Cinema / Cinema Verite film makers aim to preserve the spatial and temporal integrity of these events (what is filmed) as much as possible

Voice of God Narration. The term has developed to describe the use of voice-over in documentary films. It is often used to describe the voice-over style used in Grierson produced documentaries. The voice is usually male, disembodied and omniscient. This style has been rejected by documentary makers in recent times as it is considered as being patriarchal, ethnocentric and manipulative. Personal voice-over is often used as in Roger and Me (Michael Moore, 1989)

Other Kinoeye glossaries include:

European Cinema and Media Glossary A-E

European Cinema and Media Glossary  Ed-Mo

Glossary of New Media Technologies (A-N)

Glossary of New Media Technologies (O-Z)

October 05, 2006

Triumph of the Will: Riefenstahl Consolidating Nazi Power

The Stadium in Nuremberg

Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the Nuremberg Nazi Congress of 1934 has frequently been hailed as a significant artistic documentary film. Reifenstahl died very recently and up until that time she consistently denied any association with the Nazis defending the film as a ‘work of art’. However the fact that she made another film about the Nazi Nuremburg congress in 1933 tends to undermine that argument. Dealing with the film and with Reifenstahl is awkward. As the article below by Marcus points out Reappraising Triumph of the Will it is possibly the most discussed film and director in the history of cinema to date only possibly exceeded by Welles & Hitchcock. However as a quick trawl through the internet will show you there is a lot of not very good discussion and much of it has little or no historical contextual background. Below I focus particularly on the representation of the Army in the film and the underlying issues surrounding this as it appears to have been little covered elsewhere.

Riefenstahl with Hitler

The film itself came out at a highly significant time for the Nazis as it celebrated Hitlers process of consolidation of power which took place during the period from the end of January 1933 through the infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives on June 30th 1934 followed by Hitler becoming Fuhrer after the death of Hindenberg. The film had a lot of work to do to spread the message of consolidation. Below the film is examined with a lot of attention being paid to to the composition of the target audience it was meant to reach. Whatever else the brutality against the Left, Jews and even liberals within the administrative posts in Germany meant that few could be unaware of the course of events. Riefenstahl’s denial rings very hollow.

This extract from the film is at the George Washington University and shows the reception that Hitler got when he landed at Nuremberg. It is the moment which Reifenstahl has been building up to. Reappraising Triumph of the Will
This is a particularly useful recent article. It contains a critical report on an interview conducted by Marcus himself with Reifenstahl. Marcus notes many of the diecrepancies and contradictions with previous interviews that she had given.

This a very useful article because it places Triumph of the Will squarely in the context of the other films which Reifenstahl made for Hitler. She had filmed the Nuremberg rally in 1933 gaining very valuable experience of the place and space of the rallies themselves. She also made a film of the rally the following year. This film was to strongly feature the Werhmacht as the Werhmacht had complained that there was very little about their manoeuvres in Triumph of the Will.

Animated Gif of Nuremburg Images

Marcus spends a brief time on the issue of the army and what he says is perceptive and useful. The role of the army is something which most commentators either fail to consider or skim over. Coming at this film within the context of seeing the film as an important part of the whole of the period of the Nazi consolidation of power rather than a decontextualised psuedo documentary allows us as critics to get a much better handle on the film. Below a representation from Visconti signifying the free reign of terror which the SA had between March 1933 for over a year. However much of what they were doing was alienting the middle and upper class base of support for the Nazis.

The SA practicing on Effigies in Visconti

The role of the army in Hitler’s plans after taking power were crucial. In the first instance the army needed to stand by in a ‘neutral’ fashion whilst Hitler carried out his institutional purges during 1933 & 1934. It was the role of the Army in the future of Nazi Germany which was one of the fundamental points of difference between Roehm head of the SA and Hitler along with his unquestioning supporters such as Himmler and Goebbels the SS.

Ernst Roehm Leader of the SA

An excellent cinematic representation of this difference is shown within Visconti’s much under-rated film The Damned. Roehm wanted the SA to replace the army and be the spearhead for a more fundamental revolution at home and to lead the struggle for Lebensraum the Nazis imperialist plans for eastwards expansion. The Werhmacht were fundamentally opposed to the SA. whilst consolidating his position Hitler had no choice but to buy off the army – he obviously didn’t need a civil war with a fully professional armed fighting force. furthermore the Prussian backbone of the army had much in common with the genral aims of resoring Germany’s place in the World which would ensure a massive expansion of the armed forces. The kind of debauchery which Roehm was engaged in at the time of the massacre was helpful to Hitler in calming disturbed elements of the SA. visconti’s representation of this is largely based upon the reports of William Shirer an American journalist in Germany at the time.

The Debauchery of the SA

The Wehrmacht colluded in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. It was ensured that they were confined to barracks whilst those identified as the greatest threats amongst the SA were purged. Furthermore it is reported that the Wehrmacht aslo provided logistical support for the SS to carry out the massacre. Shortly afterwards the officers of the army swore their personal allegiance to Hitler as Fuhrer. The seriousness of swearing an oath of allegiance within the Prussian officer code cannot be overestimated. Over the coming years this would prove to be a fundamental pillar of strength for Hitler. Below is an image of von Blomberg who appears on the podium with Hitler watching the manoeuvres. This would be seen by many of the film’s eventual audiences as highly significant.

Von Blomberg a key element in Hitlers rise to absolute power

Whilst the army might have wished to have been better represented the key target audience of the film needed to be the SA and all its supporters who had so recently had their leadership brutally removed. The mass popularity of Hitler and the unifying of Germany as a Nation with even the Saarland – at that time still under occupation – being included. There currently appears to be no evidence concerning the amount and type of footage of the army however it would be extraordinarily if Hitler wasn’t very aware of and had some level of input at the policy level of exactly what was in the film whatever Reifenstahl says. In another section I have placed a brief article on the re-armament policies of the Nazis and the development of these over the course of the early years of the regime. This historical detail will hopefully help to shed light on aspects of Triumph of the Will. I will also be placing a review of the process of the Nazi consolidation of power which I take to be from the end of January 1933 to the release of Triumph of the Will. This film needs to be seen as a spectacular represesentation of a spectacular event with a range of target audiences in mind. As a piece of performative filmmaking which come close to Wagner’s ideal of the gesamtkunstwerk then it is hard to beat. This link will take you to some realplayer downloads. I find it takes them a time to start up. The prelude to the Meistersinger was Reifenstahl’s ‘choice’. The fact that Wagner was Hitler’s favourite naturally had nothing to do with it. But then its a pain having to out up with that anti-Semite as well :-). Wagner was entirely appropriate for Riefenstahl’s score to the film, but then that was art – nothing to do with anti-Semitism at all!

October 03, 2006

People on Sunday: Siodmak et al

So why did I pick this film? Well like most of the others it appears in the list of Germany’s most significant films. It is part of the BFI’s ‘History of The Avant-Garde’ series of DVDs.

People on Sunday

The film came out in 1929 and was shot before the great depression had started. As such it could be seen as representing a false optimism of people living out their lives in a micro way assuming that macro factors were taking care of themselves.

Robert Siodmak

Edgar G. Ulmer

Severaral of its makers went on to become important directors in Hollywood after leaving Germany when it turned Nazi. They were Edgar Ulmer, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann.

Most of these directors went onto to make major contributions to the American ‘genre’ of ’ noir’ thrillers. Whilst some uninspired commentaries on the web fail to see the connection the film noir sensibility of dark forces bubbling under the surface of society arguably reflects both Neue Sachlichkeit and expressionist elements born of pre-Nazi and Nazi society.

The direction of the film is credited to Siodmak and Ulmer however it seems as though both Wilder and Zinnemann did some directing. The film was a collaborative effort.

Brigitte Borchert & Wolfgang von Waltershausen

It was one of a number of films which became highly influential amongst documentary and documentary style film-makers. Philip Kemp’s notes to the BFI DVD version cite Renoir’s thirties films Italian Neo-realism and the British ‘Free Cinema’ movement of the 1950s. It owes its origins more to developments within Neue Sachlichkeit than Vertov’s truly radical in film-making and political terms 1929 film ‘Man With a Movie Camera’. Here some in depth comparative research would be useful.

The Original Mass Observation Book of 1937

One important person that Kemp has missed out was Humphrey Jennings. Jennings’ surrealistically inspired input into the Griersonion British documentary movement and then his wartime output has very close links with this style of ethnographic ‘quasi-documentary’ film making. Jennings was a very strongly accredited influence with the Free Cinema Movement. Like the makers of People on Sunday they were concerned with the leisure activities of ordinary people. That Jennings was a founding member of the British Mass-Observation Movement with its development of the qualitative research technique of observation is also an indicator that this film was seen by Jennings.

Christl Ehlers the Film Extra

An important element of People on Sunday was that the actors were ordinary people not trained actors. The nearest to being an actor was Annie Shreyer who sometimes became a film extra.

An interesting interview with the other main woman in the film Brigitte Borchert is included in the BFI sleevneotes. Borchert comments that although the film was successful with the critics the ordinary people she worked with were unimpressed: ‘They said they saw things like that every day and would rather have seen a kitsch movie; they were right: they go to the movies to forget about their hard lives”. Unwittingly Borchert had summarised the main contents of Horkheimer and Adorno’s ‘_The Culture Industry’ several years before it was written!

Brigitte Borchert & Wolfgang von Waltershausen Swimming

For a good range of photographs Deutsch film portal. (Please note at time of writing the photo entitled Borchert is mis-titled).

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Filmmuseum Berlin – Deutsche Kinemathek

Goethe Institute London Film Pages
Goethe-Institut London – The Arts – Film

Expressionist film

German Expressionism

Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung

Eureka Metropolis

Eureka Nosferatu

Fassbinder Vol 1

Run Lola Run

Das Experiment

Lives of Others

Senses of Cinema

Bacon Visconti

Bondanella Italian Cinema

Italian Neorealism Rebuilding the Cinematic City

Visconti The Leopard

Rocco and His Brothers

Visconti's Ossessione

Neorealist Collection

Framework a Peer assessed Film and Media Journal
Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media

Kinoeye. No relation to this blog. Cinema journal mainly focused upon Central & Eastern Europe
Kinoeye | Polish cinema | Vol 4.05, 29 November 2004

Cineuropa: A joint initiative
Cineuropa – About us – Our Mission

Talk About Films: the Independent and Foreign Films Discussion Group Go to 'Invalid Account'

Invalid Account
Ourmedia RSS feed

The World in 2007: The Economist Go to 'The Economist'

The Economist
Audio content from The Economist magazine, including interviews with journalists and experts on world politics, business, finance, economics, science, technology, culture and the arts.

BBC News UK Edition Go to 'BBC News - UK'

Eureka Shoah

Lanzmann's shoah

Haunted Images: Film & Holocaust

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