Generally, there are two kinds of industrial documentaries: those that celebrate the factory; those that decry it. In the former category is Vertov’s Enthusiasm, which expresses hope that industry lights the Soviet path to future success; Vertov, “in a highly fragmented fashion, aims at an integrative view of the interdependency of elements of Soviet productivity.” In the latter category is Robert J. Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1948), about which I have written the following:
The commercial technology that Flaherty shows competes with the natural environment in order to subdue it—Standard Oil’s idea of “harmony.” There is no getting away from the fascination of this technology. Indeed, Louisiana Story is as engrossed with complicated apparatus as are Sergei M. Eisenstein’s The Old and the New (1929) and Dziga Vertov’s metallic, gear-grinding Enthusiasm (1931)—two works that illustrate the mythopolitical Soviet equation of technological progress and human fulfillment. This is not Flaherty’s attitude, however. Consider the horrifying shot of birds suddenly flooding the sky in flight—it’s apocalyptic—at the exploratory explosion which itself chokes air with dark gas, dirt and debris, the effect of which no number of company prologues would ever succeed in neutralizing. In Flaherty’s film, the machinery itself is represented in unsettling terms: it’s agitated, smoke-belching, and busily overloaded with lines and chain belts that seem almost capable of attacking. (Compare the sanctified treatment of the cream separator as a huge, shining object of awe in The Old and the New.) But Flaherty and his spouse, Frances, who co-authored the story, go further yet: the machinery fails. Oil is not released; instead, a blowout makes necessary the capping of the well. The drillers are thus portrayed as hapless and impotent, as pure spoilers, for all their advanced gadgetry.
The same year as Enthusiasm saw Joris Ivens’s Philips-Radio, a.k.a. Symphonie industrielle or Industrial Symphony. The first Dutch sound film, it was commissioned by the Philips Eindhoven company, branches of which refused to show it. This film is openly ambivalent about the factory whose activity it shows.
Glass bulb blowing exerts its usual fascination; the strenuously puffed cheeks are no worse than afflicts a musician playing certain instruments. The tone is moderate; most of the film seems neutral—although at length this in itself projects something of the dehumanizing factory monotony of Jean-Luc Godard’s British Sounds (1968) and Pravda (1970). (It is in Numéro Deux/Essai Titres, 1975, that Godard, along with Anne-Marie Miéville, offers his most comprehensive analysis, and criticism, of “the factory.”) Indeed, the assembly line in Philips-Radio echoes the sweatshop, the same year, in Josef von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy (1931), based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel. (In another shot or two, the film echoes Fritz Lang’s silent Metropolis.) Smoke fogs up the air outside, and inside the factory a machine is identified by number and addressed over a loudspeaker. Ivens keeps the camera focused on the inhuman loudspeaker, but of course it is the person who is manning the machine who is being addressed. Thus this unseen worker is equated with the machine that he is manning: a stunning instance of dehumanization exposed—this, one year prior to René Clair’s A nous la liberté (1932) and five years prior to Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).
Ivens’s film expresses the ambivalence towards the factory that most of us, consciously or unconsciously, feel. Such progress—at such a human cost.
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