“We will become a nation of automobiles and tractors.” — Josef Stalin
Having toured the Soviet Union at Pudovkin’s invitation, Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens promised to return and make a film there; Komsomolsk follows the process by which cast iron is produced, beginning with the extraction of iron ore from Magnetic Mountain. We begin “[o]n the Siberian steppes where the nomads roam and the wind bends the grass”; while an elderly man plays a flute-like instrument, a woman appears in long-shot with four children walking beside her and an infant in her arms. This is to be a film about youth: a young nation; the Young Communist League; eyes pitched ahead. Startlingly, delightfully comes an (I presume) unscripted moment: a young boy rushes right by the camera, smiling into it. Alas, little else is so fresh and spontaneous; propaganda, which Soviet masterpieces by Pudovkin and Vertov comfortably absorb, here is turgid. Moreover, the gimmicky through-line of a peasant boy who becomes part of the spotlighted industrial process doesn’t work; for it to do so, he would have to be individuated at least a little.
Much of the imagery astonishes—for instance, granules being transported by conveyer belt to the blast furnace, the perspective emphasizing the upward move. Indeed, the film soars for a sustained passage that includes, one quickly following another, the best shots of industrial labor and machinery I have seen. Ivens’s camera goes in every direction, at one expressionistic point creating an abstract science-fictiony design that teases Stalin’s abhorrence of “non-representative” art.
Komsomolsk reaches its apotheosis when young workers, who have produced steel, unite in song in anticipation of constructing Magnitogorsk: “diggers, concreters, steel workers, metal workers, mechanics, electricians, architects.” But Ivens remains ambivalent toward industry; the film ends with the factory belching and hissing.
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