The sketch of the bridge with which Joris Ivens’s silent documentary The Bridge begins is followed by shots of Ivens filming the realized drawbridge and the actual use of this Rotterdam bridge—this, bringing to fruition an engineer’s design and a filmmaker’s film. Most of those we see are specks from the vantage of the bridge’s heighth; yet the film pulsates with humanity, because the prologue implies the human creativity operating behind both bridge and the camera filming it.
There are five movements to this 12-minute film: the partial movement of a locomotive across the bridge; the interruption of this movement by the raising of the drawbridge; the passage below of ships; the lowering of the drawbridge; the train’s resumption.
This is a measured film so that the camera can take in everything, including everything mechanical and everything in motion—and from such a variety of angles that we sometimes cannot make out precisely what we are looking at, which becomes plain enough with a shift of the camera. Around the operations of bridge and train, therefore, the film conjoins the familiar and the unfamiliar, the functional and the abstract. The film ends with a touch of the avant-garde: on a white background a black square that, shot by shot, appears to approach or recede as the size of the square being photographed shifts.
Above all, Ivens has created a masterpiece of poise. The train is poised to stop; the bridge is poised to rise. The train is poised to resume; the bridge is poised to descend. However, the greatest instance of poise involves a cut: an overhead long-shot of a ship passing through is cut away from at the exact moment the uppermost tip of the mast clears.
Life’s movement, poised to sometime stop.
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