Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"After the Crash: European Film ca. 1929-1930"

What follows is a combination of my partial program notes for After the Crash: European Film ca. 1929-1930, and my further reflections on those titles about which I did not specifically write this year. Before these short synopses, I have post my historical overview for the immediate post-Crash period. 

After the Crash 

While the events of October 1929 would be felt immediately throughout Europe, the force with which they were to be experienced, both in the short term and long, would vary markedly throughout the continent. Having endured a postwar ‘era of inflation’ that brought with it “hyperinflation” by the summer of 1922, Germany had corrected its economic course by the “golden” middle years of the decade, only to plunge deeply into the financial crisis as American banks called in their short-term loans. By the beginning of 1932, as Weimar historian Eric D. Weitz has pointed out, six million Germans or one-third of its workforce would be unemployed, with two million more “unofficially” unemployed, bringing the total to an “almost unbelievable forty percent.” Figures in industries such as iron and steel and shipbuilding were even higher ranging from 41.9 percent in the case of the former to a staggering in 63.5 in that of the latter. All told, GNP declined from a high of nearly 89,000,000 RM in 1928 to less than 56,000,000 in 1932. As the new decade was dawning, Weimar Germany was experiencing the Great Depression as acutely as any nation in Europe.

America’s closest cultural ally in Europe, Great Britain, likewise felt the full force of the Stock Market Crash almost immediately with demand for its industrial products collapsing over the course of the winter of 1929-1930. Especially hard-hit would be the nation’s industrial and mining regions, with thirty percent of Glaswegians, for example, unemployed by 1933. However, in the case of Great Britain, unemployment itself was not a new problem, though its scope certainly would make it a much greater one. Rather, when Britain’s second Labor Government ascended to power in June 1929, high unemployment, according to British historian Peter Clarke, “was already the key issue,” with the nation’s lack of jobs alternately blamed on Britain’s capitalist economy, its Free Trade policies, its “painful” decision to revert to the gold standard and its industrial decline. What the Stock Market Crash effectively meant for Britain was that “economic depression was no longer a peculiar British problem but a world problem, bringing cyclical unemployment on top of pre-existing structural unemployment.”

Ramsay MacDonald’s Labor Government acted quickly in 1929 to relax borrowing limits for the long-term unemployed on the ‘dole,’ while removing the stipulation that claimants must be “genuinely seeking work.” As a result, the nation’s unemployment statistics saw a substantial increase from 1.5 million in January to 1930 to 2.5 by the end of that same year, placing great stress on the National Insurance Fund. Early in 1930, Labor politician Sir Oswald Mosley issued a memorandum proposing that the workforce be cut by raising the school-leaving age, reducing that of retirement and easing credit to stimulate trade behind a “tariff wall.” Mosley’s memorandum was rejected, leading to his resignation from the Government in 1930 and to his eventual turn toward fascism as the decade progressed. In any case, his final suggestion of a system of tariffs did find currency in the Labor Government, where protectionism experienced greater gains in 1930-1931 than in it had “in the whole of the previous quarter-century.” The Second MacDonald Ministry also succeeded in passing the (perhaps under-enforced) Coal Mines Act of 1930, which reduced workdays to seven-and-a-half hour shifts in exchange for allowing owners to form cartels and also the Housing Act of 1930, which provided subsidies for slum-clearance.

Across the English Channel, French Prime Minister André Tardieu (1929-1930, 1932) championed a ‘national retooling program,’ which sought, through public works, to “stimulate prosperity and bind peasants and workers to liberal capitalism.” While it would be deliberately sunk by radical opposition, the work of Tardieu governments was partially carried on by those of Pierre Laval. As for the economic crisis, unemployment in France during the Great Depression was “notably lower” than it was in its contiguous nations. In part, this was the result of France’s comparative lack of manpower brought on the nation’s steep World War I casualties: France lost more than 1.3 million soldiers, of which more than one in four was younger than twenty-four, with three million more wounded in battle. However, even if the Depression was not quite as severe in France from an economic standpoint, it remained very serious indeed from a political perspective, with the French populace voicing countless fears as the Depression deepened: “peasants complained of falling prices, civil servants feared wage-cuts, businesses faced bankruptcy, students and professionals resented foreign competition for jobs, [and] white-collar workers demanded the return of women to the home.” For Kevin Passmore, “the result was extreme governmental instability,” culminating in the rise of the Leftist Popular Front in 1934.

On the other side of the Pyrenees in Spain, 1930 began with the resignation of dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera on the twentieth-eighth day of January amid rising inflation and a currency whose value was plummeting. By August of the same year, the Socialists signed an agreement with the nation’s republican parties to work towards the installation of a democratic Republic. That goal would be achieved following the municipal elections of 12 April 1931, which were assumed by monarchists and republicans alike to be a “plebiscite on the constitutional future of Spain.”

There was no similar challenge to Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy during the first few years of the Depression. In power since 1922, Mussolini pursued an economic strategy during the Depression years that was more propagandistic, according to modern Italian historian Martin Clark, than it was targeted toward concrete achievement. In general, Italy pursued policies of protectionism and proto-Keynesian demand-side economics, with public works and welfare spending peaking during the four years that followed the stock market crash. When a number of debtor firms became insolvent in the year following the Stock Market Crash, the Fascist government rescued the nation’s largest banks, with its first act to supply industrial credit beginning in 1931. This policy would prove especially popular in Fascist Italy. At the same time, the Fascists cut wages by twelve percent, encouraged price-fixing and arranged cartels. The money supply declined from 19 billion lire in 1927 to 16 billion lire in 1932, with cost-of-living experiencing a dramatic 16 percent decline over a concurrent five-year period. In total, Italy fared the early Depression years better than many of its rival nations, which in the minds of the public, seemed to add legitimacy to the Fascist regime’s anti-liberal economic policies.

As the Great Depression arrived in Eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia was finally “returning to normality,” following an exceedingly tumultuous 1920s. The summer of 1929 witnessed Millenary celebrations in honor of Bohemian prince St. Wenceslas, which culminated in the completion of the medieval Cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague. Politically, the nation had achieved an “ideal half-way” between extremes of Right and Left in the judgment of Czechoslovak historian R. W. Seton-Watson, thanks in no small measure to the power of the Roman Catholic majority that opposed both Clerical rule and Communist revolution. The Great Depression however would hit Czechoslovakia hard, with 750,000 unemployed by 1932. Amid the sudden economic chaos, the nation’s governing Coalition would be threatened by collapse, with thirty Communist deputies and a new Fascist formation actively working to discredit those in power – though ultimately with a “singular lack of success.”

The situation of course was very different to the east where 1930 would mark the second anniversary of the Joseph Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan. With the Politburo resolved to complete the massive economic transformation in four rather than five years, despite the concerns of sympathetic economists, the Soviet Union undertook the “gigantic task of amending schemes involving the country’s industry, agriculture, transport and commerce”: cities such as Magnitogorsk were being built, the White Sea-Baltic Canal was dug, mines were sunk and factories were put on seven-day work weeks – all of which helped to transform the Soviet Union into a great industrial nation, even as the rest of the West was experiencing steep economic decline. The Soviet Union indeed was one of the rare success stories during the Depression years, at least from the standpoint of economic markers: gross industrial output had risen 137 percent between 1928 and 1933; capital goods increased by an even more impressive 285 percent; and the total employed labor force, which numbered 11.3 million under the new economic policy, reached a total of 22.8 million.

In the countryside, Stalin introduced two types of collective farms in 1929, the sovkhoz and the kolkhoz, which though officially voluntary would rely on a set of coercive levers for total implementation. By December 1929, however, these collective farms would no longer be open to all Soviets as the kulaks (a comparatively affluent class of farmers) would be banned from becoming collective farm workers. On 30 January 1930, the Politburo approved the kulaks liquidation as a class, sending many in their ranks to concentration camps while others were sent to distant places within the Soviet Union or to other sections of their home provinces. By July 1930, over 320,000 households were subjected to “dekulakisation.” Stalin’s persecutions did not stop at the kulak class naturally, but extended to “bourgeois nationalists, priests and private traders… as well as recalcitrant economic experts.” Leading figures in these groups (save for religious leaders whose persecution, along with the Red Army’s, remained out of the public eye) were subjected to show trials in 1929-1930, after being tortured and forced to read rote confessions. “Hundreds of defendants,” according to Stalin biographer Robert Service, “were either shot or sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment” in the nation’s Gulags, with many of those that survived the former ultimately losing their lives as forced laborers in the construction of an industrial Soviet Union.

Select Bibliography 

Clark, Martin. Modern Italy: 1871 to the Present. Third edition. Harlow, Essex: Pearson Educational Limited, 2008.

Clarke, Peter. Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-1990. London: Penguin Books, 1996.

Passmore, Kevin. “The Republic in crisis: politics 1914-1945.” Modern France 1880-2002. James McMillan, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Service, Robert. Stalin: A Biography. London: Macmillan, 2004.

Seton-Watson, R. W. A History of the Czechs and the Slovaks. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1965. Vincent, Mary. Spain 1833-2002: People and State. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Weitz, Eric D. Weimar Germany. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Program Notes and Reflections

Regen / Rain (Joris Ivens, 1929, Netherlands, 14 minutes)

Though it clocks in at less than fifteen minutes, Joris Ivens’s lyrical portrayal of a sudden rainstorm as it descends upon a sunny Amsterdam was more than two years in the making. With the subject first suggested to Ivens in October 1927 by his soon to be estranged collaborator Mannus Franken – Franken like many of Ivens’s subsequent co-conspirators would complain of the filmmaker’s propensity to monopolize credit – Ivens proceeded to shoot Rain in between his various other projects for the next two years, relying throughout much of the period on “rain spotters” to “alert him to appropriate images” that would fit his shooting script. The finished short, which debuted in Amsterdam in December 1929, manufactures a “poetic impression of Amsterdam as seen through the eyes of an introvert observer wandering through the city during a rain shower,” with imagery ranging from the single beads of rainwater collecting on the metal tips of an open umbrella to the aerial set-ups of the rain-soaked metropolis. While Rain no doubt owes to Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) in its lyrical treatment of urbanism, Ivens’s micro-scaled adaption of the formula favors the presence of the natural in the built environment. To echo graduate film scholar Grant Wiedenfeld, Ivens's is an extraordinary piece of “pure cinema.”

This short is available on a variety of home video formats including on Kino-Lorber’s Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s. 

Menschen am Sonntag / People on Sunday (Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, 1930, Germany, 73 minutes)

A wellspring for postwar film noir with collaborators Siodmak, Ulmer, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann all making significant contributions to the later mode, People on Sunday nevertheless looks forward less to the Hollywood that this decorated collection of émigré filmmakers would soon shape than it does to the concurrent transformations in the European cinema, where the non-professional strategies of the German feature shortly would be re-played (in the fascist south especially). People on Sunday, however, differs ontologically from this nascent art cinema as reality does not so much protrude on the filmmakers' fiction, but rather, fiction supervenes, through Wilder's screenplay, on the reality of five non-actors, drawn from the 4 million Berliners, whom the filmmakers take as their subject. (The non-narrative digressions substantially ground the film's grafted on fiction.) In this sense, People on Sunday is even more modern in its prediction of Abbas Kiarostami and his twenty-first century followers Lisandro Alonso and Miguel Gomes, whose hybrid creations have enlivened the last decade of international art cinema.

This film is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on the Criterion Collection label. 

K.Sh.E / Komsomol – shef elektrifikatsii / Komsomol – Sponsor of Electrification (Esfir Shub, 1933, Soviet Union, 54 minutes)

A friend of Sergei Eisenstein and Vladimir Mayakovsky, Esfir Shub got her start in the Soviet film industry re-cutting and titling foreign films in order to make them ideological “suitable” for domestic audiences. From this point of departure, Shub transitioned into the work of editing and assembling newsreel footage, which commenced with her feature-length archive-footage compilation, The Fall of the Roman Dynasty, in 1927. Five years later, Shub attempted her first work in the sound cinema with K.Sh.E (short for 'Komsomol – Sponsor of Electrification'), which would focalize not only the subject of its title, the contributions of the “komsomol” (or youth division of the Communist party) in bringing electricity to the nation, but also the sound technology that Shub was employing for the first time. In fact, before K.Sh.E moves to its primary ideological purpose – one it should be noted that was born out of the conclusion of Stalin’s “five year plan” – Shub begins with a prologue filmed inside a Moscow “sound factory,” where the “futuristic” and exceedingly magical theremin is debuted as Shub and her crew look on, their cameras rolling and directional microphones recording in a testament to the film’s post Man with a Movie Camera (1929) self-reflexivity.

A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929, United Kingdom, 88 minutes) 

Begun in early 1929, a few short months after The Jazz Singer became the first talking picture to screen in Europe, Anthony Asquith’s fourth and final silent feature (as it is remembered and screened today), would also be his first to bear a synchronized soundtrack, now lost, which according to Variety featured ‘six percent’ spoken dialogue. A Cottage of Dartmoor in fact announces its very position on the threshold of this new technology, and in so doing the historical accident of its silence, through a focal set-piece near the picture’s midpoint that shifts attention away from a boisterously scored and edited crescendo of an off-screen Harold Lloyd short, to an “all talking, all singing, all dancing” dramatic adaption of W. Shayspeare’s My Woman. With the orchestra laying down their instruments in exchange for a round of pints and decks of playing cards, Asquith’s previously breakneck montage thusly proceeds according to a newly measured pace that more closely reproduces the slower, dialogically calibrated rhythm of early sound cinema. A Cottage on Dartmoor however will remain more the creature of the silent cinema’s last dizzying gasp with topics of conversation figured in illustrational inserts and the act of speech itself in visual metaphor. Then there is Asquith’s infinitely more memorable inclusion of a gushing sprayer hose, following a percussive series of visual metonymies, to mark a sudden outburst of workplace violence. At this moment, Asquith demonstrates a pitch-black visual wit to equal that of his countryman Alfred Hitchcock – just as he has produced a work of the crime thriller genre to match anything that the 'Master of Suspense' produced during his highly accomplished silent period. The very peak of the After the Crash program.

This film screened on 35mm courtesy of the British Film Institute, with live accompaniment provided by Donald Sosin. 

Die Drei von der Tankstelle / The Three from the Gas Station / Three Good Friends (Wilhelm Thiele, 1930, Germany, 99 minutes) 

A major popular hit in Weimar Germany, outpacing even Sternberg and Dietrich’s iconic teaming in The Blue Angel (1930), Wilhelm Thiele’s The Three the Gas Station, opens with a briskly cut passage of transitional montage that will slow to a multi-figural crawl as Thiele stages his three male leads in a series of medium set-ups as they declare their eternal loyalty. From this point of departure, The Three from the Gas Station abounds with both charm and kitsch, with the consequent, unexpected appearance of trick effects only adding to the quotient of each. The beautiful English-born Lillian Harvey also contributes more of the same, thanks to her thick, unmasked Anglo accent – The Three from the Gas Station trades heavily on early sound forms of spectacle – and also her keenness to raise her skirt high above her thighs, revealing her badly bunched stockings as she awkwardly hooves to a musical number. Ginger Rogers Ms. Harvey is not in this ultimately minor entry into the After the Crash corpus.

This film screened on 35mm courtesy of Transit films. Special thanks to David Pendleton of the Harvard Film Archive.

Prix de beauté / Beauty Prize / Miss Europe (Augusto Genina, 1930, France, 93 minutes)

Originating from an idea by France’s greatest film artist of the transition-to-sound period, René Clair (Sous les tois de Paris, À Nous la Liberté), “able” Italian craftsman Augusto Genina’s expertly paced Prix de beauté remains best known today as the final major performance by the iconic Kansas-native Louise Brooks. Breaking her Paramount contract in 1928, which in turn led to her unofficial blacklisting in Hollywood, Brooks departed for Germany where she made her masterpiece in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) later that same year, to be followed in quick succession by a second significant collaboration with the same director, Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). While Prix de beauté accordingly would prove only the third performance of Brooks’s ultimately brief European sojourn – following three short years in Southern California – the impression that the talented raven-haired actress would leave with her boyish bob and shapely lower physique was more than enough to cement her consequent, post-1950s rediscovery reputation beside such screen legends as Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo (with whom the avowedly heterosexual Brooks reportedly once claimed to have a romantic dalliance). In Prix de beauté, Clair and Genina deliver a subject that befits both her immense appeal – Brooks stars as a newspaper typist who, despite the objections of her fiancé, enters and wins a San Sebastian-set beauty pageant – and also her tragically short film career, one that would conclude more than four-and-a-half decades before her 1985 death. Prix de beauté’s final act surprise resounds with both this latter professional intertext, as well as with a sharp formal self-awareness that in Brooks’s last appearance as a screen star highlights the post-synchronous nature of the film’s Clair-inspired sound experimentation, separating as it does Brooks’s visage from the sound of Edith Piaf’s overdubbed vocals. In this moment as throughout the film (which originated as a work of the silent cinema), we see silence but hear sound.

This film is available on DVD through Kino-Lorber. 

L’Âge d’or (Luis Buñuel, 1930, France, 63 minutes) 

Withdrawn from circulation less than one month after its late November 1930 premiere – following a Ligue des Patriotes attack on the Studio 28 theatre where it was receiving its premiere Parisian engagement – Luis Buñuel’s second film would primarily remain an object of rumor and dimmed recollection for the next half-century, appearing only in the occasional private screening, as would occur at the Museum of Modern Art in 1933. It was not until November of 1979 that L’Âge d’or would receive its proper U.S. theatrical premiere, once the “gates protecting [Western society] from sex and blasphemy,” as Dudley Andrew has put it, had been thrown open. Appearing in the breach was a work, from a Buñuel and Salvador Dalí script, which belonged unequivocally to the earlier moment, to that of surrealism’s revolutionary “Second Manifesto,” as well as to the last gasp of postwar France’s modernist avant-garde. Much more than any of the director’s later works, L’Âge d’or also bares the influence or at least an affinity with the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein, with which it shares a fundamentally linguistic orientation and a corresponding interest in audience response – which perhaps accounts for its successful appeal to a more passive spectatorship, despites its undeniable thematic density. If L’Âge d’or therefore does not feel entirely familiar in view of the proceeding forty-seven years of narrative practice with which audiences of 1979 (as today) would have been aware, Buñuel’s first feature does still disproportionately anticipate the corpus that would follow, from its satirical engagement with bourgeois values and the dispersed (social) focalization strategies that would mark such masterpieces as The Exterminating Angel (1962) and of course The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) to the liebestod and fetishism that would define the very great Él (1953) and its many followers. To echo Dudley Andrew, particularly in view of its checkered reception history, “long live L’Âge d’or.”

This film screened on 35mm courtesy of the British Film Institute. It is also available on DVD through Kino-Lorber. 

David Golder (Julien Duvivier, 1930, France, 86 minutes) 

In a great year for the French cinema, Julien Duvivier stands out for the appreciable force of his anti-corporate diptych, with David Golder analogically marking the post-Crash fall of Au bonheur des dames’s (1930) all-powerful retail juggernaut. Elegantly shot in a rich variety of grays – cinematographically speaking David Golder looks very modern indeed – Duvivier’s novelistic adaptation possesses many of the qualities of nineteenth century Russian literature, beginning with its abiding predilection for psychological nuance; this alone sets David Golder apart from and above much of the 1930s field. On his death bed (aboard a Soviet ferry), the eponymous protagonist Golder (Harry Baur in a magnificent grounding performance) makes belated contact with a braided earlier version of his Judaic self, who happens to be in transit to Capitalistic capital of New York. At this moment, Duvivier appears to be neither for not against his capitalist hero, though this concluding meeting does signal the return of the culturally repressed - amid the mists that would soon come to define an entire 'poetic realism.'

This film screened on 35mm courtesy of Conaissance du Cinema. Special thanks to Cecille Lagesse of Yale University. 

Bezucelná procházka / Aimless Walk (Alexandr Hackenschmied, 1930, Czechoslovakia, 8 minutes) 

The inaugural feature in the Czech avant-garde (drawn again from the city symphony corpus of the 1920s), Hackenschmied - aka Alexander Hamid - would become best known as Maya Deren's partner and collaborator on the no-less epochal Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Rather than read my inarticulate thoughts on the Hackenshmied film, a film for which I will admit no powerful impression, I would suggest viewing the work in full at this link.

This film screened on 35mm courtesy of the National Film Archive of the Czech Republic.

Ze soboty na nedeli / From Saturday to Sunday (Gustav Machatý, 1931, Czechoslovakia, 69 minutes)

An extraordinary summation and ultimately optimistic reconsideration of After the Crash’s accidental obsession with the romantically disadvantaged working-class male and his upwardly mobile feminine counterpart – Lisa K. Broad has rightly pointed to this subject’s tragic contemporary resonance amid America’s endless Recession – From Saturday to Sunday makes explicit the corresponding sex for money calculus that in its cinematic predecessors rules out the aforesaid male. In From Saturday to Sunday, however, Machatý’s fleshy, very average heroine runs from sexual payment (as she approaches a clandestinely arranged hotel), opting instead for a night spent floating in and out of waking consciousness – and characteristically postwar adult situations – in the flat of one of After the Crash’s surprisingly numerous working-class type-setters. The space itself, designed by the great experimental filmmaker Alexandr Hackenshmied (see above), contributes to From Saturday to Sunday’s rich social panorama, one that finds memorable object-centred expression in the film’s competing menus. Machatý’s gracefully experimental and lightly surreal From Saturday to Sunday accordingly represents the most welcome discovery of the 1929-1930 series.

This film screened on 35mm courtesy of the National Film Archive of the Czech Republic. 

Select Bibliography 

Andrew, Dudley. “L’âge d’or and the Eroticism of the Spirit.” In Masterpieces of Modernist Cinema. Ed. Ted Perry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

British Film Institute. K-SH-E. http://explore.bfi.org.uk/4ce2b735daa98.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 5th edition. Revised by Fred Klein & Ronald Dean Nolen. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.

Ryall, Tom. Anthony Asquith. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006. Schoots, Hans. Living Dangerously: A Biography of Joris Ivens. Trans. David Colmer. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000.

4 comments:

Lasse Winther Jensen said...

This seems like a very interesting selection of films.
On an unrelated note: Have you seen Terence Davies The Deep Blue Sea? And if so, what do you think about it? I'm a bit surprised to see that you haven't mentioned it at all seeing as you seem to hold Davies in such high regard.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Lasse,

On "The Deep Blue Sea": I did see it and admired it as much as almost anything I have seen so far this year. I was however deep in the revision process for another project and was unable to post anything new on the blog at the time.

Rest assured that at the very least it will figure in my year-end write-up.

Lasse Winther Jensen said...

But it is not on the top 10 for 2011?
I'm going to see it in the coming days and I was merely wondering if it holds up to eg. The House of Mirth (I suspect it doesn't reach the heights of Distant Voices and the director seems to have moved on from that type of filmmaking anyway).

Michael J. Anderson said...

It may ultimately rate among the ten best of 2011, but I had not yet seen it when I made the list (and thus far, I haven't felt the need to revise). I will say this: it is not the film that "House of Mirth" is, though I would argue that very few films are. To me, it is a positively Mizoguchian tragedy.