Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jonathan Kahana reviews The Conscience of Cinema

Thomas Waugh. The Conscience of Cinema: The Works of Joris Ivens 1912–1989. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017. 777 pp. 

Review by Jonathan Kahana

16 May 2019

In his most recent research, Thomas Waugh employs lately restored produced by the Ivens estate. Outside of a small handful of his Modernist and Popular Front works, many of the films discussed are today rarely programmed or seen. Waugh’s writing is as fine-grained as one could hope. For example, Waugh spends seven pages documenting the production of a film that Ivens began but never completed during World War II for the Canadian government; and this is not the only time that the book deals with an abandoned, incomplete or overhauled project, resulting in a very different finished product from what funders and planners might have originally conceived––not, of course, an uncommon experience in the happenstance and contingent world of documentary filmmaking, but one that not all commentators deal with so generously as Waugh does here. 

Because Ivens’s career covered so many decades and passed through, and by, so many fashions in radical politics and documentary filmmaking, at various points the book sometimes functions like a study of the history of its critical field. This provides a dual opportunity for Waugh: to do justice to the great accomplishments of Ivens and his various cinematographers at developing a pathbreaking method of mise-en-scène in and of the real, a style of working with real life under conditions of stress and urgency that has shaped how many documentary viewers see reality on screen; and to consider Ivens’s work of this or that period, location, or ideology against prevailing and retrospective attitudes to the matter of documentary film. 

Waugh’s sensitivity as a cultural historian and theorist to what collaboration, collectivity, culture mean in relation to labor, industry, and capital is indicated in his capacity for unfolding the otherwise mundane bureaucratic and technical aspects of production. And as Waugh gleans from Ivens’s own reflections on a commissioned educational film made early in Ivens’s non-theatrical film career, such filmmaking could incorporate a sort of cultural legend, “the old guild idea: the pride and importance of a man who works with his hands, who builds factories, homes, schools, and dams" (p. 103). Ivens’s life and career can, as Waugh shows, be used as a graph along which to plot the undulations of the international socialist cause, following it onto its newest fronts. 

The second part of The Conscience of Cinema (2017), begun decades after the writing in the 1970s and 1980s of the doctoral dissertation that resulted in the first part of the book, picks up at the start of the Cold War. Ivens continues to work in collaborative fashion in this period, as well as in the role of a commissioned political operative. And even if he was starting to have strong misgivings about becoming “court photographer” (p. 373) of Party and Congress in the approved Soviet socialist realist style, it was still a period of some remarkable creative partnerships. On films concerning Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, Ivens worked with some of the best known artists in international communism and the Soviet Union, including Paul Robeson, Bála Bálazs, Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler, and Dmitri Shostakovich. It is unfortunate that such works are today largely buried in archives around the world, even if the Ivens estate, in the voice of Ivens-Loridan, now dismisses the films and their motives as “outdated” (p. 382); after all, avers Waugh, such is the inherent condition for the crafting of any film of political commitment. Waugh documents in granular detail the relationships of state, party, and studio operatives that made Ivens seem, when working with DEFA in the DDR, field cinematographers in Africa and India, Soviet archives, or the musical talents of Robeson as much an orchestrating editor or producer as what we would normally assign the inadequate term “director.”

At roughly the same time that Ivens is experimenting with a new kind of lyricism in a variety of far-flung urban and rural sites, he was throwing himself back into his other early preoccupation, the “people’s war,” by turning his attention––and again, that of many notable collaborators––to Southeast Asia. In this phase of Ivens’s work, Waugh notes again a significant change in the filmmaker’s style: where the essayistic gestures of the previous period relied on “smooth transitions” between disparate materials, the films of this newly militant phase were “welded together by means of a violent accumulation of montage-assaults” (p. 515) in the manner of New Wave filmmaking techniques, with their “declamatory” rhetoric. 

Readers should not miss the section of the book that contains some of Waugh’s best lines and most trenchant, impatient commentary on academic film culture in New York and other intellectual capitals of the 1970s and 1980s, while providing a platform for his final consideration of Ivens’s last great project, his twelve-film anthology of works about contemporary China in the period of the Cultural Revolution. Capturing once more the rhythm of Ivens’s seemingly inexhaustible energy for radical mythmaking, Waugh writes

Throughout Ivens’s entire career, it was a customary, no doubt instinctual reflex for him to pause after a cycle of films on liberation struggles and turn to the subject of economic and social struggles in a new peacetime setting. So it was inevitable that Ivens, the anti-imperialist combatant under the bombs in Southeast Asia, would shift gears and sooner or later show up once again in China as Ivens, the poet of socialist construction (p. 574). 

Although this paragraph leaves us still nearly a hundred pages from Waugh’s conclusion, it can suffice as a point of summary for this epic, vital account of one of the magisterial lives in the long, largely still unwritten history of radical documentary filmmaking.