Avoda (1935): Enthusiasm, the symphony

4 June 2013

I promised a while back I’d be reviewing some of the Jewish documentary films made in Palestine before WWII and statehood. Part documentaries, part propagandistic travelogues, this brief crop of films was made to entice Jewish settlers from Europe back to the promised land. More deeply cinematic to us: they constructed the images of collective soul — what Riefenstahl and Vertov were doing at the time on opposite ends— that would foster the narrative of return that would create that world.

Here’s one of these films I could actually find.

It would be interesting to know what Zionist funders thought of it. There is no other promise here but the promise of hard work. The entire film shows people working, with fleeting shots of the Palestinian landscape and the fruits of labor. An entire segment about drilling for water in the desert ends with failure and the dismantling of equipment and facilities.

There are no broad, welcoming shots of community, but a flurry of closeup shots of hands, tools, glistening faces in the scorching heat. Smiling, glad faces of course. Most of all, it reminds of the valiant ‘heroes of labor’ found staring over the conquered steppe in Soviet agitprop of the time.

The film is entirely visual, with only a few spoken words — a Jewish prayer that bolsters courage for a second drilling. You might think of it as a silent with synchronous soundtrack, in line with Soviet and German city symphonies of the time. Berlin: Symphony of a City is a favorite of mine.

The entire segment with water gushing from porous earth — when they finally drill for it — you just have to experience. We’re treated to a dozen different fabrics of water, stream and cascade, reflections of sunlight, simmering as if with a pulse — such marvelous, musical water dances. And that is followed by a scene as great and texturally arresting, that of a threshing machine plowing through wheatfields, tearing up a cloud of particles, stalks and dust.

Both these scenes have a cosmogonic power, which is the real story here; the creation of world. Both remind of a Soviet film called Zemlya released a few years prior where again the point was perseverance leading to a sort of spiritual breakthrough. Both are wonderful metaphors of the soul achieving that breakthrough. Seen this way, the smiling faces of worker bees attain their proper place, not as false ideal but as realization of the joy of work, achievement and immersion in the world you aspire to create. It is very much a work of labor and revolution.

One final interesting point.

The film was made by a German Jew called Lerski, lost to film lore now but cinematographer in a number of films from the Weimar period. He was a photographer by inclination, interested in faces, textures and sculpted light, all of which show in this film here. He had a photographic book out as early as 1931, where he captured the strong, weather-beaten faces of everyday men, bakers and beggars. Next to Potemkin (an influence here) and Metropolis (on which he worked), Lerski’s photography was a strong influence on the young painter Bacon, then in Berlin.

Among the films lensed by him was one called The Holy Mountain, one of those mystical alpinist adventures popular for a brief time in Germany. I have not seen the film, but I have seen another, evidently similar ‘mountain film’ by the same filmmaker, Arnold Fanck.

In both films, the protagonist is Leni Riefenstahl, at that point still an exotic dancer looking to make the transition to film. In her own films, Riefenstahl also exhibited a fascination with faces and bodies, of course never bothering with the everyday man. Following the war that tarnished her reputation, she would release a couple of photobooks of African tribesmen and women, again celebrating what she saw as unspoiled, mystical virtue.

So whereas Lerski captures the transient, malleable qualities of identity and self, Riefenstahl reduces and solidifies to the sensuality of appearance. She shows the self to be something inherent in form, he shows it to be an illusory play of reflection and light.

But it seems to me that she must have been exposed to Lerski’s images and, visually, it influenced her own work.



writer on structured narrative and the changing world

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