Monday, October 07, 2019

Weimar Shorts 1: Nature and the Elements

Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja.

Weimar Shorts – Prog. 1: Nature and the Elements
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
Grand piano: José María Serralde Ruiz.
Teatro Verdi, e-subtitles in English and Italian by Underlight, 7 Oct 2019.

Program notes in italics by Michael Cowan (GCM):

Photo not from the film. J. J. Grandville: Les Fleurs animées (1847).

DIE SEELE DER PFLANZEN [The Soul of the Plants] (DE 1922)
regia/dir: ?. photog: Max Brinck. prod: Ufa (Universum-Film AG). copia/copy: 35 mm, 187 m, 7′ (20 fps); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: DFF – Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum, Frankfurt-am-Main
    Added 18 Oct 2019: NB. Die Seele der Pflanzen: longer version with pantheistic prologue at Bundesarchiv.
    NB. L'Âme des plantes. (at CNC).

"Die Seele der Pflanzen is one of the early shorts produced by the Ufa-Kulturabteilung (Ufa Cultural Department), founded in 1918 to promote films with educational content. The production team counted several people who worked extensively with the Kulturabteilung, including the cinematographer Max Brinck and the scientific advisor Wilhelm Berndt, a zoologist from the University of Berlin who had organized the first film screenings at the Urania Institute in 1911, and worked on many of the films selected for this program."

"Purporting to offer a modern scientific take on ancient Greek pantheistic views of nature, the film draws on a long tradition of literature probing the potential intelligence and sensitivity of plants. That interest stretches at least as far back as J. J. Grandville’s Les Fleurs animées (1847) and Gustav Fechner’s Nanna oder über das Seelenleben der Pflanzen (1848). It was particularly vibrant in the early 20th century due to a wave of popular science books by authors such Raoul Francé (e.g., Die Seele der Pflanze, 1924)."

"This topic also held a special appeal for early filmmakers, who sought to use filmic techniques — time-lapse, microscopic cinematography, animation, etc. — to provide visual evidence of the otherwise invisible life of plants. In Germany, such films stretch from Oskar Messter’s early time-lapse experiments (1898) to feature-length Kulturfilms such as Das Blumenwunder (1926), in which human dancers take their cues from plants shown in accelerated motion."

"But Die Seele der Pflanzen is also significant for its subsequent history. The film has long been a go-to archival source for directors of horror and experimental film, from F. W. Murnau (who lifted footage of a Venus flytrap to juxtapose with the vampire in Nosferatu, 1922) to Gustav Deutsch and Hanna Schimek (who borrowed shots of scientists burning a sensitive Mimosa pudica plant for their 2009 experimental exploration of gender relations in Film ist. A Girl & a Gun)."

AA: Nature documentary is a genre which has matured in recent decades thanks to fabulous television series, but also this early Kulturfilm, Die Seele der Pflanzen, has retained its power. It has a sense of wonder – the greatest wonder and enchantment being found in the mysteries of nature. We observe plant roots, sprouts and bulbs in elaborate time lapse footage. We study the Urwesen of the plant world and visit logging sites. We witness the sensitivity of plants such as mimosa pudica, volvox algae, nettles and sundews. – Visual quality: fair, slightly duped, ok.

Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja.

DAS WOLKENPHÄNOMEN VON MALOJA [The Cloud Phenomenon of Maloja] (DE 1924)
regia/dir, photog, mont/ed: Arnold Fanck. prod: Berg- und Sportfilm GmbH. v.c./censor date: 18.6.1924. copia/copy: 35 mm, 205 m, 9′ (20 fps); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: Filmarchiv Austria, Wien.

"Shot by mountain-film pioneer Arnold Fanck (who would later introduce Leni Riefenstahl to the public in Der heilige Berg, 1926), Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja is a short landscape film shot around the Maloja Pass of the Dolomites. The film came out the same year Fanck released Der Berg des Schicksals (also shot in the Dolomites) and was probably made as a side project. In a glowing review of the latter film, Siegfried Kracauer praised Fanck’s “glorious images of nature,” singling out in particular the director’s ability to film clouds: “cumulus clouds, giant white massifs that disintegrate, seas of clouds that well up and ebb away, striped drifts and vast herds.” While it is unclear if Kracauer knew of Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja, the film seems to validate his argument that images of nature are at least as important as plots in the mountain-film genre."

"Filming clouds was no straightforward task, and filmmakers like Fanck had to learn to use techniques familiar to scientific filmmakers such as time-lapse to bring clouds alive on the screen. The result is a motif every bit as photogenic as the contemporaneous water images being explored by Jean Epstein, and Olivier Assayas would later cite Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja in his own treatment of the Dolomites in his film Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)."

AA: I had been intrigued by the footage from Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja in Oliver Assayas's Clouds of Sils Maria, and Arnold Fanck's film lives up to the promise. There is a dreamlike attraction in the strange phenomenon of nature captured: the snake-like cloud moving among the mountains of Engadin around the Maloja Pass. Arnold Fanck's masterful cinematography catches the play of light on water and reveals tiny silhouettes of people against awesome views of nature. Special masks and vignettes are used to change the format of the image. It all falls under the classical aesthetic category of the sublime.

Photo not from the film. AK Norddeutscher Lloyd, Dampfer "München", Litho, 1926 gel. Photo: eBay.

POLAR-REISE 1925 MIT DEM DAMPFER “MÜNCHEN” NORDDEUTSCHER LLOYD BREMEN [Arctic Journey 1925 on the Steamer “Munich” Norddeutscher Lloyd Bremen] (DE 1925)
regia/dir: Richard Fleischut? photog: Richard Fleischhut. riprese/filmed: 10.6.–15.12.1925. copia/copy: 35 mm, 318 m, 17’23” (16 fps); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Berlin.

"This film was shot aboard the S.S. München, a ship run by the company Norddeutscher Lloyd. Its creator, Richard Fleischhut, had worked as on-board photographer for Norddeutscher Lloyd since 1908, where he documented journeys to Asia, North and South America, and Scandinavia. He would later become famous for his portraits of celebrity passengers such as Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as his images of the Hindenburg explosion in 1937. But he also left behind an extensive collection of ethnographic and nature photography. Indeed, some of his best-known nature photographs (of cliffs, icebergs, seascapes, etc.) were taken during the same 1925 journey as the current film."

"Fleischhut’s first foray into moving images, Polar-Reise documents one of the arctic cruises (sailing to the Svalbard Archipelago) that Norddeutscher Lloyd regularly offered for those eager to experience romantic landscapes reminiscent of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. Fleischhut would go on to create another, longer polar travel film for the same company in 1928. In this earlier film, he structures the images around the fascinating alternation (inviting various interpretations) between the passengers on the ship’s deck and the passing waves."

"Fleischhut’s work was likely intended for amateur rather than cinematic screenings (and perhaps also for screenings on board passenger ships). But it also points to a larger link between the passenger ship industry and the vogue for travel films of the 1920s, many of which were made in collaboration with shipping companies (e.g., Walter Ruttmann’s Melodie der Welt from 1929, which was partly financed by HAPAG, the Hamburg-America Line)."

AA: Richard Fleischhut boards the steamer S.S. München of the Norddeutscher Lloyd company on a polar voyage to the North Atlantic. The awesome power of the ocean is the overwhelming impression of nature in this movie, and our respect towards the mighty steamer grows when we observe the fury of the waves. Fleischhut is so enchanted by the waves that the film at times borders on the avantgarde.

Photo not from the film. Raoul Heinrich Francé: Die Pflanze als Erfinder (1920).

ERFINDERIN NATUR [Nature as Inventor] (DE 1926-27)
regia/dir: Ulrich K. T. Schulz. scen: Wilhelm Berndt. prod: Ufa (Universum-Film AG). v.c./censor date: 25.2.1927. copia/copy: 35 mm, 284 m, 13′48” (18 fps); did./titles: GER?. fonte/source: Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Berlin.

"Throughout the 1920s, the Ufa-Kulturabteilung churned out numerous short nature films for screening in cinemas (in the so-called Beiprogramm, or supporting program), in schools, and in various other educational settings (associations, exhibitions, etc.). This fascinating film, Erfinderin Natur, was overseen by Ulrich K. T. Schulz, who had directed the first production of the Kulturabteilung to be shown in the preliminary program of a cinema (Der Hirschkäfer, 1921), and went on to make over 200 Kulturfilms from the 1920s to the 1960s. The scenario was created by Wilhelm Berndt, who also worked on Die Seele der Pflanze."

"This film exemplifies a topic that would often recur in Schulz’s work and in the Kulturfilm more generally: the analogies between human technologies and nature. Anticipating later concepts such as bionics and biomimetics, the film shows us a human technological intelligence that is grounded in nature rather than being opposed to it: rope-manufacture inspired by spider webs, parachute design mimicking dandelion seeds, a cowboy’s lasso copying the actions of a chameleon’s tongue, and so on. This was already a well-known theme from popular science books such as Raoul Francé’s Die Pflanze als Erfinder (1920) or Hermann Ernsch’s Mathematik in der Natur (1921). Erfinderin Natur has certain affinities with Die Seele der Pflanzen in its efforts to demonstrate nature’s intelligence. But rather than revealing this intelligence through trick techniques such as time-lapse photography, this film relies on the techniques of parallel montage, in widespread use by the mid-1920s."

AA: A montage film of parallels and affinities: human inventions are compared with the infinite innovativity of nature, including cobwebs; stinkbombs and smokescreens of octopuses, the clinging skin of geckos, the rowing of ducks, Venus flytraps in action, parachute landings of dandelion seeds, the rapidly extrudable tongues of chameleons, and the gliding of birds. Much of this documented in Zeitlupe – slow motion.

Photo not from the film. Spirochetes.

PULSIERENDE LEBENSSÄFTE [Pulsating Life Fluids] (DE 1928)
regia/dir: Nicholas Kaufmann. prod: Ufa (Universum-Film AG). v.c./censor date: 22.9.1928. copia/copy: 35 mm, 291 m, 14′ (18 fps); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Berlin.

"Another in the series of science shorts from the Ufa-Kulturabteilung, Pulsierende Lebenssäfte focuses on the blood. The film was directed by Nicholas Kaufmann, who worked on dozens of Kulturfilms between the 1920s and the 1960s, including well-known long films such as Der Steinach-Film (1922), Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (Ways to Health and Beauty / US: The Way to Strength and Beauty, 1925, shown at the Giornate in 2007), Falsche Scham (False Shame, 1926), and Natur und Liebe. Von der Urzelle bis zum Menschen (Nature and Love: From the Primitive Cell to Man, 1927). Kaufmann was assisted, here too, by the scientific expertise of Wilhelm Berndt."

"Relying heavily on microscopic cinematography, Pulsierende Lebenssäfte takes up a frequent theme of popular science: the “unseen” world of blood circulation, cells, and pathogens (e.g., spirochetes). This theme was familiar from numerous “blood pictures” of the period, stretching back to the pioneering work of French microbiologist Jean Comandon in the 1910s. Pulsierende Lebenssäfte also touches on the theme of our second program, with its characterization of white blood cells as the body’s “police” force."

"The previously invisible worlds unveiled by early microscopic film no doubt had an influence on popular science fiction (e.g., Fantastic Voyage, 1966). This motif continues to appeal to artists working in new media, as one can see in the popularity of “body” experiences in VR today (e.g., The Body VR: Journey Inside a Cell, 2016)."

AA: This microscopic film turns into a space odyssey inside a living being, bringing to mind Fantastic Voyage as Michael Cowan points out in his program note. It is a fascinating study of the blood itself, and the various illnesses – Blutfeinde – that threaten its health. Scientific and poetic at once, this is a sober study of essences that retain their mystery under the microscope.

WASSER UND WOGEN. EIN QUERSCHNITTSFILM [Water and Waves: A Cross-Section Film] (DE 1929)
regia/dir, scen, photog, mont./ed: Albrecht Viktor Blum. prod: Willy Münzenberg / Filmkartell “Weltfilm“ GmbH. uscita/rel: 19.3.1929 (München), 24.5.1929 (Berlin). copia/copy: 35 mm, 291 m, 14’08” (18 fps); did./titles: GER. fonte/source: Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Berlin.

"Albrecht Viktor Blum was a prominent practitioner of montage film in Germany in the 1920s. While Blum had credited Soviet montage as a major influence on his best-known film Im Schatten der Maschine (In the Shadow of the Machine, 1928), Wasser und Wogen (1929), with its playful cuts between people and animals, is perhaps more reminiscent of the work of Walter Ruttmann. As the subtitle suggests, this film was also part of a larger vogue, in the late 1920s, for so-called Querschnittsfilme (cross-section films) — compilation films on particular topics, which drew on the growing mass of footage available in film archives — such as Oskar Kalbus’s Rund um die Liebe. Ein Querschnittsfilm (All About Love. A Cross-Section Film, 1929), Blum’s own Quer durch den Sport (A Cross-Section of Sports, 1929), or Edgar Beyfuss’s Die Wunder der Welt (Wonders of the World, 1930)."

"Blum was also a close collaborator with left-wing groups such as the Volksverband für Filmkunst (People’s Association of Film Art) and served as editor for the Prometheus production Das Dokument von Shanghai (1928). Wasser und Wogen, along with Im Schatten der Maschine, was produced and distributed by Weltfilm, the same company that produced Zeitprobleme. Wie der Arbeiter wohnt (Contemporary Problems: How the Worker Lives) (see Program 3)."

AA: Querschnittsfilm is usually a study of society, but here we see it practiced in phenomena of nature. Siegfried Kracauer criticized Querschnittfilm for its tendency to remain on the surface, while similar surfaces can belong to different contexts. This film is happy to indulge in surface analogies, but is grows into a sympathetic overview (and perhaps a bit of a spoof catalogue in Peter Greenaway style) of water and its states as ice, liquid and steam. We travel around the world and witness all seasons. Certain passages bring to mind Une histoire d'eau by Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut [its title is a spoof of Histoire d'O]. Interesting for Nordic viewers are the lumberland passages: waterways are crucial for the forest industry. A rich salad of attractions related to water. Visual quality: duped but watchable.

The original program notes (quoted in italics) are by Michael Cowan (GCM).

P.S. Facebook

Seen in Pordenone: Weimar Shorts, a brilliant retrospective curated by Michael Cowan and Anton Kaes. The golden age of nature films is now, thanks to the incredible possibilities of digital photography. But the Weimar masters were already great in time lapse photography, mountain films, polar exploration adventures and microbiologic films, and they had film species of their own such as Kulturfilm and Querschnittfilm, all on display in the first show of the series. Full of a sense of wonder and a privileged approach to the sublime.

Teresa Castro, Facebook 17 Oct 2019.
L'âme des plantes also circulated in France.

Michael Cowan, Facebook 17 Oct 2019.
That's great to know that that the film traveled. It's hard to reconstruct the circuits of these educational films. BTW, I was surprised to see that the print shown in Pordenone was a truncated version. The one I wanted to get from the Bundesarchiv has an interesting prologue about pantheism among the ancients, which was completely cut out of the version we saw (except for one intertitle referring back to the missing prologue, now totally out of context!).

Teresa Castro, Facebook 17 Oct 2019.
Unfortunately I missed the screening: I arrived the day after! The copy of L'âme des plantes that I saw at the CNC doesn't include any pantheist prologue (at least that I remember, but I don't have my notes here). I think I found a couple of references to the film in the French press.

No comments: