Copyright Featured Image and Page Header Image: European Foundation Joris Ivens.

Historic avant-garde films are inspiring for new generations of ambitious filmmakers and adventurous spectators.

In the domain of experimental cinema, creative filmmakers are able to explore the boundaries of storytelling, to test the limits of their medium, and to play with the expectations of their audience. Experimental cinema is to be considered as the ‘Research and Development Department’ of the film industry, essential to sustain a vivid cinema culture.

However, experimental cinema or avant-garde films are not popular with the general public. The obvious thing for a film curator to do in this case is to make an alluring event of the screening of experimental cinema, for instance to choose spectacular locations, or to highlight a reconstructed original soundtrack or a new commissioned score, in combination with offering inspirational lecturers, additional cross-media content, and naturally a range of complementary food and drinks. Whatever you choose, it all starts with a well-defined curatorial strategy.

The short avant-garde film The Bridge (Joris Ivens 1928) is taken as a case study in film curating.

Seen from the perspective of the film curator, it is interesting to make an inventory how The Bridge has been screened in recent decades. Which curatorial conventions can be identified in past programmes for The Bridge and what are their implications? And how could we expand on these examples?

We are now in a position in which we can look back at more than ninety years of screening practices around The Bridge. Given that the effect of a film is influenced by the context in which it is shown, it might prove interesting to review the options for positioning The Bridge in a public screening. Being a short film, it will inevitably be presented in a mixed programme. The core question is: which other films should feature in this compilation programme? This is a choice taken by the film curator on the basis of artistic vision.

Here, I briefly review a few options for programming The Bridge: first in relation to the oeuvre of Joris Ivens (the director as author); second, in relation to the repertoire of the screenings of the ‘Dutch Film Liga’ (De Nederlandse Filmliga); third, in the context of international avant-garde films; fourth, in relation to the national cinema in the Netherlands in 1928 and the cinema programmes in the 1920s; and finally, in relation to the collective memory in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Scoring The Bridge

Before I start, a fundamental question should be addressed. The Bridge is a silent film and hence raises the need to choose a musical score.

The ‘European Foundation Joris Ivens’, which safeguard the legacy of the filmmaker, demands that The Bridge be screened silently at every public performance. A reprise with musical accompaniment may be performed afterwards. The silent version is regarded as the most authentic approach. Therefore the 2008 DVD-version of The Bridge has no musical accompaniment. In his autobiography Joris Ivens himself however contemplates a sound version: “THE BRIDGE is a silent film but today the possibilities of the sound track would help all the sensations that were aimed at in this silent shot. Sound perspective would establish a relationship between the distant traffic noises mixed with the close-up sound of the smooth, sticky, greasy cables sliding over the wheel.” (Ivens 1969: 32).

In theory, there are four main possibilities for adding music to silent films:

  1. to reconstruct the original score
  2. to select a score from existing compositions
  3. to compose a new score from scratch
  4. to use musical improvisation.

In general, the first option has been performed successfully in a very few cases, for instance with the score by Georges Antheil for Ballet mécanique (1924), and also with the score by Lou Lichtveld for Rain(1929), another film of Ivens. But it is not possible to fulfil this option with The Bridge. The score performed at its première in May 1928 cannot be reconstructed because the original composition by Hans Brandt Buyse has been lost. There is only limited documentation available. Joris Ivens wrote about this score approvingly, but two (anonymous) Dutch film critics wrote negative evaluations of the musical accompaniment in their reviews of this screening.

The second option of a combination of existing compositions has not yet been tried, but it could generate many interesting ideas. For instance, how would a piano sonata by Domenico Scarlatti sound as background music for The Bridge?

The third option has been applied to The Bridge successfully. Three contemporary composers have been bold enough to compose a new score for The Bridge: John Cage did this in 1981, followed by Bob Zimmerman in 1982, and Oscar van Dillen in 2007.

As for the fourth option: the film has also been accompanied on several occasions in recent times by improvising musicians.

Pianist Wim van Tuyl commented: ‘Ik begeleidde DE BRUG soms op basis van de muziek van de Franse jazz-pianist Martial Solal. Diens muzikale taal leek mij vrij aardig overeen te komen met de filmische struktuur-benadering van Ivens. Ook iemand als Hindemith komt in de buurt. Soms gebruikte ik Russische avant-garde pianomuziek uit de jaren twintig. Het is duidelijk dat de muziek vooral niet romantisch kan zijn. Als ik een geluidsscore zou kunnen maken, zou ik elektronische muziek willen gebruiken. Of musique concrète. Denk aan iemand als Edgard Varèse, Ton Bruynèl, Dick Raaijmakers.’ Bron: Wim van Tuyl in een e-mail aan auteur, 7 mei 2007.

Curating concept 1: The oeuvre of Joris Ivens (1898 -1989)

The Dutch Film Museum (now Eye Filmmusuem) has mounted retrospectives of Joris Ivens films on several occasions, often as a birthday tribute during his lifetime. In 1989 Ivens died and the posthumous view of his oeuvre was given a powerful boost five years later with the presentation of the ‘Joris Ivens Nitrate Collection’ project at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA 1994). In 2008 the presentation of the carefully curated DVD box containing the restored collected works of Joris Ivens prompted the Dutch Film Museum to present a retrospective at the IDFA again, this time entitled ‘110 years of Joris Ivens’.

The emergent skills of the young aspiring director are clearly traceable in a chronological view on his films. The general accepted view is that The Bridge marks the transition from amateur to professional filmmaker in the oeuvre of Ivens (see also Schoots 2000). It may be described as an exercise in style, a sort of cinematographic sketch-pad, a study in movement, but also as a masterful debut piece. It is still considered as an inspiring best practice for everybody who holds a camera for the first time with creative intentions. A registration of a lift bridge became an abstract composition of movement. A functional piece of excellent engineering became a fascinating art object. How did Ivens do this, and with what intentions? His reminiscences in his autobiography serve as a perfect and elaborate director statement (Ivens 1969: 26-33).

The Bridge presages the later work of Ivens as ‘the author’ of creative documentaries. This is for instance clearly displayed in the link between The Bridge (1928) and a later film like àValparaiso (1963). The Chilean port is built on five hills, the affluent members of society ascend and descend by cable car while the poorer inhabitants go up and down never-ending flights of steps. The rise and fall of the cable car is reminiscent of the vertical movements of the lift bridge. The film from the 1960s contains traces of Ivens’ activist reflections and social engagement, but also a resonance of his poetic inclination. The pair of films would make an interesting programme (with a duration of 14 + 26 minutes respectively), possibly to be complemented with Etudes des mouvements à Paris (1927, 4 minutes) and Rain (1929, 15 minutes). This would resul in a programme of 59 minutes in total. Put in chronological order, this could be a respectable programme but it could also made somewhat more alluring by framing the films with additional content, for instance a spoken word performance with recitation of poems, or a richly illustrated TedX-lecture about modernism, or another short film, taken from one of the following options.

Curating concept 2: Historical reception: the screening at the Dutch Film Liga (May 1928)

The world première of The Bridge took place on 5 May 1928 during the eleventh programme of the ‘Dutch Film Liga’, a national network of Dutch film clubs. Hagener (2007) offers a European context for this influential historical part of film culture. The series of monthly programmes of the Dutch Film Liga were characterised by an explicit vision of film art (see among others Gunning 2014). Their programmes still rank as a historical best practice of curating avant-garde cinema. The first three volumes of the magazine of the Dutch Film Liga has been reprinted in a facsimile in 1982 and recently digitised. These programme notes form a rich source of historical curatorial practice (Heijs ed. 1982).

Their specific mode of exhibition lends itself perfectly as referential context for the screening of film heritage. This curatorial strategy of historical reconstruction was applied for the first time in 1986 when film historian and guest programmer Nico J. Brederoo presented ‘The history of a film culture’ for the Dutch Filmmuseum.

More than a decade later in 1999 the Dutch Filmmuseum organised an itinerant programme consisting of eight reconstructions of Film League programmes, with many restored films from this specific collection. The reconstruction of the eleventh programme of the Film League, as compiled by Joris Ivens in 1928, was presented exclusively in the Filmmuseum. After roughly 70 years, The Bridge was shown just once again with two silent Soviet films Zvenigora (The Enchanted Place, Aleksandr Dovzhenko 1928) and Baby Ryanzanskie (Women of Ryazan, Ivan Pravov & Olga Preobrazhenskaya 1927). It would be nice to repeat this programme more often.

Curating concept 3: The international avant-garde films.

In 1928,The Bridge was immediately hailed as a landmark in the development of the international avant-garde film and is now generally considered to be part of the canon. The film is an ode to industrial technology and fits into the modernist movement of the inter-war years. Joris Ivens analyses with his small box camera the different movements around the then-new vertical lift bridge: on the one hand, the crossing horizontal lines of ships and trains, with cyclists and cars in the distance and, on the other hand, the rise and fall of the bridge itself. This is visualised by, amongst others, the elegant movement of the counterweights. Ivens gave his personal vision on a triumph of engineering. Through his fragmented observations he created a smooth choreography, based on everyday functional movements that fascinated him.

American film historian Tom Gunning ventilated his enthusiasm as follows: “THE BRIDGE is not simply a record of a railway bridge, but the encounter between two machines, one titanic and one miniature. On the one hand the film displays the technology of the monumental Rotterdam lift bridge. On the other, it demonstrates the technology of another smaller, but no less well engineered, machine, the Kinamo, the handheld camera Ivens used to make the film. This lightweight camera became an extension not only of Ivens’ eye but of his whole body. While the film explores the bridge from often dizzying perspectives, its viewpoint is never disembodied. Through Ivens’ camera and editing we not only see and explore this modern structure visually, we inhabit it, we dwell within its perspectives and viscerally experience its rhythms.” (Gunning 2002: 21).

Another example of international critical attention for the historical and artistic value of The Bridge is to be found in the online magazine Senses of Cinema:“The film announces its agenda from the very start, with a presentation of three different views of the camera itself, as if in a technical drawing. It then proceeds to examine the bridge from all angles, up and down its towers, along the rails, in amongst the winding gear. But alongside this inevitable, almost abstract mechanical process is a story: a train is speeding towards the city; it must stop and wait for the bridge to be raised; when the bridge descends, it can continue on its way. For all his analysis, Ivens cannot give himself up entirely to the abstract.” (Mundell 2005).

In this early work, Ivens was influenced by a mix of ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ (New Objectivity) and constructivism, as displayed in the films of Walter Ruttmann (see Paalman 2011: 68-74, Schoots 2003, and Nichols 1999). An option for a compilation programme would be to combine The Bridgewith a slideshow of photographs of Germaine Krull, supplemented by the feature film Berlin, die Sinfonie der Grossstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Big City, Walter Ruttmann 1927).

The mapping of influences is difficult to substantiate, but it is an interesting curatorial perspective to line up on the one hand the films Joris Ivens could have seen and which may have an impact on him, and on the other hand the films that could be influenced by The Bridge.

Building a compilation programme around The Bridge could contain firstly a selection of comparable films that were made earlier, such as Mahatta (Paul Strand & Charles Sheeler 1921), KIPHO-film (Guido Seeber 1925), Handelsbladfilm (Cor Aafjes 1927) and La Tour (René Clair 1928), possibly adding the one-minute Lumière film made in 1898, registering the view from the climbing elevator in the Eiffel Tower as contrast.

A next step in this kind of program of avant-garde films could beto choose films that are made in later years, such as Stad (Willem Bon 1929), Marseille Vieux Port (L. Moholy-Nagy 1929), Kabels leggen (J. Claudinghk 1931), and especially Maasbruggen (Paul Schuitema 1937). Director Paul Schuitema focuses on two main bridges in Rotterdam: his camera is jumping around an intersection near De Hef. We see all kinds of traffic flows, hordes of cyclists and vehicles, being tamed by a policeman, or the barrier of the bridges. The camera is directed at the ground much of the time; the monumental railway bridge is appearing only incidentally. Still, Schuitema explicitly wanted to make a respectful addition to the film of Ivens, as Floris Paalman points out in his article.

The programme could be completed by making a jump in time and screen the short avant-garde film made in 1976 by the American artist Richard Serra, Railroad Turnbridge, which is also an homage to the film of Ivens. Dutch film historian André Stufkens (and director of the ‘European Foundation Joris Ivens’) compared the two films: “This film is not a genuine ‘revisit’ as American artist Richard Serra, well known for his minimal art sculptures made of corten steel, did not actually visit the lift bridge in Rotterdam. However, he was so fascinated by Ivens’ THE BRIDGE, showing the rhythms of metal beams, that he decided to make a film with a similar approach about the early 20th century railroad bridge in Portland (Oregon). Like Ivens, Serra worked without a script, just using the handheld camera as an extension of his arm, to make a study of movement. He used fixed camera positions to show the gentle opening and closing of the bridge, while boats and landscapes pass by. The work pays tribute to the bridge as a feat of engineering, but it also stresses the unity between life and art by suggesting how this engineering is echoed by cinema. Serra stated, “The bridge enabled me to examine movement in filmic structure [and] the filming became a way of concentrating certain iconic elements of bridge structure.” (Stufkens 2004: 28)

The Dutch Filmmuseum organised in 1995 the exhibition ‘Beyond the Bridge’: installations of six media artists who let themselves to be inspired by work and life of Joris Ivens. The line-up was as follows: Mirages-Poem-Navigator (Merel Mirage, NL), Utility S(h)elves (Istvan Kantor, USA), META(Didier Lechenne, France), La siesta/The nap (Muntadas, Spain/USA), Ice skating (Fiona Tan, NL), Wind-force (Kees Aantjes, NL).

Curating concept 4: Historical context: National cinema in The Netherlands around 1928

For Ivens The Bridge marked the transition from amateur to professional filmmaker. In what kind of film climate did he begin his professional career? Who else was making films at that time? What kind of Dutch films were being shown in the cinemas and which amateur filmmakers were on the scene? To provide an answer, The Bridge can be set in the context of the films being shown in the cinema around 1928.

A best practice of this curatorial strategy is the compilation programme “De Rotterdamse school # 8: Stille stad, levende muziek” (Rotterdam School #8: Silent City, Living Music) presented in 2007 in art house cinema ‘Lantaren/Venster’ (Rotterdam) and curated by jazz musician Frank van Berkel. The program confronted the avant garde films The Bridge and Maas Bridges with elements of the common cinema programs of their days, such as commercials for Niemeyer Pipe Tobacco and Chief Whip cigarettes, some examples of anonymous documentary footage of Rotterdam and the travelogue Panorama van de Koningshaven (Panorama of the Koningshaven, 1925). The latter is a conventional cinema documentary made by the commercial company Hafilmi (short for the Haagse Film Industrie). The images of the harbour and bridges are supplemented with a large quantity of interim explanatory titles. Director W. Krieger employs very few creative camera angles to observe the cityscape. This makes The Bridge by Joris Ivens suddenly stand out in stark contrast as a visionary and daring piece of cinema.

In her dissertation, Dutch film historian Susan Aasman places Ivens within the context of the amateur film in the Netherlands of the 1920s. In 1928 amateur filmmakers began to organise themselves in the ‘kino’ section of the Netherlands Association of Amateur Photographers (Nederlandse Amateur Fotografen Vereniging). The Netherlands Cinefilm Association (Nederlandse Smalfilmliga) was founded by Mannus Franken in 1931, with support from Joris Ivens and J.C. Mol (Aasman 2004: 56-59).

Dutch film historian Bert Hogenkamp sets The Bridge in the context of the Dutch documentary production in the inter-war period, which puts Ivens in the company of the ‘Polygoonjournaal’ and the works of Willy Mullens, Jan Hin, Max de Haas, and again J.C. Mol (Hogenkamp 1988: 48).

Curating concept 5: The collective memory

When Ivens showed The Bridge in the Soviet Union, he was reportedly barraged with practical questions from an audience of manual workers: ‘How many tons does the bridge weigh? How long is it? How high? How much cargo passes through every day? Where did those trains come from? And where were they heading?’

Similar down-to-earth questions might just as easily occur to a modern audience. The railway bridge that crosses the Koningshaven in Rotterdam can now be described as a ‘space of shared memory’ (lieu de memoire), which resonates with impressions from outside the film. In 1985 a monograph had already appeared about ‘De Hef’. In 1993 the railway bridge went out of use and narrowly escaped demolition, eventually becoming a national monument in April 2000.

The Bridge can also be programmed from the perspective of the collective memory, as one of the many visualisations of places of shared memory in the Netherlands, especially of the industrial city of Rotterdam. The programme could be organised chronologically, in this perspective The Bridge serves as an illustrative clip in a portrait of Dutch society around 1928. Or the focus could be thematically, taking The Bridge as one of many memory images of international architectural icons. Thissen (2013) and Paalman (2011) offer extensive documentation and inspiration for both curatorial strategies.

The Dutch television documentary About The Bridge (Over De Brug, Hans Keller 1981) could function as the opening move in any programme dedicated to the perspective of the collective memory. Among the people whom Keller did encounter in his investigation in 1981 were the bridge-keeper who was still in charge of the machines, a man who took (and survived) years earlier his daring dive from the highest point of the bridge. Rotterdam poet Cornelis Vaandrager makes an appearance, reciting his poem De Hef on location.

Film historian André Stufkens commented: “In this documentary for Dutch VPRO Television, Hans Keller tried to reveal the impact of both the Rotterdam Lift Bridge and its corresponding film, suggesting that they were landmarks of modernity. The iron bridge transformed itself from an ordinary, functional object, neglected by the Rotterdam citizens, to a cultural highlight. It became like the film, a product of a specific cultural vision and context. In the film’s case, it was the vanguard movement with artists like Moholy-Nagy and Mondrian. The revisit marked the rehabilitation of both the bridge and film. As well as an interview with Ivens (who was working in Florence at the time) Keller got permission to include parts of the original THE BRIDGE itself, accompanied by music from John Cage.”  Source: Stufkens, André, ‘Ivens Revisited: Fifteen films in the footsteps of Ivens’, in: Newsmagazine European Foundation Joris Ivens, no. 10 (November 2004), p. 29.

The Erasmus bridge is another iconic landmark in Rotterdam. Peter Greenaway got a commission to produce a short film about this bridge. It resulted in Bridge Celebration, screened at the opening night of the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 1997 and at the opening event of the bridge. Peter Greenaway commented in an interview: “The film is extensively the celebration of a new bridge called Erasmus Bridge, which was built in Rotterdam and finished about three months ago. Back in 1928, a famous Dutch documentary filmmaker – a man called Ivens – made a 35mm black and white silent film on another bridge in Rotterdam. There is a way in which the film we are making is meant to be a homage to this original film, which was regarded by the European avant-garde as important. But a lot of people, when they saw the film back in 1929, thought that it had no structure, thought that it was moving far too quickly, thought that the editing was extremely rough, but looking at it now, it seems to be an incredibly slow and boring film with very little sort of actual interest in what potentially we can see is being regarded as interesting now. This film was regarded as a state-of-the-art movie then, and admittedly had political implications to do with solidarity and socialism of Rotterdam. [-] Using his example as state-of-the-art, we have been encouraged now to use state-of -the-art equipment, and I’m sure, that Ivens would be amazed to see what we do now…”. Source: Luksch, Manu, ‘The Medium is the Message. Interview with Peter Greenaway’, in: Telepolis, 13-02-1997, URL: http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/6/6112/1.html

Dutch director Dick Rijneke was inspired by The Bridge of Ivens and made the short film Brugwachter (1996, 42 minutes). In 1997 he was also asked to make a film for the opening event of the Erasmus bridge: Bruggen (1997, 13 minutes). His director’s statement: “Sixty years later ‘De Hef’ is no longer synonymous with dynamics, modernism and progress. Still, as a ‘grand old lady’ it radiates a certain power and beauty. In its strongly changed surroundings, facing death, the bridge deserves to be the subject of a film; no longer as a symbol of progress, but rather as a static, a stately monument of the past, conflicting with the seemingly unrestrained technological innovations in the present fin de siècle. Ivens filmed the bridge in black and white, silent, using a 35 mm Kinamo handcamera. Shot in colour on high quality 35mm wide-screen stock and making use of the distinctive sounds of ‘De Hef’ itself, this film project is not only a tribute to an industrial monument in an age of high-tech, but also a tribute to Ivens’ THE BRIDGE and a reflection of hundred odd years of technological and artistic developments in cinematography.”. Source: www.rotterdamfilms.com)

Conclusion

The programme is a key factor in the screening of a film, because the manner of presentation determines the response of the audience. Here the short silent film The Bridge (Joris Ivens 1928) is placed in a range of programming perspectives: the oeuvre of the maker, the international avant-garde movement, the national cinema in the Netherlands around 1928, and the collective memory.

This case study on the programming of The Bridge can further be elaborated from each perspective and enhanced with other examples of short films that are shown in various compilations. I have discussed only one short film here and have presented only a summarised account of the various existing and virtual programming perspectives, but I hope I have succeeded in linking the historical landscape of the Dutch film world in the 1920s with the situation of current film culture.

* A first version of this text has been published in The Ivens Magazine no. 14-15 (July 2009) pp. 44-47.  URL: http://ivens.nl/images/ivens_mag14.15.pdf
* I would like to express my gratitude to the European Foundation Joris Ivens (André Stufkens), the Netherlands Film Museum (Rommy Albers, Marleen Labijt, Wim van Tuyl), Floris Paalman (University of Amsterdam) and Anouk de Haas (Gemeentearchief Rotterdam) for their comments and help.
Bibliography
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P.S. Some details about the distribution print of The Bridge
A public screening is only possible if the distribution print is authentic, complete and in good condition. What is the situation regarding The Bridge?
Joris Ivens spent three months in the winter of 1927 and the spring of 1928 gathering footage for the film. At the end of this period, he had accumulated around 1,000 metres of rushes on 35mm, which he processed into a final version comprising 352 metres (source: The Film Commission Report, 1928). This would result in a screening time of 17 minutes for a projection speed of 18 images per second (15 minutes for 20 images per second). Eye Filmmuseum has twenty-one different conserved elements of The Bridge (including a negative print, a positive print and an intermediate 16mm projection print), which have come from various laboratories (Cinetone, Cineco, Haghefilm) and sources.
In 1991, when the nitrate print was found to be in poor condition, a project was set up to compile an international inventory of Ivens’ entire oeuvre. The conserved films were screened in December 1994 at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Reijnhoudt 1994: 21). The different versions of The Bridge should be further researched. Is the conserved version of 1994 the optimal version, with the original length and sequence?
Film historian André Stufkens doubts that the original camera negative did actually end up in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as stated in the conservation report by Catherine Cormon and the viewing report by Sonja Snoek (23-3-1994). The film print at MOMA contains a series of upturned (and thus mirrored) images. The multi-language title shot was added later with a view to international distribution in 1928. The Bridge probably premièred in May 1928 without an opening title. Which version is most authentic?
In November 2008 the official presentation took place of the first DVD box-set containing the historico-critical edition of a big part of the oeuvre of Ivens, including the most complete and correct version ofThe Bridge (see Stufkens 2006 and Stufkens 2007).