The Symphonic Film by John Grierson*

Berlin Symphonie. Walter Ruttman

The symphonic form is concerned with the orchestration of movement.
It sees the screen in terms of flow and does not permit the
flow to be broken. Episodes and events if they are included in the
action are integrated in the flow. The symphonic form also tends
to organise the flow in terms of different movements, e.g. movement
for dawn, movement for men coming to work, movement for factories in full swing, etc., etc. This is a first distinction.
See the symphonic form as equivalent to the poetic form of, say,
Carl Sandburg in “Skyscraper,” “Chicago,” “The Windy City”
and “Slabs of the Sunburnt West.” The object is presented as an
integration ofmany activities. It lives by the many human associations and by the moods of the various action sequences which surround it.
Sandburg says so with variations of tempo in his description, variations of the mood in which each descriptive facet is presented. We do not ask personal stories of such poetry, for its picture is complete and satisfactory. We need not ask it of documentary. This is a second distinction regarding symphonic form.
These distinctions granted, it is possible for the symphonic form
to vary considerably. Basil Wright, for example, is almost exclusively
interested in movement, and will build up movement in a
fury of design and nuances of design; and for those whose eye is
sufficiently trained and sufficiently fine, will convey emotion in a
thousand variations on a theme so simple as the portage of bananas
(Cargo from Jamaica). Some have attempted to relate this movement to the pyrotechnics of pure form, but there never was any such animal, (i) The quality of Wright’s sense of movement and of his patterns are distinctively his own and recognisably delicate. As with good painters, there is character in his line and attitude in his composition. (2) There is an overtone in his work which—sometimes after seeming monotony—makes his description uniquely memorable.
(3) His patterns invariably weave—not seeming to do so—a positive
attitude to the material, which may conceivably relate to (2). The
patterns of Cargo were more scathing comment on labour at 2d. a
hundred bunches (or whatever it is) than mere sociological stricture.
His movements (a) easily down; (b) horizontal; (c) arduously 45
up; (d) down again—conceal, or perhaps construct, a comment.

Flaherty once maintained that the east-west contour of Canada was
itself a drama. It was precisely a sequence of down, horizontal, 45
up, and down again. I use Basil Wright as an example of ‘movement in itself’ — though movement is never in itself—principally to distinguish those others who add either tension elements or poetic elements or atmospheric elements. I have held myself in the past an exponent of the tension category with certain pretention to the others. Here is a simple example of tension from Granton Trawler. The trawler is working its gear in a storm. The tension elements are built up with emphasis on the drag of the water, the heavy lurching of the ship, the fevered flashing of birds, the fevered flashing of faces between waves lurches and spray. The trawl is hauled aboard with strain of men and tackle and water. It is opened in a release which comprises equally the release of men, birds and fish. There is no pause in the flow of movement, but something of an effort as between two opposing forces, has been recorded. In a more ambitious and deeper description the tension might have included elements more intimately and more heavily descriptive of the clanging weight of the tackle, the strain on the ship, the operation of the gear under water and along the ground, the scuttering myriads of birds laying off in the gale. The fine fury of ship and heavy weather could have been brought through to touch the vitals of the men and the ship. In the hauling, the simple fact of a wave breaking over the men, subsiding and leaving them hanging on as though nothing had
happened, would have brought the sequence to an appropriate peak.
The release could have attached to itselfimages of, say, birds wheeling high, taking offfrom the ship, and ofcontemplative, i.e. more intimate, reaction on the faces of the men. The drama would have gone deeper by the greater insight into the energies and reactions involved.
Carry this analysis into a consideration of the first part of Deserter,
which piles up from a sequence of deadly quiet to the strain and
fury—and aftermath—of the strike, or of the strike sequence itself,
which piles up from deadly quiet to the strain and fury—and aftermath—of the police attack, and you have indication of how the
symphonic shape, still faithful to its own peculiar methods, comes
to grip with dramatic issue.

Walter Ruttman on set at Berlin

The poetic approach is best represented by Romance Sentimentale
and the last sequence of Ekstase. Here there is description without
tension, but the moving description is lit up by attendant images.
In Ekstase the notion of life renewed is conveyed by a rhythmic
sequence of labour, but there are also essential images of a woman
and child, a young man standing high over the scene, skyscapes and
water. The description of the various moods of Romance Sentimentale. is conveyed entirely by images : in one sequence of domestic interior, in another sequence of misty morning, placid water and dim sunlight.
The creation of mood, an essential in the symphonic form,
may be done in terms of tempo alone, but is better done if poetic
images colour it. In a description of night at sea, there are elements
enough aboard a ship to build up a quiet and effective rhythm, but
a deeper effect might come by reference to what is happening under
water or by reference to the strange spectacle of the birds which,
sometimes in ghostly flocks, move silently in and out of the ship’s
A recent sequence done by Rotha for his new film indicates the
distinction between the three different treatments. He describes the loading of a steel furnace and builds a superb rhythm into the
shovelling movements of the men. By creating behind them a sense
of fire, by playing on the momentary shrinking from fire which
comes into these shovelling movements, he would have brought in
the elements of tension. He might have proceeded from this to an
almost terrifying picture of what steel work involves. On the other
hand, by overlaying the rhythm with, say, such posturing or contemplative symbolic figures, as- Eisenstein brought into his Thunder Over Mexico material, he would have added the elements of poetic image. The distinction is between (a) a musical or non-literarymethod; (b) a dramatic method with clashing forces; and (c) poetic, contemplative, and altogether literary method. These three methods may all appear in one film, but their proportion depends naturally on the character of the director—and his private hopes of salvation.
I do not suggest that one form is higher than the other. There
are pleasures peculiar to the exercise of movement which in a sense
are tougher—more classical—than the pleasures of poetic description, however attractive and howrever blessed by tradition these may be. The introduction of tension gives accent to a film, but only too easily gives popular appeal because of its primitive engagement with physical issues and struggles and fights. People like a fight, even when it is only a symphonic one, but it is not clear that a war with the elements is a braver subject than the opening of a flower or, for that matter, the opening of a cable. It refers us back to hunting instincts and fighting instincts, but these plainly do not
represent the more civilised fields of appreciation.
It is commonly believed that moral grandeur in art can only be
achieved, Greek or Shakespearian fashion, after a general laying
out of the protagonists, and that no head is unbowed which is not
bloody. This notion is a philosophic vulgarity. Of recent years it
has been given the further blessing of Kant in his distinction between
the aesthetic of pattern and the aesthetic of achievement, and

beauty has been considered somewhat inferior to the sublime. The
Kantian confusion comes from the fact that he personally had an
active moral sense, but no active aesthetic one. He would not otherwise
have drawn the distinction. So far as common taste is concerned,
one has to see that we do not mix up the fulfilment of primitive
desires and the vain dignities which attach to that fulfilment,
with the dignities which attach to man as an imaginative being.
The dramatic application of the symphonic form is not, ipso facto,
the deepest or most important. A future consideration of forms
neither dramatic nor symphonic, but dialectic, will reveal this more
Kinematograph Year Book, i 934. (London: Odhams. ios.)
An essential book of reference for all connected with the cinema.
The year’s events, films registered, who’s who, and a classified
directory are included, along with other useful information.
“The Cinema” Buyers’ Guide. (London: Cinema Press. 155-.)
Contains brief reviews of the year’s films with details of production
and cast. A valuable handbook for students and secretaries.
For Filmgoers Only. (London: Faber. 2s. 6d.) Lectures
delivered to the London Y.W.C.A. Central Club. Paul Rotha on
the development of the cinema ; Andrew Buchanan on propaganda;
Mary Field on educational films; R. S. Lambert on “Why we get
the films we do” ; C. A. Lejeune on what to look for in films. A
useful guide for those who have just “discovered” cinema.
The Cinema and the Public. (London: Nicholson and Watson.
is.) An ‘exposure” of the British Film Institute. Contains both
opinions and facts, which the discerning reader may separate to his
own satisfaction.
Express to Hollywood. By Victor McLagen. (London:
Jarrold. 12s. 6rf.) The life-story of a star. A feast for fans and an
interesting sidelight on the inside of the commercial movie world.
Picture People. By Olga Rosmanith. (London: Long. ys. 6d.)
A novelette of Hollywood life in all its absurdities. May help to
disillusion star worshippers.
The Stranger’s Return. By Phil Stong. (London: Barker.
js. 6d.) Here we find in words the atmosphere and characters of
the American Middle West which Vidor re-created in his film.
Lionel Barrymore’s Grandpa Storr did justice to Stong’s powers of
characterisation. Two novels written, two novels filmed: perhaps
Stong will cast his next in film form and not wait for adaptation.

(Copy Left) *Film Quartely, vol. 2 Num. 3, Spring 1934, Uk. pages 155-160.


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