Archivo de la etiqueta: paul rotha

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.


The evolution of documentary by Paul Rotha[*]

What we have come to call “documentary” did not
appear as a distinct method offilm making at any given
moment in the cinema’s history. It did not suddenly
become manifest as a new conception of film in
any particular production. Rather has documentary
evolved over a period of time for materialist reasons;
partly as the result of amateur effort, partly through
serving propagandist ends, partly through aestheticism.
We have already observed that the major portion of
the Industry’s time has been spent in perfecting the
production and sale ofone kind offilm—the illustrated
story made largely in the studio. Relatively little
thought has been given to the potentialities of other
methods of cinema (except in such rare cases as the
advent of a Disney and, even then, we may recall
Disney’s struggle before he gained commercial success),
or to the possibility that the mass audience might be
comprised of many different kinds of persons with
a variety of outlooks.
As a direct consequence, the machinery of the film
factories and the elaborate, sometimes efficient,
system of salesmanship have been developed to deal
with one type of film and only one. It might be
extremely difficult for a film of a different type, should

the public make apparent its desire for such, to receive
adequate treatment from the Trade. Thus it is in no
way surprising that when, on various occasions, new
kinds of films have appeared, the Trade has not always
been able to give them capable handling even though
they may have possessed money-making possibilities.
For this reason, although they have frequently made
their appearance, pictures dealing with natural subjects
have seldom received the vigorous support of the
Trade, nor has any really serious attention been paid
to short pictures ofan c interest ‘ type for their own sake.
Short films have been regarded much as the proverbial
gift with a packet of tea, as fill-ups and make-weights,
often given away in handfuls with a major story-film.
They are often issued in a disgraceful state ofabbreviation.
The copies are frequently mutilated or in a bad
condition. They are seldom given the dignity of a
press presentation. Not only this, but there are even
cases when exhibitors, desiring to book certain short
pictures, have found it almost impossible to do so. Most
of the initiative for travel films has come from persons
outside the Trade. It has resulted from individual
amateur effort. There is no exaggeration in saying
that two-thirds of the attempts to employ cinema for
purposes other than fictional story-telling have come
about from sources quite apart from the Film Trade.
Nevertheless, from quite an early date in cinema,
such films have found their way into production. In
face of the indifference of producing companies and
renting concerns, the desire to use the film camera for
wider aims than story-telling has increased and since

the War there has been a steady growth in public
enthusiasm for them. 1 The fact that the film camera
and cinema screen have it in their power to show one
half of the world how the other half lives has given
birth to numerous simply-made travel pictures—such
as the current FitzPatrick Traveltalks and the Fox
Magic Carpet series—yet, until to-day, there has been
little attempt to classify and analyse their respective
virtues. But it was clear from these humble efforts that
the film had every possibility of expressing something
beyond fictional stories conceived and put on the
screen by departmental methods.
By virtue of the camera’s ability to record a reasonably
faithful image, pictorial description was—and
still is—the primary intention of these documentaires, as
the French called them. Their real appeal lay in the
obvious attraction ofscenic material gathered from all
parts of the world, interpreted by the academic skill of
their photographers. Although a decided advance on
the magic-lantern lecture, these Voyage au Congo’s and
Everest’s and Pamyr’s can hardly be said to add greatly
to the film as a medium of creative power but at least
they had the merit of exploring fresh territory.
The news-reel, of course, was also making use of the
camera’s reproductive capacities by building up an
ever-changing panorama of daily events; not with
much skill it must be confessed, for its value lay in speed,
hazard and impudence. Nevertheless, its basic appeal

again rested in presenting actual events in their actual
surroundings. It was a method, albeit a crude one, of
Many other subjects crept into this growing field
of non-story cinema, exploring the fascinating possibilities
of the camera as fast as the necessary resources
could be found. Cinemagazines of the Buchanan
brand carried into celluloid the style and method of
popular periodicals ; sport was approached in personal
interviews and skilful demonstrations ofthe underlying
sciences, such as the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer series;
microscopical cinematography investigated the phenomena
of natural history and biology, notably in Percy
Smith’s Secrets of Nature and in Jean Painleve’s
beautiful fish films ; events ofthe World Warwere made
to live again with suitable injections of patriotism, as
in Bruce Woolfe’s £eebrugge and Battle of Falkland and
Coronet Islands; experiments in science and medicine
were recorded for the benefit of posterity, as in Canti’s
cancer film : all humble efforts at utilising cinema for
more ambitious purposes than mere story-telling.
But the limits to which these pictures reach are
scarcely sufficient for us to regard them as anything
more than recorded facts, with no further virtue than
their frequent use of naturally existing material and
subjects in preference to the artificial conceptions of
the studios. They make no effort to approach their
subjects from a creative or even dramatic point of
view, no attempt to govern the selection of images by
methods other than those of plain description, no
endeavour to express an argument or fulfil a special

purpose. Nor do they fully explore the range of the
reproductive properties ofthe camera and microphone
and only occasionally attempt simple editing for a
lucid presentation of facts with commentary to match.
The step that exists between this type of general
‘interest’ picture and the higher aims of the documentary
method is wider than is usually imagined.
Because these ‘interest’, travel and lecture films often
embrace no story and make use of natural material,
it is believed that they fall within the documentary
grouping. The fallacy of this belief will, I hope, gradually
become apparent during our closer survey of the
evolution of documentary.
Without entering into complex technical discussion,
it is nevertheless important to make clear, at this point,
the fundamental distinctions that exist between the two
methods ofusing the apparatus and materials ofcinema.
One hundred years ago, the skill of a craftsman was
the only means by which a pictorial record ofa person,
a place or an object, could be secured for pleasure or
reference. To-day, that craftsmanship has been superseded
by the science of photography.
From the first days of film production until the
present, most story-film technique to have emanated
from Western studios has been based on the fact that
the camera could reproduce phenomena photographically
on to sensitised celluloid; and that from
the resultant negative a print could be taken and thrown
in enlarged size by a projector on to a screen.
In consequence, we find that more consideration is
accorded the actors, scenery and plot than the method

by which they are given screen presence, a system of
manufacture which admirably suits the departmental
organisation of the modern film studio. Thus the product
ofthe scenario, together with the accommodating
movements of the camera and microphone, create
numerous lengths of celluloid, which merely require
trimming and joining in correct sequence, according to
the original scenario, for the result to be something in
the nature of a film. Occasionally, where words and
sounds fail to give the required lapses of time and
changes of scene, ingenious camera and sound devices
are introduced. It is not, of course, quite so simple as
this but, in essentials, the completed film is believed to
assume life and breath and meaning by the transference
of acting to the screen and words to the loudspeaker.
The skill of the artist, therefore, lies in the treatment
of the story, guidance of the actors in speech and
gesture, composition of the separate scenes within the
picture-frame, movements of the cameras and the
suitability ofthe settings; in all ofwhich he is assisted by
dialogue-writers, cameramen, art-directors, make-up
experts, sound-recordists and the actors themselves,
while the finished scenes are assembled in their right
order by the editing department.
Within these limits, the story-film has followed
closely in the theatrical tradition for its subject-matter;
converting, as time went on, stage forms into film forms,
stage acting into film acting, according to the exacting
demands of the reproducing camera and microphone.
The opposite group of thought, however, while
accepting the same elementary functions of the

camera, microphone and projector, proceeds from the
belief that nothing photographed, or recorded on to
celluloid, has meaning until it comes to the cuttingbench;
that the primary task offilm creation lies in the
physical and mental stimuli which can be produced
by the factor of editing. The way in which the camera
is used, its many movements and angles of vision in
relation to the objects being photographed, the speed
with which it reproduces actions and the very appearance
of persons and things before it, are governed by
the manner in which the editing is fulfilled. This
applies equally to sound. Such a method presupposes
that one mind assumes responsibility for the shape and
meaning of the completed film, performs the editing
as well as, in some cases, the photographing; a procedure
which obviously does not fit smoothly into
mass-production methods.
Within these limits, departure has been made away
from the theatrical tradition into the wider fields
of actuality, where the spontaneity of natural behaviour
has been recognised as a cinematic quality
and sound is used creatively rather than reproductively.
This attitude is, of course, the technical basis of
the documentary film.
If dates will help, documentary may be said to have
had its real beginnings with Flaherty’s Nanook in
America (1920), Dziga Vertov’s experiments in Russia
(round about 1923), Gavalcanti’s Rien que les hemes in
France (1926), Ruttmann’s Berlin in Germany (1927)
and Grierson’s Drifters in Britain (1929). Broadly
speaking, documentary falls into four groups, each of

which demands individual estimate because each
results from a different approach to naturally existing


1 The remarks of Captain F. S. Smythe regarding Film Trade
methods in his book Kamet Conquered (Gollancz), 1933, are significant.

[*] Paul Rotha. Documentary Film. Great Britain, NEW YORK:
W. W. NORTON & COMPANY, INC., 1939. Pages 71 – 78.

The function on the director by Paul Rotha*

Paul Rotha


A director goes documentary by choice and not coincidence. In
so doing he seeks to serve his conscience and avoid the cupidity of
story-film as it flourishes under most studio conditions.
Documentary defines not subject or style, but approach.
It denies neither trained actors nor the advantages of staging.
Ir justifies the use of every known technical artifice to gain its effect
on the specator.
Two courses are open to the director of documentary. He may
seek themes and material at the ends of the earth in the manner
of a Flaherty; or he may face the problems of the community around
him in the manner of a Grierson. The choice is personal. These two
names plot the extremities of the dramatised documentary as distinct
from the descriptive style favoured by the lesser lights of the racket.
To the documentary director the appearance of things and
people is only superficial. It is the meaning behind the thing and
the significance underlying the person that occupy his attention.
To the documentary approach every manufacture, every organisation,
every industry, every craft represents at one point or another
the fulfilment of a human interest.
Documentary approach to cinema differs from that of storyfilm
not in its disregard for craftsmanship, but in the purpose to
which that craftsmanship is put. Documentary is a trade just as
carpentry or pot-making. As a trade its technique must be mastered
if the product is to be valuable and have meaning. But technique
alone is not sufficient.
A film must serve a purpose beyond itself if it is to survive. It
may serve entertainment (as the studio producers dictate), it may
serve propaganda (as the publicists demand), or it may serve art
as the highbrows pretend), but it cannot be an end in itself.
Because documentary is in its infancy and because production is
largely (but not wholly) made possible by serving propagandist ends,
the publicist himself is the main enemy of the director. Because
cinema is everyone’s plaything to criticise for good or bad, your
publicist will demand the inclusion of this or the exclusion of that
to the prostitution of your conscience.

Frederick Wiseman – High School

Therefore, three demands must be made by the documentarv
director: the right to theorise, the right to experiment (time and
footage), and the right to attempt to satisfy his conscience. He mav
have to travel to sacrificial lengths to obtain these rights. Becauxhe
must look to the future he will try to satisfy the publicist’s demands,
perhaps produce a bad film thereby, and get kicked in the
pants just the same. It is at present a matter of compromise, of bluff
as bluff can. If he is ambitious he will hope to get away with a
number of second-rate films, goaded on by the belief that one day
he will turn out a top-notcher.
The documentary director must remember that his theme (or
message) alone compels audience interest. There is nothing personal
in a documentary with which an audience can identify itself. Perhaps
there are mass or social instincts, but not individual emotions.
But in story-film the audience can assume a personal interest in
characters or incidents, often projecting itself into the position of a
participant. Because there is a story to divert attention from
realities, the task of making story-film is more simple than that of
documentary. In fact, the audience will accept deliberate misstatements
of truth in story-film, but to lie in documentary demands
infinite skill, perfect craftsmanship and an accurate knowledge of
audience psychology.

Frederick Wiseman – Meat

Unlike the story-film director, the maker of documentary has
yet to gain the full co-operation of the trade. The renter and the
exhibitor do not understand documentary, and I am not sure that
they have tried. They search for established publicity angles and,
finding none, invent them. Yet their habits are retrogressive.
Moana was issued as “the Love of a South Sea Siren.” Documentary
must always go forward. It needs new distributions and new
publicities. These will come.
Meanwhile, production becomes specialised, demanding mentalities
capable of approaching a multitude of treatments, from
the school-film to the dramatic industrial.
But, if it is not to go the way of story-film, documentary musl
be protected against exploitation for commercial profit alone. Its
directors must retain freedom for their ideals.

The famous Everyman Theatre, Hampstead, has been re-opened
with a programme of repertory. J. S. Fairfax-Jones, one of our
London correspondents and a prominent member of the film
societies’ movement, is a director of this new venture. Among the
first films to be shown are Le Million, Tabu, and Cimarron.

*Film Quartely, Vol. 2 no. 2, Winter 1933-34, Pages. 78-79