Odes in Praise of the Industrial Worker: 'The Soviet Influence: From Turksib to Night Mail'

Still from Night Mail (1936)

These films of the Soviet and British documentary makers depict iconic images of man within nature, and man taming nature.

Night Mail

Director: Various artists (Viktor Turin, Henry Watt, et al)
Distributor: BFI
Rated: PG
Release date: 2011-09-19

Turksib (1929) directed by Soviet filmmaker Viktor Turin is about the construction of the Turkestan-Siberian railway. It's a silent film documentary of contrasting visions. The land of the central plains and deserts of Soviet Asia being ‘torn asunder by the labour of man’ was intended as a positive image by the propaganda machine of the Communists. It was meant, at the outset of a time of global depression, to demonstrate the upgrading of the means of transportation across continental Europe to one of efficiency and uniformity.

The first half of the film shows the slow existence of the labourers of the South. The cotton and wool produced by the peoples of the fields and plains is transported by camel and packhorse. Then, a switch occurs. The film transitions unashamedly to a glorification of industry as conceived of by Stalin’s government. It shows the gaping jaws of mechanical diggers and men blasting and drilling through rock and the construction of mile after mile of track. These images are purposeful, to depict the taming of the wilderness of Central Europe; collectively subdued to the will of the Soviet Union.

This image-making struck both a sentimental chord as well as a political and aesthetic one. The retrieval of a lost humanity was seen as being made possible by modern industry. People of the land could look to the liberating effect of modernisation and find more time for culture and other pursuits, it was believed. The poets WH Auden and Stephen Spender in the UK, as well as producer John Grierson, welcomed the release of films by Soviet documentary makers as a means of honouring the achievements and teamwork of the labouring classes, the backbone of the economy.

These films can be read as odes in praise of the worker. Sentimentality is even more in evidence when the landscape is celebrated: flocks of sheep herded across downlands and moors and the visual sumptuousness of English rural scenery in Paul Rotha’s The Face of Britain (1935).

These films, the Soviet originals and the British imitators, have a considered and meticulous quality to them. They produce images that are meant to easily embed themselves in the minds of the viewer. Iconic images of man within nature, and man taming nature. One of the biggest debts we can acknowledge Soviet cinema as giving us was the aesthetic that enabled the simple and the humble to be seen as epic. The politics behind them (British Socialism was far removed from Communism) might have differed but the effect was very similar. They also provided the initial vocabulary, of fast edits and lingering shots that have entered the language of advertising. This is shown in Paul Rotha’s short film, Australian Wines (1931) that clearly foreshadows modern commercials.

Harry Watt’s Night Mail (1936) is the British counterpart to Turksib in that it shows the country bound together by resourcefulness, organisation and the new technology of the age. Now it reads as a quaint period piece, a tale of the steam age, which appeals to enthusiasts; but at the time it was a fusion of industrialisation and culture embodied by the scenes of the railways and postal services accompanied by the score from Benjamin Britten and the verse by WH Auden.

The BFI manage to contextualise and clarify what might be obscure and difficult films, short as they are, for the audience. The literature that accompanies the DVD places the works of the filmmakers in context and aids understanding of agitprop cinema of various kinds.

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