Steven Ungar’s Critical Mass groups together and examines three-and-a-half decades worth of non-fiction filmmaking in France, making a compelling case for the existence of a mid-century tradition of the “social documentary.” Tracing this tradition back to the late silent era, he identifies its point of genesis with a handful of socially engaged cinematic portraits of life in Paris and neighbouring towns directed by filmmakers working on the margins of cinematic and photographic avant-gardes. These filmmakers, which include undervalued figures such as Georges Lacombe, André Sauvage, and Boris Kaufman, provide a link between the plastic modernism of the 1920s – pure cinema, impressionism, and the various abstract film experiments – and the more explicitly engagé works of other European filmmakers such as Joris Ivens and Dziga Vertov. In a French-specific context, it is Jean Vigo and his promissory text, “Towards a Social Cinema” (1930), that provides a call to arms of sorts for this nascent engaged film movement. Vigo’s text, as well as his scathing film-pamphlet, A propos de Nice (1930), open the social documentary tradition out to a broader left-wing activist filmmaking tradition in France that spans the rest of the interwar period and continues well into the post-war years.
A constellation of filmmakers is sketched out for us as representative of this social documentary tendency, with Ungar drawing attention to both lodestars as well as others that have in the past not shone as brightly. Of the former category, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais loom large, to the extent that the book is at least in part – as Ungar himself admits – an attempt to work backwards from their post-war innovations and contextualise them with regards to interwar antecedents. But it is perhaps in unearthing and seriously discussing the works of lesser-known filmmakers such as Eli Lotar and Henri Storck that Ungar’s book offers its most trenchant insights. On the one hand, the careers of these under-examined filmmakers point to the productive links that exist in this period between photography and cinema, the more materialist strain of surrealism and documentary film, and the involvement of artists, writers, and filmmakers in a critical front of left-wing political activism. On the other hand, the placement of lesser known filmmakers and practices within this constellation that includes more familiar names in some sense deepens our understanding of all those grouped together.
Film critics and scholars are well known for their mania for movements, waves, schools and the like, and the utility of these critical formations is not always apparent. At worst, they are a sign of critical laziness, a way to indiscriminately group together strange families – or at least, insist upon a peculiar familial likeness – whose only shared trait is the fact that its members lived and worked in the same place at the same time. At best, they can help scholars to perform real critical work, showing how patterns of collaboration, shared aesthetic philosophies and common political projects help to illuminate individual works. Ungar’s Critical Mass is just such an example of productive relationship between part and whole – between individual films and critical groupings. Here, the various patterns of collaboration, collective actions, and activist concerns create, in Ungar’s words, “a critical mass or front over and beyond individual films and filmmakers.” (p. 229) Over the course of the monograph’s 300 pages, Ungar accounts for the historical contexts and intellectual currents that underpin this critical mass, while also providing exceptionally close analysis of the films that function as its expression. The result is an impressive, generous piece of scholarship that scholars of French cinema, documentary film, and cinematic modernisms will undoubtedly find great use for in years to come.
Ungar’s corpus of social documentary filmmakers and films is in essence built around a set of shared political concerns and commitments of the broad, unaffiliated Left in mid-century France. This corpus of films can be roughly divided down the middle – using World War II as a dividing point – in terms of two key subject matter; before the war, starting with a handful of portraits of Parisian life on the margins, the living and labour conditions of the working class are a major theme. After it, it is France’s ongoing relationship with its colonies in Africa in the face of the decolonisation movement – and the attendant modernisation of the métropole – that comes into focus. Eli Lotar’s Aubervilliers (1946), a short communist-party-funded exposé on one of Paris’ north-eastern banlieues, is an exception to this neat demarcation, but also acts as a kind of fulcrum around which the rest of the movement swings. Fittingly, an interview with a woman from Aubervilliers appears towards the start of Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai (The Lovely Month of May, 1963), the director’s wide-reaching view of everyday life in the French capital, which Ungar elects as the end point and political summa of his documentary film corpus. There, the woman awaits her family’s relocation to an Habitation à loyer modéré (or low-income housing); that is, the modernist mid- to high-rise buildings that were built throughout France following the country’s post-war housing crisis. Marker’s encounter with the Albertivillarienne comes about an hour and a half before an interview with a teacher who condemns the use of torture in France’s then-recent war with Algeria. This anti-colonial critique – so sorely absent in French cinema during the post-war waves of decolonisation – filters through a handful of films of the post-war period, whether explicitly (René Vautier’s searing Afrique 50 ), or somewhat more obliquely (Les Statues meurent aussi [Statues Also Die, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet, 1953] and Moi, un noir [I, A Black, Jean Rouch, 1958]). Ungar weaves analyses of these post-war cinematic examinations of the colonies and their consequences, concluding that they ultimately “reclaim the ambitions and burdens” (p. ix) of the interwar films that had focused on the often-harsh realities of life back home in the capital.
In a somewhat less defined way, the social documentary also exists, per Ungar, as an aesthetic approach to the nonfiction form that is defined against the Griersonian school of documentary. At the core of this opposition is a departure from Grierson’s notion of a “creative treatment of actuality” in favour of the adoption of something closer to what Jean Vigo posited in 1930 as a cinema with a “documented point of view.”1 Ungar argues convincingly that the interwar films of his corpus broke with existing nonfiction practices that spanned the newsreel, travelogue, pedagogical and scientific film, and draws a fruitful set of connections instead to the modernist avant-gardes of the 1920s, particularly surrealism and cinematic impressionism. Indeed, one of the major contributions of this book is to make explicit the connection between the avant-garde and documentary film in this transitional period, a line of inquiry that has been undertaken in French-language scholarship, but less readily in English.2 For some of the films Ungar writes about, however, their exact points of difference to the Griersonian, expository tradition is a little unclear. At moments in his aesthetic analysis, Ungar tends to define by opposition: one reads, for example, that passages in Aubervilliers “go beyond straightforward reportage” (p. 110); that Le Joli Mai is “something more or other than reportage” (p. 203); or that Toute la mémoire du monde (All the memory in the World, Alain Resnais, 1956) is “an exercise in documentary reportage – with a difference” (p. 201). One could counter that the “something more” of these statements is precisely what Ungar spends the rest of his monograph describing. Yet these moments do feel at times like missed opportunities to crystallise his analysis and to define the aesthetic shape of these films in more concrete terms.
Minor rhetorical points aside, the open-ended aesthetic of the social documentary has the ultimately much larger benefit of allowing Ungar to examine a wide range of nonfictional practices, ranging from agitprop to ethnographic fiction and cinema vérité. As the book moves chronologically through its corpus of films, the reader gets something like a cross-section of European mid-century documentary film aesthetics associated with progressive political projects. A handful of late-period silent films on Parisian life on the literal and figurative margins marks the earliest films of the corpus, with a close examination of Georges Lacombe’s La Zone (1928), Boris Kaufman’s Les Halles centrales (1928), André Sauvage’s Études sur Paris series (1929), and Marcel Carné’s Nogent, Eldorado du Dimanche (1929) opening up the book. These short films – likely the films from the corpus readers will be least familiar with – are in some ways French iterations of the City Symphony, whose better known examples are German (Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphonie einer Großstadt [Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, 1927]), Russian (Dziga Vertov’s Chelovek s kinoapparatom [Man with A Movie Camera, 1929]) and American (Paul Strand’s Manhatta ).3 The distinctly French take on this parent subgenre comes through in the films’ intimacy of scale. These filmmakers tend to home in on individual neighbourhoods and particular human and environmental details within them, all of which ultimately reveal larger social structures and iniquities. Ungar draws useful insights into these films by making links to literature (particularly later French writers of the everyday, Francis Ponge and Georges Perec), photography (Atget) and surrealism. It is this latter artistic, intellectual and political wellspring that proves to be the most productive connection for understanding these early social documentaries. An “excursus in the form of a comparative study” between Sauvage’s Études sur Paris and André Breton’s illustrated novel, Nadja (1928), opens up a fascinating network of political connections to the French Communist Party, surrealist prose stylists (Desnos), and Sauvage’s crucial discussion on “the real” and “montage.” (pp. 49-59) This latter discussion is part of a series of articles on documentary film and the advent of sound written by Sauvage and published in 1930 in the Parisian weekly, L’Ami du peuple, which offer up some of the book’s most interesting aesthetic discussions on documentary film in this important transitional period. Sauvage is worth quoting at length here:
I saw on-screen incomparable images, images that call for and command silence. We were shown aerial shots of flooded areas, floating houses, miniature trees, debris on a sea of silver. Not only a ridiculous noise of airplane juxtaposed after the fact in a sound studio interfered with the emotion we felt by reminding us of the infernal accompaniment of a journey through the skies, but also the voice of a man, a so-called speaker, imposed on us technical explanations concerning the unexpected swelling of the Seine and its tributaries. I saw magnificent images become, through these sound accompaniments, a sort of amusing demonstration for people who live on the top floor in the area around the Sacré-Coeur. (quoted on p. 61)
Here we see echoes of an argument that would take off once again in France after the war, when André Bazin wrote his famous critique of Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series (1942-1945). There, Bazin critiqued Capra’s use of voiceover in conjunction with the military and newsreel footage that the American director had recut across the series; for Bazin, Capra’s imperious voiceover reduced the inherently polysemous cinematic image to something that merely reflected “the logical structure of speech” that accompanied it.4 Long before structuralist-inflected discourse on the signifying potentials of the cinematic image had entered into documentary film studies, this debate on the relationship of sound to image – and particularly of voice to image – had a storied history in French film criticism. Indeed, the above quotation from Sauvage that Ungar cites indicates that this debate goes back all the way to sound cinema’s advent.
Chapter 3 looks to the 1930s and 40s, stopping by more familiar territory – Vigo’s A propos de Nice and his “Towards a Social Cinema” speech – on the way to examining in detail the work of one of the book’s key figures, the overlooked Eli Lotar. Lotar’s work as a photographer and brief tenure as a director and cinematographer on French documentary films is starting to garner some merited interest, and Ungar’s chapter dedicated to his work is an important step to getting it recognised in the Anglophone world.5 Ungar begins with Lotar’s stunning photographs published in surrealist magazines of the 1920s and 1930s such as Vu and Documents, which are at once sensuous and frighteningly harsh in their depiction of everyday subjects. Lotar would go on to work as a cinematographer on Buñuel’s classic Land without Bread (1933) and co-directed Les Maisons de la misère with Henri Storck in 1937, an exposé on the need for the kind of rent-controlled, low-rise buildings that would appear all throughout France in the post-war period. The politics of housing would be picked up again in his sole film as lone director, Aubervilliers (1946), and Ungar duly unpicks the political provocations and poetry of Lotar’s film. Yet the highlight of the chapter is the analysis of Lotar’s photography, and Ungar’s closing examination of a series of photographs from the Villette slaughterhouse is some of the sharpest aesthetic analysis in the book.
Chapters 4 and 5 turn to focus on the post-war era, and with it, to the social documentary’s challenges to French colonialism as well as its reflections on the state’s modernisation project following the war. Bar a few notable exceptions, French cinema of the 1940s and 50s was famously silent on and even at times complicit with France’s involvement in the colonies. The films that Ungar examines in chapter 4 – Afrique 50, Les Statues meurent aussi, and Moi, un noir – are three of only a very small number of films of the period that faced France’s colonial rule in Africa and its consequences head on. They are, of course, three profoundly different films, both in terms of ideology and aesthetics, and Ungar quite brilliantly lays out these differences in approach for the reader. It is my sense that with this chapter, Ungar paints the clearest picture of how these films politically engage their subjects and spectators, and this is ultimately through close formal analysis of patterns of editing and voiceover. Furthermore, Ungar’s detailed description of Afrique 50’s and Les Statues meurent aussi’s run-ins with censorship – an essential aspect of any analysis of those films – opens the chapter out onto considerations of state policy in France and its relationship to subversive filmmaking.
The reflections on Toute la mémoire du monde and Le Joli Mai in Chapter 5 close out both the book and Ungar’s cycle of films, elegantly tying together half a century of politically engaged filmmaking in France. The former is neatly read, following Edward Dimendberg and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, as a kind of “return of repressed geopolitical relations” of the French Fourth Republic.6 For Ungar, the unspoken realities of Vichy, the concentration camps and the Algerian War seep through Resnais’ seemingly minor short on the French National Library. As previously mentioned, Marker’s Le Joli Mai provides an encapsulation of almost all of the political concerns charted across this corpus of films, which are refracted through the thoughts and feelings of the Parisians interviewed in the film. Le Joli Mai is, for Ungar, both a cross-section of a divided France – part individualist and disinterested, part engaged with and sensitive to the surrounding world – as well as, more provocatively, a self-portrait of Marker at age 40. This latter point to my mind certainly holds water for Marker the filmmaker, whose Le Joli Mai might productively be seen as reflecting on the concerns of the essayistic early period while also looking forward to the more explicitly militant turn in his work just before May 1968. In any case, May ’68 is where we end up, with Ungar examining the Marker-led omnibus film, Loin du Vietnam (1967), and A bientôt, j’espère (1968, co-directed by Mario Marret) as precursors to the wave of militant filmmaking that would soon follow. By the end of the book, Ungar has successfully drawn a line from social documentary growing out of a renegotiation of medium specificity in the late silent era, through to the explosion of engagé leftist works that emerged out of that May’s renegotiation of politics and culture’s foundations, and the place of cinema in both.
If my overview of the book’s chronologically ordered contents makes Critical Mass out to be a teleological project – a kind of pre-history of May 1968 cinema, or more modestly, the Left Bank – it is to Ungar’s credit that his book most assuredly is not this. Ultimately, one of the most critically productive aspects of Ungar’s book is his concerted effort to avoid sketching out a “genealogy” of films and filmmakers. As Ungar aptly puts it, “[m]odels of genealogy run the risk of presupposing outcome or functional end,” (p. xiii) and I would add, in aesthetic terms, run the risk of deforming individual works of art by insisting on their subterranean correspondences with other works. Instead, Ungar adopts a much looser and more fluid model of intellectual and aesthetic development over time, adapted in part from historian Fernand Braudel’s famous schema of interlocking durations. In charting the correspondences between historical players and their broader social and political contexts across different eras, Ungar is able to, as he puts it, “temper chronology in conjunction with patterns of continuity and change.” (p. ix) What emerges, thus, is a description of a set of political concerns and formal approaches to the documentary form that are taken up or let go of according to the times and their ideological demands. Scholars working on this period of French cultural history should count themselves lucky to be able to draw upon this expansive account of the intersection of politics and image culture.
Steven Ungar, Critical Mass: Social Documentary in France from the Silent Era to the New Wave (Minnesota: Minnesota University Press, 2018).
- Jean Vigo, “Toward a Social Cinema,” in Richard Abel (ed.), French Film Theory and Criticism, 1907–1939, vol. II: 1929–1939 (Princeton, NJ, 1988), pp. 60-63. ↩
- See Georges Sadoul, Le Cinéma français (Paris: Flammarion, 1962), pp. 41-42; François Porcile, Défense du court métrage français (Paris: Cerf, 1965), pp. 81-82; Nicole Brenez, “L’Atlantide,” in Nicole Brenez and Christian Lebrat (eds.), Jeune, dure et pure! Une histoire du cinéma d’avant-garde et expérimental en France (Paris: Cinémathèque Française/Mazzotta, 2001), p. 20; Jacques-B. Brunius, En marge du cinéma français (Lausanne: Editions L’Age d’Homme, 1987), pp. 75-81. All of these texts are duly cited by Ungar in this book. ↩
- One wonders here at the exclusion of Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926) from the corpus, or indeed why it isn’t at least mentioned in the book as an important, Paris-focused precursor. ↩
- André Bazin, “On Why We Fight: History, Documentation, and the Newsreel”, trans. Alain Piette and Bert Cardullo, in Bert Cardullo (ed.), Bazin at Work: Major Essays from the Forties and Fifties (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 190. ↩
- In 2017, the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris organised a retrospective of Lotar’s photography and film work. Published alongside this was Damarice Amao’s monograph dedicated to Lotar: Eli Lotar et le movement des images (Paris: Textuel, 2017). ↩
- See Edward Dimendberg, “‘These are not exercises in style’: Le Chant du Styrène,” October 112 (Spring 2005), pp. 83-88; Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, “La Prisonnière Lucia,” Cahiers du cinéma 77 (December 1957), pp. 59-60. ↩