Joris Ivens’s Rain, a portrait of rainfall in Amsterdam completed in 1929, is an essential work in the development of the poetic documentary. As it nears its centenary, its relation to various strains of documental vision—to the city symphony, to the absolute film, to the representational tradition writ large—continues to inspire critical commentary (Marcus 2014; Waugh 2016), but its influence is most felt in the curriculums of film schools, where it still serves as an ideal for students undertaking their first explorations of the documentary subject. This is the context in which I have come to know the film, as a pedagogical object that was introduced to me as a student of filmmaking and that became a staple of my own teaching. The complexity of Ivens’s film lies in its relation to representational modes, its subtle abstractions of time and unsubtle abstractions of vision, its poetic exploration of the impositions between the natural world and society.
For Siegfried Kracauer, Rain was best understood in the context of a common cinematic motif, the flow of life. As he observes, 'the flow of life materializes in films animated by no intention other than to picture some manifestation of it' (Kracauer 1960: 273). Rain, like the city symphonies of its era, uses rhythmic patterning to develop parallels of flow between subject and form. Béla Balázs observes that 'the rain-pictures of Ivens could not be seen by anyone else in any rain' (Balázs 1951: 175), a declaration of the subjective character of Ivens’s pictorialism, the particularity and intimacy of this vision. Rain functions in two continuums: it is a universal observation of natural and social phenomenon, containing in totality the multitudes of forms and interplays of rainfall, a phenomenal catalogue; yet, it also gives an impression of intimacy, its imagery particular to the machine that captures it and the hands and eyes of the operator. The same could be said of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series: they catalogue natural phenomenon at a scale approaching totality—a total record of the environments in which water lilies are found—that simultaneously chart Monet’s own declining vision, the artist’s subjectivity made literal by his cataracts.
This video essay tours Joris Ivens’s strategies for editing many months of observation into this archetypal rainstorm, such as match cuts and other compositional parallels, his structuring of raindrops in the canals as a refrain intercut with images of sky, crowds and gutters. As a remix of Ivens’s film, Rain: A Phenomenal Catalogue explores his central gesture, to picture a city blanketed in reflections. His imagery also provokes meditation on the documental act of filmmaking itself. In passages of increasingly dense superimpositions, I take inspiration from Laura Marcus’s observation that the reflective surfaces of the city present 'an analogue for cinema’s own doubling of the world' (105).
Gilles Deleuze recognizes Ivens’s rainfall as distinct from metaphor when he writes that this rain is not a conceptual summary of the phenomenon, 'nor the state of a rainy time and place' (Deleuze 1986: 111). Indeed, Ivens’s representational modes are complex, and as this video essay declares, this is not the metaphor of Longfellow’s 'The Rainy Day'; it is not melancholy; its graphic expression makes it distinctively material. For this reason, the video essay features a coda that addresses the question of the relation between the poetic and the documental, a rumination on ‘description’ inspired by Hanns Eisler’s 'Fourteen ways of describing rain', a score composed for the film in 1941. Eisler’s score was a central subject of the composer’s collaboration with Theodor Adorno, who considered the film ‘static’ and ‘plot-less’ but for the presence of music (Adorno and Eisler 1994: 101). His title provokes reflection on the differing values of language and of the moving image; to this I offer an inventory of aphorisms, quotations, even nursery rhymes, that have drawn from the romance of falling rain.
Adorno, Theodor and Hanns Eisler. (1994) Composing for the Films. London: The Athlone Press.
Balázs, Béla. (1951) Theory of the Film. London: Dennis Dobson.
Deleuze, Gilles. (1986) Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. London: The Athlone Press.
Kracauer, Siegfried. (1960) Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Marcus, Laura. (2014) Dreams of Modernity: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press.
Waugh, Thomas. (2016) The Conscience of Cinema: The Works of Joris Ivens, 1912-1989. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Stephen Broomer is a lecturer in cinema studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of three books on Canadian cinema, and his films have screened at Anthology Film Archives, the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and the Toronto International Film Festival. In 2020, he served as the Fulbright scholar-in-residence at the Prelinger Library and University of California Santa Cruz. He is the host of Art & Trash, a video essay series on underground and cult cinema.