In Spring (1929)

BerthaDocHouse, Curzon Bloomsbury, London

                                  7 June 2017

This evening was a bit of a first in that it was our first visit to the BerthaDocHouse auditorium, a new addition to what was the old Renoir Cinema but which has now been renamed the Curzon Bloomsbury.  The reason for the visit to this extremely plush new venue, which specialises in the screening of documentary films, was to view a presentation of the 1929 film In Spring which marked the solo directorial début of Mikhail Kaufman. This is one of a number of events being presented by the Ukrainian Institute in London as part of a series to mark “A Century of Ukrainian Revolutions: 1917-2017”.  Shot in Kyiv (Kiev) and produced by All-Ukrainian Photo-Cinema Directorate , In Spring is an avant garde cinematic poem to the arrival of spring in nature as well as a new life in a society. This is believed to be the first screening in Britain of this newly restored and most complete version of Kaufman’s film.

The film opens with the city in the grip of winter, blizzards blowing, snowdrifts against the houses and transport immobilised. But soon the spring thaw begins.  Snow and ice is cleared from the streets. Explosives are used to break up ice choking the river (right).  A snowman gradually melts (left).  Road and rail transport gradually restarts although there is much work to be done repairing tracks and roadways and melt-water leaves the land thick with mud.  While women wash clothes in the river, fishermen repaint their boats after the ravages of winter.  Spring floods engulf whole neighbourhoods and the residents have to take to boats of all descriptions to get around.  

People begin to take to the streets, couples out walking.  Windows are unsealed and children start to play again outside. Sunshine sees ice cream sellers out and marching bands.  Workers repair the roads and railways, houses are built from newly made bricks and a sports stadium is under construction.  A factory builds agricultural machinery which is then shipped out by rail.  

In nature, shoots begin to appear on the trees and wildlife returns.  Birds are hatching out their eggs. Flowers bloom and couples happily promenade in the streets. Children watch animals in the zoo.  Preparations are then seen under-way for a religious festival, possibly Easter., and also a political rally.  An outdoor religious service is under way which then turns into a picnic.  Athletes assemble in a sports stadium, cycling, playing football and athletics, much to the crowd’s enjoyment, but then interspersed with scenes of drunkenness and fighting on the streets. The film concludes with joyous dance scenes and an accordion-playing trick cyclist !

Born in September 1897 in Bialystok in what is now Poland but was then part of the Russian Empire, Mikhail Kaufman and his elder brother David fled east in 1914 to avoid the encroaching world war (a younger brother, Boris, fled to France).  After the 1917 revolution and throughout the subsequent civil war David Kaufman, now renamed Dziga Vertov, worked in the production of Bolshevik newsreels and propaganda films.  Mikhail, after service in the Red Army, joined him in 1922.  At this time Vertov was seen as the more aesthetically innovative of the two brothers when it came to film making, while Mikhail was more focused on the technical side, developing increasingly capable cameras and new filming techniques, although he was able to co-direct a film of his own, Moscow (1926).

In 1927, in response to growing political dogma in Russia opposed to more avant-garde and experimental techniques in the arts, Mikhail and Dziga joined other Moscow based artists in relocating to the Ukraine.  Here, under the patronage of Mykola Skrypnyk, the Commissioner of Education of the People’s Commissariat of the Ukrainian SSR, and working in the newly established All-Ukrainian Photo and Cinema Administration (VUFKU) they were able to more freely pursue their cinematic endeavours. In 1929 they jointly produced (along with film editor Elizaveta Svilova) what would widely come to be known as Vertov’s masterpiece, Man With A Movie Camera. Yet it is in fact Mikhail Kaufman who is literally ‘the man with the movie camera’ of the film, climbing up precipitous chimney stacks, hanging from trains or dangling from bridges in order to to catch that perfect shot

But soon after, artistic differences in their approach to film-making would see the two Kaufman brothers going their own separate ways, never to work together again. Mikhail objected to the direction and editing of Man With A Movie Camera which he saw as leaving the film as chaotic and meaningless, overly focused upon capturing images of the mechanical and industrial world.  Mikhail’s first project following this split, In Spring (1929), reflected his own ideas, focusing more on the natural and human world while keeping to a more structured and thought-out film structure.  The film received mixed reviews on its release. French critic Georges Sadoul declared it “ the best film of 1929”, but others saw it as little more than another popular science documentary and it had little commercial success.

And by the end of 1929, the Ukraine’s relative autonomy both politically and artistically from Moscow was coming to an end.  The VUFKU was abolished and its successor, Ukrainfilm, was made directly subordinate to Soyuzkino in Moscow, to where Kaufman eventually returned.  He made a number of further documentaries, including the recently rediscovered and now well regarded An Unprecedented Campaign (1931) but his work won little regard at the time.  

Yet with In Spring Kaufman produced a film of enormous technical skill and exquisite artistry.  In the early scenes of snowstorms, melting ice and flooding he creates images reminiscent of Rain (Dir Mannus Franken/Joris Ivens, Neth, 1929, right) with their beautiful, almost abstract patterns. But the sheer scale of these weather scenes is then brought down to a human level with the shots of children paddling about in washing tubs or mothers canoeing along with babies at their feet. Although there are scenes of mechanisation and industry, the main focus is on the workers themselves, making and using bricks or repairing the roads and railways. And shots of the newly manufactured tractors have an eerie, almost Terminator (Dir. James Cameron, 1984) feel to them, with the machines seemingly coming to life. But then, as they are being shipped out by train comes another astonishing Kaufman shot, this time from under the wheels of the train as it races along.

 Although Kaufman is prepared to let his camera be seen in reflection, we don’t see endless shots of the cameraman at work or the editing process as we do in Man With A Movie Camera.  This is much more  a film telling a story rather than a film about the making of a film. With the changing season from winter to spring it is a film focused upon rebirth and renewal, not only in the natural and human world but also politically.  Although the propaganda was subtle it may have been more effective for all that. Here was a new world being built, man and his industry conquering nature, the people here are all healthy, their faces all smiles.  Although, interestingly, there was one short scene of drunkenness and violence, perhaps to underline that this was still a political work in progress and that some of the old ways remained. Similarly, the scenes of an outdoor religious ceremony were also interesting, seemingly shot with a concealed camera with the participants unaware they were being filmed.  Was this another attempt to highlight ‘the bad old ways’ (particularly the priest accepting money), contrasted with the modern ‘religions’ of Party meetings and parades or mass sport?

In a film of beautiful lyricism the only scenes that jar now to a modern audience were those of the archaic zoo, with wild animals dementedly pacing back and forth or gnawing on the bars of their cages. Other than that, In Spring was just a delight and it certainly challenges the notion that all credit for Man With A Movie Camera was down to Vertov.  Looking back now at that film, it is clear that as much of the credit for its revolutionary character and appearance must go to Mikhail Kaufman as to Vertov.   Although much less well known than Vertov’s film, In Spring   stands as an impressive testamant to Kaufman’s skills both as cinematographer and director.

Also deserving of great praise was the modern electronic score from contemporary Ukrainian composer Oleksandr Kokhanovsky.  This blended remarkably well with the visuals and beautifully complemented the rhythm of the film.  The only down side was that, at a mere 54 minutes, the film was over all too soon.

The screening was followed by a fascinating discussion between Ian Christie, Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck, and Stanislav Menzelevskyi , Head of the Research and Programming Department, Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center  on the film itself, the work of Kaufman and his brothers and the still under appreciated position of Ukrainian silent film within the overall history of Soviet silent cinema.  

NB  In Spring is available on DVD direct from the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center