Joris Ivens died in 1989 at age 90, just as his luminous final film, A Tale of the Wind, was making the rounds. This militant “Flying Dutchman” had seen more of the 20th century’s crucial events than any other filmmaker: the Chinese revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the wars in Vietnam and Laos. For over 60 years he had pursued the troubles of the world, working as a teacher with students and production collectives in Chile, Poland, Cuba, and Germany. The Walter Reade’s retro includes 16 key works from his 80-film oeuvre and an exhibition of rare stills.
Ivens was born in Nigmegen, the Netherlands, where his family had been involved with photography for two generations. His protean career began to take shape with two impressionistic film poems, The Bridge (1928) and Rain (1929). In 1932, he became the first foreigner invited to shoot a movie in the Soviet Union: Song of Heroes, a tribute to young workers building a blast furnace in the Urals. During the 1930s, he continued to derive powerful films from Popular Front politics. The Spanish Earth (1937), produced with funds raised by a group of American writers (Lillian Hellman, Clifford Odets, Dorothy Parker), concerns the Republican defense of the main road to Madrid. Ernest Hemingway voice-overs the moving commentary he wrote for it. A year later, with The 400 Million, Ivens called world attention to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Power and the Land (1941), a New Deal propaganda piece on rural electrification, is—against all odds—a little masterpiece. This account of the life of an Ohio family before and after the arrival of electrical power in their town, stunningly photographed by the great Floyd Crosby, turned out an indelible portrait of heartland America—Norman Rockwell without the mush.
After the Second World War, Ivens was appointed film commissioner of the Dutch East Indies, but resigned, taking a stand in support of Indonesian independence. Deprived of his Dutch passport as punishment, he spent a decade in Eastern Europe, then settled in Paris. The Seine Meets Paris (1957), a valentine to his second home, assumes the form of an exuberant barge journey up the river. While teaching in Chile, Ivens shot A Valparaiso (1963), a lively city symphony and one of his most poetic films, with a trenchantly ironic commentary by Chris Marker. Made mostly in crisp black and white, it bursts into color for a lyrical final sequence. In A Tale of the Wind (1988), co-directed with his wife, Marceline Loridan, Ivens turns the camera on his own life. This cryptic, painterly film, shot in his beloved China, takes place (according to the director) “in a no-man’s land somewhere between reality and imagination.” His cinematic testament, it bears some affinity to Jean Cocteau’s confessional last film, The Testament of Orpheus. In one extraordinary scene, Ivens becomes a passenger on a rocket to the moon. That’s one of the few places he never actually visited.