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With the premier of Rain at the Filmliga (Film League) in Amsterdam in 1929, Joris Ivens established his reputation as a serious director. His previous film, The Bridge (1928), had been well received, particularly among followers of the avant-garde, but Rain was hailed as a cine´poem by French critics (Ivens, 1969), an ideal synthesis of thematic and formal elements communicated through moving images. As Bill Nichols suggests, Rain could be seen as

operating within the modernist ‘‘poetic mode’’ of documentary: a style that goes against the standards of continuity editing to explore associations and patterns that arise out of ‘‘temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions’’ (Nichols, 2001). Indeed at this point in his career, Ivens was closely aligned with the ideological and aesthetic aims of Amsterdam’s Film League, a group founded in 1927 to promote the screening of avant-garde films and that associated mainstream cinema with the masses, with ‘‘the commercial regime, America, kitsch’’ (Stufkens, 1999). Ivens served as the Film League’s technical advisor and agreed that films should offer an alternative to the monolithic

cinema industry that produced low entertainments and seduced the public ‘‘by adapting to the public’s bad taste’’ (Stufkens, 1999). Rain does go against many of the common practices of silent continuity editing, but does not go so far as to dispense with narrative entirely. Instead, a narrative unfolds that dramatizes the rhythms of a natural event, a single rain shower, which in turn gestures toward larger existential and aesthetic concerns. In Rain, the built urban environment is utterly transformed not only by the natural event but also, perhaps more important, by the steady gaze of the camera, which can capture those fleeting visual patterns produced by everyday movements that might be missed by the naked eye. In his autobiography, Ivens recalls that he and

an assistant, Chang Fai, shot Rain over several months in 1928, using two 35mm amateur hand cameras. In all, however, the twelve-minute film took almost two years to complete. The story, based on a scenario by Mannus Franken, is straightforward: A bright day in the city gives way to a darkening sky, wind, the first drops of a rain shower, and then a deluge that increases in

force until it finally ebbs away, the weakened daylight returning to a drenched landscape. Within this slight narrative frame, other more abstract impressions are communicated through the camera’s meditation on movements, patterns, and forms. Changing light effects are highlighted through the interplay of sun and shadow in the early scenes; reflections produced in pools, puddles, and rainslicked streets are emphasized in later scenes. The film rarely focuses on human actions, which are subordinate to those of the primary player, the rain. With the exception of an obviously staged shot of a man holding out his hand to feel for raindrops, then turning up his collar and rushing for cover, people are primarily shot from behind or overhead. Human figures, although integral to the mise-en-sce`ne, remain wholly anonymous. Still, these shots are not deployed to produce sterile, carefully composed scenes surveyed from a safe distance; instead they work with other moments in the film that align the spectator’s eye more closely with the camera’s lens. Rain conspires to make viewers experience the rainstorm firsthand. Ivens wanted audiences to feel ‘‘damp’’ after watching his ‘‘super-wet’’ images (Ivens, 1969). Many critics have noted the influence of Walter

Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, which Ivens saw when he met the director in 1927, though years later Ivens would distance himself from that film, suggesting that ‘‘a city film with human interest and content could be done without Ruttmann’s virtuosity and superficial effects’’ (Ivens, 1969). Rain’s emphasis on the formal composition of shots and on the juxtaposition of different movements, shot scales, and camera angles also suggests an affinity with the contemporary montage experiments of Sergei Eisenstein and

Dziga Vertov, whom Ivens met while working with the Film League. What sets Ivens’s film apart, however, is its sustained focus on a single event, its formal unity and coherence, and its ability to capture kinetic images that are imbued with the singularity and compositional intensity of still photographs. Patterns produced by juxtaposing movement and stasis are revealed in images such as a boat traveling under a bridge, while the steady shadow of the bridge’s iron railing cuts across the movement of the boat beneath it. The recurring motif of raindrops falling into water further suggests a dialectic of motion and stillness: a seemingly stable aesthetic form both produces, and is produced out of, the force of multiple, fragmented movements and events. One of the film’s most striking sequences begins

with a street scene framed by the arch of an umbrella, which cuts to a traveling shot of a man under an umbrella. Further images of groups of people holding umbrellas cut to raindrops falling into a puddle, and then several arresting overhead shots of a street scene appear in succession, in which groups of umbrellas form a recognizable, yet somewhat surreal, shuddering mass. The sequence is tied up when the final shot fades to black, a technique used only sparingly in the film. Although the images might appear simply to indulge in aesthetically pleasing forms, they also indirectly articulate the relationship between the modern city dweller and the anonymous masses, suggesting the constant interplay between the individual and the social organism, the whole and its innumerable parts. Rain preceded Ivens’s more openly political

phase, generally considered to have begun after 1929. He would later see his early films as failed attempts to fight bourgeois ideology through formalist revolutionary strategies, labeling his late-1920s work as fundamentally apolitical and ‘‘parochial’’ (Stufkens, 1999). But Rain was clearly a foundational film for Ivens and a defining moment in the modernist avant-garde. The subtleties of Rain’s camera work-capturing images both banal and arresting, like the street filmed through the streaming windows of a moving tram-are typical of an attention to documentary aesthetics that would persist throughout Ivens’s long career.