These notes accompany the screenings of Arne Sucksdorff’s The Great Adventure (along with a pair of short films) on July 18, 19, and 20.
And now for something completely different! Over the past several weeks we have looked at films that seem to be definitive statements of the worldview of major artists: the stasis and disappointment of family life in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story; life as show business in Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon; the mystical need for supernaturalism to survive in a hostile world in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu; the irrepressible flow of Romanticism in Max Ophuls’s The Earrings of Madame de…; the violence and menace of reality in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat; the inexorable power of guilt and complicity in Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess. Film history, however, is not always imposing or profound. There is room for fun, for genres, for animation, for documentaries.
In that latter category, perhaps the director has less dominance. He or she is theoretically bound to images of actuality, not images totally of their own creation. In reality, the history of documentary filmmaking is strewn with instances where directors fudged their commitment to pure actuality in order to meet the demands of narrative. Robert Flaherty staged much of Nanook of the North, and actually reshot the whole film when the original got lost. Cooper and Schoedsack cleverly balanced their devotion to purity with their visual sense in Grass. Much of the output of the great Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s and 1930s (Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko) was propaganda masquerading as documentary. A good deal of the mad splendor of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will was actually staged for her cameras, and at the other end of the political spectrum, Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile took liberties with the facts. Frank Capra borrowed from both the Soviets and Riefenstahl in his Why We Fight series in admirable support of World War II.
The “nature” documentary was nothing new, but the Swede Arne Sucksdorff (1917–2001) did bring a personal vision to his films unlike that of Flaherty or others. His films were lyrical, but he was willing to expose the cruelty of the natural world. This candor reflected Sucksdorff’s refusal “to rape reality.” So, although his films are intended for children as well as adults, some of the imagery may be too graphic for younger viewers. In his short films made in the 1940s and in the feature-length The Great Adventure, the director developed in his black-and-white photography a visual style that heavily influenced his slightly younger contemporary, Ingmar Bergman. Sucksdorff was a perfectionist, requiring over two years to complete The Great Adventure. Reflecting this patience, the film is full of what Pauline Kael called “dazzling compositions.” It is structured very much like a Flaherty film, with an authentic yet fictional protagonist, and is similar to the older director’s Louisiana Story (1948), which portrays a young boy in the bayou. In The Great Adventure, Sucksdorff’s son lives on a farm adjacent to the forest, where the boy can observe and participate in the struggles of various creatures to survive. There are dangers imposed both by nature and by man, but the director relies much on his own boyhood in a similar environment, which provided him with an extraordinary kinship with wild animals and an appreciation of their struggles.
In his comprehensive survey Documentary: A History of the Nonfiction Film, Erik Barnouw cites Sucksdorff as the first member of a group of documentarians he calls “Poets.” Yet Barnouw says the director “saw cruelty as an essential ingredient in the world he was portraying” and “loathed sentimental depictions of nature.” Nearly 20 years later, Sucksdorff shot brilliant but gruesome footage for Mr. Forbush and the Penguins (Cry of the Penguins), depicting avian atrocities fully worthy of our own species. Perhaps we haven’t strayed that far from the profound pessimism of Lang and Hitchcock after all.