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Living Dangerously

Living Dangerously: A Biography of Joris Ivens

Hans Schoots
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 443
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  • Book Info
    Living Dangerously
    Book Description:

    The Dutch film maker Joris Ivens (1898-1989) was one of the founding fathers of documentary film. The career of this eternal traveller spanned over sixty years, from his first film in the twenties to his last, finished at the age of ninety. Among Ivens's friends and collaborators were leading filmmakers and actors like Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, Chaplin, Milestone, Capra, Losey, Flaherty, Grierson, De Santis, the Taviani brothers, Signoret, Montand and Marker. In his early years Joris Ivens was a prominent figure in the international film avant-garde. From the thirties onwards he became, according to American film historian Robert Sklar, 'the most important political filmmaker of the decade, probably of the century'. His films on Soviet socialism, the Spanish Civil War, the Indonesian struggle for independence, the Vietnam-war and the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, make him a subject of controversy in any debate on the relationship between art and propaganda. Hans Schoots has based his biography on new research of Ivens complete filmwork and of unknown production-documents, personal letters and diaries, found in many archives, such as Ivens's FBI-dossier and State Archives in Moscow and former Eastern-Berlin. Artistic and political milieus in Amsterdam, Berlin, Moscow, New York, Hollywood, Paris, Havana, Hanoi and Beijing provide the background of this fascinating life-story. This title is available in the OAPEN Library -

    eISBN: 978-90-485-0359-9
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-6)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 7-10)

    I first became aware of Jaris Ivens in the late sixties after seeing his Vietnam films during protest meetings in a cellar at Tilburg University, known in those days as Karl Marx University. I met Ivens himself in 1986 when I visited him in Paris several times to interview him for the Dutch weeklyDe Groene Amsterdammer.I was fascinated by his attempts to come to terms with his life story, interwoven as it was with the history of Communism. After I sent him my article - ‘I Clung Too Long to my Utopias’ - he telephoned and said: ‘You’ve...

  4. 1 The Boss’s Son (1898-1921)
    (pp. 11-20)

    By the standards of the late nineteenth century, Friday November 18, 1898 was an unremarkable day. The newspapers described the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, from Tangiers came reports that ‘three French columns are advancing toward the Moroccan border and the scene of the uprising’, and Chinese rebels had attacked and looted a town on the upper reaches of the Yangtze. The Dreyfus case dragged on in the courts and, elsewhere in Paris, work was proceeding on the new bridge over the Seine, the first stone of which had been laid by Czar Nicholas Il of Russia.

    In The Hague,...

  5. 2 Ragmop (1921-1927)
    (pp. 21-33)

    Mass strikes, assassinations by right-wing extremists and the declaration of a state of emergency set the political stage during Joris Ivens’s first year of study in Berlin. Gennany’s defeat and the revolutionary uprising of ‘workers and soldiers’ in 1918 had plunged the city into turmoil, and the formation of the Weimar Republic had done little to restore order. Rejecting the world of the parents who had failed so miserably, young people experimented with sex and drugs. Dadaists and Expressionists set the tone in the art world. More than just an art movement, Expressionism stood for an exalted awareness of life...

  6. 3 A Time of Daily Discoveries (1927-1929)
    (pp. 34-48)

    After making WIGWAM under his father’s direction, many years passed without Joris Ivens giving any sign of a particular interest in cinema. In Berlin he was a regular patron of the motion-picture theaters, but this was just part of a broad interest in the city’s overwhelming cultural life. Presum ably, his frequent theater visits continued in Amsterdam. He definitely saw VARIETY by the Gennan filmmaker E.A. Dupont in spring 1926, because Marsmans poem ‘Salto Mortale’ was inspired by their discussion of the film.! Dutch artists, writers and architects were fascinated by the medium’s phenomenal artistic potential. It was an inexhaustible...

  7. 4 Exactly How We See It Too, Sir (1929)
    (pp. 49-58)

    In the spring of 1929, Joris Ivens moved from his attic on the Damrak to the two top floors of a canal-side house at SingeI399’ To get to his apartment, visitors had to climb a number of flights of stairs through what most resembled a musty old office building. At the top they found a living area so stark that ‘simple’ was an exaggeration. Ivens cared nothing for homemaking or furniture, and the place was empty except for a couple of beds. It looked like a tramp’s hideaway. ‘He was actually an incredibly primitive guy,’ according to his colleague Willem...

  8. 5 You hear me, Father, Mother, Charnel House! (1930-1931)
    (pp. 59-73)

    After the Berlin premiere of his film STORM OVER asia in January 1929, Soviet director Vsevolod Pudovkin traveled on to Amsterdam to give a lecture for the Filmliga. Board memberloris Ivens went to Berlin to accompany him on the last leg of his journey, and took the opportunity to attend the party that Dadaist painter and cineaste Hans Richter had organized in Pudovldn’s honor in the suburb of Grunewald. The guests included WaIter Ruttmann, Erwin Piscator, Béla Balázs and the Danish actress Asta Nielsen, one of the silent era’s greatest stars.’

    Besides being a chemical engineer and one of the...

  9. 6 The Magnetic Mountain (1932)
    (pp. 74-83)

    Anneke van der Feer, Helene van Dongen, Filmliga boardmernber L. J. Jordaan and several others gathered on a platfonn at Amsterdam’s Central Station on October 9, 1931 to see Joris Ivens off. On the way to Moscow, he made a short stopover in Berlin to attend the International Proletarian Film Conference at Willi Munzenberg’s Weltfilm. The participants included Munzenberg himself, Hans Richter, Béla Balázs, and the Italian Francesco Misiano -head of the Mezhrabpom Studio where Ivens would be working. Ivens gave a speech about the problems confronting socialist filmmakers in capitalist countries.’

    He was not the only Western filmmaker on...

  10. 7 Socialist Realism (1933)
    (pp. 84-96)

    Jods Ivens’s reputation as an avant-garde filmmaker had been established in Paris since the late twenties, but when he showed Rain, PHILIPS Radio and part of ZUIDERZEE in Studio 28 in the winter of 1933, a good month after his return from the Soviet Union, it was obvious how much he had changed. In his introduction he criticized his early work so harshly thatFilmligacorre spondent Hans Sluizer wondered why Ivens had shown these films at all. Sluizer identified most of the audience as Ivens’s political sympathizers and described the discussion that followed as a long-winded process of saying...

  11. 8 Sidetracked (1934-1936)
    (pp. 97-109)

    No other phase of Joris Ivens’s adult life has remained as obscure as the time he spent in Moscow from April 1934 to January 1936. The main reason was his own reluctance to speak about this period, and it even seemed as if he wanted to suppress his memories of it. During an interview in 1976, for example, his generally very accurate memory did not prevent him from saying: ‘lmade two trips to the Soviet Union, in 1930 and in’ 32. I then made my film about the Borinage, and in ‘35 I left for America for seven years.” Twenty-one...

  12. 9 Land of Opportunity (1936)
    (pp. 110-117)

    With a suit and a pair of shoes as his only luggage, Joris Ivens landed at New York on February 18, 1936. From Moscow he had traveled via Amsterdam and Paris to the French port of Le Havre, where he set sail for the New World on the linerlIe de France.In Amsterdam a Dutch engineer he knew from the Soviet Union had given him the two hlllldred and fifty dollars he needed to show American immigration officials to gain entry; he himself had nothing.’

    Like every European seeing New York for the first time, he was overwhelmed and...

  13. 10 The Spanish Labyrinth (1937)
    (pp. 118-134)

    The Normandy sailed into the port of Le Havre on New Year’s Eve 1936 and }oris Ivens met John Fernhout soon after in Paris. He also met with another acquaintance, Luis Bunuel, now based at the Spanish embassy on the rue de la Pepiniere as the Paris representative of the Ministry of Propaganda of the Republic. Ivens signed a contract giving Buñuel the right to check the content of the film material shot in Spain before it was sent to the United States.’ Presumably he also visited Willi Miinzenberg, who was coordinating aid to Spain for the Comintern, and OUo...

  14. 11 Chinese Poker (1938)
    (pp. 135-150)

    Joris Ivens was fond of enlivening meals by describing his culinary adventures in China. Catherine Duncan, a friend of Ivens after World War It re counts: ‘When at a dinner party the talk turns on food and the merits of different national cuisines, Joris caps all the reminiscences of exotic dishes with his account of a feast given in his honor in China. Chinese cooking, he insists, is the most refined and recherche in the world. An official dinner with its procession of forty or so dishes, its skilful blending of tastes, is designed to flatter esthetic as well as...

  15. 12 Ivens’s Interbellum (1939-1941)
    (pp. 151-162)

    In the sununer of 1939 a shock wave went through left-wing America. On the night of August 23, a nonaggression pact had been signed in Moscow by the foreign ministers of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Van Ribbentrop and Molotov. Throughout the 19305, thousands of Western artists and intellectuals had supported Conununism because they saw the USSR as a bastion against Nazism. Now newspapers featured a picture of a cheery Joseph Stalin patting Joachirn van Ribbentrop on the back. Indignation grew when it became clear that the pact was more than a diplomatic formality. In a secret protocol, the...

  16. 13 Glamour Boy of the Revolution (1941-1944)
    (pp. 163-178)

    Early in October 1941, Joris Ivens received word from Nijrnegen that his father had died on August 29-Kees Ivens had spent his last years a sick and disappointed man. In the childhood memories of his granddaughter Annabeth he was an old grump in a dark room. He stuck to his post until the end; the cause of death was bronchitis contracted at the opening of the Arnhem-Nijmegen electric railway.‘Shortly before his father’s death, Ivens had written to his parents: ‘My thoughts often dwell on you and my child hood and everything you did for me and meant to me. And...

  17. 14 War Under the Palm Trees (1944-1945)
    (pp. 179-193)

    On New Year’s Day “1944, a justice of the peace presided over a simple marriage ceremony at WHtnn Place in Los Angeles. Helen van Dongen and Joris Ivens were the happy couple, Michail Kalatozov was the witness, and one of the few guests was Andries Deinum.’ There was something strange about the marriage, because neither bride nor groom would later admit to the date. Helen van Dongen did not contradict others when they claimed in her presence that she had married Ivens in the thirties,’ and lvens refused to be drawn into statements on the subject. Filling in a form...

  18. 15 Indonesia Merdeka (1945-1946)
    (pp. 194-210)

    After a flight of more than fifty-three hours via Honolulu, Christmas Island, Canton Island and Fiji, Jads Ivens reached Brisbane, home to the main Dutch East Indian colony in Australia. ‘No Van der Plas,’ he ascertained and traveled on south to Melbourne, where he took a room in the Menzies Hotel, the former headquarters of D.S. General Douglas MacArthur. lvens developed an immediate aversion to the stuffy city of Melbourne, where women wore respectable hats, men dressed in dark suits, and everyone tried to imitate England whenever possible.

    The Dutch authorities in Australia received him enthusiastically. Two weeks after his...

  19. 16 The Uncle Behind the Iron Curtain (1947-1950)
    (pp. 211-227)

    ‘A sharp face, lightly tanned and used to the outside air. Bushy hair, dark, with touches of gray. Hardly aged. This is how Jaris Ivens appears before us at a press conference at the Schiller... He speaks thoughtfully, tentatively, with difficulty even,‘ according to one of the journalists. Another referred to Ivens’s blue and red tie, which ‘went well’ with his ‘brown American-style suit’.

    After four weeks on theOuantaand a week in London, Ivens and Michelle arrived at Amsterdam Central Station on February 22, 1947. They took a room at the Schiller on the Rembrandtplein, and for several...

  20. 17 The Blue Book (1950-1956)
    (pp. 228-249)

    Joris Ivens and Marico Michelle arrived in Paris impoverished and emaciated. Everything in Prague had been rationed, making it difficult to eat properly, and they had been paid in Eastern European currency that was worthless in France. After staying in various temporary lodgings, they found a small apartment at 14 rue Grenelle. To regain their strength they took several vacations in Raymond Leibovici’s luxurious country house in St. Tropez. A well-known Parisian surgeon with a clinic on the Buttes Chaumont, Leibovici was considered one of the ‘surgeons of the left and of the party’,’and gave them free use of his...

  21. 18 Breathing Space (1957-1960)
    (pp. 250-264)

    After Till EULENSPIEGEL it was time for Joris Ivens to slow down. Surrounded by ideological uncertainty, he awaited developments. Looking back he described it as ‘a period in which I was much less militant’, ‘and his work became much less political.

    During the production of TILL EULENSPIEGEL, he had spent more time in Paris than in Berlin, and he now made a definitive move to the French capital. His loyalty to the GDR was undiminished, but for the time being he did not make any new commitments to the DEFA. East German friends apparentlyadvised him to ‘stay here, take a...

  22. 19 Cowboy Boots and Guerrilla Cap (1960-1964)
    (pp. 265-284)

    ‘The times are violent: Cuba, Congo, Mali, I don’t want to stand on the side lines like a lyric poet. 1 want to be a part of today’s movement with my work: Joris Ivens wrote in a letter to Ewa Fiszer in the summer of 1960. He did add that the realization of his plan for a mistral film ‘about raw, violent nature’ would satisfy his needs, but it was clear that he was once again focussed on militant cinema. He was about to leave for Cuba, where he wanted to film in what he called Mayakovski-style, after Soviet poet...

  23. 20 A Socialist Scoop (1964-1968)
    (pp. 285-301)

    ‘One day in 1958 I was lying on my back in St. Tropez looking up at the clouds,’ This is how Jads Ivens described the birth of his film MISTRAL.’ It was in the middle of his apolitical film phase, and the next year he began searching for a producer. His story about a mistral film was met with skepticism almost everywhere. ‘How do you intend to make a film with an invisible main character?’ everyone asked, but Jacques Prevert had provided Ivens with the perfect comeback. ‘That’s just like a producer saying, ‘You want to make a cowboy film?...

  24. 21 Sixty-Nine in Sixty-Eight (1968-1971)
    (pp. 302-315)

    The Paris uprising of May 1968 took Ivens and the others by surprise, despite their familiarity with the conditions in which it emerged. The conservatism of the established orders in France had become apparent during the Algerian independence struggle, and Ivens sympathized with the young people who, partly through their protests against the Vietnam War, had begun to rebel against their parents’ world. The United States claimed to be fighting for Westem liberties in Asia, but was unable to guarantee the freedom of its own citizens, as evidenced by the discrimination against blacks and the struggles of the civil rights...

  25. 22 The Old Steed Gallops a Thousand Li (1971-1978)
    (pp. 316-337)

    The deaths of Ioris Ivens’s parents and his brother Wim were in the distant past, and he was far removed from family life. In Nijmegen his sister Thea regularly received postcards from Toris from all over the world, but hardly ever saw him, and he had even less contact with his youngest sister Coba. His brother Hans, a man of the world who moved in Dutch art circles, made an effort to maintain their relationship. He had provided legal assistance with his brother’s passport problem in “1950 and invariably tried to visit him when his work took him to Paris....

  26. 23 An Arduous De-Stalinization (1978-1985)
    (pp. 338-350)

    After the death of Mao Zedong and the fall of the Gang of Four, Ivens began to doubt his old certainties. For thirteen years he had been making distinctly political films, now he seriously considered a project without any political constraints, a film about Florence. There was a notable similarity to the course of events in 1956. After that year of upheaval in Eastern Europe, he had begun work on THE SEINE meets paris. That film had been followed by a new period of total revolutionary commitment; this time the break would be final.

    Ivens was no stranger to Florence....

  27. 24 Unfavorable Winds (1985-1989)
    (pp. 351-362)

    Joris Ivens was developing a new image, both for himself and for the world. He was planning a new China film, about which he said: ‘If I ever make THE ROOF OF THE WORLD, fans of ‘Ivens as militant filmmaker’ will have reason to pose themselves questions and answer them as they see fit.‘ THE ROOF OF THE WORLD would be ‘the most lyrical film of my entire career’, yes, ‘a fantastic, epic film showing both the infinity of the universe and the scope of a civilization moving from cave dwellers to socialism’. ‘His words sounded somewhat aggrieved, although he...

  28. Acknowledgements
    (pp. 363-364)
  29. Archives and Document Collections
    (pp. 365-366)
  30. People Interviewed
    (pp. 367-368)
  31. Notes
    (pp. 369-417)
  32. Bibliography
    (pp. 418-429)
  33. Filmography Joris Ivens
    (pp. 430-432)
  34. Index of Persons
    (pp. 433-443)