Uldis Brauns: 235 000 000 (1967)

reviewed by Viktorija Eksta © 2012

Group Portrait of an Empire

Towards modernist manifestation
After World War II the aesthetics of Latvian cinema were defined by the rules of Socialist Realism. To a certain extent we can talk about the emergence of modernization in Soviet (and Latvian) cinema in the second half of the 1950s. Instead of the imposing a heroic style, a more intimate mode of expression was sought. Filmmakers tried to move closer to reality and represent it through the subject, and characters and environment became more humane. At the beginning of the 1960s, trends of modernization in Latvian documentary cinema manifested a pursuit of reflexivity and subjectivity. Young documentary filmmakers started to explore the essence and possibilities of their medium first of all researching visuality. Claims to authorship emerged, emphasizing one’s personal style and perception of the world. Today films made by Ivars Seleckis, Aivars Freimanis, Ivars Kraulitis, Uldis Brauns and Herz Frank in the 1960s are known as “Riga poetic documentary cinema.” The film 235,000,000 stands out of this group by its epic scale and mixture of heroic pathos with intimate lyricism. It is an essentially modernist experiment, a simulation that retained a close relationship with actuality. Herz Frank, scriptwriter of this and other documentary films, and later also a director, writes: “When dealing with an event and wishing to portray it poetically, following its natural dramaturgy, the task of a documentary filmmaker comes close to that of a scriptwriter in a fiction film, the only difference being that in documentary cinema the roles are written not for those to be shot but for those who will shoot, namely, cinematographers” (Frank 1975: 143).

It all started in a public sauna when Uldis Brauns noticed a man with a peculiar tattoo on his chest: Mount Ararat placed between the portraits of Lenin and Stalin.[1] After graduating from the cinematography department of the Film Institute VGIK in Moscow, he got a chance to go to Mt Ararat and its sight fueled his desire to make a film about the changes of the mountain’s landscape brought about by a 24-hour light cycle. During the rest of his trip Brauns realized that Ararat gave enough inspiration for a film about the whole USSR and started to work on a script and budget plan together with Herz Frank. The State Committee for Cinema Goskino remained skeptical about the idea to assign an expensive and complicated project to young people from a small non-fiction department at Riga Film studio. At first the application was declined, but after a while Moscow changed its mind and the filmmakers got the money and a generous amount of film stock on condition that the film had to be ready for the 50th anniversary of the Revolution (Brauns, 23 Aug. 2011).

Brauns intended to use documentary observation in search for the characters so as to achieve an emotional response of a wide range of spectators. The visual material was accompanied by musical motives by Raimonds Pauls, of Time, Love and Road, replenished by noises recorded on location (industrial and military noises, festive bustle, Kremlin chimes). A crucial stylistic device was to avoid the distinctive features of Soviet non-fiction cinema of the time, such as the didactic voice-over commentary: “if something would have been said it would turn into a propaganda film” (Brauns, 23 Aug. 2011). Herz Frank wrote that events and rituals that are important for human beings (wedding, making the first steps, education, going to army etc.) were filmed throughout the Soviet Union and organized in the order of human life (Frank 1975: 148). It was a way to create a story about a single destiny and to establish a universal human character (Frank 1975: 148-9).

The film also differs from the esthetics of Soviet newsreels through its distinctive camera work. Uldis Brauns instructed the cinematographers to look for shots with high emotional content that would be comprehensible without special explanation. Thus, for instance, to film a girl who is writing a letter to her beloved soldier, assistant cameraman Mikola Gnisuk spent several days in a post office often visited by soldier’s brides, waiting for a facial expression that would transmit the mood of this situation. The collective analysis of photographs from the exhibition “Family of Man” (curated by Edward Steichen) helped cameramen and assistant directors to understand the concept of the emotional temperature. This exhibition was first shown in the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955 and traveled all over the world; it included 503 images by photographers from 68 countries. Most of the images were dedicated to universal human experiences like birth, life at different ages, love and joy. In Braun’s opinion, most of the pictures were boiling with passion and artistry, which stood in sharp contrast to the cool and impersonal approach of “factual documenting.” The exhibition catalogue was given to the members of the film group to look for events that could arouse common human emotions (like feeding an ice cream to a baby or cutting long hair) and characters that one could easily associate with people around (when filming the guard of the Grave of the Unknown Soldier it was important to capture the personal essence of this young man so that he could remind spectator of a brother, fiancé or friend) (Brauns, 23 Aug. 2011). The initial intention to create a panoramic overview of the country transformed into a group portrait. This is also evident from the metamorphosis of the film’s title: in early documents it is called The 49th Step;[2] during the conceptual stage it was renamed to USSR—The year 1966, and later to 235, 000,000 Faces before it finally became 235,000,000, a figure that refers to the Soviet population at the time.

A minor story line that depicted actual collective events (also known as Sensation line) was interwoven into the episodes of human life. It illustrated the link between people’s private life and national events. “The Story of Man is the film’s spine, Sensation is an insertion. Cameras have to look for a maximal distinction between the expression modes capturing intimate, sensual and personal issues of human life and sensational, wide-ranging and collective aspects of the state’s life.”[3] The synthesis of these narrative lines created the character of the huge and multinational Country and represented life in the USSR to the foreign spectator. 

This way of narration was more closely related to Soviet montage cinema than to its contemporaries. The notion that such ideological concepts as “friendship of nations,” “bloom and advancement of life,” “unity of the individual and state,” etc. could not be represented by completely realistic techniques stimulated official support for this project.

Working process
Four groups that consisted of cinematographers and an assistant director were sent to expeditions around the vast area of the USSR, including the distant Chukotka peninsula, Kirghizia etc. The shooting was covered by the press and readers were invited to propose places, people and events that could be filmed. Herz Frank emphasized that it was possible to coordinate the work only because of the military discipline in the organizational structure and because of the use of Vertov’s working method of simultaneous scriptwriting, shooting and editing (Frank 1975: 155). Detailed indications of what and how should be filmed, timeline, relevant phone numbers and excerpts from Vertov’s diary were used in the “Combat Manual,” a working notebook of all crew members (Frank 1975: 155). Assistant director Biruta Veldre remarked that the cameraman’s intuition for the decisive moments and his ability to react in unexpected situations were crucial, because the actual work differed from the plans drawn up in advance (Veldre, 3 Mar. 2011).

A lot of effort was put in selecting visually attractive and well situated locations and characters leaving all unsound aspects outside the frame. Assistant director Laima Žurgina remembered that their group used staging when necessary. For the episode of the Georgian wedding they had to find a young and beautiful couple who was eager to get married. The search was long and tormenting, and instead of the promised traditional wedding they found a rich elderly groom with golden teeth, a crying bride and tables placed under rubber mats. So they persuaded the parents of another couple to allow their children to get married soon, although they were supposed to wait until the bride would graduate from university (Žurgina, 16 Feb. 2011).

The editing was done by director and scriptwriter (Frank 1975: 43). The final version of the film corresponded to the initial concept and had thirteen parts. It was screened at the cinema Rossiya during the anniversary celebrations of the Revolution and at the Leipzig Film Festival; it also served as Brauns’s graduation project for the Higher Courses of Directors and Scriptwriters. After a while Goskino requested to re-edit the film. Brauns had to cut out De Gaulle’s visit to Moscow, the earth quake in Tashkent, some too naturalisticepisodes of human life (Brauns, 23 Aug. 2011). Archival documents at Riga Film Museum testify that the length of the original version was 3,495 meters. After the first re-editing it was shortened to 3,155 meters. The length stated in the official film license issued by Goskino on 13 March 1968 was 2,033 meters. Goskino was lenient to provide information about the distribution of the film and the director never got a chance to see the data for his first short films and the fiction feature Motorcycle Summer (Motociklu vasara, 1975).

Frank, Brauns, Vertov
Herz Frank wrote that Uldis Brauns introduced Vertov’s poetics to Latvian non-fiction cinema through his approach towards capturing reality. Unexpected casual details make his films alive and function to recreate facts in characters (Frank 1975: 43). Brauns has stated that back in sixties he knew about Vertov’s personality and films, but had never had a chance to see them (Brauns, 23 Aug. 2011). However, Frank’s own contribution to Vertov’s aesthetics in 235,000,000 — starting right from the concept—should not be underestimated. In published excerpts of Vertov’s diaries, texts, drawings and creative ideas (which also served as a basis for the “Combat Manual”) several approaches used in 235,000,000 can be discerned,[4] both in the concept (creating an emotionally conceivable story about a human being and the country) and scope of the project, as well as the treatment of the documentary material, the organization of shooting process, editing, soundtrack design and creation of generalized characters (Human instead of human). 235,000,000 could be considered as an interpretation of several unrealized ideas of Vertov. For many years Vertov unsuccessfully strove to obtain permission for films about real living people of his time, which could be combined into a portrait gallery of Soviet people. He also wanted to establish a permanent creative laboratory with collaborators, united by common goals and working methods.[5]

Brauns directed and filmed his first shorts. The creation of synthetic, universal characters from documentary shots is essentially his practical method. For instance, the universal character of the Worker in his dynamically narrated short “The Worker” (Strādnieks, 1963) is composed from shots of welding, melting metal, sparks, workers and objects of various industries combined with the poetic text narrated by a voice-over. The film’s musical accompaniment ranges from vigorous hymnal intonations and subtle lyricism, combined with industrial sounds (noises of machines and railways, alarm signals etc). A similar soundtrack pattern, but without the voice-over, is used in 235,000,000. However, in Brauns’s opinion the short film “Construction” (Celtne, 1962) is conceptually closer to 235,000,000, because it deals with the filmic interpretation of a huge space with almost no people—the roof of Daugavpils Synthetic Fiber Factory’s construction area that occupied 24 ha. Furthermore, there is a strong poetic character of an orchestra conductor formed from shots of a young man who manages the lifting of building materials, shots where pipes are moved in a way that they resemble organ keys and music. For Brauns, the poetic character is a God’s gift because it is impossible to compose it mechanically; one can only notice it while observing life (Brauns, 23 Aug. 2011).

235,000,000 contains objects and a geometrical mise-en-scene that has migrated from Brauns’s first shorts. For example, the first frame with the image of children sliding over the sand dunes is taken from the short film “Summer” (Leto, 1964); the second frame with a similar image comes from 235,000,000. The third and fourth frames refer to the tank deconstruction in “Worker” and to military maneuvers in 235,000,000. The following frames belong to the same films, depicting welding episodes, followed by a modern way of shooting factory chimneys with a wide-angle lens.

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Calligraphy of the camera
Brauns chose young, but experienced cinematographers who had already defined their own approach. The variety of their filming styles created a nuanced atmospheric visual interplay, which is one of the most fascinating aspects of the film. However, in Brauns’s opinion the imagery of 235,000,000 is well amalgamated and leaves the impression that it was made by one hand/eye. He said that it would not have been possible to achieve such uniformity of the visual style if the cinematographers had not practiced the poetic filming approach that had started in Latvian documentary cinema several years before. Also, the collective viewing and critical analysis of the material each time when the groups returned from expeditions helped (Brauns, 23 Aug. 2011). Let’s take a closer look at the camera writing styles of the main cinematographers of the film.

Ralfs Krumiņš’ filmography consists of more than 70 non-fiction films and cine-journals. He learned his craft on the sets: “I did not have time to go to VGIK because I needed to work” (Krūmiņš, 18 Feb. 2011). In his opinion a non-fiction cinematographer gains professional skills and ability to work in conditions of natural light through experiencing life and different filming situations. Krūmiņš assisted Brauns in his first shorts and considers him his teacher (Krūmiņš, 18 Feb. 2011). In 235,000,000 he collaborated with assistant director Biruta Veldre. She noted that Krūmiņš possesses a rare skill to start the camera only after the film subject opens up and waits as long as necessary for this to happen (Veldre, 3 Mar. 2011). Krūmiņš visualizes space and action through expressive details. For example, while shooting at the oil pumping tower in Azerbaijan a small accident happened, which gave the chance to capture unexpected anxiety (Krūmiņš, 18 Feb. 2011).

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To transmit the plasticity and rhythm of the traditional Koryak dance “Norgali” and to capture close-ups of hands, faces and eyes, Krūmiņš moved together with the dancers in different directions.

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Valdis Kroģis (1934-94) specialized in sports coverage. This craft demands fast reactions, as well as mobility with a hand-held camera, wide-angle lens and extreme point-of-view shots. The dynamic visualization of the Georgian wedding episode proves his skill. Brauns noted that Kroģis always planned everything in detail beforehand and went about with an infallible acrobatic performance on the set (Brauns, 23 Aug. 2011).

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For 235,000,000 Kroģis worked with assistant director Laima Žurgina who praised his intuition in foreseeing gestures and movement directions. A number of misunderstandings occurred because of their choleric temper. One of their fights lead to the famous episode where a man makes first steps (Laima Žurgina, 16 Feb. 2011). Here Kroģis’ camera observation is extraordinary lyrical and sensible towards details.

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Rihards Pīks (1941) entered Latvian film art in the beginning of the sixties. In 235,000,000 he worked together with Herz Frank, who wrote that in Pīks’s footage one can sense a measured and reserved northern attitude.[6] Pīks remembered that he mostly used a telefocus lens (he had to buy one from his own money) also when filming with a hand-held camera. Telefocus gave an opportunity to closely document people’s emotional manifestations, as is the case in the episode of a soldier’s departure for the army (Pīks, Mar. 2011). Pīks also did most of the graphic shots of military maneuvers and parades and proposed an innovative approach for filming the changing of the guards at the Lenin Mausoleum. In his interpretation soldiers are common people, each with his own face and mimics.

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Notes

1] Portraying Stalin together with Lenin was popular during the 1930s and 1940s to illustrate that they fought for the same cause. Mt Ararat is a symbol of eternity and power, so this tattoo connects the founders of the Soviet Union to the empire they established. Stalin’s regime was criticized at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, when Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s cult of personality and thus signaled the comparatively liberal period of the Thaw. During this period Brauns started to film and photograph Soviet reality.

2] Record of the meeting of the artistic council of Riga Film Studios issued on 22 December 1965: the application of Uldis Brauns and Herz Frank for a non-fiction film The 49th Step was approved.

3] This is rule number 6 of the “Combat Manual:” the instruction was composed by director and scriptwriter and given to all crew members. The text of this manual is published in Frank 1975: 151-54.

4] Frank, Brauns and other young people of that time had access to Vertov’s texts as published in Abramov 1962.

5] This topic is often mentioned in his diary entries between 1935 and 1950; see Vertov 1966.

6] Author’s email correspondence with Herz Frank. 

Viktorija Eksta


Works Cited

Books
Franks, Hercs (2011), Uz sliekšņa atskaties, Rīga: Mansards

Matīsa, Kristīne and Redovičs, Agris (2007), European Documentary Cinema Symposiums 1977-2007, Riga: Mansards

Abramov, N.P. (1962), Dziga Vertov, Moscow: Izdatel’stvo AN SSSR

Vertov, Dziga (1966), Stat’i. Dnevniki. Zamysly. Moscow: Iskusstvo

Frank, Gerts (1975), Karta Ptolemeia, Moscow: Iskusstvo

Author’s Interviews (unpublished)
Interview with Uldis Brauns, 23 August 2011
Interview with Biruta Veldre, 3 March 2011
Interview with Laima Žurgina, 16 February 2011
Interview with Ralfs Krūmiņš, 18 February 2011
Interview with Rihards Pīks, March 2011


235,000,000, Rīgas Kinostudija, 1967
108 minutes, black and white
Script: Herz Frank
Director: Uldis Brauns
Music: Raimonds Pauls
Film groups (“Cameras”): Herz Frank and cinematographer Rihards Pīks (Camera 1); Laima Žurgina and cinematographer Valdis Kroģis (Camera 2); Biruta Veldre and cinematographer Ralfs Krūmiņš (Camera 3); Cinematographers Uldis Brauns, Ivars Seleckis, Ruta Ubaste (Camera 4)

Uldis Brauns: 235 000 000 (1967)

reviewed by Viktorija Eksta © 2012

Updated: 14 Jun 12