Modernism and Latvian Cinema. The Case of Herz Frank

By Inga Pērkone

© Inga Pērkone, 2009

In the 20th century, modernism entered artistic culture as a testimony to the maturity of art, at the same time manifesting a strong opposition to the rigid classical tradition, a canon often attempting to choke all living elements of culture.

There are three features that most often characterize the modernist form: abstraction, subjectivity, reflexivity (see Kovacs 2007). The form of the work of art is abstracted from the traditional modes of representation of nature or reality, pertaining to conceptual structure or system. The conceptual systems are largely represented as subjective, as findings of an author. Reflexivity means the uncovering of the artificial nature of the artifact. Reflexivity becomes visible when the author comments on his/her own text. A commentary can be understood in the broadest sense here – for instance, Laila Pakalniņa expresses the artificial character of her films by making the protagonists of Oak (Ozols, 1997), Bus (Autobuss, 2004), Papa Gena (2001), and other films, freeze after seemingly naturally captured actions, or address the camera/audience directly, reminding them of their participation in a staged, organized process. As Kovacs argues, “[r]eflexivity creates a hole, so to speak, in the texture of the fiction through which the viewer is directly connected to the aesthetic apparatus of the fiction” (Kovacs 2007: 225).

After World War II and throughout the 1960s, when modernism was particularly topical in world cinema, the aesthetics of Latvian cinema were defined by the method of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism, of course, had its own, ideology-driven tasks, but in its stylistic pursuits it did not differ from the classicism of Western cinema: its main objective was to present fiction as reality, to absorb the spectator into the illusory reality of the screen.

To a certain extent we can talk about the emergence of a background of modernization in Soviet—and Latvian—cinema from the second half of the 1950s. Instead of the imposing, heroic style, a more intimate mode of expression was sought after: the characters and environment became more humane. Filmmakers tried to move closer to reality, and represent it through the subject.

At the beginning of the 1960s trends of modernization appeared in Latvian cinema, which, especially in documentary film, were manifested as a pursuit of reflexivity and subjectivity. At the 1977 European Documentary Cinema Symposium, film scholar Ābrams Kleckins announced that, in the 1960s, especially in the films of cinematographer and director Uldis Brauns, the reinstitution of the cinematic image on screen became apparent. It was proven that the main element of cinema is the image and its infinite possibilities (Matīsa and Redovičs 2007: 114-115).

At that time young filmmakers explored the essence and possibilities of their medium—film. They first searched in the area of visuality, just like the French cinema impressionists of the 1920s. Claims to authorship emerged, emphasizing one’s personal style and perception of the world. Kleckins said: “Every frame in Brauns’s film seems to be shouting: I was shot by Brauns! Similarly, every scene in Freimanis’ films testifies: I was seen by Freimanis.” [1] (Matīsa and Redovičs 2007: 115).

Nevertheless, it is not possible to talk about conscious and fully-fledged manifestations of modernism Latvian cinema of the 1960s. A “modernist” was almost an offensive term in the Soviet culture of the time. The authors were not allowed to, and maybe also could not depart completely from the so-called reality of life: either a reality perceived by the senses or merely an ideological fiction.

One of the most influential theoreticians of modernism, Clement Greenberg, stressed that his definition (“art as aesthetic self-criticism”) involves the fact that the prolonged quest of maintaining the aesthetic standards disseminated and strengthened the belief that art, its aesthetic experience, is a value in itself. It does not have to teach anyone, to praise, tell, or solve anything: art has to distance itself from religion, politics, and even morality. All it has to do is be good as art.

This kind of concept was absolutely incompatible with Soviet ideology as it was associated with the attempts of bourgeois art to distract the working people from current issues of life, spread bourgeois ideals, promulgate pessimism and disbelief in the powers of man, and so on, while Socialist art and Marxist-Leninist aesthetics declared that their task was to help understand the essence of life, to affect it actively and form a personality of wide-ranging knowledge and learning: the man of communism.

At the 1977 symposium Ābrams Kleckins reckoned that the main criterion in film art is its relationship with reality, which may seem logical as long as we accept the term “documentary cinema.” But what the young filmmakers did with the filmic material disclosed that art cannot be documental per se at all. Documentary cinema clearly demonstrates that “reality” is defined by an artistic concept: reality is an artistic production, subjected to the possibilities of the medium. This theory was the point of departure for director Ansis Epners’ modernist film career, but his attempts were soon stifled. As Ābrams Kleckins explains: “From the very beginning, Epners built his films as an artistic structure, his opinion was that he was free from the specific reality he shot. He created a new form out of it. […] In this way, it was as if he destroyed the very nature of documentary cinema itself” (Matīsa and Redovičs 2007: 120).

herz frankIn the Soviet period the directors who came closest to the aesthetics of modernism were Aivars Freimanis and Herz Frank. Further, I will explore some of the modernist features of the works of Herz Frank. As a documentary scriptwriter and later also a director, Herz Frank was forced to retain a relationship with actuality, which sometimes had a very distant connection to reality (for example, in the films Year in Review or 235 000 000); in fact, it was a simulation. Maybe therefore Frank’s and his colleagues’ essentially modern experiments were permitted and even highly esteemed. To a certain extent it was accepted that such postulates as friendship of nations, bloom and advancement of life could not be represented by realistic techniques.

In his book Ptolemy’s Map, published in 1975, Frank offers a conceptual structure, which could be called “pulsation theory” (Frank 1975: 58-59). Frank writes that film, regardless of whether it is fiction or documentary, has to have a film-pulse in order to stir the spectator. The pulse is formed by symbiosis of fact/image/fact/image. “Pulsating, the film moves up the spiral, gradually accumulating poetic energy, until the dramatics of the film lead to the climax in the end” (Frank 1975: 59).

Frank’s concept seemingly assents to the necessity of retaining a relationship with actuality, emphasizing that the image is rooted in fact. However, in the films of Frank, the fact itself often turns out to be an artificial creation, an artifact. This is the case, for instance, in the film At Noon, which in Ptolemy’s Map is described as a report from the scene of the event, but the “scene of the event”, as the book reveals, is a pure figment of the author’s artistic inception. Frank 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).

Frank also makes a reference to the French director Jean Rouch, who has said there are two modes of shooting: 1) to set up a camera and wait for something to happen; or 2) to set up a camera and wait for something we expect to happen (Frank, p. 144). In regard to the film At Noon Frank chose the second option, and in fact he has done so in the majority of his films, as the stunning moments of truth captured by his cinematographers (the famous tear of Edgars Kauliņš and the like) to a great extent are the result of the director’s masterful, pre-conceived conceptual artistic structure. Thus, probably unbeknown to the spectator, the world presented is essentially subjective and has an author.

herz frankFrank’s films also reflect on art as such. They analyze it aesthetically and critically and explore its reception. In 1968 Herz Frank made Without Legends (Bez leģendām) at the Kuibishev studios, together with Aloizs Brenčs and Aleksandr Sazhin. For its time it was an unusually scathing, and, most significantly, equivocal cross-section of Soviet mythology—a film on how the nation is given a specifically created idol, a living monument: “the hero of work,” whose heroic life is largely fiction. The structure of the film is multi-layered: the complex personality and fate of the excavator operator Boriss Kovaļenko is not merely presented to the viewers in a new version, but revealed gradually, making the spectator a participant in the open filming process.

Later on, similar discoveries (participation in the creation of a work of art and simultaneously a cross-section of a myth) are exhibited by Herz Frank’s film Awakening (Atmoda, 1979), which documents sculptor Igors Vasiļjevs hewing a monument out of a wooden log: the head of Sergei Eisenstein. Here, however, Herz Frank has declined a direct relation to the fact, choosing a generalization, a parable instead. In essence, Herz Frank goes down the road of depsychologization and dehistorization taken by Western cinema from the 1940s to the 1960s.

Roland Barthes defined modernism as a refusal of the psychological portrayal. Andras Balint Kovacs also claims it is an overall human condition rather than a separate individual and a specific environment, which is the subject of interest for modern fiction films (Kovacs, p.65). The more radical an individual’s detachment from specific time, space, and relationships, the more radical the narrative’s modernism (Kovacs 2007: 66).

It is characteristic that, in socialist countries particularly, parables and allegories were the mode of expression through which modernism sometimes managed to break through to the audience after all. Fables, fairytales, and poetry could be less specific, less “realistic,; they were allowed a higher degree of abstraction and subjectivity.

ten minutes olderTherefore it is not surprising that the film Ten Minutes Older (Vecāks par 10 minūtēm, 1978) is thoughtfully supplemented with a sub-title A Story of the Good and the Evil, thus warning of a possible indefinition beforehand. However, this indefinition evolves into abstraction, as no specific information on this “fairytale” is given. It unfolds as a mental experience or a mental journey, described by Kovacs as the favorite “genre” of modernism. The only traditional element in the film is the use of music, which aids the emotion of the image and also illustrates it.

Ten Minutes Older is a veritable classic—the ten-minute film contains a wide range of typical characteristics of modernism, discarding traditional modes of filmmaking and at the same time reflecting on the possibilities and meaning of cinema, mainly analyzing film as the art of time and space.

When talking about Frank’s film, its radical continuity is usually brought up first: the authors of the film do not use editing at all. It is a dismissal of a technique which has traditionally been considered to be the essence of cinema. Not forgetting that the “event” is created by the author’s concept and meticulous technical preparation, the authors, however, capture a real event happening in real time. Nevertheless, they reject classical art and the classical principle of film space, emphasizing the screen as a framed plane and preventing the audience from being absorbed into an illusory reality. The real time is confronted with openly artificial space, thus surprisingly becoming unusually capacious. Ten minutes become infinite. Whereas in Awakening Frank employs the opposite principle—that of a pronounced discontinuity, by compressing time and devising an artistic image by means of editing, thus not only presenting an event—the creation of a sculpture, but also giving an indirect commentary on Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage.

Ten Minutes Older does not allow us to identify with the main character, as the camera is occasionally pulled away from his face, thus reminding us of the presence of others. In classical cinema, we not only see how the character watches, but also what he is watching. However, to watch in a “modern” way is even harder than to shoot, as the audience is nevertheless inclined to identify with the main character. Almost every article on the film says it features a little boy who watches a stage performance, despite the fact that he is not the only one on the screen. Moreover, it is usually pointed out that it is a puppet show—information not present in the film, confirming the audience’s wish to “narrativize,” explain, and normalize abstraction.

The film’s uniqueness even in the modernist context lies in the consistency of its stance—essentially, we do not see an individual observing art, but art observing an individual: we are (probably) where the stage and the camera is. Here the spectator has the opportunity to identify with art as such: it is the challenging interplay of modernism, the spectator at its peak.


1] Aivars Freimanis is a Latvian documentary and feature filmmaker

Works Cited

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

Greenberg, Clement (1980), “Modern and Postmodern,” Arts 54.6 (February).

Kovacs, Andras Balint (2007), Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980, Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.

Matīsa, Kristīne and Redovičs, Agris (2007), Dokumentāls logs uz Eiropu. Eiropas dokumentālā kino simpoziji, 1977-2007, Rīga: Mansards.


Updated: 09 Jun 12