The 1930s saw significant changes in documentary production practices and purposes. During this decade, the development of sound brought both voiceover narration and talking heads. John Grierson’s visions for documentary and their purposes flourished in the United Kingdom, while propaganda flourished in other parts of the world. And just as new conventions were being established, mockumentaries were already making fun of the emerging forms.
Here are five documentaries from the 1930s to check out.
Directed by Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton, Housing Problems examines the problems facing slum-dwellers in Stepney, London, England and proposes a solution. While a voiceover delivers the “official” perspective, this documentary short also provides interviews with the slum-dwellers themselves — an innovation at the time. Located in their homes, these residents talk about general disrepairs, vermin infestation, and even children’s deaths. New housing becomes the miracle solution that brings dignity as well as new appliances and natural gas, which is fitting considering the film’s sponsorship by the British Commercial Gas Association.
Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s Night Mail follows Royal Mail delivery on a train journey from London to Glasgow. It shows mail collection, deposit, and sorting on the trip. While simple in premise, Night Mail represents a more experimental form for documentaries at time. The narration, whose rhtythms align with the train’s at times, was written by poet W.H. Auden.
Triumph of the Will
Leni Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will (Triumph Des Willens, German) shows both the height and the horror of Germany’s Nazi Party during the 1934 Nuremberg rallies. She captures the soundless fury of Hitler’s speeches and the collective’s responses. Elaborate staging, crane shots, and precise editing evoke both art in its form and fear in its application.
Like Night Mail, Pare Lorentz’s The River traipses the line between art and propaganda. The river in question is the Mighty Mississippi and people’s attempts to contain it. Poetic narration and on-location visuals, including flooding damage, evoke the power and beauty of the river. A score by Virgil Thomson adds a sense of majesty to this film.
Land Without Bread
Luis Buñuel was ahead of his time with Land without Bread (Tierra Sin Pan). The film shows the extreme poverty of the Hurdes region in Spain, people who reportedly knew nothing about making bread. The film mocks the travelogues of the time, particularly through the voiceover narration and its staging of sequences, including a goat plummeting to its death and a donkey being stung to death.
Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.