Workers' film in Europe

by Bert Hogenkamp
with commen
ts by Russell Campbell

from Jump Cut, no. 19, December 1978, pp.
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

After we published our special section on the Film and Photo League in JC 14, we specifically asked Bert Hogenkamp to comment on it. A Dutch film critic and historian, Hogenkamp has been doing important research on the workers' film movements in Europe and has written an excellent short essay on his findings (Pamphlet 68 of the Our History series, published by the History Group of the English Communist Party, 16 King Street, London, WC2E 8111).

Russell Campbell, who was mainly responsible for our special section, has added some comments.

JUMP CUTS 14 and 16 (which have additional information on the Film and Photo League) are available from our Berkeley office for $1.50 each ($1.75 abroad). We offer a 30% discount for orders over 10 with cash in advance.

 - The Editors


I would like to say in the first place — and I cannot help but stress this fact — that the publication of the section on Radical Cinema in the 30s: The Film and Photo League in your No. 14 has been of enormous importance. David Platt's comments (No. 16) only increase this importance, and I think the section's importance was the reason Platt wrote you. Personally, I would like to comment on two points raised by the section, using the knowledge that I have gained in researching the history of various workers film movements in Western European countries in the 20s and 30s: 

  1. What was the role of the national sections of the WIR in founding and maintaining workers' film groups in Western Europe, like the U.S. section of the WIR did with the (W)FPL?
  2. What was the influence of the U.S. (W)FPL, as an "exemplary" workers' film group, on groups and movements abroad?

Much more research is needed in order to answer the questions posed by John Hess and Chuck Kleinhans in their "The Last Word." Apart from a general political line, followed by all national Communist Parties during the period 1927/29-1934/35 but realized by each in its own way, the exact relations between the CPs and the various cultural groupings, whether they concerned literature, theatre, photography, cinema, dance, music, graphic art or painting, are very hard to establish. Not only were they different from country to country, but quite often simply the presence of one or more inspiring, organizing artist seems to have been more decisive than the political importance attached by the national CP to the grouping.

In his introductory article Russell Campbell stresses the decisive role played by the U.S. section of the WIR in establishing and maintaining the (W)FPL. He writes that the WIR was "Comintern-controlled." This seems to have been only partially true. The WIR was based in Berlin (even though it had its own film studio in Moscow: Mezhrabpom-Russ, later Mezhrabpomfilm). The very capable and media-conscious Willi Münzenberg was able to soften the sharp edges of the political changes that the CPs underwent from the mid-20s onwards. One example: the fact that it was able to identify itself with the non-organized German worker was the main reason for the success enjoyed by the illustrated weekly of the German section of the WIR, Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ). The circulation of the AIZ was by far superior to the daily of the German party, Rote Fahne. Therefore it seems to me that one gives a false sense of direction if one calls the WIR "Comintern-controlled." Luckily, in his answer to David Platt's comments in No. 16, Campbell emphasizes that the Münzenberg organization "was highly decentralized and relied a great deal on local initiative, which is perhaps why it was so successful."

Campbell writes that "by 1930 or a little later film and photo sections of the WIR were operative in Germany, England, France, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Japan and the United States." This is probably evidence provided by Münzenberg himself in his Solidarität: Zehn Jahre Internationals Arbeiterhilfe 1921-1931. Apart from Switzerland and Austria — countries that I have not yet been able to research properly but that were probably, because of their geographical position, under direct influence of the German workers' film organizations of the period — I have been able to confirm the existence of workers' film and photo groups in the countries mentioned, but many of them were not directly connected with the WIR. Now I won't go into the history of the Workers photographers. A lot of research into this area has still to be done, even though some recent German publications have given useful information and opened up the area. [1]

If we make a rough division of the history of Workers' Film Movement in the 20s and 30s, the U.S. (W)FPL enters somewhere in the third stage. From the end of 1921 to about 1926 it was the WIR (and sometimes the CP's International Labor Defense — ILD) that organized screenings of films on Soviet Russia to a workers audience — at first documentaries produced by the WIR or Mezjrabpom-Russ, later on feature films like Protazonov's HIS CALL were added. In the second stage Soviet cinema gained the attention of bourgeoisie organizations — especially the film societies. Films like POTEMKIN and MOTHER were very successful in these film societies but only because of their aesthetic innovations, not because of their political content. However, it was only because they were private societies that they could show Soviet films to their members. Political repression prevented these films from reaching the ordinary cinemas, where the workers could see them. Very exemplary was the screening in the Amsterdam artists' club "De Kring" of MOTHER (kept out of public exhibition by the Dutch censorship): the mayor of Amsterdam decided to allow the screening because the audience was only composed of harmless artists and intellectuals (and Joris Ivens was one of them!). As the membership fees and entrance prices of the bourgeoisie film societies were too much of a burden for the ordinary worker, it was therefore impossible for a worker to see a Soviet film.

The CPs in Western Europe retaliated by founding Workers' Film Societies — workers could become members by paying a very small sum of money. Like the bourgeois film societies, these workers' film societies could show films privately (i.e., without interference of the censorship) to their members. Thus Les Amis de Spartacus in Paris (1928), the VVVC in the Netherlands (1928), the Volksfilmverband in Germany (1928), the Federation of Workers Film Societies in Great Britain (1929) and the Foreningen for Filmskultur in Denmark (1930) came into existence.

What was the role of the WIR in the founding of these workers film societies? The connection of each of the workers' film societies mentioned above with its national CP is rather clear  — Paul Vaillant-Couturier, a communist MP, worked with Les Amis de Spartacus; Leo van Lakerveld and Gerard Vanter, influential members of the Dutch CP, were with the VVVC; communists like Hollering were on the board of the German Volksfilmverband; Emile Burns and some delegates of the Minority Movement were involved in the foundation of the Federation of Workers' Film Societies. However, the relationship between these workers' film societies and the WIR was much less clear. It seems that Weltfilm — an organization founded by the German section of the WIR in 1928 to take care of the noncommercial distribution of Soviet and German workers' films — helped each of these workers' film societies. In Denmark two representatives of Weltfilm were elected members of the board of the Foreningen for Filmskultur. In an interview, Ralph Bond remembers visiting Weltfilm in order to purchase films for the Federation of Workers' Film Societies. [2]

However, the relationship between the national sections of the WIR and these workers' film societies were often much looser. In Holland, for example, Leo van Lakerveld was both secretary of the VVVC and the ILD. Relationships between ILD and VVVC were therefore much closer than between WIR — the Dutch section of it was very small — and VVVC. Conclusion: what Münzenberg has claimed in his book was often not true due to the specific developments in each country.
With the production of their own newsreels by some of these workers' film societies the third stage had come. For example, the British FOWFS produced three issues of its WORKERS' TOPICAL NEWS (mainly featuring the unemployed struggles) plus two documentaries, while the Dutch VVVC edited, with the help of Joris Ivens, five issues of the VVVC-JOURNAAL (VVVC-NEWSREEL) plus two short propaganda films.

Most of the workers' film society movements had to put an end to their activities in the early 30s. The growing repression and the arrival of the sound film (with a diminution of Soviet films as a consequence) were, generally speaking, responsible for this. In this situation the example of the Japanese Prokinomovement proved very inspiring. The Japanese workers had succeeded in making films on 16mm and 9.5mm, notwithstanding the growing fascist repression. Like the early WFPL, Prokino concentrated itself mainly on producing its own films and procuring screenings of these films. It is a pity that the relationship between Prokino and the Japanese section of the WIR is still obscure. However, the evidence that I have gathered so far suggests that the kind of relationship that existed between the League and the U.S. section of the WIR was rather unique.

The U.S. League proved to be a great help and source of inspiration to movements abroad, due to its (more or less) continuous production and the wide range of its other activities. Pierre Vermeylen, former member of the Belgian section of the ILD, remembers receiving film material on the Scottsboro trial that they used in their campaign. This must have been newsreel material shot by the League (it seems highly improbable that it was Hurwitz's THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS because of the dates). The Belgian ILO not only used FPL material for its campaigns but produced a newsfilm on its own, MANIFESTATION POUR TAYENNE and provided the money for Ivens' and Storck's MISERE AU BORINAGE. Another League film, ERNST THAELMANN: FIGHTER AGAINST FASCISM, was used in Great Britain. Ivor Montagu re-edited the British version (silent) and Kino distributed it. There must have been more examples like these.

On another level, but no less important, the League proved to be an inspiring example to movements abroad: "That's what we ought to have here!" The French communist daily L'Humanité paid a lot of attention to the League. When L'Humanité announced in January 1935 the premiere of SHERIFFED, the critic concluded his article with the wish: "And when will there be a 'French Society for Workers' Films'?" And another time:

"When shall we have the chance to see in France the newsreels and films brought out by the American Film and Photo Leagues, and which are an excellent contribution to the revolutionary movement in the film?"

The French A.E.A.R. (Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists) had a film section, but it was never very successful. In no way was it comparable to the League. It is very significant that the French party gave the highly respected professional filmmaker Jean Renoir the opportunity to make one feature film, LA VIE EST A NOUS, rather than opting for a more continuous production of, for example, newsreels or newsfilms. As in literature, the cultural politics of the PCF consisted of winning over the "big shots" for the cause. So the example of the League remained fruitless in France. In Great Britain, on the other hand, a Workers' Film and Photo League was founded in November 1934. Like its U.S. namesake it dropped the "Workers" (after a discussion in December 1935). Even the name of its periodical (although only one issue of it appeared in 1937) will sound familiar: Left Film Front. Very recently the archive of the British FPL has been rediscovered. [3] A unique collection of one- and two-reel newsfilms has been saved from complete destruction. The evidence presented by the material in this archive suggests that the British League tried to copy the work of the U.S. League on a smaller scale. The relations between the British League and the communist distributor Kino deteriorated in 1935-36 and, at the end, the attitude of the League towards the British CP was very hostile. This explains why the production of the League decreased from 1937 onwards and why its work lacked any sense of direction.

There is a lot more work to be done in this area, but I hope I have added one or two new dimensions to the section on "Radical Cinema in the '30s" and to David Platt's comments.


1. Der Arbeiter-Fotograf. Dokumente und Beiträge sur Arbeiterfotografie 1926-1932 (Cologne: Prometheus Verlag, 1977); Roland Günter, Fotografie als Waffe. Geschichte der Sozialdokumentarischen Fotografie (Hamburg/West Berlin: VSA, 1977).

2. Interview published in a Dutch translation in Skrien, No. 51 (July-August 1977).

3. See Victoria Wegg-Prosser, "The Archive of the Film and Photo League," Sight and Sound (Autumn, 1977).

Russell Campbell replies

I'm grateful to Bert Hogenkamp for providing details of the European workers' film groups. My remarks about supposed WIR-linked groups in Europe were based both on Münzenberg's claims and on a statement from an "official Comintern publication" quoted in Witold S. Sworakowski,The Communist International and Its Front Organizations (Stanford: Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, 1965, p. 456):

"A special field of activity of the WIR is the production of proletarian movie pictures. For this purpose the WIR has its own movie picture organizations in the USSR, Germany, Italy, Norway, America, France, Sweden, and other countries."

Apparently either the Comintern or the Hoover Institution is not to be trusted (and the inclusion of Italy in the list certainly seems highly suspect). Thanks to Hogenkamp for setting the record straight.

Evidence of ties of film groups to the ILD is particularly interesting in view of the fact that workers' newsreels shot in New York in 1930, which I tentatively attributed to the Workers' Film and Photo League in my article, seem actually to have been shot by a group attached to the American ILD, the Labor Defender Photo Group. The WFPL, I now find, was formed early in December 1930 out of the Workers' Camera League (a photo group affiliated with the WIR), and it's probable that the Labor Defender group was also absorbed into the new body.

A few other minor notes:

HIS CALL (a 1925 Mezhrabpom production) was released by the WIR in the United States as BREAKING CHAINS. Münzenberg boasted that "this film was enormously successful throughout the world and marked a turning point in the history of the Soviet cinema," in that it was the first major Soviet film to be openly agitational.

Workers' film societies did not play the role in the U.S. that they did in Europe, probably because private society status gave no protection against police raids (The Film and Photo League was once hauled into court for showing newsreels in its headquarters).

THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS: I dated this film 1934 because that was the earliest record I found of its being exhibited in the U.S. However, the major shooting (of the Decatur trial) was done in 1933, and the film might well have been completed (and perhaps shown in Europe) earlier.

ERNST THAELMANN: FIGHTER AGAINST FASCISM: The Ivor Montagu file, entitled FREE THAELMANN, was not a re-edited version of the U.S. production but an independently made film using the same original material smuggled out of Germany. A French version was also made. See Jonathan Lewis, "Before Hindsight," Sight and Sound, Spring 1977, p. 73 — and also Lewis's film BEFORE HINDSIGHT, which contains a clip from FREE THAELMANN.