La Marche des Machines / Les Nuits Eléctriques / Montparnasse

Born out of the Czech and French avant-garde movements of the ’20s, Eugène Deslaw’s silent documentaries all share a certain meditative drift to their montage, at once emphasizing strong and abstract rhythms in photography that make for almost hypnotically smooth and fascinating transitions. His second film, La Marche des Machines (March of the Machines), suggests a Futurist-influenced appreciation of the kinetic perfection inherent in mechanical automation. The film also allows space for static shots that break patterns of movement and begin to suggest their own through composition. Les Nuits Eléctriques (Electric Nights) is a trancelike study of city lighting in Paris, London, Berlin and Prague by night, concentrating on luminous signage. Having said “I think the modern night…is as photogenic if not more than a beautiful woman’s face,” Deslaw formed this piece with the same romance and mystique that his words suggest. Now on to Montparnasse, which captures the hilly, starving-artist district of Paris. This work distinguishes itself from the former two in that people and animals become primary focuses, inspiring the camera to take on more of a shaky, personal quality to complement the chaotic movement of the subjects. A master’s eye is clearly at work, marked by certain flat perspectives and a use of natural lighting, both of which are reminiscent of the photography of Paul Strand. Deslaw also utilizes long telephoto detail shots of things like street signs and ponds, which bear a resemblance to contemporary Joris Ivens. Deslaw retains the same patient pacing in this work as seen previously, allowing for the anarchy of movement to be disrupted and reconsidered based on the flow of rhythm and shape.

Cinephile Interest:
Born Ieven Slavchenko in Ukraine, Deslaw immigrated to Czechoslovakia and, soon after, settled in Paris (resultant of the mass dispersion that came after the defeat of the Ukrainian National Republic in the early 1920s.) In spite of being little known, he worked with big-name greats, namely: Abel Gance on the epic Napoléon; and Boris Kaufman (younger brother of Dziga Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman) on La Marche Des Machines. The latter is hardly surprising considering the emphasis and celebratory tone that the Kaufmans brought to machinery. It should be noted that Deslaw’s studies of similar Futurist subjects do not contain the sweeping and grandiose imagery characteristic of Mikhail Kaufman and Dziga Vertov’s collaborations, like the famed Man with a Movie Camera. Alternatively, Deslaw seeks to depict an alternate reality of distortion and breakdown of geometrics, which brought him to work with surrealist Luis Buñuel on Montparnasse, as well as the poetic realist Marcel Carné. It is this trichotomy of expressionism, decomposition, and Futurism that truly makes Deslaw stand singularly in cinema history, despite fading following the arrival of sound.

— Nehemiah Stark

Watch ‘March of the Machines’ and ‘Montparnasse’ on UbuWeb, and ‘Electric Nights’ on YouTube

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