We are at the mercy of nature. Given the advent of global climate change, it’s no surprise that this has become a prevalent theme in today’s cinema. The most interesting nonfiction films about humanity’s fight with the environment have been the most visceral, like Peter Mettler’s Petropolis and Jennifer Baichwal’s Watermark. In these, and their other films that don’t address climate change directly (Act of God, Picture of Light and others), Mother Nature looms menacingly over humanity. There is a beauty in this threat of destruction, a chilling but awesome presence. And this particular mode of seeing our relationship with the earth is much older than any scientific discovery of a man-made climate change. It is as ancient as the Great Flood.
So, in light of climate change, Godzilla, Noah, Mettler, Baichwal and the ongoing Cannes Film Festival, let’s turn back to one of the best nonfiction representations of natural disaster ever made. In 1947, Jerzy Bossak’s The Flood (aka Storm in Poland or The Disaster of Floods) won a Grand Prix at Cannes, the first short film to be given such an honor alone. That this early award was given to a documentary speaks a great deal about how the festival used to treat nonfiction and in particular how programmers back in the 1940s considered documentaries to be art.
It is a wordless chronicle of natural disaster, the flooding of the Vistula river in the spring of 1947. The Vistula is the longest and largest river in Poland, and this particular overflowing caused major devastation and displacement of people. Bossak was there, filming the flood as it progressed and then its aftermath. Aided by a thrilling musical score, the film begins with the melting of icicles from trees and roofs, the water finding its way to the river. The Vistula swells into a monstrous torrent, hurtling large blocks of ice downstream towards bridges and eventually the homes nearby. Much of the film is filled with images of devastation, both during and after the flood. He concludes with the solidarity of the people who have lost their homes, sharing food and preparing to return home and rebuild their lives. Its structure, simple but riveting, feels almost like a musical tone poem in the spirit of Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, featured earlier that decade in Walt Disney’s Fantasia.
It’s also something of a historical anomaly. The advent of World War II essentially destroyed the Polish film industry. Filmmakers working after 1945 were starting from nothing. Yet by 1950 the Soviet Union had fully exerted its power over the nation and the Communist doctrine of Socialist Realism had become the enforced dominant form of Polish art. The Flood sits between these two developments, a pioneering documentary that does bend to buttress a political ideology. Bossak and his colleagues would have to survive the darkest days of Stalinism before any freedom returned to the industry, almost a full decade after the filming of this documentary.
As such, The Flood is something of a forgotten masterpiece. Its victory at Cannes signaled the arrival of the Polish documentary well before such a genre was given the space to grow. The aerial shots of the flooding, with the bars of the biplane dominating the shot, are evidence of ingenuity in spite of the technological limitations of war-stricken Eastern Europe. An early sequence in which a bridge collapses is breathtaking. Men above try to break up the biggest blocks of ice with dynamite, but it is to no avail. The destruction is horrific but riveting, like a horror remake of a Joris Ivens film. The camera’s presence is felt constantly but is different in each shot. Sometimes it feels like Mother Nature herself looking down. Later, during the recovery effort, the physical presence of the camera on a moving boat is self-evident and the filmmakers look on with the eyes of an aid worker arriving after the storm.
The constant is the musical score, a charismatic and insistent presence that evokes more than anything else the compositions that accompanied Disney’s most bombastic Silly Symphonies. It’s hard not to think of The Old Mill and its rainstorm, for example. The frenetic strings rush like the water, the bombastic brass occasionally interrupting as if to remind the audience of the resilience of the human spirit. Even though it was not granted the opportunity, Bossak’s film feels enormously influential as one of the best, earliest examples of nonfiction cinema taking on the fraught, sometimes turbulent relationship between humanity and nature. As such, both its reputation and that of Polish documentary cinema, in general, are due for a moment in the sun.