Joris Ivens' contributions to the development of documentary filmmaking are multitudinous. His editing style employed the principles of Russian montage editing, at the same time displaying an impressionistic lyricism, often focused on continuity of movement, which remains unsurpassed. His sound films often utilized a dialectical relationship between sound and image, and several times he enjoyed significant collaborations with literary artists. Although he has been faulted for using too many re-enactments in his documentaries, the ultimate force of his work overshadows such criticisms.
His formal education began in 1917 at the Rotterdam College of Economics. Military service intervened, and when he returned to college, he became active in politics and trade union movements, already showing signs of his life-long passion for political causes. Later, he studied photochemistry at the University of Charlottenburg in Berlin and gained practical experience at the Ica and Ernemann camera factories. In 1926, he returned to Amsterdam, heading the technical department of CAPI, his father's photography equipment firm.
Ivens frequented the cafes where expressionist and avant-garde artists viewed the new cinema from Germany and Russia. In September 1926, Ivens and his colleagues founded the Dutch Film League (Filmliga) to develop constructive, original film criticism. The Filmliga proved a success, and major filmmakers began to preview their films in Amsterdam.
Ivens then turned to CAPI's resources to produce his own films. Helen van Dongen, a CAPI secretary, became Ivens' closest collaborator, a role which would continue for years to come. Ivens' earliest films experimented with the laws of continuity of movement. The first to receive international praise was "De Brug/The Bridge" (1928), a masterful composition documenting the contrasts, movements and rhythms of a bridge, and the film which is also credited with inaugurating the Dutch cinema.
"Branding/Breakers" (1929), his first fictional film, was unremarkable, although it did mark the beginning of Ivens' long association with John Ferhout (also known as Ferno), who was a 14-year-old assistant on the film and eventually became Ivens' principal cameraman.
Ivens next notable work was "Regen/Rain" (1929). Structured to resemble a single downpour, the film is actually a meticulously edited assemblage of four months' worth of raw footage depicting every kind of rainfall. Heralded as "pure cinema," "Regen" demonstrated an impressionistic style new to the documentary form.
The body of work which immediately followed was remarkable. "Nieuve Gronden/New Earth" (1933) begins as a lyrical montage of movement and music, only to shift in tone, creating a biting, satirical narrative. "New Earth" is considered to be one of the greatest of all documentaries. "The Spanish Earth" (1937), his next film, was made in collaboration with Ernest Hemingway, who wrote and narrated the commentary, indicting the Fascist cruelties during the Spanish Civil War. Proceeds from the film's box office were used to purchase ambulances for the Loyalist cause.
Outstanding among his later films was "Lied der Strome/Song of the Rivers" (1954), a compilation film utilizing footage shot in 32 countries. Honored with several prizes, including the International Peace Prize of the World Peace Council, the film was eventually seen by approximately 250 million people worldwide. "La Seine a rencontre Paris/The Seine Meets Paris" (1957), counterposed with a poem by Jacques Prevert, was chosen best documentary at Cannes.
Ivens' distinguished career is so prolific that it can only be suggested in this brief space. A teacher, political activist and visual artist, as well as award-winning documentarian, he continued to remain active until his death at the age of 90.