The Poetry of Rain

Rain (1929)

On December 1929 the documentary short Rain by cameraman Joris Ivens and Mannus Franken premiered. This majestic work shows Amsterdam while it’s raining. Accompanied by a lively score from the hand of poet Lou Lichtveld, Rain starts from the moment the sky turns gray, to build up to a torrential downpour before at last the sun breaks through the clouds again. Rain is a tranquil meditationthat finds wildness persisting in the nooks and crannies of the city. The rain manages to be a beacon of autonomy in an artificial environment.

The film sits firmly within the city symphony tradition of the late 1920s, a genre that tried to present emerging city life through dazzling visuals. The classic Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) is both hypnotic and euphoric. And Man With a Movie Camera (1929) is a parade of impressive imagery showing the optimism of a young Soviet Union. In contrast, Ivens and Franken are modest. Literally down to earth, their focus is not on urban marvel but rather the city’s transformation thanks to the rain showers. Wet windows or drops falling into pools on the streets alternate with anonymous crowds finding their way with umbrellas. Rain does not need the technical wizardry for it ruminates instead.

According to naturalist Henry David Thoreau life consisted of wildness. In his 1862 ode to the art of walking, Walking (read here), he laments how the cutting of trees deforms the landscape and thereby tames the wild spirits. Urbanisation is such a process of alienation, through its exertion of physical control of an area with mental repercussions. Man has not only domesticated animals or plants but themselves with the city as their stable. In an environment where all is administered, rain represents a last glimpse of forlorn wildness.

Rain breaks the city’s spell and lets wildness roam again. A sparsely recognisable Amsterdam fades into the background while the rain reigns. Its residents are one with this awe-inspiring force for a brief moment in time. Their commonality with the wildness they eradicated from their daily lives shines through. Accompanying the torrents of water Lichtveld’s poignant score confirms that beauty persists if one looks carefully. Yet what that beauty entails is within the eye of the beholder.

For Thoreau, walking was not a matter of getting to point A to point B. Instead, it was about delving into life’s mysteries through sauntering. Rain shows the hidden beauty easily lost track of in the hustle and bustle of the city. And stimulates the mind. It’s as if Ivens’ camera saunters. Ultimately, Rain roams through the streets and canals of Amsterdam to find magnitude within single drops of rain.

This Shorts article was published in November 2019