Eugène Deslaw, “La Marche des Machines” (1927) / Les Nuits Électriques” (1928)
The Ukrainian film-maker Eugène Deslaw made a number of fairly short experimental films in the late 1920s before his career was swept away by the advent of sound. Little seems to be known of his activities since then; he died in 1966 apparently unremembered. Two such films are “La Marche des Machines” and “Les Nuits Électriques”. The first of the two is a 5-minute documentary that might be commenting on the relentless progress of technology and how it’s acquiring a pulsing life of its own beyond human control. It’s basically a linear collage of little series of shots, each series dominated by a little theme: wheels in one series, a crossways grid in another, weaving in a third, caterpillar tracks in a fourth, conveyor belts in a fifth. Near the end the film becomes more abstract with scenes where two shots are superimposed on one another or placed side by side to suggest that a kind of convergent evolution in two different strands of technology has taken place. In the last minute of the film, carefully selected shots sequenced together suggest that some machines or their levers at least might achieve the ability to reproduce and the very last couple of shots, done almost entirely in contrasts of light and shadow, insinuate sexual intercourse.
Second film “Les Nuits Électriques” showcases a city at night through its lights and the eerie life that it takes on through electricity while its human inhabitants sleep. This is a much more abstract and beautiful film than the first and Deslaw shows considerable imagination in using mirror images of shots to set up symmetrical collages that reveal another world within the electrical world first encountered. A remarkable series of shots of a merry-go-round unveils a secret universe of floating lights that suggest fireflies buzzing about during the twilight hours. As the film progresses, it becomes more playful and starts playing tricks on viewers: about the 7th minute, shots of the moon over the sea hint at a mysterious hovering comet and in the 8th minute, shots of telephone lines and poles are cheekily posited as negatives of daytime scenes. Greater levels of abstraction with mirror imaging and film running backwards encourage a blurring between live action and experimental animation particularly in the shots that take place in a foundry. At times the film can be very hypnotic and one’s mind starts to relax and expand …
As silent films, these mini-documentaries appear to have no message but the way in which the shots are arranged, with emphasis on visual rhythms and patterns of motion, an implied narrative that an alien life-force is incipient in modern technology is strong. Clever editing, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, adds to the impression that this vitality has a speed of its own that will surpass human capacity to understand and control it. If humans appear at all, their presence is incidental rather than essential to the technology: they appear as passers-by or passive spectators. The films are at once fascinating and terrifying in the implications of their subject matter.
Deslaw’s use of film looks more sophisticated in the second film than in the first: “Les Nuits …” has a more playful, experimental approach to its subject, especially in later scenes of flying sparks of light in a foundry. At this point the viewer does not know if s/he is watching a live-action film or an animation, and perhaps doesn’t care anyway as the images – all light and dark contrasts – are highly abstract.
The films’ main value lies in their playful use of filming techniques to suggest a narrative where one didn’t exist originally.