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Avoda (1936)
"Avodah" (original title)

 -  Documentary | Short | Music  -  1936 (USA)
5.7
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Ratings: 5.7/10 from 19 users  
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This documentary celebrates the pioneering labors of early Jewish settlers in Palestine, recording the technological and agricultural accomplishments of the pioneers and the idea of a socialist Jewish state.

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Title: Avoda (1936)

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This landmark documentary celebrates the pioneering labors of early Jewish settlers in Palestine. With striking visuals and a remarkable soundtrack by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, the film records the technological and agricultural accomplishments of the pioneers and extols the idea of a socialist Jewish state. Footage includes shots taken at the Jaffa port and on various kibbutzes of the time; Strasbourg-born director Lerski's expressive style creates an almost mythic image of the Jew in Palestine, toiling and triumphing amidst the sweeping desert landscape. Written by National Center for Jewish Film

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israel | jewish culture | See All (2) »


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1936 (USA)  »

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Avoda  »

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Featured in A History of Israeli Cinema (2009) See more »

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Enthusiasm: Symphonia Eretz Israel
4 June 2013 | by (Greece) – See all my reviews

I promised a while back I'd be reviewing some of the Jewish documentary films made in Palestine before WWII and statehood, they sounded so very interesting to me.

Part documentaries, part propagandistic travelogues, this was a very brief crop of films made to entice Jewish settlers back to the promised land of Israel then still under British authority, presenting (usually) the transformation of the land. More deeply cinematic to us: constructing images of collective soul (what Riefenstahl and Vertov were doing at the time on opposite ends) to foster the narrative of return that would create a world.

Here's one of these films I could actually find.

It would be interesting to know what Zionist funders thought of it. There is no other promise here but the promise of hard work. The entire film shows people working, with fleeting shots of landscape and the fruits of labor. An entire segment about drilling for water in the desert ends with failure and the dismantling of equipment and facilities. There are no broad, welcoming shots of community, but a flurry of closeup shots of hands, tools, glistening faces in the scorching heat. Smiling, glad faces of course. Most of all, it reminds of the valiant, statuesque 'heroes of labor' found staring over the conquered steppe in Soviet agitprop of the time.

To tell the truth, I expected to see much more of the multifaceted land and life itself, not as historic document but as a vibrant present moment.

So on that count I am disappointed, but we still have the cinematic symphony. The film is entirely visual, with only a few spoken words— a Jewish prayer that bolsters courage for a second drilling. You might think of it as a silent with synchronous soundtrack, in line with Soviet and German city symphonies. Anyway, in the first part we have as structural motifs tools and human bodies, stark bolting and screwing, but starting with a second drilling, this time successful, the film opens up, answering the mechanical and human effort with even more abstract visual nature.

The entire segment with water gushing from porous earth you just have to experience. We're treated to a dozen different fabrics of water, stream and cascade, reflections of sunlight, simmering as if with a pulse— such marvelous, musical water dances. And that is followed by a scene as great and texturally arresting, that of a threshing machine plowing through the wheatfields, tearing up a cloud of particles, stalks and dust.

Both these scenes have a cosmogonic power, which is the real story here; creation. Both remind of a Soviet film called Zemlya (Earth), released a few years prior where again the point is dogged perseverance that leads to a sort of spiritual breakthrough. Both are wonderful metaphors of consciousness achieving this breakthrough. In this sense, the smiling faces of worker bees attain their proper place, not as some false ideal but as realization of the joy of work, achievement and immersion in the world.

One final interesting point.

The film is made by a German Jew called Lerski, cinematographer in a number of films from the Weimar period. He was a photographer by inclination, interested in faces, textures and sculpted light, all of which are present in this film here. He had a photographic book out as early as 1931, where he captured the strong, weather-beaten faces of everyday men, bakers and beggars, elevating the lowly and commonplace to ascetic landscape of soul, some very memorable work. Memorable enough to be exhibited as part of the famous Film und Foto roadshow. Next to Potemkin (also an influence here) and Metropolis (on which Lerski worked), Lerski's photography was a strong influence on the young painter Bacon, then in Berlin.

Now among the films lensed by him was one called The Holy Mountain, one of those mystical alpinist adventures popular for a brief time in Germany. I have not seen the film, but I have seen another, evidently similar 'mountain film' by the same filmmaker, Arnold Fanck.

In both films, the protagonist is Leni Riefenstahl, at that point still an exotic dancer looking to make the transition to film. In her own films, Riefenstahl exhibited a fascination with faces and bodies, of course never bothering with the everyday man. Following the war that tarnished her reputation, she would release a couple of photobooks of African tribesmen and women, again celebrating what she saw as unspoiled, mystical virtue.

Whereas Lerski captures the transient, malleable qualities of identity and self, showing the beauty and light to exist in the transforming eye, the eye that makes waters dance or grain erupt in cosmic flares, Riefenstahl reduces and solidifies to the sensuality of appearance, extremely talented but a small mind. She shows the self to be something inherent in the rigorous expression of form, he shows it to be an illusory play of light and mirrors.

But it seems to me that she must have been exposed to Lerski's images and, visually, it influenced her own work.


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