Poetic Mode

The poetic mode was introduced into documentaries in the 1920’s as a “reaction against both the content and the rapidly crystallizing grammar of the early fiction film”. As Nichols stated, the poetic mode “moves away from the ‘objective’ reality of a given situation or people, to grasp at an “inner truth” that can only be grasped by poetical manipulation”. In other words, the audience are shown an abstract, subjective, representation of reality achieved through techniques such as emphasised visuals and a narrative organised to fit the mood of the documentarian/documentary rather than the linear, logical organisation films followed prior to this.

Leni Reifenstahl's Olympia (1938)

Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) is a classic example of how a poetic documentary emphasises visuals to encourage the audience to understand an “inner truth” of the text. The main focus of this documentary is on the Aryan athletes representing Nazi Germany at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Riefenstahl glorifies the athletic ability and aura of these athletes through emphasised low camera angles and slow motion editing. In addition to this, Riefenstahl manipulated the sound editing of the documentary so that the background music matched with the movements of the athletes; thus influencing an atmosphere of unity and power of the subjects. These obvious distortions of reality in fact had the intention to use the ‘documentary’ as a source of Nazi propaganda to fuel patriotism within Germany and therefore demonstrate how documentaries of the poetic mode present a biased, subjective reality.

Robert Flaherty’s “Man of Aran” (1938)

Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1938) also follows the poetic mode considering Flaherty filmed scenes intended to fit into his desired narrative and conclusion, rather than allowing reality to guide his direction. This is another example that collaborates with the idea that documentaries of the poetic mode “moves away from an ‘objective’ reality of a situation”, in which objectivity presents the audience with the bigger picture; a sort of omniscience – of seeing all, knowing all.
On the whole, the poetic mode doesn’t portray an accurate representation of the audience. Reality is instead represented through the subjectivity of the documentarian hence presenting the audience with a preferred method of reading. E.g. the emphasis of visuals such as the strength and physique of athletes in Olympia through clever editing influences the audience to believe the superiority of the Aryan’s.

Other examples of the Poetic Mode

  • Rain (1928) – Joris Ivans
  • Play of Light: Black, White, Grey (1930) – Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
  • Sans Soleil (1982) – Chris Marker

Take me home


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