The Pulse of the Workplace

Documentary films made after the 1930s explored various methods in their quest to capture reality in all its vividness. In doing so, filmmakers relied heavily on new mobile cameras and unwieldy devices for simultaneous recording of sound. The three films presented here attempted to take the pulse of the workplace in all its complexity, from the machinery of modern industry to the humming workers who operate it.


UK / 1935 / English / B&W / 35mm / 24 min

Director: Paul Rotha
Photography: George Pocknall, Frank Bundy, Frank Goodliffe, Harry Rignold
Sound: W. Elliot
Music: Jack Beaver
Sponsors: Orient Shipping Line, Vickers-Armstrongs
Production Company: Gaumont-British Instructional
Source: BFI National Archive

A film by Paul Rotha, the author of Documentary Film (read widely in the Japanese non-fiction film industry between the 1930s and 50s). Financed by a shipbuilding company and a cruise ship company, Shipyard documents the building of a gigantic cruise ship over nine months in a small shipbuilding town in the north of England. The industrial sound of drills and lathes are combined with techniques drawn from Soviet montage to depict the spectacle of modern industry, shot through with the poignancy of working-class labor.

Train C57

(Kikansha C57)

JAPAN / 1940 / Japanese / B&W / 16mm (Original: 35mm) / 45 min

Director: Imaizumi Yoshitama
Story: Sugimoto Shigeomi
Photography: Okojima Yoshikazu
Music: Hayasaka Fumio
Production Company: Geijutsu Eiga Sha
Source: The Museum of Kyoto

A four-part film focused on the C57 Locomotive, one of the 20th century’s most popular passenger steam trains. It documents not only the spectacle of the train itself, hurtling down the rails, but the engineers who work on it: their periodic inspections of the trains in the depot; their practice at stoking the coals; the meticulous maintenance work before and after each journey. In part four, cameras affixed above and to the side of the vehicle combine with on-location recording to capture the train’s powerful essence in all its glory. Filming took place over six months as the crew commuted to engine depots in Mito and Takasaki, with local engineers at each site actively collaborating in its production.

Unknown People

(Shirarezaru hitobito)

JAPAN / 1940 / Japanese / B&W / Digital File (Original: 35mm) / 12 min

Director: Asano Tatsuo
Script: Kurihara Yuzo
Photography: Tsubouchi Eiji
Sound: Miyamori Shunzo and others
Music: Shibuya Osamu
Producer: Honda Nobesaburo
Production Company: Geijutsu Eiga Sha
Source: Nichiei Eizo (Digitalization of National Film Archive of Japan 35mm print)

In this unique short focusing on sewage workers in the heart of Tokyo, narration is foregone in favor of on-site recordings and the sound of a singing chorus. Difficult filming conditions necessitated a variety of experimental techniques, from creative use of shadows to close-ups capturing the workers’ expressions, all underscored by sound recorded to capture vividly what it was like to be there. A staunch leftist, director Asano Tatsuo’s political convictions shine through in his unflinching gaze at this band of “unknowns,” toiling heroically beneath the city streets.