The earliest movies were what we would now call documentaries: real people going on about their business in front of a camera. Indeed, they were more "documentary" than most modern examples of the form, which usually look at some event of subculture or individual in the context of a narrative as well-defined as anything to come out of a Hollywood studio. In contrast, the one-shot miracles of the Lumière brothers or the early work of the Edison Studios are pure document: recording what happens passively, without deigning to provide meaning to the footage.

I don't say this as a slight against modern documentaries so much as I wish to propose a fundamental evolution of the art form. Rather, I'm trying to give some appropriate context to the extraordinary Dutch film 4 Elements, a documentary in the sort of "pure" sense of the word, in that the film is largely content to present images of men about their work, without going very much to yoke those images to anything like a story, or even an emotion.

Which is not to say that the film is in any way formless - on the contrary, at has a most distinct form as suggested by its title. This is a film about the interaction of modern man (and "man" it is - not a single woman appears onscreen) with the world of nature as embodied by the four classic elements. Hence there are four sequences of just over twenty minutes each, each of them a study of men laboring against natural forces: Fire is about a team of firefighters in the Siberian forest, Water about an American crab-fishing boat out of Alaska, Earth about the workers in a German coal mine and Air about the astronauts training at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and the launch of ISS Expedition 13 (and surely it is significant that each sequence represents a higher technology than the one preceding). Each sequence is preceded by a short passage in the workers' native tongue explaining how the universe was formed from that element, and each follows its subjects for what appears to be a single day.

Of course, director Jiska Rickels doesn't actually think that the inverse is made solely of these elements; the conceit is that they represent a more primal way of thinking about the physical world, and the film's subject matter, so deliberately unrefined, is made all the more raw by the framework. Looking at such an elemental theme as "man against nature" requires a simple, direct concept of the elements.

In addition to that thematic simplicity, the film has what we might call a cinematic simplicity, and that's the "pure documentary" style I was referring to before. Each of the four sequences consists of a great deal of footage of men doing their work, and at no point does anyone ever address the camera with what they're doing. In fact, weirdly for a documentary with as many long takes and medium shots as this one, there is only a single instance of someone looking directly at the camera. It is as if the camera is not there; as if they are not in a documentary. For all of the men in the film, this is just a normal day at the office, so to speak.

The effect is curiously intimate: it's not fly-on-the-wall style voyeurism, because the camera does a lot of moving and tracking and closing-in, and it's generally impossible to forget that there was a film crew, or at least a cameraman, outside of every single shot. That the men are so very unaffected by this speaks to their comfort with themselves and their jobs. We the audience are given the chance to see them without artifice, therefore, an impression heightened by what seems to these American eyes to be a really shocking amount of male nudity,* including the second shot of the whole film.

And then there is plenty of footage not of the men, but of the nature they are working against, and it is beautiful, reminiscent of Herzog or perhaps Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi films in the way that it simply lets nature occur in front of the camera for protracted moments, hypnotic in its stillness. In a lesser film, there would have been cheerleading, if not for the beautiful natural world, then for the can-do greatness of mankind, but 4 Elements isn't about that. It just shows, in perfectly nonjudgmental detail, that man and the environment have an impact on each other, both destructive and beneficial.