Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (Chelovek S Kinnoapparatom, USSR 1929) garnered more votes from both critics and filmmakers that any other documentary in the recent Sight & Sound poll. One film above all others is a tricky question, but few documentary films deserve this as much as the silent Soviet classic. Brian Winston provided a short but excellent commentary on the film in the pages of the S&S September issue. He refers to the dispute between Vertov – Kino-Eye – and Sergei Eisenstein – Kino-Fist. He also mentions Vertov’s criticisms of the New Economic Policy in the young Soviet Union – the introduction of limited market activity after the ravages of the Civil War.
One can also discern in the film criticisms of what is termed ‘The Theory of Productive Forces’: a tendency, found within Bolshevik theory and practice, of reducing productive forces to technology. A different view emphasises the social relations between people as productive forces, and Man With a Movie Camera constantly foregrounds just such social relations. Another important concept in relation to Vertov’s work is the distinction between propaganda and agitation, where the former in particular has a very different sense from various colloquial meanings in bourgeois culture. Lenin address this point in ‘What is to be Done’ (1902). He quotes a famous definition by Plekhanov:
A propagandist presents many ideas to one or a few persons; an agitator presents only one or a few ideas but he presents them to a mass of people. [Lenin comments that] the propagandist … dealing with the transformation of this society into a socialist society, … must present “many ideas”, so many, indeed, that they will be understood as an integral whole only by a (comparatively) few persons. The agitator, however, speaking on the same subject, will take as an illustration a fact that is most glaring and most widely known to his audience … and utilising this fact known to all, will direct his efforts to presenting a single idea to the “masses”,….
Vertov’s films tend to propaganda: they offer many ideas in a complex structure, but there are also agitational elements.
It needs to be born in mind that when we refer to the Factory of Fact we are discussing not just a single auteur [Vertov] but a film collective. Vertov clearly was the leading comrade but his work relied on the skills and co-operation of comrades. There was Elizaveta Svilova [they were married] who edited the films. There were several cameramen who worked on the films, Mikhail Kaufman, Boris Frantisson, and Ivan Beliakov. Kaufman [Vertov’s brother] is the most important and he filmed most of Vertov’s output up until 1929, when they fell out over Man With a Movie Camera. Besides these comrades there were contributing artistes like Alexandr Rodchenko and supporting critics like Akeksei Gan, a Constructivist and contributor to the journal Lef.
There is a lot more to Vertov and his comrades than the one highly praised film, and the full scope of his contribution is only revealed by viewing his other masterworks. Unfortunately, much of his other cinematic work is little known and little seen. Le Giornate del Cinema Muto offered a rare opportunity to see a substantial retrospective of his films at the 23rd Pordenone Silent Film Festival in 2004. The programme was curated by Yuri Tsivian who stressed the importance of contexualising the famous masterwork in the broader movement known as The Factory of Facts and it approach as ‘kino-eye’.
Kino-Eye is not a cinema film, not a group of film workers, not some current in art (of Left or Right), … There is the kino-eye movement, there are the articles and public speeches of kino-eye, there is the constant scientific and experimental work of kino-eye, but there are no individual films, there are no fulfilled commissions, there is the stubborn capturing and organisation of facts, and random labels on individual exercises.
Vertov to his fellow ‘kinocs’ in January 1926, quoted in the Festival Catalogue.
The Festival programme reflected this viewpoint. There was the most extensive screening of films by Vertov and his comrades ever: and screened chronologically. There was an exhibition of Vertov related materials, including posters [some by the Constructivist Rodchenko], poems and shooting plans. And there was a new publication, Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties (Edited by Tsivian with a substantial collection of materials from that decade).
The first programme of films was 15 episodes of Kino-Week (Kino-Nedelia, 1918/19). This was a ‘year-long’ week-by-week record of daily life at the time of the civil war.’ It is worth making the point that the war was fought not just against the White Army [‘loyal to the old Russia of the Tsars’] but against invading armies from the Britain, France, Japan and the USA. Kino-Week ran from May 1918 to June 1991, in total there were 43 issues. Vertov worked on the text of the films and directed some episodes. These issues are not experimental in the manner of later works, but they provide a record of important actions and events in this period. Fort example, the demonstrations when the news of the murder of Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebnecht was received.
Programme 2 was a series of short films made between 1918 and 1919. They recount important political events in the period and also show Vertov’s interest and facility in the use of ‘found footage’. The last film, 15 minute in running time, was The Red Star Literary-Instructional Agit-Steamer of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee (Literatunro-Instruktorskii Agitparokhod Vtsik ‘Karasnaia Zvezda, 1919). The agit-trains are a well-known feature of Soviet agitation and propaganda work in this period. The agit-steamers are a less familiar vehicle. At one point Vertov’s camera pans along the converted barge and we see an inscription:
Landowners and bourgeoisie kept the people in darkness – the Soviet power opens a road to knowledge.
This also forms a ‘mission statement’ for the film work that Vertov and his comrades will undertake.
Programme three offered more one and two reel news films. These included two issues of State Kino-Calendar (Goskinokalendar, 1923 and 1924). Kino-Calendar was a periodical newsreel that ran from 1923 to 1925. There were 57 issues in all. Its sub-title was “Daily and Weekly express Newsreel”. The newsreel shows notable event but also cultural events that reflect the developments in the new socialist society. So in these issues we saw acts of socialist solidarity by better resourced enterprises: in this case the new State film body Goskino supporting the ‘fire explosion school’ of the Red Army Academy. And then ‘Red pussy willow’, which was an atheist alternative to the religious celebrations for Palm Sunday [a feast just before the Christian Easter]. Some of the later editions offer examples of Vertov’s experimentation in cinematic form and technique.
We then came to a series of programmes of the most notable achievements of Vertov and his comrades, commencing with Kino-Pravda. This was more than just a newsreel; it was a platform for agitation and comment. Pravda means truth and this was also the title of the Communist party’s principal daily newspaper. Kino-Pravda ran from 1922 to 1925, 23 issues in all and Le Giornate screened all of the surviving editions [issue 12 is lost], though some only survive incomplete. Kino-Pravda 21 (Lenin Kino-Pravda. A Film Poem About Lenin, 1925) was an issue to mark the anniversary of Lenin’s death. It was re-screened at Il Giornate in 2008 alongside Jean Vigo’s A Propos de Nice (1930) with accompaniment by Michael Nyman. The latter film had cinematography by Boris Kaufman, Dizga’s other brother. Tsivian in the Catalogue notes “That the newsreel Kino-Pravda, like the newspaper Pravda, was less about news and more about statements … Dialectical editing: thesis – antithesis synthesis. Kino-Pravda not only shows – it explains!” Increasingly as the series develops one sees Vertov and his comrades experimenting with what we would term avant-garde techniques and challenging viewers to grapple with them.
Also in 1924 Vertov, with Kaufman and Svilova produced Kino-Eye [Life Off-Guard], (Kino-Glaz [Zhizn Vrasplokh]) for Goskino. This was a 70 minute feature composed of deliberately filmed footage rather than ‘found’. “The underlying strategy of catching life off-guard was to do as little pre-planing as possible …” (Festival Catalogue). This is a ‘slice of life’ of the new socialist society under construction, with the primary focus on a camp of Young Pioneers committed to the ‘new ways’, including the work of co-operatives.
Vertov and his comrades were based in Goskino – Sovkino replaced Goskino in 1925 and they became part of the documentary section Kultkino. In the same year the collective received a commission for a promotional film to precede the elections to the Mossovet (Moscow Municipal Soviet). The resulting film, Stride Soviet ( Shagai, Soviet!, 1926), was very different from the expectations of the Moscow Soviet members. The film was to precede the Election of Moscow Municipal Soviet scheduled for 1926. However, detail of the Soviet and it membership is entirely absent from the film. The major sequence, a rally in front of the Mossovet building is presented metaphorically: the building, the loudspeaker and the vehicles but not the actual people of Moscow. Tsivian suggests that this relates to a point in Vertov’s 1922 manifesto:
For his inability to control his movements WE temporarily exclude man as a subject for film. Our oath leads through a poetry of machines, from the bungling citizen to the perfect electric man.
This is typical of a Constructivist position. It seems that the representation was not appreciated by the members of the Soviet.
A Sixth Part of the World (Shestaia Chast Mira, 1926).
Vertov’s idiosyncratic stance on film continued with this commission from ‘Gostorg’, the Central State Trading Organisation. The official rational for the film was the promotion of Soviet production abroad, an aspect of the NEP. Vertov’s film is much more about the Soviet world and its relations. The film uses footage shot by a number of expeditions to different parts of the Union. Various aspects or Soviet labour are presented over and against examples from the world of Capital. Tsivian explains that Vertov aimed to present an image of ‘totalizing labor’. Kino-eye as decoding ‘truth through the means and possibilities of film-eye’. He also notes that
The ambiguity of the relationship of the USSR to the rest of the world lurks within the film’s title: is the USSR but one large if significant and distinctive part of the global economy…?”
In 1925 the 14th Congress of the Communist Party adopted what is known as ‘Socialism in One Country’. The political line was to become a key line of conflict within the USSR and in the wider International Communist Movement. The film ambiguous position on the line was possibly a factor in Vertov’s dismissal from Sovkino early in 1927.
Vertov and his comrades found a new home for several years in the Ukraine. Up until 1930 the Ukraine Socialist Republic enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy. This included VUFKU (The All-Ukrainian Photo-Cinema Directorate). One of the major studios in Odessa was headed by futurist poet Mykhail Semenko, and there was also a strong Constructivist influence. Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 32 (2013) presented a programme of films from Ukraine in this period: films that offered both distinctive avant-garde form and style but also radical political lines, frequently critical of NEP and the ideas of ‘socialism in one country’. Vertov made two important films here, including his most famous masterwork.
The Eleventh year (Odinnadtsatyi, 1928). VUFKU Kiev – i.e.
All-Ukrainian Photo-Kino Directorate. 10th anniversary of October Revolution.
This film was intended to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, the ‘eleventh’ because it actually came ou in 1928. Using mainly newsreel material Vertov with Kaufman and Svilova produced a portrait of workers, production, peasants, the Red Army and new developments like a Hydro-Electric station that have developed since the revolution. The film relies on complex montage, which is challenging by conventional film standards. The final film was criticised for this and for it use of Constructivist techniques. Vertov responded to critics at the Association of Revolutionary Filmmakers in 1928,
It is natural that more complex montage forces the viewer to experience more tension, and demands greater attention in order to be taken in. (Festival Catalogue).
This challenge for ‘advanced viewers’ was to reach its culmination in his next film.
Man With a Movie Camera (Chelovek S Kinoapparatom, 1929).
35mm full frame [other prints “have the same defect – they have been printed sound aperture, without adjusting the aspect ratio, which means that a soundtrack-wide area on the left has been lost – and with it, Mikhail Kaufman’s painstakingly achieved frame compositions].
Much in agreement with the Productionist movement in art … [a stress on the process of production rather than an end product], Man With a Movie Camera is a film about film production: it shows a movie being made. But this alone does not make Man With a Movie Camera unique. What does is that the film which Man with a Movie Camera shows being made is Man With a Movie Camera itself. It is as if Man With a Movie Camera had two, even three, identifies at once: the film that we are watching, the film which we see being made, and the film that we are shown being shown somewhere else. Tsivian in Catalogue.
He goes on to remind the reader that Vertov instructed the orchestra providing the live accompaniment that no music was to be heard during the prologue –
“Only when the conductor on the screen waves his baton and the screen musicians start playing is live music from the real [i.e. present] orchestra to join in.”
The film is a dazzling montage of images, cascading over the screen. All the cinematic techniques of the period are in evidence. Changing camera angles: tracks, pans and tilts: superimposition: slow motion: accelerated motion: and freeze frame. But these techniques and sounds are harnessed to an extremely complex structure and a mosaic of allusions. Tsivian points out how the film is organised around certain themes. These include Organised Life, Labour, Organised Leisure, and the Ideological. Visual parallels criss-cross the film, setting up both comparisons and oppositions. One example, ‘communist shoemakers’ [production for use] versus ‘shoeshine boys of capitalism’ [profiteers].
On one hand the film is about the Soviet City and Soviet life, but it is also about cinema. The opening titles state “An excerpts from the diary of a cameraman.” So we get to see the operation of filming and exhibition processes. When the film rolls we see the various activities of the cameraman who is using a hand-cranked camera common in silent cinema. We see the various techniques he uses and the incredible stunts he needs to perform. The facts, which occupied the kinoki, included the ‘facts of cinema’. These included what we would now refer to as candid camera, ‘catching life unawares’. But they also included subjects being aware of the camera ‘and getting used to it’. That is, the facts of what happened because the camera was there.
Three Songs of Lenin (Tri Pesni O Lenine, 1935 / 38). Silent version.
The film was completed in 1935 but later was re-edited by order. This included removing ‘enemies of the people’ from the original cut, which no longer survives. The basic structure if the film is three fold: “each based on folklore material that Vertov had collected. Part 1 portrays the Leader through folk songs and tales: part 2 is a requiem mourning Lenin: Part 3 (the optimistic one) asserts Lenin’s immortality through the immortality of his ideas.” (Notes in Catalogue by Aleksadr Deriabin).
Il Giornate programme also included films by other kinoki and by fellow filmmakers. Two of these are Mikhail Kaufman, one before and one after his split with Vertov.
Moscow (Moskva, 1926.
This is in some respects a ‘sister film’ to Stride Soviet. However Kaufmanns’s representation of Moscow is of a different order to Vertov’s. A critic described it as ‘clear calm analytical – exactly what many thought a good documentary should be.’ Whilst Kaufman presents the city through a form of montage there is none of the
In Spring (Vesnoi, 1929).
Also produced by VUFKU the film presents the struggles of people at this changing point in the season, in town and countryside. “Kaufman makes spring a metaphor for revolution. Portions dealing with this theme, in which religion is seen as a distortion of the symbolism of spring, were generally excised absurd.” (Eric Barnouw quoted in the Catalogue).
In the Shadow of the Machine (Im Schaten der Maschine. 1928). Directed by Albrecht Viktor Blum in Berlin.
This was a German compilation film which used footage from Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora and Vertov’s own Odinnadtsatyi. This led to a dispute about copyright infringements.
Hands – A Study (Hande-Eine Studio Berlin 1928 / 29) Directed by Albrecht Viktor Blum.
This was a short compilation film composed of close-ups of hands, without any intertitles.
Shanghai Document (Shankahaiskii Dokument, 1928). Produced by Sovkino and written and directed by Yakov Bliokh. It was reckoned to be the ‘first significant feature-length documentary which also had a tremendous resonance abroad’. It uses parallel montage to illuminate the differing worlds of the Chinese coolies and the European and Chinese elites in the city. But the filming carried on when Chang Kai-Shek initiated his massacre of the Chinese communists. Retrospective justifications led to some titles being deleted.
The Glass Eye (Stekleanyi Glaz, 1928). Produced by Mezhrabpom-Film in Moscow and written and directed by Lily Brik & Vitally Zhemchuzny. The filmmakers were a part of the circle around the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. They envisaged their film as a ‘parody of commercially –oriented feature film” in a plot written around a movie star: then the film uses found footage [included sequence by Kaufman] to argue for the documentary approach.
Opium 1929. Produced by Sovkino, directed by Vitaly Zhemchuzhny and written by Osip Brik. This rarely seen film is a ‘found footage’ work and the title refers to the famous dictum: ‘Religion is the opium of the masses.’ It draws parallels between the use of actual opium and religious practices.
To the Happy Haven (K Schastlivoi Gavani, 1930). Produced by Sovkino and directed by Vladimir Erofeev. This is a ‘reality-fidelity’ on ‘report on German life’ ‘numbed by the bourgeois paradise and social peace professed by the Social democrats”. The film counterpoints this with underlying tension and oppression. However, the rather satirical approach did not fit the new criteria for politically correct documentaries and it was ‘taken out of distribution after a few showings’.
Happily all the film were screened from 35mm prints. The projection speeds ranged from 18 fps up to 24 fps when we reached Man With a Movie Camera. And the majority featured Russian intertitles with translations provided into English and Italian. With 19 programmes through the week, the entire regular Giornate accompanists got to play a Vertov set. John Sweeney just headed the list in the number of performances, including Man With a Movie Camera: that film was previously screened in 1995 with an accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. Whilst Phil Carli accompanied the other famous title Three Songs of Lenin.
And there were four documentaries on the Factory of Facts. Dziga Vertov and His Brothers (Dziga Vertov I Ego Bratia, Russia 2002). Directed by Evgeny Tsymbal, this is a mainly biographical study of three brothers: Boris [also a cameraman] Mikhail and Denis [Dziga] Kaufman.
In the Land of Cinea Veterans: A Film Expedtion Around Dziga Vertov (Im Land der Kinoveteranen: Filmexpedition zu Dziga Vertov). Made for German Televisions in 1996 this film by Thomas Tode and Ale Muñoz is a study of Vertov combined with a ‘kino-eye’ presentation of contemporary Moscow.
Operator Kaufman (Germany 1999) is an ongoing project – we saw one specific version. It is an experimental biopic of the brothers, directed by Rasmus Hamburg, using the techniques favoured by Vertov himself.
All the Vertovs (Vse Vertov, Russia 2003) was directed by Vladimir Nepeny, who scripted Dziga and his Brother. The film again treats the three brothers but offers a rather different viewpoint of the rather different paths followed by the three brothers.
So it was a very full experience of the seminal film movement from the 1920s. Intriguingly the 2004 Giornate also included rather different fare. This was also year 8 of the ongoing Griffith Project. There was/is clearly a real chasm between the work of this Hollywood pioneer and the Soviet pioneers; though of course Soviet Montage learned from the early editing development sin Griffith’s films. Among the films screened by D. W. Griffith this year was The Birth of a Nation (1915): it is difficult to think of two more contradictory masterworks than that film and Man With a Movie Camera. We also had a programme of British films centred on the work of Anthony Asquith. This included his Cottage on Dartmoor (1928). This seemed more appropriate as Asquith, in particular with this feature, is among a number of British mainstream filmmakers who owe a debt to Soviet Montage. But I think that Asquith, more than most British directors of the period [including Alfred Hitchcock] understood what montage in the Soviet sense comprehended.