This is a documentary film directed by Dziga Vertov with Elizaveta Svilova and produced by the All-Ukrainian Photo and Film Administration. This was a pioneering experiment by Vertov and his comrades in the new sound technology. It is important to set out the production and the aims of this film classic as there has been a recent tendency to overlook or downplay the central aspects of the film’s original origin and purpose. When the film was made it was in the then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Since 1991, what was known as the Donbass area became part of an independent Ukraine. And in the last few years it has been the site of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. In 1930s the Ukraine was a constituent part of the Soviet Union. The film has been billed in some performances as ‘a Ukrainian Documentary’. Yet its production and rationale was part of the Soviet project of Socialist Construction. Indeed, Vertov and his comrades had done their earlier work in Moscow for Sovkino. And their filming in the Ukraine was part of the political movement across the Soviet Union.
I saw the film in a 35mm print at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2005. The preceding year had seen a major retrospective at the Festival of the work of Vertov and his comrades in the Factory of Facts. The 2005 screening was unusual as we had a sound film at a Festival of silent film. But Enthusiasm was a transitional film. We were fortunate that the print was the version restored by Peter Kubelka in 1972 and which came from the Osterreichisches Filmmuseum. Kubelka’s restoration was primarily concerned with restoring the sound track and its relationship with moving images. However, we are now also getting screenings with live musical accompaniment to a version of this film. As will be apparent in the extracts from Vertov’s own writings below the main rationale of the film was to develop the use of sound, especially actual sound in documentary film. The production used newly developed system for sound recording by Alexander F. Shorin. So screening the film without its soundtrack is somewhat odd. Indeed, when the film was screened at the London Film Society in 1931 Vertov, who accompanied the film, “Insisted on controlling the sound projection.”
Enthusiasm is a paean to the five-year plan which was seen as the main weapon in the ongoing Socialist Construction in the Soviet Union. The Giornate Catalogue sets out the overall shape of the film:
“As a whole, the film has a tripartite or ‘three-movement” form, as Vertov himself indicated in various talks and articles from the period. Beginning with n overture (Reels 1 and 2) on the elimination of all the old detritus impeding full socialist construction (specifically religion, alcoholism, and various tsarist residues) the film moves into a long middle section (Reels 3 through 5) that passes through many of the stages of heavy industrial production, from the initial call to industrialize, through mining, smelting, and the emergence of iron itself, culminating (in Reel 6) in a final ,movement, where the products of industrialization flow back to the USSR (most notably to the countryside) and are celebrated.” (Michael Loebenstein, 2005),
The style and techniques of the film are familiar from the earlier works of the Kinocs: montage, noticeable camera angles, superimpositions, split screens, changing focal lengths….. The sound includes actual sound recorded with the images, and commentative sound, sometimes asynchronous in a form of sound montage. In Kino-Eye The writings of Dziga Vertov, edited by Annette Michelson and translated by Kevin O’Brien (Pluto press, 1984), there is a descriptive outline of the film by Vertov, Symphony of the Donbass (Enthusiasm),
” I A church with crosses, chimes, double-headed eagles, the tsar’s monogram and crown, with anathema pronounced against the Revolution, the pope, a religious crusade, drunkenness, brawling, women weeping, idlers, unconsciousness, broken heads and the moaning of the wounded with ‘God Save the Tsar,’ old women in a state of addiction, religious icons kissed, ladies in coats of Persian lamb, crawling on their knees, and other such shades of the past.
Transformed (not gradually, but in a revolutionary leap, with an explosion of crowns, crosses, icons, etc., with the shades of the past executed by the hurricane blaze of socialist factories),
into a club for factory youth with red stars, a revolutionary banner, with pioneers, Komsomols, a radio fan listening to the march,…”
Vertov’s writing also include a description of the Sound March (FROM THE FILM SYMPHONY OF THE DONBAS) which he constructed with composer Timofeev,
“I A clock is ticking.
Quietly at first. Gradually louder. Louder still. Unbearably loud (almost like the blows of a hammer). Gradually softer, to a neutral clearly audible level. Like a heart beating, only considerably stronger.
Footsteps approaching, climbing a staircase. They pass. The sound dies away. A clock is ticking. Again approaching footsteps. They come close. Stop. The clock ticks, like the beating of a heart.
The first sound of a tolling church bells. The reverberation dies out, giving way to the ticking of a clock. The thirds stroke of a church bell, gradually expanding into a feast-day carillon.
Fragmenting of the church service (the better known motifs) are commingled with the sound of the bells. The chimes, mingled with the motifs from the service, cannot maintain a solemnity for long. A note of irony appears. The solemnity is continually undercut. The religious motifs seem to dance about.
For a moment or two the sound disappear, replaced by the ticking of a clock, then once again waves of sound quickly begin to rise. A long, powerful factory whistle bursts in to meet and intercept them. After the first whistle, a second, then a third, sunder the music and the tolling. As if frightened, the sound slow down and come to a halt. Freeze. The church bell tinkles a last two times. All is quiet.”
The ” radio fan listening to the march.” is an important image. In fact, almost immediately in the finished film, we are presented with a young women [from the Komsomol] wearing earphones and listening to a radio receiver. We return to her several times in the opening of the film. This brings a note of reflexivity into the film, a strand that is so important in the earlier Man With the Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom, 1929). Another sequence, even closer to usage in Man With a Movie Camera, is when we see the conductor, standing before the microphone, raising his baton to conduct the performance of the music that we hear on the soundtrack. Both point up another important strand in that film and across the work of Vertov and his comrades, the emphasis on radio. Alongside cinema this was the great new technology that provided a medium for the revolutionary contact with the mass of working people. it was especially important in working the peasants, where even as the Soviet Union developed its transport and electric power networks, was still often in less accessible places.
But the central message of the film is the first of the Soviet Union’s five year plans. Among the many sequences we see a number of groups of workers commit themselves to achieving and even overachieving the plan. Importantly many of these are ‘shock workers’, bought in to tackle, develop and increase production. These are the ‘enthusiasts’ which gives the film one of its titles. Unlike the earlier Man With the Movie Camera this film addresses the political line fairly uncritically. In fact the whole implementation of this plan was problematic, especially in the Ukraine, where there were unforeseen consequences, resistance and often silent opposition. The film features a number of sequences of mass rallies, both by advanced workers and by masses of workers and the general populace. One can discern [read in?] a less committed participation in the latter scenes.
Looking back it is apparent that the emphasis in the plan and its successors was on technology and especially heavy industry. One criticism of the Bolshevik political line, especially in this period, is what is known as the ‘theory of productive forces’. This line varies from the main thrust in Marx’s writings where the forces of productions can be seen to include not just technology but the social relations between the people using that technology. In Enthusiasm the emphasis is on workers’ and people’s behaviour but not on the underlying social relations. The film opens with the condemnation of religion, alcoholism and ‘other capitalist detritus’. But the organisation of labour power under capital is not addressed. In the sequences where the ‘shock workers’ address or are addressed the emphasis is on ‘working harder’, including Saturday working.
Marx proposed that there were three key divisions in society: that between town and country, that between the manual and intellectual labour and between men and women. The film certainly addresses the first and to a degree the last. But there is little on the second. In fact in several sequences there is a clear division between the ordinary workers performing or preparing for manual labour and the leading elite, who seem involved in intellectual or bureaucratic labour. But these divisions are addressed in the earlier Man With the Movie Camera.
Whilst Enthusiasm enjoyed positive responses abroad it came in for much criticism at the time, both within and beyond the Soviet Union. Some Soviet criticism was political, some addressed the film’s ‘unconventional’ form and technique: at least unconventional in comparison with the developing line for ‘Socialist realism’. The film also suffered from production problems, possibly due in part to political opposition. And it seems that the surviving film was reduced to 1800 metres. Apparently Vertov had enough material for a film over 3,000 metres. Some of this was to have dealt with cultural and leisure aspects: an omission of issues which are extremely important in the political presentation in Man With a Movie Camera. Vertov’s career suffered as ‘Socialist realism’ became the main conventional film form. By 1939 he would write,
“I run my legs off, proposing one thing, then another.
And the audience watches and listens. And remains silent.
And I feel as if I’m way at the bottom.”
And Enthusiasm was forgotten, only to enjoy renewed interest in the 1960s. In 1972 the Osterreichisches Filmmuseum received a copy of the film from Gosfilmond. However, the soundtrack on the print appeared to be ‘out of sync’ with the image. It is thanks to Peter Kubelka that we can now enjoy a print in which the sound ‘actual and commentative’ is placed in correct relationship to the image.
Finally I feel impelled to comment on one line in some publicity for a screening, “Dziga Vertov’s avant-garde black and white film glorifies the Communist illusion…” In a decade in which we suffer the latest crises of capitalism this seems a bit rich. It demonstrates a lack of understanding of the context for the film and its subject. Vertov’s, and his comrades’, film work demonstrates an understanding and commitment to the liberation of the working classes. That is as relevant now as it was in 1931. The politics of the film are as important just as the soundtrack is important. One hopes that screenings of the film will allow audiences to enjoy and engage with the film in that way.