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Silent films made in the Soviet Union, also filmmakers and theory and argument.

[The] Man With a Movie Camera/Chelovek S Kinoapparatom, USSR 1919.

Posted by keith1942 on August 25, 2015


This Soviet classic has been re-released by the BFI on a DCP: sadly there is not a 35mm print available. However, it is a good transfer and the source is high quality: also as the recommended frame rate is 24 fps there is not a problem with step-printing or running too fast. The actual print used is from the Nederlands Filmmuseum. This was screened at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2004. It is the most complete print known of the film. The original release was 1839 metres, this version is 1785 metres. It includes the chapter divisions which the author Dziga Vertov and his colleagues used in the film. The digital version now on release is a restoration by the Eye Institute and Lobster Films. Both are in the forefront of archival work on early cinema. Moreover the restoration has taken the opportunity to re-instate at least some of the missing footage. Included is the following:

“the one that shows, point blank, the moment a baby is being delivered , the most direct manifestation of Vertov’s direct cinema, which may be the reason that it has been censored from the Dutch print.” (Yuri Tsivian in the 2004 Giornate Catalogue).

Tsivian also explain the ‘provenance’ of the print. An opening title provides this information on the DCP. Dziga Vertov visited Western Europe early in the 1930s. He bought with him a print of the film from the Soviet Union and this was the print retained in the Nederlands. Apart from the importance of providing an almost complete version of the film this also provides a parallel with another important Soviet filmmaker. The most complete surviving print of Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925) is the version that Sergei Eisenstein and his colleagues bought with them to London and which was screened at the London Film Society with Edmund Meisel leading the musical accompaniment composed for the release in Germany.

Vertov and Eisenstein had rather different approaches to film and both were inclined to express their approaches with decided emphasis. In fact there were frequent and sometimes volatile disputes among the Soviet artists in this period: not surprisingly as they grappled with the form and style appropriate to the new society and new culture. Yuri Tsivian discusses the feud in the seminal study, Lines of Resistance Dziga Vertov and the Twenties (2004, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto). He suggests that there may have been a personal dimension to the arguments. That may be, but it would seem that in fact these two leading filmmakers had as much in common as they did in difference. I was struck revisiting Man with a Movie Camera by shots, especially in industrial settings, that reminded me of the films of Eisenstein, especially Strike (Stachka, 1924). Moreover, their use of montage has more in common than, say, that of Eisenstein and Pudovkin. Both Vertov and Eisenstein were concerned to record reality, but also to address the social relations involved in that reality. Their major difference was that Eisenstein tended towards dramatisation: Vertov emphasised that of the record. Eisenstein’s reflexive techniques aimed to position the audience in relation to the film: Vertov’s use of reflexivity aimed to draw the audience into the tapestry of the film itself. It struck me that just as among cinematic pioneers the Lumières are seen as proponent of actuality and Méliès of fiction, so in political cinema these two great artists can be seen as parallel proponents of two approaches, to a degree complementary.

A main title credits Dziga Vertov as “Author and Supervisor”, not as frequently printed in reviews and commentaries, ‘director’. He was the lead comrade in a movement of ‘kinocs’:

” We call ourselves kinoks as opposed to “cinematographers,” a herd of junkmen doing rather well pedalling their rags.” [Annette Michelson adds a footnote}, (“Cinema-eye men”). A neologism coined by Vertov, involving a play on the words kino (“cinema” or “film”) and oko, the latter an obsolescent and poetic word meaning “eye”.” (Kino-Eye, 1984)


A trio of kinocs were key to the filmography attributed to Vertov in the 1920s, though other comrades also contributed: the collective were also known by the title Factory of Facts. Aside from Vertov there was the cameraman Mikhail Kaufman and the editor Elizaveta Svilova: both of the latter are key to the final film. We not only see Kaufman repeatedly within the frame, but his positioning and framing with the camera contribute greatly to the visual impact. And Svilova, also seen several times in the film, produced [under Vertov’s supervision] the dazzling sequences of shots that compose the film.

Man with a Movie Camera is composed of seven reels and the Nederlands print retains the numbered divisions between parts. There is the Introduction and then the following six sections. The film opens with the Credits, importantly this stresses that this is a film


and a film


The collective’s earlier films had made extensive use of title cards. One of the radical aspects in Kino Pravda was the use of title cards, often carefully designed by fellow constructivists. In fact, as one critic, Khrisanf Khersonsky, pointed out:

“A film without intertitles, says Vertov. But this is not true [either]. There are various kinds of intertitles, and what, if not intertitles, are the shots of, for example,: a sign on a church saying ‘Workers’ Club’, an urn with the words ‘Citizen, keep things Tidy’, edited into a sequence of a girl washing, shop[ signs and so on.” [The majority of these are translated in the DCP by English subtitles]. (Lines of Resistance).

But the status in the film of a title card and of words within a frame is different. This distinction re-enforces the emphasis on the recording of reality, and avoiding the didactic commentative card. Something similar applies to the claim regarding the absence of a script. Vertov and his colleagues were criticised for not producing scripts before a production. The State financing body Goskino [which fired these filmmakers] relied on this to allocate resources. In fact, Vertov did produce ‘analyses’ beforehand: though much less detailed than a printed script. Indeed it is apparent that there is an overall structure to the film and that the relationship of parts to other parts and to the whole is very carefully worked out and calculated.

The film introduces itself in an extremely reflexive manner. We enter a film theatre, the projectionist prepares the print, the audience enters and the musicians appear. Now the film ‘proper’ begins, on the screen within a screen. This is kino-eye:

“When The Man with a Movie Camera was made, we looked upon the project in this way: … we raise different kinds of fruit, different kinds of film; why don’t we make a film on film-language, the first film without words, which does not require translation into another language …” (Kino-Eye, 1984).

We now enter the world of the cameraman, Mikhail Kaufman, but it is both the world of the cinematic collective and the larger world, the Soviet Union and its attempts to build a new society. In fact, there would have been several cameramen involved in the filming, since we frequently see the cinematographer himself in the frame. It is also a camera of record, sometimes apparent to the subjects, sometimes apparently not.

“To be able not to act [the requirement for documentary] – one will have to wait a long time until the subject is educated in such a way that he won’t pay any attention to the fact that he is being filmed. …

Following that line of thought I constructed a sort of tent, something like a telephone booth, for Man with a Movie Camera. There has to be an observation point somewhere. So I made myself up as a telephone repairman. There weren’t any special lenses, so I went out and bought a regular camera and removed the deep-focus lens. Standing of to the aside I could still get things very close up …” (Interview in Imaginary Reality, 1984).

At other times the cinematographer is emphatically in the frame. Lying by rail tracks to film an oncoming train: climbing up a tall tower to film from its top: standing in tram tracks in order to catch the approaching or retreating vehicles.


The first of six sections introduces us to the city and its people. This is the start of the day, we see silent buildings and empty streets. Gradually people rise and commence the day.

The second section shows us the city in full swing. People are active, machines move: the trams, a frequent sight, move round the city. And the urban crowds commence their activities.

The third section shows us Svilova at work, editing the film. Then we see various cultural actions: weddings, divorces, birth, death and funeral’s We also see the treatment of the victim of an accident and a fire brigade racing through the streets.

The fourth section shows labour processes in full swing. There is a contrast between cosmetic activity for women and women involved in manual labour. We see both business activity, such as a telephone switchboard, and the heavy manual labour underground in a mine.

With the fifth section formal productive labour comes to a halt. The section’s focus is on cultural and leisure activities. These include entertainments, sport and beach activities.

The final sixth section brings an overt political focus to the film. There are shots of both Lenin and Marx: and shots of the Soviet Workers’ Clubs: we see a woman shooting. Another image references the rise of the fascist threat. The key image is a collapsing Bolshoi Theatre, using superimpositions. Tsivian comments on this:

“Along with some other innocuous objects and artefacts from the Imperial era, soon after 1917 the Bolshoi was caught in a process which I venture to call “revolutionary symbolization”. In some cases – like ours – this symbolization could take the form of symbolic destruction …” (Lines of Resistance).


This final section also included references to radio, another technological and cultural form that was extremely important in the Socialist State. For the Kinocs radio was an important component for their new language: the next film produced by Vertov was Enthusiasm (Symphony of the Don Basin / Entuziazm, 1931), which used sound alongside the visual components in an extremely adventurous manner. Vertov, in an article on the film, commented,

“[My article] … speaks of Radio-eye as the destruction of the distance between people, as the capacity of workers of the entire world not only to see but simultaneously to hear one another.” [in Lines of Resistance].

But the most important component in this final section is the return to the audience we encountered in the Introduction. An increasing tempo alternates shots of the cameraman, shots by the cameraman and shots of the audience watching in the theatre. So that the film resolves itself finally with a reflexive manner which aims to involve audiences in the tapestry of the film.

The music track on the DCP is provided by The Alloy Orchestra. They provided the accompaniment at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto, though on this occasion the print screened was from the George Eastman House. The Alloy Orchestra went back to the musical notations that Dziga Vertov provided for the original screenings. These were translated for the occasion by Yuri Tsivian:

“Vertov’s handwritten notes outlining a “music scenario for The Man With a Movie Camera – five pages of guidelines mapping out what kind of music Vertov wanted to go with what sequence. These written notes were intended to help three composers employed by the Music Council of Sovkino for the cue sheets they were supposed to write for an orchestra assigned to play for the film during the opening night on April 9, 1929;

[there is Verov’s] permanent tendency to start a sequence with conventional music steadily growing into the pandemonium of noises, his desire to “freeze” music, reverse it or make it sound “slow-motion” in the same manner as films shot do …” (Griffithiana 54 , October 1995).

This is the performance that The Alloy recreate for the DCP. However, whilst I remember the use of noises, both productive and human, in the 1995 performance I think they have taken advantage of digital technology to add to these.

One of the strongest impressions from the film is the almost frenetic pace of the editing. Shot constantly follows shot. Some of these offer some sense of continuity, many suggest counterpoint and discontinuity. The influence of Kuleshov’s ideas on montage appear: as the film constructs a series of images that are actually separated by time and space: the weddings utilise film shot both in Odessa and Moscow.

The framing of Kaufman’s camera work is impressive. The film uses a range of camera shots and of editing techniques as varied as any in this period of cinema. Annette Michelson describes the film thus:

“This film, made in the transitional period immediately preceding the introduction of sound and excluding titles, joins the human life cycle with the cycles of work and leisure of a city from dawn to dusk within the spectrum of industrial production. That production includes filmmaking (itself presented as a range of productive labour processes), mining, steel production, communications, postal service, construction, hydro-electric power installation and the textile industry in a seamless organic continuum, whose integrity is continually asserted by the strategies of visual analogy and rhyme, rhythmic patterning, parallel editing, superimposition, accelerated and decelerated motion, camera movement – in short, the use of every optical device and filming strategy then available to film technology. …. ‘the activities of labour, of coming and going, of eating, drinking and clothing oneself,’ of play, are seen as depending upon the material production of ‘life itself’. (Introduction in Kino-Eye).

Whilst the film’s editing is distinctive even in Soviet cinema, there are parallels to other film works. I have mentioned the parallels with the editing of Lev Kuleshov and in industrial shots with Eisenstein’s films. In part four we see shots of a spinning machine which parallels Eisenstein’s shots of a cream separator in The General Line / Old and New (Generalnaya Linya / Staroye i Novoye, 1929). The frequent tram shots at one point reminded me of Boris Barnet’s fine The House on Trubnaya Square (Dom na Trubnoi, 1928).


The film, as was often the case with the films from the collective, provoked furious discussion. Vertov records screenings followed by discussions in the Ukraine. Tsivian in his volume provides the record of such a discussion as well as the varied responses to the film in print.

“[The Society of friends of Soviet Cinema] The discussion became extraordinarily sharp only around the middle of the evening. It was the film’s ideological aim that suffered the greatest bombardment.

“The authentic life of the country is not shown in the film,” said the Editor of the magazine Ekran. “This comes about because the predominant role in the film is played exclusively by the form, good stunts, excellent montage, and … nothing else.”

Comrade Berezovsky’s words were disputed by Comrade Gan, The film poses problems of the way of thinking man in society far more seriously than it is posed in all our feature films, with their deliberately emphatic interpretation of the world.” (Lines of Resistance).

Vertov’s films, like some of the other avant-garde art of the period, was found really challenging: now, when so many filmmakers, have followed his example, the work can be more accessible. However, the debate also reflected the contradictions of opposing political lines in Soviet art, a debate that reflected the more fundamental struggle between political lines in the party and leadership. Sadly, the radical elements lost out and were increasingly suppressed in the following decade. So that Vertov, though he made at least two more fine films, was not able to produce anything equally radical in the following years. It is worth noting that this was the final collaboration between Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman: the latter was less impressed with the overall structure and complexity of the final film,. He went on to direct documentary films himself.

If the form and style of the film is more appreciated in the contemporary world of cinema there is frequently a less intelligible response to the political and ideological line of the film. In 2013, under the title Ukraine: The Great Experiment, Il Giornate del Cinema Muto offered a programme of other radical films produced in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in the late 1920s. The Catalogue entry by Ivan Kzolenko made a reference to the work of the Kinocs in the Ukraine, commenting

“But not by chance was the totally apolitical Man with a Movie Camera different from Vertov’s other agit-films.”

I find this comment difficult to equate with the film that I have seen a number of times. As Tsivian argues in Lines of Resistance the film is the accumulation of a decade of experimentation by the Kinocs group. And it is an intensely political work, the treatment of the Bolshoi Theatre above is a single example. Tsivian also provides a longer discussion of how the film exemplifies the analysis of Karl Marx. One example is a series of shots of coal mines and aerial conductors:

“Vertov tried to connect inside the viewers’ mind, the production of coal – the economic cause – with the economic effect: the production of electricity”.

Tsivian also offers parallel examples from earlier films. He continues,

“What all three exemplify is that, early one, the ambition of Vertov’s cinema becomes not to show, but to think – that is, to disclose invisible connections between things.” (Both in Lines of Resistance).


So Man with a Movie Camera is not merely [as Comrade Berezovsky comments] an exhilarating bag of tricks and technical devices. As Comrade Gan argued it offers an ‘interpretation’ of the world. And the world in question is the world of Socialist Construction, still a relevant concept in 1929. The structure of the film offers the processes of labour and of the labourers. Included in this is the labour process of film itself. Annette Michelson points out how,

“Vertov seems to take or reinvent The German Ideology [which he would not have read] as his text, for he situated the production of film in direct and telling juxtaposition to that other particular sector, the textile industry, which has for Marx and Engels a status that is paradigmatic within the history of material production” (Introduction in Kino-Eye).

Man with a Movie Camera is a film about social relations, and that includes the underlying social relations that are not apparent to the superficial surface viewpoint [i.e. ideological]. Hence the film continuously cuts between the variety of social relations, productive, cultural and personal, in modern society. And in the final section the audience, that is the ‘workers and peasants’ of the Soviet Union, are integrated into that tapestry of relations. So the film is propaganda in the socialist sense, advanced ideas for advanced workers.

In pointing to this it must be noted that there is an unexplored space in the film: agriculture and the peasantry. This part of the socialist state had been explored in some of the earlier films of the Kinocs. But the focus in this film is entirely urban. Given that the 1929 is a key year in the introduction of collectivisation: Eisenstein’s compelling The General Line / Old and New treats the issue: this is an analysis that needed treatment, either in the film or separately.

The film does fall into the category of City Symphonies: and one comparison frequently drawn is with Ruttman’n’s Berlin: Symphony of a City(Berlin: Die Sinfonie einer Gross-stadt, 1927). However, these two films offer vastly different treatments and approaches, partly explained by Berlin being a centre of Capitalist relations whilst the Soviet cities were parts of an ongoing Socialist project. One key difference is the treatment of people. My memories of Berlin are of a series of abstract buildings and spaces: last time I viewed it I was surprised to see that there are quite a number of urban citizens in the film. Man with a Movie Camera is centrally about the people who inhabit these cities and their relations to each other and to the buildings and machinery that surround them.


The 2013 Giornate Catalogue makes one valid point:

“The fact that the film was made in Odessa and partly in Kyiv and Kharkiv is often mistakenly disregarded by researchers.”

In fact some publicity for the re-release [not the BFI’s] mistakenly referred to ‘filmed in Moscow’. Vertov and his fellow Kinocs had already filmed The Eleventh Year (Udynadsiatyi, 1928) for the All-Ukrainian Photo-Cinema Directorate. The films funded by Goskino in Moscow had increasingly been subjected to criticism, both for the working practices and the films’ treatments. As the 2013 programme demonstrated there was a radical space for film in the Ukraine at the end of the 1920s. So much of Kaufman’s work was filmed in the Ukrainian cities. However, following the continuing practice of using ‘found footage’ there is also Moscow footage, presumably from earlier films or film out-takes.

These circumstances remind us that the film was one of the great expressions of Socialist art in the 1920s: but a Socialist Art that was under attack from what is best described as reformist cultural values. Vertov was well aware that his film did not exactly fit the developing cinematic values in the Soviet Union.

“The film Man with a Movie Camera is an experimental film, and as such may not immediately be understood and may be destroyed in the days immediately following the completion of the auhtorial montage.” (Lines of Resistance).

As an experimental film it has exerted an immense influence, including on filmmakers who did not necessarily share the Kinocs’ socialist values. But those values are equally central to the quality of the film. Vertov writes, detailing material from the film, of this ‘visual symphony’,

All this … – all are victories, great and small, in the struggle of the new with the old, the struggle of revolution with counterrevolution, the struggle of the cooperative against the private entrepreneur, of the club against the beer hall, of the athletes against debauchery, dispensary against decease. All this is a position won in the struggle for the Land of the Soviets, the struggle against a lack of faith in socialist construction.

The camera is present at the great battle between two worlds:… (Kino-Eye).

Imagining Reality The Faber Book of Documentary, Edited by Kevin MacDonald and Mark Cousins, Faber and Faber, 1984

Kino-Eye The Writings of Dziga Vertov, Edited by Annette Michelson and Translated by Kevin O’Brien, Pluto Press 1984.

Lines of Resistance Dziga Vertov and the Twenties, Edited by Yuri Tsivian, Le Giornate Dell Cinema Muto, 2004.

Griffithiana was a Journal published jointly by a Cineteca del Friuli and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Stills courtesy of Il Giornate del Cinema Muto 2004.

Posted in Archival issues, Documentary, Soviet Film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

By the Law / Po zakonu / Dura Lex, USSR 1926

Posted by keith1942 on August 11, 2015

The prospectors

The prospectors

One critic described this film, from the Kuleshov Collective, as a ‘constructivist western’. It was adapted from a short story by Jack London by Viktor Shklovsky and Lev Kuleshov; the latter also directed the film. The plot of the film adheres fairly closely to London’s story, though there are three significant changes. The film follows from the admiration of many Soviet artists for the work of Jack London and also from a strong interest in US culture, including Hollywood film genres. These were seen as possessing a real dynamism and an embrace of many aspects of modernism.

The setting is the Yukon during the late C19th gold rush. There are only five characters, though the film adds a dog. Four men and a woman, all prospecting for gold. The original story also features Indians/Native Americans, though their role is subordinate. The film jettisons them completely. There was an opening shot of the execution of an Indian, which was left out. This is a desolate landscape for much of the time – from summer, through winter, to spring – frozen hard. The only additions to the harsh terrain are a cabin and the mine workings. For the film the exteriors were actually shot not far from Moscow.

It is very interesting to remember how the outdoor shooting in By the Law took place. We had to be in time to catch the ice flows thawing in the spring. We had a house built on the shore of the snowy river bank, and this house had to be flooded with water when the ice came into contact with it. …

First, it was necessary to work on the ice all the time. The actors’ hands and feet were scratched and bleeding. (Kuleshov).

In fact this was a low budget film, the only reason it was made. There was the small cast and few settings. Even then the production worked sparsely. The screenplay was written almost in one night.

The first major change in the film is the composition of the prospecting group. In the story we have four men, all of whom have contributed equally to the working capital. The leader is Hans Nelson, and the woman is his wife Edith, who for servicing the domestic needs of the group enjoys an equal partnership. In the film we have the Nelsons (Hans – Sergej Komarov, Edith – Aleksandra Khokhlova), the shareholders Dutchy (Fred Forell) and Harky (Porfiri Podobed); the fifth member Michael (Pyotr Galadzhev) is the group servant; Edith here works with the men on the mine. Michael will receive wages rather than a share of the finds. In the story these come from a steady flow of small amounts of gold, which amount in value to $18,000. In the film there is a sudden find of gold – by Michael! – whose value is not tabulated.

In the story violence erupts unexpectedly; this is the case in the film but it is also obvious that the inequalities between the partners and their servant are the motivation. Michael shoots Duchy and Harky. Following this he is bound by Hans and Edith. Whilst Hans wishes to carry out summary justice, Edith persuades him that they should follow ‘the law’. We observed the trio as Michael is imprisoned and watched over through the winter and then, with spring, how Edith and Hans proceed to trial, verdict and justice.

Much of the plot shows us the harshness of the artic winter. Hans’s struggles to dig graves for the two corpses in the frozen ground. He and Edith struggle to drag the bodies to the graves and inter them as a winter storm increases in violence. Then, later, as winter recedes, the land is flooded and Hans and Edith, with Michael, struggle against the waters that surround and flood the cabin.

In the story the omniscient narrator explains the character of the three main protagonists. In the film, much of this is conveyed in the mise en scène. Thus Edith is frequently seen with a small prayer book; seen in the first shot of her. She insists on reading some burial prayers over the graves as the storm howls around her and Hans. She constantly uses or refers to the same book in the cabin.

In the case of Michael we first see him with his dog and a wooden flute. We learn something from a flashback. He hails from Ireland and we see him in an earlier time with his aged mother, promising to return with money to support her. London explains this to the readers in his narrative voice.

The film uses very sharp and sometimes elliptical editing and favours angular shots. However, the chronology is straightforward and linear with the flashback fairly clearly signalled. In common with the 1920s Soviet cinema there is s strong tendency for the use of symbolism. Apart from her prayer book Edith also puts up a picture of Queen Victoria, who represents both Britain and British Law. In a title card, which may be ironic, Michael is informed that as he is Irish he is subject to British Law!

Much of the drama of the film is communicated by the acting. Michael early on, as he performs his menial tasks, suggests the class envy that motivates him. Hans also suggest an instinctive urge to violence and retribution. The standout character is Edith. Khokhlova is a very distinctive actress and this is one of her most powerful performances. The drama around the question of ‘the law’ derives much of it potency from her characterisation.

By the law dog

Then there is the dog. Unfortunately here the Soviet film mirrors that of Hollywood. The dog appears in the early scenes setting up the drama. However after the murders he more or less disappears from the plot. Then suddenly he re-appears for a scene in the sodden cabin. This is a festive dinner as spring arrives, also added for the film and reminiscent of a scene in Dostoevsky. The dog is seen licking Michael’s hand: adding to the change of mood as the imprisoned trio relax to celebrate the festivities. This is the point that we see the flashback. Then the dog disappears once more for good.

Kuleshov was the pioneer in Soviet montage and he had his own particular take on this. Rather than the discontinuities found in the films of Eisenstein, Kuleshov, with his cinematographer Konstantin Kuznecov, tends to rapid and short takes. However, like Eisenstein objects and parts of characters appear in close-up working as signifiers. Continuity flows from the plot and the title cards. Cuts between shots rarely provide a sense of the space between. The cutting is often abrupt and effectively some of the cuts work as jump cuts. Space in his films tends to collapse so that it is the changes in shot sequence that provides meaning rather than the suggested sense of the setting or landscape. Lighting is extremely important in his work. One technique he favours:

…the most advantageous lighting for the cinema is backlighting, so-called contre-jour. This light provides the opportunity to see, precisely and clearly, the silhouette of the object, provides an effect of stereoscopy and depth.

The approach is most dramatic in the climatic execution scene. The sequence has an abstracted and symbolic feel, as the characters and setting are seen more in outline: contrasting powerfully with the more realistic shots earlier in the film. The setting is dominated by a solitary tree, a tree that first appeared in the second shot of the film.

The execution.

The execution.

Kuleshov also has a distinctive approach to acting. This is most notably with his star Khoklova. This approach in some ways parallels the work of the German expressionists, in that acting seems to be an extension of the settings and objects in the film. However, Kuleshov makes very different use of light and camera. Soviet theatre had developed a dynamic approach to performance. Kuleshov develops this to create movement that is economical but authentic for the character. He describes Khokhlova in an earlier training in ‘educational etudes’ – rehearsal playlets that included the proposed montage of a finished film version.

A doctor receives a female patient. The doctor’s wife (Khokhlova) is extremely jealous. She confronts the doctor in a hysterical fit, and this fit goes on for about 150 meters, worked out in the most complex, semi-acrobatic series of movements.

This highly developed and precisely worked out acting style recurs in the most dramatic sequences inside the cabin. It reaches a crescendo in the execution scene where Khokhlova’s almost mechanical movements and stances parallel the stark outline of the set, dominated by the ‘hanging tree’.

The film follows this climax with another change to the London story. This is one that sets up both an ambiguity and a psychological frame for the characters’ actions and motivations. And it also brings back the economic to the fore of the story.

The film was popular in the USSR and well received critically abroad. Some critics in the Soviet Union thought that the film needed a stronger political slant. In fact, Kuleshov and his colleagues had sharpened the class angles of the original story: a recurring problem in London’s writings. Generally regarded as the best of Kuleshov’s surviving features, the film is powerful and involving. And it is another fine example of 1920s Soviet cinema.

Quotations from Kuleshov on Film Writings of Lev Kuleshov, translated and edited by Ronald Levaco, University of California Press, 1974.

The film was screened from 35mm prints at the 2005 and 2008 Il Cinema Ritrovato.

Posted in Literary adaptation, Soviet Film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Girl with the Hatbox / Devushka S Korobkoi, USSR 1927.

Posted by keith1942 on December 23, 2014

Grandfather and Natasha.

Grandfather and Natasha.

This film was screened at the 2011 Il Cinema Ritrovato as part of a programme devoted to the work of Boris Barnet: this was an early feature. It re-appeared at the 2012 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto as part of a tribute to the star, Anna Sten. Both Festivals used a print from the Österreichisches Filmmuseum. The screenings ran at 20 fps giving a running time of 80 minutes. However, the available DVD version from KinoAcademia looks like it has been transferred at a faster frame rate [24 fps for a sound print] and only runs for 65 minutes, but it is also about 300 metres shorter.

Boris Barnet was for long time rather overlooked among the early Soviet film directors. However, he is a director of real talent and had a particular flair for comedy and dramas of the everyday. He used montage rather less than many colleagues in the 1920s, but his mise en scène is often richly expressive. It is worth remembering that Eisenstein included aspects of mise en scène in his conceptions of montage. Barnet worked well with actors and his films usually offer fairly rounded protagonists.

Anna Sten was a popular and talented star in the Soviet cinema of the 1920s. She had a photogenic face and a character that came across from the screen. In the late 1920s he married the director Fyodor Otsep and accompanied him to Germany. She was later recruited to Hollywood by Samuel Goldwyn. [The Girl with the Hatbox was distributed in the USA as When Moscow Laughs]. He commented:

`This is some star`. She had everything. She had looks and style and sex and class. She had tremendous life and could act like a son of a bitch. [Quoted in the Ritrovato Catalogue].

But the movie capital made much less effective us of her than the Soviet filmmakers with whom she started her career.

Anna plays Natasha, the girl with the hatbox. She lives with her grandfather outside Moscow and they support themselves by hat making. In this small hamlet her admirer is Fogeleth (Vladimir Fogel], who is the telegraph operator and runs the ticket office at the railway station. Every day Natasha travels by train into Moscow to the hat shop of Madame Irene and her husband Nikolai. As well as employing her Madame Irene has Natasha listed as a tenant, but for a room which is actually used by her husband. There were strict rules about accommodation in the 1920s, supervised by local Housing Committees. A comedy around accommodation is also the plot mechanism of the later Bed and Sofa (Tretya Meschanaskaia, 1927). And conflicts and arrangements over rooming in big cities are a common story across cinemas.

One morning, travelling into Moscow, Natasha meets Ilia (Ivan Kobal-Samborskii), coming to Moscow to study. Whilst their initial meeting is hardly propitious, when Natasha meets Ilia again and finds that he is homeless she takes pity on him. She arranges a marriage of convenience so he can take up residence in ‘her room’ at Madame Irene’s. The film then follows the development of the conflict this arrangement produces with Madame Irene and Nikolai and also the developing relationship between Natasha and Ilia.

The plot is complicated further when Nikolai gives Natasha a Golden Premium Bond ticket instead of wages. The Premium Bonds were part of the State loan raising system, not that different from such lotteries in capitalist societies. The prizes could run into thousands of roubles. In fact, the film was a commission to the Mezhrabpom-Rus studio for a film to publicise the State Loan system. Apparently the script by Valentin Turkin and Vadim Shershenevich was a slim affair. And Barnet developed the project considerably in production. This enabled him to develop the central characters, who are both psychologically believable and attractive subjects. This also downplayed the function of the State Loan System to a degree, though the prize draw is important in the resolution of the film.

As in the better known The House on Trubnaya Square (Dom na Trubnoi, 1928) the film features an innocent arriving in the big city, though here it is a man rather than a young girl. So Natasha is the experienced and worldly-wise citizen. Also as in Trubnaya Square the point of conflict resolves round the petty bourgeoisie. As in that film Madame Irene and Nikolai seem to be NEP-people – entrepreneurs who took advantage of the New Economic Policy introduced following the ravages of the Civil War. Madame Irene and her husband indulge themselves in a similar fashion to the NEP-people in Trubnaya Square: both films feature indulgent and extravagant dinner parties. And both sets of employers exploit ordinary working people – the gold standard of Soviet citizenry.

Barnet already shows himself adept at comedy, including visual humour and gags. In Natasha’s village there is a narrow bridge over a frozen stream on the way to the station: several mishaps occur here. There are some delightful scenes revolving round the furniture or lack of it in the disputed room. And the shy courtship of Natasha and Ilia has delightful moments and presents a strong and autonomous heroine. The mise en scène is sued to great effect. One set is the kitchen in the shop cum household, usually filed with drying laundry. There are several scenes where the white sheets are used to great comic effect: these same props also feature in The House in Trubnaya Square.

But Barnet is also adept at montage, in the sense of fast editing. The sequence where we view the announcements of Premium Bond winners has excellent fast cutting and also very effective use of superimpositions. Barnet and his cinematographer, Boris Frantsisson, also have notable shots, long takes and sequence shots. Both Ana and Fogel are seen early on in mirrors or through frozen windows. There is a fine chase through the streets, which recalls the momentum found in the much-admired Hollywood films of the period.

This is a delightful comedy and offers a rather different representation of Soviet urban life from some of the other film classics of the period. It does, however, lack the effective political comment that adds so much to The House on Trubnaya Square. The use of the Premium Bond system seems little different from the function of such systems in bourgeois cinema. Apparently the script had a resolution that at least partially addressed this issue, but it did not make it into the finished film. Even so this is an impressive film from a rich career.


Posted in Festivals, Silent Comedy, Soviet Film | Leave a Comment »

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on November 16, 2014


This was the 33rd Festival of silent film held in Pordenone [or for a few years Sacile]. It was a fairly full week full of classic early films, some familiar titles and some new and engaging surprises. The weather that accompanied the week was mixed some; sunshine some rain, but warm compared with ‘blighty’. It was a fairly full programme, we started at 8.45 a.m. one day. However, there were not any really late nights, I was usually in bed before midnight.

One major strand was a tribute to the Barrymores, Ethel, John and Lionel. They were part of what one could call Hollywood royalty in the 1920s. In fact, in retrospect it is surprising that it is only now that they have enjoyed a major retrospective. All three were established stars of theatre, and one sensed that this remained their main focus. A theatrical flourish tended to over emphasise their performances, more notably in the two male stars. One really interesting film has Lionel Barrymore as The Copperhead (Famous Players-Lasky, 1920), a supposed supporter of the Confederacy but living in Union territory. It threw a distinctive angle on the US civil war, though it became almost masochistic as the hero suffered for the cause. We had only one complete film starring Ethel Barrymore, but she seemed in some ways the best adapted of the clan to film. The White Raven (Rolfe Photoplays, 1917) was a melodrama with a somewhat implausible plot but with a strong and determined female lead. The most famous title featuring John Barrymore was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Famous Players-Lasky, 1920). The film is not as good as that directed by Robert Mamoulian a decade later, but Barrymore brings an intensity to the scenes of transformation that seem almost vampirist.

For me the star programme of the week was Russian Laughter: The Silent Comedies of Yakov Protazanov, [despite the misspelling of Soviet!]. We enjoyed six silent films and one silent which had been re-processed as a sound film in 1935. We had two actual Russian silent films, from 1913, a farce with a triangular relationship: and from 1918 a countess having to work as a chambermaid. In the Soviet features we had a tailor threatened by his marriage hungry woman employer: an overtly political comedy about the different types of theft, criminal and capitalist: a critique of bureaucracy in the shape of a railway station manger; and three Chekhov stories adapted on film. Protazanov and his writers created well-structured plots and witty characterisations. The production teams achieved a sense of realism that grounded the films in recognisable world. I felt that this was lost in the final sound version, a satire on religion – but some friends at the Festival rated it highly.

There were a number of special events. The epic screening was Die Nibelungen Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Rache (Kriemhild’s Revenge, both Decla-Biscop 1924). This complete epic now runs for 175 minutes. It is certainly impressive, especially in the geometric designs created for Lang by his production team. And there are also impressive effects like the fire-breathing dragon, an example of German expertise in this decade. However, it is also rather ponderous in a way associated with certain Germanic art. The second part has more action and violence but it also has an idea of German invincibility as onerous as that found in many Hollywood war movies. I was rooting for the Huns very soon into the film. I was taken with Kriemhild though – the most implacably determined heroine I have seen in years. And the restoration by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung was impressive. The Catalogue suggests that Part 1 would run at 20 fps and Part 2 at 22 fps – in fact, it felt like both parts were running at 20 fps. Sacrilegiously I did think about whether they could up this by a frame or two a second.

Ben Hur

Ben Hur

Another programme was The Dawn of Technicolor. This included formats like early hand-colouring, formats that came and went like Kelley Color and the early forms of the major colour film format, Technicolor. In the 1920s the Technicolor Corporation developed two-strip or two-tone Technicolor. It use varied but in a spectacular like M-G-M’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) some sequences had a magical appearance. A really beautiful shorter film [two reels running 18 minutes] was Manchu Love (1929) from the Technicolor Corporation itself. This used a dye-transfer system and also included in the production two stalwarts of the Technicolor output: Natalie Kalmus, who for years laid down rigorous standards in its use and Ray Rennahan, possibly the Hollywood expert in colour cinematography. The plot owed much to the opera ‘Madame Butterfly’, though it as even more melodramatic. We also had a good print of The Black Pirate (The Elton Corporation, 1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks. Like other prints I have seen it suffered from desaturation, but it did not suffer the pinkish hue found on a version copied on to Eastmancolor stock.

There was more Early Japanese Cinema. And as in the previous year there were screenings employing a Japanese Benshi. The main one featured Chaplin shorts, presumably marking the centenary year of his on-screen debut. I do think the Benshi works better with Japanese films than imports. However, Ichiro Katanka, one of Japan’s ten or so working Benshi, also presented the Jonathan Denis Memorial Lecture for 2014 – The Art of the Benshi. This was a really interesting lecture on the roots and characteristics of this narrative form: enlivened by a series of recordings of Benshi from the late 1920s and early 1930s. Johan, a Festival regular, worked hard at providing a translation into English. My only reservation was that whilst Ichiro worked from a laptop this was not projected for the audience. It would have helped to have Japanese names, titles and dates displayed as he talked.

Charlie Chaplin was with us again on the closing night for a screening with orchestral accompaniment of City Lights (1931). This is one of the outstanding features by Chaplin: it is rather long on sentiment, but Chaplin mainly undercuts this with sly humour. And the comedy sequences, including the famous opening, show him on top form.

There were many other splendid programmes. These included films produced in the year 1914, Ukrainian animation, Rediscoveries and Restorations and the welcome The Canon Revisited. A rediscovery was an early sound version of Battleship Potemkin Panswerkreuzer Potemkin (Prometheus – Film 1930). Given the impact of Eisenstein’s masterpiece one can understand the desire to marry it with the new technology. However, it was not a successful marriage. Important title cards, like the quote by Trotsky on 1905, were missing: bizarrely, the divisions of parts had changed: and the music score was a combination of Edward Meisel with other music interpolated. I haven’t found a comment on this version by Eisenstein, but he famously ticked off Meisel at the London Film Society screening for tinkering with the projection speed.

Much more welcome in the ‘Canon’ was Raul Walsh’s slum film Regeneration (Fox Film Corp., 1915); though surprisingly no-one has got round to a full restoration. And there was Sir Arne’s Treasure (Herr Arnes Pengar, Svensk Filminustri, 1919); Mauritz Stiller’s magnificent but chilling drama of violence and contrition.

As always at Le Giornate the films were ennobled by the accompanying music. Most of the regulars were there, and most of the music illuminated and dramatised the films. We had a couple of performances that were too strong for the respective films, but overall this was fine music with a strong sense of empathy for the films.

The other fine strand across the week was the performance by a number of canine actors. The prize must go to a collie in The Incorrigible Dukane (Famous Players Film Co., 1915). Excuse the plot spoiler, but Dukane Jr. (John Barrymore) and his team are under siege in a cabin. The villains throw in a stick of dynamite. The brave and intelligent collie picks up the explosive, runs to the villain’s hideout and jumps through a window, returning the stick to the astonished gang. And he escapes to return to the men he has saved.

One bonus seemed to be a reduction in distraction in the auditorium: there were only a few mobile phones going off – still too many. And only the occasional laptop or tablet visible: unfortunately a new bad habit is checking the time on the latter, though I am sure this could be done without lighting up the whole screen. As in the past we also had a couple of people taking photos on these devices! However, a friend told me that there were quite a number of electronic gadgets illuminated in the balconies, perhaps the users have just moved.

A final tribute, to Dave Howell from West Yorkshire. He attended every film screening and never [he assures me] fell asleep. I am uncertain what to admire more, his stamina or his dedication.


Posted in Festivals, Hollywood, silent comics, Soviet Film | Leave a Comment »

The very political Man With a a Movie Camera

Posted by keith1942 on October 15, 2014


A political comment on Bourgeois art.

A political comment on Bourgeois art.



















This film (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, 1929) came top in Sight & Sound polls of both critics and filmmakers regarding ‘great documentaries’. There was an excellent profile of the film in the September 2014 issue by Brain Winston. Then in October David Robinson had a ‘letter of the month’ where he chided Winston that he ‘neglects to mention that the Greatest Documentary of All Time is Ukrainian”. I think David is missing the point. The Ukraine was one of the Socialist Soviet Republics and the films produced there, as in other Republics, were, and should quite rightly be, attributed to the USSR. Worse followed. He quotes Ivan Kozlenko who, referring to the Ukrainian aspect of the film then comments, “But not by chance was the totally apolitical Man with a Movie Camera different from Vertov’s other agit-films.” Do you wonder sometimes if someone is writing about the same film as yourself? |Perhaps someone who knows practically nothing about the Soviet Union in its socialist phase, or about the revolutionary Soviet cinema of the 1920s might miss the politics, but otherwise …? David is quoting from the notes in the Catalogue for Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013, where there was a retrospective of silent films produced in the Ukraine in the late 1920s. In fact Vertov’s film did not feature in the programme. There were some very fine films and very political films at that. However, I did notice a strand of narrow nationalism in some of the introductory comments. This presumably reflects the contemporary contradictions between capitalist Ukraine and capitalist |Russia. That was not the case in 1929. Vertov and his comrades, along with the other revolutionary filmmakers, would have given short shrift to such petty bourgeois nationalism. David’s letter would have been more to point if it had quoted from the Catalogue notes provided by Yuri Tsivian for the Factories of Facts retrospective at Pordenone in 2004. Tsivian discussed the reasons why Vertov and his comrades moved to Ukraine at this point for their film production. He also paid due attention to the other members of the collective, especially Elizaveta Svilova and Mikhail Kaufman, who have been seriously overlooked in the paeans to this great film. And Tsivian stressed the political content that informs all their movies including Man With a Movie Camera, One example is his comment on the shot illustrated above – “that famous trick shot from the last reel … which makes the Bolshoi Theatre collapse. … Left-wing writers and filmmakers alike perceived the Bolshoi (former Imperial) Theatre as emblem of dated, portentous, etc, art. Vertov .. could use the movie camera – the filmmaker’s weapon – to knock out symbolically what he could not physically knock down.” Unfortunately the great Soviet filmmakers have suffered in recent years [as have I in a minor key] from bourgeois re-interpretations of their art works. Perhaps we could have a Siberian cinema camp where we send these recalcitrant commentators. A brief ‘Letter to the Editor’ on the central point appears in the December edition of Sight & Sound. Still kindly provided by Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Posted in Festivals, Film and critics, Soviet Film | 2 Comments »


Posted by keith1942 on September 2, 2014



Kino-Pravda was a newsreel that ran from 1922 to 1925, 23 issues in all. Issues 1 to 20 were produced by Goskino. This body was replaced in 1925 by Sovkino and Vertov and his comrades now worked in the documentary section, Kultkino, which produced issues 21 to 23.  The programmes at Le Giornate included all the surviving editions [issue 12 is lost], though some issues are incomplete. Pravda means truth and this was also the title of the Communist party’s principal daily newspaper. This was more than just a newsreel; it was a platform for propaganda and agitation. Yuri Tsivian in the Festival Catalogue comments:

 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!

As the series develops Vertov and his comrades experiment with form and techniques: the ‘dialectical editing’ becomes more and more noticeable. The point about the collective form of this ‘factory of fact’ is frequently underplayed. Dziga Vertov invariably has the lead credit, but the designation varies – ‘a film by’, ‘director’ ‘leader/author’; likewise the credits for other members come and go. However, there contributions are important, especially the two other key members, Eizaveta Svilova as editor and Mikhail Kaufman as cinematographer. And there are other contributors and supporters, notable in the pages of the Constructivist Journal LEF, edited by Vladimir Mayakovsky. There were also teams of cameramen spread across the Soviet Union who sent in footage to Moscow and which is used in the issues. A special issue like 21, Lenin Kino-Pravda, could require specially commissioned footage.

Programme 4 at the Festival presented Kino-Pravda number 1 to 8. All released in 1922, and running between 7 and 13 minutes. These films are dominated by the trial of the Party of Socialist-Revolutionaries. There was a real gulf between the political line of this Party and the Bolsheviks. It was a divide that became violent: it was a Socialist-Revolutionary who shot Lenin in 1918, [an injury from which he never fully recovered]. The trial ran on from 1919. A number of issues of Kino-Pravda provide extensive coverage. They also provide examples of the experimentation by the kinocs. Surprisingly, [given that Vertov frequently fulminated against acting in film dramas] there is a staged scene in Issue 3 about betting on the outcome of the trial.  Later in Issue 5 we see a spectator reading a newspaper titled Kino-Pravda No 5.

Issue 6 ‘begins with a close up of a box, on which we read the words Kino-Pravda No 6, July 14, 1922. A man comes and opens the box, which turns out to contain a reel of film. The man threads the film –the very film we are watching – into a projector and the newsreel Kino-Pravda No 6 begins.

As newsreels the films include much more: ‘bread barges’ carrying food following the famines of the Civil War: an armoured car factory: cycle racing: ‘White Army’ sabotage by arson in Siberia: and a silk fare in Baku.

Programme 5 presented Kino-Pravda numbers 9 to 13 [12 is missing]. Also produced in 1922 and running for between 12 and 16 minutes. The films show Vertov and his comrades experimenting and developing their use of techniques. Issue 9 includes a section of horse racing. The Catalogue notes that half-a-minute of film offers –

A routine bus ride – but what makes it interesting is that Vertov renders it in 10 shots: the conductor selling tickets (1.6 metres); the driver starting the engine (0.8 metres)’ the engine running (1.3 metres); a passenger’s hand holding onto the railing (0.5 metres)’ the driver’s foot pressing the accelerator (0.5 metres);

Tsivian points up two influences. One was an obsession with speed, an attribute of modernist sensibility: this had also been seen in the work of the Russian and Italian Futurist movement. But there is also an interest of the action style of Hollywood features, popular in the new Soviet Union. [You can see examples of this interest in the work of other directors including Kuleshov and Eisenstein). Following the horse racing Issue 9 includes a demonstration of a US movie camera, the advanced technology in use in Hollywood.

Issue 10 includes Constructivist style lettering provided by Alexander Rodchenko. The Catalogue quotes Constructivist Aleksei Gan:

The whole tenth issue has screen-high intertitles. And here too Vertov has overcome the worn-out technique of horizontal writing. It is clear that words must be constructed on screen in a different way.

This is an area that Vertov develops as the Kino-Pravda series develops and titling is an important and often radical component in his films.

Kino-Pravda No 13 is of a different order from preceding issues: the full title is “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow”, A Film Poem Dedicated to the October celebrations, “October Kino-Pravda) / (“Vchera, Segodnia, Zavtra”. Kinopoema. Posviashchennaia Oktiabrskim Tozrzhestvam, “Oktiabrskaia Kino-Pravda”), [the addition of such sub-titles increasingly becomes the practice]. It is 743 metres in length and runs for 33 minutes. The film coincided with the 5th anniversary of the October Revolution. Its title was “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. A Film Poem dedicated to the October celebrations (Vchera, Segodnia, Zavtra”, Kinopoema, Posviashchennaia Oktiabrskim Tozrzhestvam. The film includes the anniversary celebrations in Red Square. But also a montage of the burials of heroes, composed from early films and including graves in Astrakhan, Kronstadt and Minsk. The montage generalises the particular into the general. Tsivian quotes Vertov [from the Annette Michelson’s translation)

Freed from the rule of 16 – 17 frames a second, free of the limits of time and space, I put together any given points in that universe, no matter where I’ve recorded them. My path leads to the creation of a fresh perception of the world. I decipher in anew way a world unknown to us.

Vertov avoids a merely empirical depiction of events, typical of many newsreels and documentaries, as he develops a form that emphasises the social relations involved in any event or movement.

Programme 6 covered Issues 14 to 17: plus a fragment and the animation Sovetskie Igrushki (Soviet Toys, 1924 and running 13 minutes). The drawings in the latter were by Ivan Beliakov and Alesandr Ivanov and the focus is the worker/peasant alliance [smychka) admonishing the decadent bourgeoisie. Issue 14 is the last from 1922 and runs for 12 minutes and is credited as “experiment in newsreel”. Issues 15, 16 and 17 are all from 1923 and run between 14 and 24 minutes (all at 20 fps).

Between Kino-Pravda 14 and 17 we see further developments in the use of titles. In Issue 15 a mobile in the form of a hammer rises to hit religion, “With the Hammer of Knowledge”. Issue 16, Spring Kino-Pravda. A lyrical View Newsreel / (Vesenniaia Kin-Pravda. Vidovaia Liricheskaia Khronika), uses a Rodchenko installation to create the effect of a globe, presenting on ‘one side’ America and Capital. There is a certain visceral thrill as a shot of Trotsky addressing the Red Army follows.  Issue 14 also stresses the ‘United Front of the Entire Working Class.”  When we come to Issue 17 this ‘front’ is represented by the slogan ‘alliance’ / ‘smychka’, the alliance of peasants and workers. United Front policies were to be a subject of debate in both the 1920s and 1930s, the question being to define the relative positions in any ‘front’. Tsivian comments on ‘smychka’,

This term implied that the peasant majority was not oppressed under the proletarian hegemony, but was its lesser [non-hegemonic) partner.

The socialist revolution was based on the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

'smychka' - actually from Stride Soviet!

‘smychka’ – actually from Stride Soviet!

Issue 16 is famous for a different reason – it contains Sergei Eisenstein’s first film, Glumov’s Diary (Dnevnik Glumova) made to be projected during a Proletkult stage production. Vertov assisted Eisenstein with equipment and then included the short film in Kino-Pravda under the title The Spring Smiles of Proletkult.

Issue 17 offers credits for Mikhail Kaufman on cinematography and Elizaveta Svilova for editing, and Ivan Beliakov for intertitles. The film has a sequence of peasant women binding sheaves with dynamic editing and extremely short camera shots [similar to some in Battleship Potemkin). Tsivian comments,

 Vertov and Svilova were especially fond of applying fast editing to work processes, as if by doing so they were helping the people to work faster.

The focus of this issue is again the alliance between workers and peasants. So we see peasants visiting the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition in Moscow. And the point is emphasised by crosscutting between the countryside and the city. Finally workers and peasants are seen reading the newspaper Smychka. The positive depiction of the relationship between the city and the countryside, between workers and peasants, was to become a staple of Soviet sound cinema, but presented in a far more conventional manner than by Vertov and his comrades.

Programme 11 presented Kino-Pravda 18 and 19 out of sequence:

We wanted them to be seen together with Vertov’s A Sixth Part of the World to make more salient a peculiar – uniquely Vertovian – genre to which these three films belong. Vertov calling this genre ‘probegi kinoapparata – movie-camera runs, or races, across far-apart geographic locations.

Kino-Pravda 18 (Probeg Kinoapparata v Napravleni Sovetskoi Deistvitelnosti 299 Metrov 14 min 50 sek.) / A Movie-Camera race over 299 metres and 14 minutes and 50 seconds in the direction of Soviet Reality, 1924. Actually the film ran 13 minutes at 20 fps.

The film starts in Paris at the Eiffel Tower where we get a vertical travelling shot, followed by an aerial travelling shot which leads to a landing in the USSR and a auto-race from Petrograd to Moscow. In Moscow we are again with smychka where the camera offers the viewpoint of a visiting peasant. There is a Vertov trope as ‘the movie camera pursues him’, visualised by the shadow of a man cranking a camera. The peasant visit includes

the moment when a baby is Octobrized. What does this mean, “Octobrized”? The same as baptised – but in a workers’ collective er instead of a church…

This is followed by a collective singing of a song in praise of Lenin.

Kino-Pravda 19 (“Chernoe More – Ledovityi Okean – Moskva” “Probeg Kinoapparata Moskva – Ledovityi Okean”) / Black Sea – Artic Ocean – Moscow” A Movie-Camera Race Moscow – Artic Ocean”. Runs for 16 minutes at 20 fps.

The film’s race draws contrast between the Southern regions and the Arctic regions of the USSR. And it uses both climatic and seasonal variations. But the human element focus on gender, the issue is dedicated to

“Women, peasant woman, worker woman”: and we are shown a variety of women involved in socialist action. These include:

A young woman types, another woman milks a cow; another works a field etc. Women in politics: a Sate woman speaks, Lenin’s wife and sister – shown at Lenin’s funeral and by his side when he was still alive.

The film reflects an aspect of socialist life in the 1920s, often forgotten, the degree to which women’s’ liberation was an important part of the political and social process. So Elizaveta Svilova tends to get overlooked in the tributes to Vertov [The Catalogue is an exception]. Yet this film ends with a title “The editing of the negative for Kin-Pravda 19, ..“and we see Svilova working on the film.

Programme 8 commenced with Kino-Pravda 20 (Pionerskaia Pravda) / Pioneer Pradvda.

This issue uses footage originally shot for Kino-Eye. It is presented in the form of five Despatches, ostensibly sent by the Young Pioneers to Kino-Eye. The film is mainly a series of outings: to the Red Defence Factory; to the Countryside; and to the Zoo, where we see again the elephant featured in Kino-Eye. The final Despatch is missing. The most impressive sequence is train journey, compiled with rapid editing both of the train and the landscape rushing by.

'Along the rails of Leninism'.

‘Along the rails of Leninism’.

Kino Pravda 21 Lenin Kino-Pravda. A film poem about Lenin / Leniniskaia Kino-Pravda. Kinopoema o Lenine. This is the first issue produced by Kultkino the documentary section of Sovkino, which replaced Goskino]. It is one of the longest issues, 664 metres running at 20 fps for 29 minutes: the average issue was around 300 metres. Moreover six cameramen are credited, not only Mikhail Kaufman but also Eduard Tisse [who was the regular cameraman with Eisenstein]. The film marks the first anniversary of the death of Vladimir Lenin, who towered over the other leading comrades in the Bolshevik party and in the Revolution. Tsivian notes its structure:

It consists of three part, announced laconically by 1, 11, 111, and smaller sections marked by no-less laconic references to the years. The one-two-three structure relates the film’s narrative to the famous Hegelian (now also Marxist) dialectical triad

Part I – the ‘thesis’ – covers 1919 to 1923, This followed on from the attempted assassination of Lenin: the trail of the Socialist Revolutionaries, featured in early Kino-Pravda. Part II – the ‘anti-thesis – charts the course of Lenin’s illness and decline and then his funeral. Part III – the ‘synthesis’ – covers the influence of Lenin since his death.

Part II has more experimental titling by Vertov and Rodchenko. They use graphs and animated images to show the course of Lenin’s illness and then the funeral uses alternating imagery and titling, reaching a crescendo as the progression of mourners grows.

Part III combines imagery and animation. It shows both how Capitalist glee at Lenin’s demise is transformed to disappear as the Party not only continues but grows. And there is also the affirmation of the alliance between workers and peasants.

Kino-Pravda 22 (Peasant Kino-Pravda. “Lenin is Alive in the Hearts of the Peasant. A Film Story). (Krestinskaia Kino-Pravda. V Serdtse Krestianina Lenin Zhiv. Kinorasskaz).

Tsivian comments on this issue:

This issue of Kino-Pravda (a politically commissioned film, I am sure) was part of this extra effort: i.e. agitation to convince/convert the peasants to the cause of socialist construction.

This makes the film more openly didactic than many issues. The film follows a group of peasants who meet workers; visit Lenin’s Mausoleum and the Museum of Revolution. The film then moves on, with found rather than shot footage, to the oppressed peoples and nations in Asia and Africa. Once more we see tributes to Lenin. Tsivian suggests that this film is in some ways a ‘rough draft’ for Three Songs About Lenin.

Kino-Pravda 23 (Radio Pravda). This was intended to be major issue, running to 1400 metres, but only 400 metres survive. The socialists saw radio, like cinema, as a possibly transforming technology. The kinoki, like other groups in the 1920s, had a keen interest in this young medium. The Catalogue has a brief description of the titles from the missing opening. The film basically follows an instructional mode, explaining in particular the techniques and benefits for the peasantry. The film ends with time-lapse photography and animation by Aleksandr Bushkin depicting the arrival of ‘radio waves’ in the peasant huts.

Lines of Resistance – Dziga Vertov and the Twenties, Edited by Yuri Tsivian, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. Translations by Julian Graffy.

This is a collection of materials about the Factory of Fact and their film output in the 1920s. There are several sections with published material on Kino-Pravda from the 1920s.

So there is a critical review of Lenin Kino-Pravda from the pages of Pravda, 4 February 1925.

The skill in choosing appropriate “pieces of life” is one of Comrade Vertov’s strong points, and in this work it is particularly apparent, but so is his weak point: you do not sense on screen that logical coherence which is Comrade Vertov’s plan. The viewer does not sense it. The whole film collapses into its component parts.

This failing can be removed from the work under discussion by replacing the sloganizing intertitles with explanatory ones, which can be done simply, vividly, expressively and … comprehensibly. If Comrade Vertov wants the workers and peasant audiences, then above all he must think about simplicity and comprehensibility.

A rather different response is provided by Aleksei Gan in Kino-Fot no 5 [a Constructivist Journal], 10 December 1922.

So-called “artistic” productions have crippled almost the whole of cinema’s establishment of personnel. You will not achieve what is necessary with this reserve of old film specialists. That is why we welcome so warmly the strength of our youth, the fresh worker who has not been seized by the sweaty hands of the beautiful.

The work of Dziga Vertov seems to follow two basic directions: the attempts at pure montage (in no 5 and 6) that were almost realised in the tenth Kino-Pravda, and the attempts to join various subjects together into a single agitational whole. The latest attempts were particularly successful in no. 13, where the Constructivist Rodchenko has managed to produce intertitles that have an impact of their own.

One senses that the sub-text of this debate is partly about whether documentary film should ‘address the few with advanced ideas’ and use ‘advanced techniques’. Vertov and his comrades were to find increasing problems as ideas of Socialist Realism ‘simple ideas for the many simply put’ gained purchase.

In fact the evidence suggests that there were a lot of workers and peasants in the USSR who could and would engage with Kino-Eye’s films. There are reports from the work of the Mobile Cinemas – steam trains, steam ships, films carriages and ‘one film-car’.

A village correspondent in Moscow province.

So let us see it!

Every Sunday in our October Factory in the Resurrection district of Moscow province we have film shows, and its always such rubbish, such garbage, that you can’t help asking: do we really have none of our own proletarian pictures in the Soviet Union? …

Now that we have seen Kino-Pravda for the first time, we are even more eager to say that there are good pictures for the countryside, pictures with no made-up mugs and obscene grimaces, pictures which do not corrupt the countryside, but which show real life. So give us these pictures, don’t hide them, bring them to the countryside. The countryside is waiting for pictures like this. It’s sick and tired of watching all sorts of rubbish.

And a Kino-Fot report, 1922, notes;
Beginning from July of this year, twice a week, mainly on Thursday and Sundays, two mobile cinemas are working in Moscow Squares. They are showing all the current newsreels and Kino-Pravda. Each time the audience numbers two to five thousand people.

Note other quotations from Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2004 Catalogue.



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Kino–Eye (Life Off-Hand) / Kino-Glaz (Zhizn Vrasplokh).

Posted by keith1942 on August 28, 2014

The Young Pioneers

The Young Pioneers

Produced for Goskino in 1924, this is a seventy-minute feature. Rather than using ‘found footage’ Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman went out and filmed life – life in the new Socialist State. The film includes disparate episodes that reflect the varied facets of urban and rural life. However, the prime focus is a group of Young Pioneers, ‘Young Leninists, the children of workers’. These were young socialists coming together in a summer camp and committed to the new values for constructing the new society.

“The kinocs Vertov and his cameraman Kaufman have spent two weeks in a randomly chosen Pioneer camp, following the entire active working day of a Young Pioneer with a movie camera. Their eye – a movie camera, which has the wonderful capacity to see, to capture what it sees, and to reproduce it as it saw it – got up at the same time as the people it was observing, rushed off to have a wash, cooked its breakfast, did its morning exercises, went to work, attended other games, and so on. No scriptwriter can invent something greater than what happens in real life …” (From Trud (Labour) 27 September 1924).

The majority of the film follows the activities of the Pioneers. Though not shown in chronological order, wee the construction of the camp, its opening and the daily activities. These include the co-operative activities, barber services for villagers, a visit to a nursery and playing in a nearby lake. Kaufman frequently uses iris shots as he records the activities: and Svilova produces a number of iris wipes in the editing. There are also superimpositions: the most notable when the Pioneers troop off to the lake. There is a nice touch of a waterfall superimposed as the troop cross a weir. At the lake there is a diving sequence, which uses reverse motion several times.

The central sequence is when the Pioneers visit a nearby town and market to publicise the Co-operative. We see them questioning the market traders. Such trading was allowed under the New Economic Policy, but the film clearly privileges co-operation, the new socialist way. The Pioneers also stick up posters and one of these leads a mother to patronise the co-op rather than the traders.

There is also one of the tricks that Vertov and his comrades use frequently – reverse motion ‘putting time in reverse’. Here they retrace the meat in the market back to the abattoir, and before that the pastures for the cows and bull. They then repeat the technique when they reverse the process of baking bread.

Alongside the Pioneers in the film are other aspects of life. These appear rather arbitrary, and the film ‘jumps’ from topic to topic. The film opens with an oddball sequence often fevered by Vertov – ‘The effect of vodka on village women’. Later in the film we watch a Chinese magician entertaining the townsfolk; then an elephant being paraded through the streets. And towards the end of the film there are a series of urban sequences. We see the Pioneers agitating around the evils of alcohol. There is a sequence of the homeless and a little later patients in a ‘Country Home’ for the mentally ill. Briefly we see reports of a ‘murdered citizen’. And the film ends first with a ‘perceptual experiment’ using different angle shots of a busy street. And then there is a short instructive sequence on electricity and the new and important medium of radio.

The film displays many of the stylistic quirks and tropes of Vertov’s work. The article in Trud comments:

It has looked at and captured life, which has not been changed by its presence, has not smoothed down its hair or taken a pose, because it has not noticed it.”

This is possibly the most enduring influence of the work of the Factory of Facts. This is cinéma vérité: and the Trud review suggests that this means ‘cinematic truth’, ‘life as it really is’. However Jean Rouch [a key pioneer in the post-W.W.II cinéma vérité movement] suggests that ‘the truth of cinema’ is the more appropriate description of Vertov’s contribution. Certainly in his later and more developed work – i.e. Man With a Movie Camera – Vertov presents up with the world that includes the camera rather than just the world in front of the camera.

Quotations from the Catalogue of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2004.


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Factories of Facts

Posted by keith1942 on August 26, 2014

Camera Eye

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.

Camera man


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.


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Posted by keith1942 on September 26, 2013

This was one of the features from the retrospective of Ol’ga Preobraženskaja and Ivan Pravov at the 2013 Il Cinema Ritrovato. This Soviet film was both a children’s melodrama and a canine odyssey. I was impressed, as apparently was Ian Christie, who exclaimed ‘excellent’ as he left after the film.
The film was adapted from a story by Anton Chekhov of the same name. The title is the name of the dog who goes astray in the story and who is its main focus. Chekhov describes the dog thus:” A YOUNG dog, a reddish mongrel, between a dachshund and a “yard-dog,” very like a fox in face,…” In the film Kaštanka is a terrier, of the border variety: slightly confusingly the Russian title cards were translated at this screening consistently as ‘mutt’. Whilst the plot relating to Kaštanka is retained in the film the point of view is changed from the dog to that of his owner Fedjuška, son of the carpenter Luka. Most of the film is taken up with the misadventures of Fedjuška, plotting added to that of the written story. Kaštanka and Fedjuška are parted at a Moscow market. Kaštanka, after various travails, is taken up b the clown Georges, a relatively benign and comfortable existence. Fedjuška, out at night searching for Kaštanka, falls in with petty thieves and is forced to become a street performer. Predictably boy and dog are reunited at the resolution. The penultimate sequence is set in a circus, an important setting in early Russian and Soviet films. The sight of his lost pal leads Fedjuška to excitedly call his name. And the dog is then passed from hand to hand by the audience to his welcoming owner. A sequence that recalls similar shots near the end of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate.
The cast are very good and were praised by critics at the time, as was the cinematography. One of the film’s virtues is in the depiction of ordinary working life. The film opens with a series of scenes introducing the main protagonists. These include ‘at home’ evenings with Luka, Fedjuška and Kaštanka with neighbours. There is a warm realism about these scenes. When the story moves into the travails of [in particular] Fedjuška the visual tones changes dramatically. The sequences in a doss-house where Fedjuška is kept captive have an expressionist feel to them. The Festival Catalogue noted that the ‘atmosphere and aspect recall Gor’kij (his drama The Lower Depths) more than Čechov.’ The street scenes of searches, first by Fedjuška and then Luka, are also extremely effective. The film develops a real melodramatic tension and release in its final reel.
Ol’ga Preobraženskaja worked in the specialised genre of children’s’ films in the early part of the 1920s. Apart from the quality of the direction of technical aspects she also seems to have been good with children and animals. Jura Zimin as Fedjuška had already worked with Preobraženkaja on another children’s film Fed’kina Pravda (1925). Jackie, who plays Kaštanka in the film, was a real hit with the public. Apparently he became a ‘full-fledged film star’ in the Soviet Union, eclipsing his Hollywood rival Rin Tin Tin.
Jan Leyda, in Kino A History of Russian and Soviet Film (Third Edition 1983) suggests that the film was well received. However, the Catalogue makes the point that whilst it was approved for both national and international release in 1927, in the 1930s it fell foul of changed times. It notes “the decision by the central Committee in charge of film censorship to ban the film for minors in 1932 for its lack of pedagogical value (“the underclass” [one expects the Soviet censors would have use the more accurate appellation of lumpen-proletariat] is portrayed as evil, lacking in class consciousness and social awareness.”).” By 1927 Preobraženskaja and Pravov had moved onto mainstream adult features with the very successful Baby Rjazanskie (The Women of Ryazan). In that production changes were required both at the stage of scriptwriting and of post-production.

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Il Cinema Ritrovato27th Edition 2013

Posted by keith1942 on July 15, 2013


This year’s festival organised in Bologna by the Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna was a crowded week of archival film material. There were programmes of both silent and sound films spread across five venues and enjoyed in part or whole by about 2000 visitors.

One strand, now running since 2003 was The Time Machine, A Hundred Years Ago. Glorious 1913. This was curated in her own inimitable fashion by Marian Lewinsky. It included a range of films – short actualities and short and long fictional narratives. There were contributions from a range of national archives. The short actualities covered a varied range of topics – street scenes, the Mexican War, Greek antiquities, the Niagara Falls [a frequent cinematic sight] and a longer information film, Our Friend the Police. The last title indicated its content, which was produced by the Manchester Police Force. There were several delightful early comedies from the French auteur Léonce Perret. He both starred in and directed these films and they offered a distinctive and delightful Gallic humour. Longer films included the 1912 Italian Quo Vadis? This was an early example of the then new Italian epic running for 94 minutes. There was also Victor Sjöström’s early socially conscious masterpiece Ingeborg Holm. We had a marvellous performances from the early divas Asta Neilsen in Engelein and Lyda Borelli in Ma L’amo mio non Muore. The majority of these programmes were screened in 35mm with their original frame rates and many enjoyed tin ting, hand colouring or stencil colouring techniques.

The Quiet Don

The Quiet Don

One of the real surprises of the festival were a series of early Russian and Soviet films featuring the female star and director Ol’ga Preobraženskaja. Unfortunately her work as an actress only survived in fragments, though Plebej, an adaptation of Stringberg’s Miss Julie from 1915 and directed by Jakov Protazanov, looked very promising. A contemporary review praised her performance as the ‘volatile, sensitive countess’. The bulk of the programme were films that she directed with her partner Ivan Pravov. These were impressive, especially given that the work has been overlooked for a long time. In the 1920s she worked [predictably even in the progressive Soviet Union] on a number of films for children. One of these, Kaštanka (1926) adapted from a story by Chehkov, was a really fine canine film about a boy and his lost dog. Another Fed’kina Pravda (1925) adapted a classic Ukrainian tale of two boys from different sides of the track whose fates dramatise social inequality. Two films, Anja (1927) and Baby Rjazanskie (1927) focussed on central women characters. Whilst Tichij Don (1930) was an early adaptation of the famous Soviet novel And Quiet Flows the Don. Preobraženskaja and Pravov’s work lacked the distinctive montage style associated with the most famous Soviet filmmakers. However, they were popular drama, often with distinctive techniques in filming, and offering a seemingly realist portrait of aspects of life in the 1920s.

Gloria Swanson in Manhandled

Gloria Swanson in Manhandled

The featured early director was Allan Dwan, who worked in Hollywood from 1911 to 1961. His early one-reelers were mainly westerns. What immediately struck me was his tendency to use distinctive framing and a developing command in the use of landscape: both aspects, which may have influenced John Ford. This programme included two films that he directed for Douglas Fairbanks Sr., A Modern Musketeer (1917) and The Iron Mask (1929). There were also two films he directed starring Gloria Swanson. Zaza (1923) had Swanson and H. B. Warner rather miscast in an adaptation of a classic French melodrama. The other Manhandled (1924) was a department store melodrama and made perfect use of the star’s persona. Her Chaplin imitation in this film reappears in the later Billy Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard (1950), as does her co-star from Zaza H. B. Warner. And there was full-bodied Hollywood melodrama East Side, West Side (1927); this is a rag to riches story, which manages to include romance, heartache, the ‘American dream’ and a pretty good facsimile of the Titanic sinking.

One popular strand was Silent Hitch, the full nine restored silent films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. These were all screened from 35mm prints with piano accompaniments. This was an exciting opportunity and the fine grain prints looked good. However, I did wonder why we had to travel to Italy to see the 35mm prints whilst at home in England it seems only possible to see these on DCPs.

Another familiar filmmaker was Charlie Chaplin. This is the latest phase of the ongoing Chaplin Project, restoring the complete 81 titles that Chaplin made across his long career. This year we had the Mutual comedies. These had all been transferred to DCPs. I noted that the Catalogue information was restricted to the number of reels. The equivalent screenings in 2012 had information both on the frame rate for projection and running times. In fact the Cineteca is one of the few venues where the new FIAF frame rates for early film appear to have been implemented. And there certainly were digital projections at this year’s festival where the screening used the historically determined frame rate. I could not get a direct clarification of the change but I assume the explanation is that only some of the Film Archive have so far implemented the FIAF specifications and that we are in an equivalent period to the arrival of sound, when film speeds are something of a lottery. This is rather sad given the scholarship that has gone into unearthing information and the technical effort into screening films as they would have when originally seen.

The Morieux Collection Exhibition

The Morieux Collection Exhibition

One event that did recreate the nearly cinema experience was in the courtyard of the Cineteca. There were two evening screening of films from The Morieux Collection, a Belgium archive based on a fairground mechanical theatre. There was an accompanying exhibition of Archive materials. The films were projected from surviving carbon arc projector provided by Cineservice. Watching the carbon arc projection is a rare pleasure, and it is a light source which has strong illumination and distinctive colour projection. There was a ripple of excitement in the packed courtyard as the projector ‘fired up’. And we then watched a delightful selection of short black and white and coloured films with musical accompaniments.

Of course there was a lot more in the festival programme. But a really important part of the early film programmes are the musicians who provide the accompaniment. Generally this is of a very high standard and adds immeasurably to the screenings. There were certain performances where I was really struck by the accompaniment and its interaction with the film.

Gabriel Thibaudeau provided a very lyrical accompaniment to a 1915 tragic Italian melodrama Tragico Convegno. Antonio Coppola was equally lyrical for a 1913 programme, which included In Peril of the Sea. Maud Nelissen was spot on for a programme of the early Allan Dwan westerns. A new accompanist for me, Matti Bye, provided a minimal but evocative accompaniment for Ingeborg Holm. And the Hollywood drama East Side, West Side enjoyed the playing of Donald Sosin and the singing of Joanna Seaton. It was all very memorable.

It was a very crowded and for me exhausting week. But it was full of memorable films, some of which I have waited years to see. I wait with anticipation the 2014 programme, which presumably will address the centenaries of both World War I and the start of Chaplin’s film career.

Stills courtesy of the Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna.

Posted in Festivals, Hollywood, Scadinavian film, Silent technology, Soviet Film, US pioneers | 2 Comments »