On the occasion of the re-release of the classic of experimental film, a primer on the career of Dziga Vertov from Philip Concannon (after the jump).
Yelizaveta Svilova was busy organising footage in her office at a Moscow newsreel agency one afternoon when a colleague rushed over to her and said “Your director is jumping from the second floor window.” When she followed him outside she found her future collaborator and husband Dziga Vertov standing on the terrace, his brother Mikhail Kaufman standing below with a camera ready to capture whatever was about to happen. Vertov jumped and landed with a huge burst of laughter. When Svilova asked him what on earth he was doing, he replied, “I want to see life the way it is. When I jumped I was afraid, when I landed safely I was glad.” The trio later reconvened to study the footage that Kaufman had captured, and Svilova recalled this as a defining moment for her: “I realised when I looked at the material that it brought something new to film.”
That anecdote sums up Dziga Vertov. From the start of his filmmaking career he was determined to use his camera to find fresh ways of looking at the world and to liberate cinema from the shackles that he perceived it as being restrained by. As early as 1917, when he had received his first assignment to Moscow’s weekly newsreel series Kino-Nedelya, he was already looking at this nascent medium as something staid that needed to be shaken up. In his poem Start, 1917 he wrote, “Not like Pathé. Not like Gaumont. Not how they see. Not as they want.” and he ended the poem with a defiant call to arms:
Is cinema CINEMA?
We blow up cinema,
to be seen.
Vertov blew up cinema in 1929 with his singular city symphony Man With a Movie Camera, and we’re still feeling the aftershocks today. Last year the film was voted the greatest documentary of all time by Sight & Sound, and this week it reappears on UK cinema screens in a new restoration, with none of its vitality having dimmed in the decades since its debut. The film still feels bracingly new, almost futuristic, and it still possesses the capacity to surprise us, no matter how familiar we might be with it after all these years. Nevertheless, it is that familiarity and Man With a Movie Camera‘s established place in the canon that leads me to move past it and to look at the work Vertov produced either side of this cinematic pinnacle. There may be nothing that can quite match his most acclaimed film for sheer imagination, energy and technique, but there is a passionate desire to innovate and explore the limits of cinema’s possibilities wherever you look, as well as a constant struggle for freedom of expression.
“WE proclaim the old films, based on the romance, theatrical films and the like, to be leprous. Keep away from them! Keep your eyes off them! They’re mortally dangerous! Contagious! WE invite you: to flee the sweet embraces of the romance, the poison of the psychological novel, the clutches of the theatre of adultery; to turn your back on music; to flee out into the open…” This was the manifesto of the Kinoks, the filmmaking collective comprising Vertov, Svilova, Kaufman and others that set out to redefine cinema. They had already displayed flashes of imagination and virtuosity in the Kino-Pravda series of newsreels, which moved increasingly away from standard newsreel practices with structural tricks, more ambitious camerawork and animated inserts, and it was through these works that the Kinoks first proclaimed the superiority of the camera, of the kino-eye, over the human eye.
The first real flowering of their philosophy came in the 1924 feature Kino-Eye, which they described as a “film-thing”. Vertov’s film-thing documents life in a Soviet village, as a collective market is established and young pioneers distribute leaflets encouraging the local drunkards to change their ways, and he finds many opportunities to experiment with different styles. Most famously, an intertitle boasts of the kino-eye’s ability to control time, and in one ingenious sequence a woman makes the mistake of buying her meat from a private seller rather than the co-operative, a mistake that Vertov allows her to rectify by rewinding the film and letting her make a different choice. But he doesn’t stop there, he keeps rewinding until we see a cow being un-butchered (“We give the bull back his entrails! We dress the bull in his skin!”) and led away from the slaughterhouse. Vertov repeats this trick in a variety of ways throughout the film, displaying the same sleight of hand as the magician who delights villagers towards the end of the film.
Kino-Eye was a success for Vertov in Europe, winning a silver medal at an international art expo in Paris in 1925 (Eisenstein took first prize for Strike, fuelling their ongoing feud). This award began a pattern of Vertov’s films being acclaimed abroad while being met with bafflement and suspicion by the authorities at home, and Vertov didn’t do much to help his cause. His next commission A Sixth Part of the World presented him with a huge opportunity, as Vertov was asked to create a propaganda film that encompassed the entirety of the Soviet Union. Eight camera teams were employed to work simultaneously but Vertov’s profligacy landed him in trouble once more as he ran wildly over budget, and the resulting film was heavily criticised for again being too much of a poetic interpretation and not the straightforward picture he was asked for. As he was told by an official reprimand, “We, the administrative directors, dictate the rules of documentary work. Not you!”
Despite this adverse reaction, A Sixth Part of the World stands as one of Vertov’s finest achievements, and perhaps his most fully realised attempt to deliver the prescribed message given to him by the authorities while still experimenting in the way he delivered that message. This celebration of a burgeoning socialist society pushes the idea that every citizen has his or her part to play in the country’s future. “You!” the intertitles repeatedly exclaim as people from each corner of the Soviet Union appear on screen, “You breaking the ice…you bathing your sheep in the stream…And You! And You! And You!” He then turns his mode of direct address to the audience, who are shown watching this very film, making this an inclusive vision that flattens the vast distances between people and cultures from across the enormous country and forges them into a single powerful entity.
Yelizaveta Svilova’s editing is every bit as dazzling here as it is in Man With a Movie Camera; the combination of existing and original footage, the rapid cuts and boldly imaginative effects, and the juxtaposition of idyllic life across the Soviet Union with images of corrupt capitalist societies creates an irresistible and potent rhythm. But what really comes through for me in this film is Vertov’s empathy and curiosity, and his desire to find poetry and truth in the lives of the most ordinary members of society. It’s a beautiful, brilliant piece of filmmaking and with Man With a Movie Camera already taking shape in Vertov’s head, he wrote with some optimism that “Soviet cinema is currently experiencing an unforgettable turning point.” He was right, but not in the way he had hoped.
In 1929, the Sovkino Workers’ Conference altered the landscape of Soviet filmmaking by resolving that the State should exert greater control over film and produce work that “can and must address the millions” with a greater emphasis being placed on a film’s “simplicity and accessibility, clarity and ingenuity.” Following that decree, one can’t imagine a worse time for Vertov to unleash Man With a Movie Camera; a film so unconventional and challenging it’s hard for us to come to terms with its brilliance even today. From this point on the director found himself increasingly constrained by the formal requirements and emphasis on social realism that was imposed upon his work.
He still had one field in which he could play with new tools, as Enthusiasm marked his first attempt to make a film in the sound era, and the film’s soundtrack is its most exciting element. Utilising church bells, radio broadcasts, ticking clocks, industrial sounds and speech, Vertov and Svilova create a symphony that can feel a little rough but frequently harmonises beautifully with the onscreen images. There are striking moments throughout Enthusiasm: a sequence of factory workers toiling through the night to meet their Five-Year Plan deadlines; the cross-cutting between shots of religious devotion and drunk vagrants sleeping on the streets; a few of the familiar Vertov dissolves, time-lapses and montages, but the film feels disjointed and strained too. Vertov himself described it as a scarred film that never stood a chance of being what he wanted it to be: “If an artist’s so hungry to create that he can’t endure the tortures of waiting, of idleness; if he lowers his eyes and agrees to produce a film under clearly hopeless conditions – he makes a mistake.”
Dziga Vertov would make two more films, Three Songs About Lenin and Lullaby, and while both have their virtues (Svilova, perhaps sentimentally, named Lullaby as her personal favourite of their collaborations), they feel more like the stodgy produce of the state than the work of the man who two decades earlier had planned to “blow up cinema.” Vertov spent the last 17 years of his life editing mainstream newsreels, occasionally submitting proposals for new features only to have them immediately rebuffed. After twenty years spent fighting for artistic freedom, Dziga Vertov was finally swallowed up by the system, but his groundbreaking experiments with film form changed the language of cinema and expanded people’s understanding of what this medium could be. Could he have imagined the influence his innovations would have on filmmakers who followed? Could he have suspected that he would be celebrated almost 90 years later? Maybe not, but he did allow himself to dream of such a legacy: “We remain unacknowledged and unpaid to this day. We have the most thankless task, sowing yet reaping nothing. Perhaps our creative flights will be acknowledged and admired one day. Liza and I haven’t given up hope that the coefficient of our work will somehow multiply, decades from now.”