Saluting the Supreme Soviet Filmmaker, Dziga Vertov

Saluting the Supreme Soviet Filmmaker, Dziga Vertov
MOMA

The greatest red documentary filmmaker of the 1920s, the greatest documentary filmmaker of the ’20s, the greatest filmmaker . . . ever? In the alternate universe where vision trumps commerce and formal innovation displaces narrative, Dziga Vertov (1896–1954) rivals Stan Brakhage and Oscar Micheaux as supreme inventor of motion-picture form.

Vertov—bellicose bard of revolutionary euphoria, singer of the social body electric, and now subject of an extensive retro at MOMA, in collaboration with the Austrian Film Museum—was the most contentious and inventive of Soviet filmmakers and, for a time, one of the most obscure. The French rediscovered him in the late ’50s as the pioneer of cinéma vérité; ’60s radicals claimed him as a proto-McLuhan media theorist and film artist who fused two vanguards, aesthetic and political.

Born David Kaufman, Vertov was a rabbi’s grandson and the eldest child of a semi-Russified bookseller; he grew up in Bialystok, a then mainly Jewish industrial city, hometown to the inventor of Esperanto, the universal language. Could there be a visual equivalent? Red October interrupted young David’s studies, diverting his ambition to be a Futurist noise-poet. Kaufman became “Dziga Vertov” (a Russian-Ukrainian amalgam meaning “spinning top,” or perhaps “permanent revolution”), boarding one of the Bolshevik agit-trains that, crisscrossing Russia throughout the Civil War, were moving film labs devoted to the making and showing of short “agitational” newsreels.

Musique concrete made visible: Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass
MOMA
Musique concrete made visible: Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass

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Dziga Vertov
MOMA
April 15 through June 4

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In the manifesto-mad Moscow of the early ’20s, Vertov formed the Kinok (Cinema Eye) group with his wife, Elizaveta Svilova, and younger brother Mikhail Kaufman. (A third brother, Boris Kaufman, would go west to make movies with Jean Vigo and eventually win an Oscar for On the Waterfront.) The Kinoks staked out a left position, with some political cover: Their weekly film newsreel was named, after Lenin’s newspaper, Kino-Pravda and, echoing Marx’s characterization of religion, they denounced narrative cinema as the opium of the masses. But their real radicalism derived from a sense of cinema as material. The “film-object,” produced in a Factory of Facts without actors or script, would be constructed out of footage “just as a house is made with bricks.”

Of course, Kinok bricks were ballistic. Their newsreels regularly deployed split screens, multiple exposures, reverse motion, variable-speed photography, prismatic lenses, freeze frames, shock cuts, pixilation, and stroboscopic editing—anything and everything to demonstrate that cinema was not a means to tell a story but a machine art produced with a mechanically improved, all-seeing eye. Vertov’s first feature, Kino Eye (1924), was largely shot with a hidden camera and subtitled Life Off-Guard. Subsequent commissioned works—Stride Soviet! (1926), One Sixth of the World (1926), and The Eleventh Year (1928)—were tendentious, ecstatic, and never less than controversial in using the brave new world of the motion-picture apparatus to celebrate the brave new world of industrialized Soviet reality.

The work culminated in Man With a Movie Camera (1929), which, evoking the sensory bombardment of 20th-century urban life, employed strategies of visual analogy and associative montage so intricate that they are still yet to be named. At once a Whitman-esque documentary-portrait of the Soviet people, a self-reflexive essay on cinematic representation, and an ode to the transformative power of human labor, this fantastically cross-referenced, cubo-kaleidoscopic city symphony took parallel action to the third—or fourth—dimension. Designed to destroy habitual movie watching by revealing the ways in which the camera and film editor construct reality, Vertov’s masterpiece had the remarkable effect of encouraging the spectator to identify with the filmmaking process. Indeed, given the density of the editing, this supreme film-object demands to be studied on an editing table to be fully appreciated. Small wonder that it was condemned, by Sergei Eisenstein, among others, for formalist madness and fetishized technique; there had never been anything like it.

Man With a Movie Camera’s whirligig visual ruckus cried out for audio accompaniment; a year later, Vertov produced his first sound-object. With Enthusiasm (1930), the kino-eye met the radio-ear. As in an animated cartoon, sound was synchronized to but not synchronous with the image: Enthusiasm, subtitled Symphony of the Donbass, was a composition in noise, making brilliant use of contrapuntal, artfully mismatched audio effects. Nominally an attack on religion (which is brought down to earth amid a cacophony of factory whistles and industrial ululation), Enthusiasm more fundamentally celebrated sound as a thing in itself. This, however, was as far as Vertov would march as the vanguard’s vanguard.

Enthusiasm is musique concrète made visible. There was nothing disjunctive about the sound mix in Three Songs of Lenin (released in 1934 and re-edited four years later), a hagiographic conglomerate of lyrically edited stock footage and direct interviews (a cinematic first) that would become Vertov’s greatest hit as well as the film with which—reconciled to the demands of socialist realism—he hit the wall. Vertov was harassed throughout production by the doctrinaire Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, whom he attempted to placate by criticizing his earlier masterpieces: “In previous work I frequently presented my shooting methods outright. I left the construction of those methods open and visible. . . . And this was wrong.” And so was that.

Vertov was neither exiled nor executed but merely marginalized. (His career ended as it had begun; he spent his last 15 years editing newsreel footage, anonymously.) His last personal project, filmed largely in Central Asia, would be a joyful celebration of mothers and children—and Stalin. Hardly artless in its rhythmic editing, Lullaby (1938) is as soothing as its title suggests. Coming from the filmmaker who, not even a decade before, declared cinema’s mission the production of a sentient audience rather than “an unconscious mass submissive to any passing suggestion,” it was also a tragic irony, a wake-up call in reverse.

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8 comments
yabanjin
yabanjin

Of course, the idea that narrative cinema is the opium of the masses is complete hogwash. But formal innovation can also be very interesting. Wish I was back in NYC right now so I could check out this exhibition. Sounds fascinating.

Sakara
Sakara

so, what's the difference between a soviet film maker and a nazi film maker....? stalin and hitler were once the best of buddies, right up to that surprize event of the nazis invading the soviet union.

even contemporary russians don't give a shit about soviet directors.

Bojan
Bojan

you are illiterate or brainwashed full, sakarash:) most of american film directors are puppets of United States fascist leaders like Bush or Obama (or all american presidents, all of them been fascist) and they use their hollywood:)) garbage for propaganda of democracy and american dream but this two categories doesn't exist at all. As far as soviet film directors concerned, all european and american intelectualls recognize their genius. Without Eisenstein, Tarkovsky, Vertov and all this high profile artist...well, that would be disaster. Hollywood is nusproduct of that kind of absence of creative, intellectual ideas. Europa is on the side of grat artist. You are one of those brainwashed victims of america's fascist system. You belong to majority of american citizens. You are stupid. Period.

Carl Russo
Carl Russo

This isn't an article about Soviet or Nazi filmmakers. It's about one Soviet filmmaker who is revered not only in Russia but worldwide.

Sakara
Sakara

As if...the only people who like these old commi directors are old farts and pretentious young idiots who still buy all that commi propaganda.

Sakara
Sakara

no, soviet movies have ALWAYS been for pretentious young idiots

Biff
Biff

Have you actually seen any of his films, dipshit?

sdsd
sdsd

What's the difference between a soviet filmmaker and a british filmmaker? Chamberlain (and king george) and Hitler were once the best of buddies, right up until the nazis invaded poland.What's the difference between Frank Capra and Josef Goebbels? Congress stopped Roosevelt from participation in world war two right up until Pearl Harbour was bombed.

ps you are a pretentious young idiot

 

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