Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Man With a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov

The film drama is the Opium of the people…down with Bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios…long live life as it is!

Dziga Vertov

David Abelevich Kaufman (Давид Абелевич Кауфман; Denis Kaufman; pseudonym Dziga Vertov; Дзига Вертов) was a director, screenwriter, and theoretician of documentary film, one of the creators of its language. He came to Soviet documentary film in 1918, inspired by the ideas of the revolution, and became known as a vivid innovator and experimenter. Vertov’s films One Sixth of the World (1926), Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1930), Three Songs about Lenin (1934), and especially Man with a Movie Camera (1929) remain models for generations of documentary filmmakers.

His filming practices and theories influenced the cinéma vérité style of documentary moviemaking and the Dziga Vertov Group, a radical filmmaking cooperative which was active in the 1960s. Vertov's brothers Boris Kaufman and Mikhail Kaufman were also noted filmmakers, as was his second wife, Elizabeta Slivova Vertov was born David Abelevich (later changed to Denis Arkadievich) Kaufman into a Jewish book-dealer’s family in Białystok, Russian Empire (now Poland). He was a pupil at the Białystok Modern School [realnoe uchilishche] from August 1905 through June 1914, and (from c1912) studied violin, piano and music theory at the city's conservatory as well.

Starting in the fall of 1914, Vertov began a general course of study at psychologist Vladimir Bekhterev's famous Psychoneurological Institute in Petrograd — the only Russian institution prior to the February Revolution (of 1917) that was accepting Jewish students. His classmates counted the future globetrotting Soviet journalist Mikhail Koltsov (his former classmate from Białystok as well), future journalist Larissa Reisner, future film historian and filmmaker Grigorii Boltianskii, and future director Abram Room Meanwhile, with the advance of German troops into Białystok in August 1915, Vertov's family became refugees in Petrograd and later Moscow. Vertov was recruited into a special musical section at a military academy in Chuguev, near Khar’kov, Ukraine – early in the fall of 1916, and never returned to his studies in the Psychoneurological Institute, although he may have intended to. He remained at the academy until the February Revolution of 1917, after which time he left for Moscow, the city that was to be his base for the remainder of his days.

He took his pseudonym at around 1918. “Vertov” is a futurist neologism derived from the Russian verb vertit’sia, to spin or turn; “Dziga” is the Ukrainian word for a “(spinning) top”, although he has been signing his poems in that fashion since at least 1915. As an adult, he was formally addressed as "Denis Arkadievich Vertov", and this sort of Russification of name was typical for the young members of the Russophilic Jewish milieu in which he grew up.

Impressed and influenced, like many others of his generation, by futurism, he began to write science fiction and sound poems, experimenting with the perception and arrangement of sound. During the summer 1916 vacation he began his first experiments with sound, producing verbal montage structures.

In 1916 he attempted what would now be called sound poetry and audio art. As he put it: "I had an idea about the need to enlarge our ability for organized hearing. Not limiting this ability to the boundaries of usual music. I decided to include the entire audible world into the concept of 'Hearing'." He attempted to create new forms of organization of sound by means of a rhythmic grouping of phonetic units. During his schooling Vertov struggled with text. Once, preparing for classes, he discovered that after organizing geographical place names in a rhythmic order, he could easily remember the entire sequence. This became his favourite method of memorizing.

"As a result of these self-enforced experiments I became interested in the rhythmic organization of separate elements of the visible and audible world in general. The next stage was my passion for editing shorthand records. It concerned not only the formal connection of these pieces but also the interaction of meanings of separate pieces of shorthand records. It also concerned my experiments with gramophone recordings, where from the separate fragments of recordings on gramophone discs a new composition was created. But I was not satisfied experimenting with available pre-recorded sounds. In nature I heard considerably more different sounds, not just singing or a violin from the usual repertoire of gramophone discs."

"On vacation, near Lake Ilmen. There was a lumber-mill which belonged to a landowner called Slavjaninov. At this lumber-mill I arranged a rendezvous with my girlfriend... I had to wait hours for her. These hours were devoted to listening to the lumber-mill. I tried to describe the audio impression of the lumber-mill in the way a blind person would perceive it. In the beginning I wrote down words, but then I attempted to write down all of these noises with letters.

Firstly, the weakness of this system was that the existing alphabet was not sufficient to be able to write down all of the sounds that you hear in a lumber-mill. Secondly, except for sounding vowels and consonants, different melodies, motifs, could still be heard. They needed to be written down as musical signs. But corresponding musical signs did not exist. I came to the conviction that by existing means I could only achieve onomatopoeia, but I couldn’t really analyze the heard factory or a waterfall... The inconvenience was in the absence of a device by means of which I could record and analyze these sounds. Therefore I temporarily left aside these attempts and switched back to work on the organization of words.

Working on the organization of words, I managed to destroy that contrast which in our understanding and perception exists between prose and poetry... Some of these works, which seemed to me more or less accessible to a wide audience, I tried to read aloud. More complex works, which required a long and careful reading, I wrote down on big yellow posters. I hung out these posters in the city. I attached them myself.

My work and the room where I worked were called the ‘Laboratory of Hearing','' After the 1917 February Revolution Vertov was for several months studying law at Moscow University, also attending lectures in the Department of Mathematics.

Koltsov, who became acquainted with the Bolshevik intellectuals Anatoly Lunacharsky and Grigorii Chicharin shortly after the October 1917 events, and was named chair of the newsreel division of the All-Russian Cinema Committee of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment early in 1918, hired Vertov as his secretary in May of that year. Although Vertov, unlike Koltsov, never joined the Bolshevik Party – indicating instead in a 1918 questionnaire that his political sympathies were “anarchist-individualist” in character – he became committed early on to the Soviet cause, as both an administrator and a filmmaker.

Vertov, being frustrated by the absence of any adequate means for sound recording, switched to film. As he reflected: "Once in the spring of 1918... returning from a train station there lingered in my ears the signs and rumble of the departing train ... someone swearing ... a kiss ... someone’s exclamation ... laughter, a whistle, voices, the ringing of the station’s bell, the puffing of the locomotive ... whispers, cries, farewells ... And I thought to myself whilst walking: I must get a piece of equipment that won’t describe but will record, photograph these sounds. Otherwise it’s impossible to organize, to edit them. They rush past, like time. The movie camera perhaps? Record the visible ... Organize not the audible, but the visible world. Perhaps that’s the way out?"

By the end of 1918, Vertov had taken over administrative responsibility for the first Soviet newsreel series, Kino-Nedelya [Кино-Неделя; Cinema Week] (43 issues between May 1918 and June 1919); in 1920 and 1921, he took part as administrator, programmer and film presenter on the "October Revolution" agitational train, one of a number of such trains that went through territories recently captured by the Red Army during the civil war, propagandizing for the new regime, and often carrying various high-level representatives of that regime onboard. (It was in connection with his work on this train that he met his first wife, pianist and fellow activist Olga Toom.) During this period, he made the acquaintance of many figures who would play important roles in Soviet fiction and non-fiction film, including actor and director Vladimir Gardin, director and pedagogue Lev Kuleshov, and cameramen Eduard Tisse and Aleksandr Levitskii. By 1922 he was one of those in charge of newsreel production at Moscow’s film studio, and remained at the center of non-fiction film work there until 1927.

Vertov worked on the Kino-Nedelya series for three years, helping establish and run a film-car on Mikhail Kalinin's agit-train during the ongoing Russian Civil War between Communists and counterrevolutionaries. Some of the cars on the agit-trains were equipped with actors for live performances or printing presses; Vertov's had equipment to shoot, develop, edit, and project film. The trains went to battlefronts on agitation-propaganda missions intended primarily to bolster the morale of the troops; they were also intended to stir up revolutionary fervor of the masses.

Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass
Enthusiasm (Symphony of the Donbas) is the first Ukrainian sound film. Filmed in 1930 by the world-class master of the cinematic avant-garde Dziga Vertov, it became the first motion-picture in which real industrial and routine sounds not only illustrated the visual range, but also served to create an independent musical image.

The film was dedicated to the First Five Year Plan, glorified industrialization and collectivization as well as propagandized the fight against illiteracy and religion. Enthusiasm was shot during the year when the Ukrainization program was cut down, so the camera of the cameraman Boris Zeitlin still captured many indications of Ukrainization in Donbas.

The film named by Charlie Chaplin one of the most impressive sound symphonies was released in theaters on April 2, 1931, but shortly after was removed from distribution and forgotten. It was rediscovered only in the 1960th due to the renewed interest to the Soviet avant-garde in the West.

The film was restored by the National Dovzhenko Film Studios on request of the State Film Agency of Ukraine in 2011.

I would never have believed it possible to assemble mechanical noises to create such beauty. One of the most superb symphonies I have known. Dziga Vertov is a musician -Charlie Chaplin


Tri pesni o Lenine, 1934
Three anonymous songs about Lenin provide the basis for this documentary that celebrates the achievements of the Soviet Union and Lenin's role in creating them.

Man With a Movie Camera 1929

A montage of Moscow life showing the inhabitants through the eye of a movie camera. Its actors are the machines and people of the city photographed in all sorts of situations with the camera following all of their movements. Although produced by the Communists, it does not preach a message.

Vertov and his Contemporaries

The majority of the films produced in Russia following the Revolution were blatant propaganda films that glorified the Communist rule with the removal of the restrictions imposed by the Czarist authorities as few liberal young filmmakers had the opportunity to follow their own ideals. Most of the future filmmakers were very young in 1917 when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Czar. Dziga Vertov was 21, Lev Kuleshov was 18, Vsevold I. Pudovkin was 24, Sergi Eisenstein was 19, Boris Barnet was 15, and Alexander Petrovich Dovzhenko was 23.

They more or less had a free hand in selecting their subjects. Vertov had his montages. Barnet had his comedy ideas reflected in "The Girl With The Hatbox," and many churned out the glory of the revolution such as Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin." They squabbled among one another on who was serving the state and who wasn't, and as early as 1919 Vertov wrote his first manifest. In 1922 he wrote to a cinema publication condemning the play-film as an entertainment form alien to the needs and wishes of the new Soviet audience. For a few years a group of disgruntled filmmakers formed their own group called Factory of the Eccentric Actor, or FEX, that defied critics and tradition. When the Communist Party took complete control of the cinema and imposed rigid restrictions at the end of the silent era, even the most ardent Communists were silenced for one reason or another.

Breadth and Precision of the Camera's Recording Ability

"Man With a Movie Camera" was an effort to show the breadth and precision of the camera's recording ability, and similar films were produced in a few other European countries. The film is a succession of images supposedly showing the audience what the camera eye is seeing. Vertov's brother, Mikhail Kaufman, is the cameraman, and at times another movie camera follows "Man With a Movie Camera" on the street and in other places. In one sequence some women in a cab notice the cameraman smirk and gesture at the camera as they ride through the streets of Moscow.

Vertov explained his actions with profound statements such as, "Construction must be understood as the co-ordinating function of Constructivism. If the tectonic unites the ideological and formal, and as a result gives a unity of conception, and the factura is the condition of the material, then the construction discovers the actual process of putting together. Thus we have the third discipline, the discipline of the formation of conception through the use of worked material. All hail to the Communist expression of material building."

"Man with a Movie Camera" did not receive very favorable reviews, and one contemporary review said, "Theorists mostly love their theories more than a father loves an only child. ... Vertov also has waged fierce, vehement and desperate battles with his materials and his instruments (reality and the film camera) to give practical proofs of his ideas. In this he has failed. He had already failed in the era of the silent film by showing hundreds of examples of cunning artistry in turning:acrobatic masterpieces of poetic jigsaw, brilliantly conjuring of filmic association - but never a rounded work, never a clear, proceeding line. His great efforts of strength in relation to detail did not leave him breadth for the whole. His arabesques totally covered the ground plan, his fugues destroyed every melody."

Sergi Eisenstein, who was busy churning out films glorifying the Communist rule, had this to say about Vertov and "Man With a Movie Camera" - "formalist jackstraws and unmotivated camera mischief."
Denis Kaufman Becomes Dziga Vertov

Dziga Vertov, born Denis Arkadievitch Kaufman (1896-1954), was the son of Jewish intellectuals who moved to Moscow to flee the invading German armies during World War I. He trained as a musician and neurologist, and he had studied at the Moscow Psycho-neurological Institute. He was also a poet, fiction writer and journalist. He was conducting experiments in synthetic sound before the outbreak of hostilities against the Czar. During the revolution he was in charge of photographic work in a partisan army fighting the Czar, and in 1918 after the Communist takeover, he was placed at the head of the Cinema Department of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. It was there that he met his future wife and collaborator, Elizaveta Svilova (1900-1976), who began her film career with Pathe Freres in Moscow. He abandoned the name of Denis Kaufman and adopted Dziga Vertov which was derived from the verb which means to spin and Dziga is the repetitive sound of a camera crank turning

(dziga, dziga, dziga ... ).

Dziga formed a propaganda unit, Kino-Eye, and he launched a massive campaign of newsreel coverage. This massive propaganda campaign was an attempt to break down the social barriers of the different Russian ethnic groups by blending propaganda and art.

In 1919 Vertov, with Russian President Kalinin, toured the Civil war battlefields with a propaganda train known as "The October Revolution" whose purpose was to encourage the Communist soldiers to continue fighting the Czar's armies. Vertov was the founder of Soviet documentary, and he was an enthusiastic opponent of the theatre, staged events and fiction in film. Contradicting his theories, he was said to have made many films commemorating Lenin's death. Vertov loved machines and the tricks that the camera was able to do fascinated him. "Man with a Movie Camera" is a result of his fascination. He filmed "Man with a Movie Camera" using a candid camera, filming undercover or from a distance, using split screens, dissolves, superimposition, slow motion, crude animation and freeze frames. He seemed devoted to tram cars, shuttle looms, traffic signals, and motor cars, and he traveled throughout the country side and into factories. He was very active for a number of years producing Cine Weekly (1918-1919), a series of 12 documentaries for the Anniversary of the Revolution (1919), 23 episodes of "Cinema Truth" (1923), fifty-five editions of "Goskino Kalendar" (1924), six episodes of "Camera Eye" (1926) and numerous other films proclaiming the wonders of the masses. He was assisted by his wife and his brother, Mikhail Kaufman (1897-1979).

Falling Out of Favor 

By 1930 Constructivism, Leninism, and the Bolshevik idealism had been replaced by the Stalin dictatorship and bureaucracy. By the mid-1930's Vertov was no longer favored by the regime that he had promoted. "Three Songs of Lenin," his tribute to Lenin, was delayed in its release, allegedly because it neglected Stalin. In the age of perestroika Vertov was labeled as an exponent of totalitarian cinema on a par with Leni Riefenstahl, as someone who did not stand up sufficiently against the cruel and inhuman state. In the United States, Vertov has never received the adulation given Sergi

Eisenstein who spouted the Communist line until he lost favor with Stalin and his cronies.

The Eleventh Year 1928

In the form in which we have each of these documentaries by Dziga Vertov,Odinnadtsatyy, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the 1917 revolution and, therefore, marking the launch of the Soviet Union’s second decade, is far more lyrical and rhythmic than A Sixth of the World (1926). It, too, is one of the most beautiful films ever made.
Shot on location in the Ukraine, including, initially, the Dnieper River,Odinnadtsatyy documents the construction of power stations to electrify the region. Two signature shots: the “wild river,” headed for damming, superimposed across ordinary homes in the region; at night, one such home, at the other end of the process, now electrically lit up.
In between, considerable contributory labor is shown, some of which parodies the ghastly labor in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926). Title-screens repeatedly direct us “Underground,” and there is even a factory shift-change where exiting workers are replaced by entering ones. However, Vertov’s portrayal isn’t glum and soulless as is Lang’s; there’s a spring to everyone’s step, because men and women are pulling together, “under the banner of Lenin,” for the sake of their new nation’s future. Whereas Lang shows us the oppression and exploitation of workers in a capitalistic society, Vertov shows us spirited workers in a society striving toward socialism.

                               Shagay, sovet! 1926

As head of Kultkino, Goskino’s documentary section, Vertov was commissioned to make an election-year campaign film on behalf of the sitting Mossovet (Moscow Municipal Soviet). Never one to follow orders, he failed to include any images of Mossovet officials at work, or any evidence of their achievements, and the film was thus denounced by the Presidium Committee of the Moscow Soviet and largely boycotted by movie theaters. Their loss is our gain, however, because we can see Vertov’s 1922 manifesto “WE” put into practice: “For his inability to control his movements,” Vertov wrote, “WE temporarily exclude man as a subject for film. Our path leads through a poetry of machines, from the bungling citizen to the perfect electric man.” Automobiles, engines, factory tools are literally brought to life—“the hearts of the machines are beating”—and operate in perfect synchronicity toward the advancement of the New Russia.


A Sixth Part of the World 1926

A Sixth Part of the World (Russian: Шестая часть мира, Shestaya Chast Mira), sometimes referred to as The Sixth Part of the World, is a 1926 silent film directed by Dziga Vertov and produced by Kultkino (part of Sovkino). Through the travelogue format, it depicted the multitude of Soviet peoples in remote areas of USSR and detailed the entirety of the wealth of the Soviet land. Focusing on cultural and economic diversity, the film is in fact a call for unification in order to build a "complete socialist society". A mix between newsreel and found footage, Vertov edited sequences filmed by eight teams of kinoks (kinoki) during their trips. According to Vertov, the film anticipates the coming of sound films by using a constant "word-radio-theme" in the intertitles.Thanks to A Sixth Part of the World and his following feature The Eleventh Year (1928), Vertov matures his style in which he will excel in his most famous film Man with a Movie Camera (1929).

Soviet Toys, 1924

A “cartoon” that, in the words of are own Jonathan Crow, “displays [Vertov's] knack for making striking, pungent images,” “yet those who don’t have an intimate knowledge of Soviet policy of the 1920s might find the movie — which is laden with Marxist allegories — really odd.”

Kino-pravda #21

Also known as Lenin Kino-Pravda, “a special, longer-than-usual issue of [newsreel] Kino-Pravda,” as the Hardvard Film Archive describes it, “in which Vertov jumps with boldness and ease between newsreel and drawn animation to illustrate Soviet Russia’s way up under Lenin’s leadership, the decline in Lenin’s health, and the year elapsed since his death.”

Kino Eye 1924

Vertov’s first documentary not made from found footage journeys, according to a contemporary newspaper, “from the Pioneer camp, through the peasant courtyards, through the fields, through the markets and slums of the town, with an ambulance car to a dying man, from there to workers’ sports grounds, and so on and so forth, peering into all the little corners of social life.”

“I'm an eye. A mechanical eye. I, the machine, show you a world the way only I can see it. I free myself for today and forever from human immobility. I'm in constant movement. I approach and pull away from objects. I creep under them. I move alongside a running horse's mouth. I fall and rise with the falling and rising bodies. This is I, the machine, manoeuvring in the chaotic movements, recording one movement after another in the most complex combinations.

Freed from the boundaries of time and space, I co-ordinate any and all points of the universe, wherever I want them to be. My way leads towards the creation of a fresh perception of the world. Thus I explain in a new way the world unknown to you.”

Dziga Vertov