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.
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. ...