The spinning of a child’s toy top or the whir of a film strip running through the wheel of an editing table—differing legends explain the inspiration for David Kaufman to adopt the alias that history immortalized: Dziga Vertov. In the new Soviet state, the onomatopoetic nom de plume of the 22-year-old son of Jewish librarians represented a pioneering band of documentary filmmakers he called the kinoks, or “cinema eyes.” By making films to stir the masses, they hoped to change the world, and their most ambitious visual manifesto was Vertov’s final silent film, Man with a Movie Camera.
Vertov’s polemical filmmaker persona has eclipsed more personal impressions of him. Before her death in 1976, his widow Elizaveta Svilova wrote: “He was always bursting with plans and fantastic projects. One minute you might find him sitting on a windowsill explaining loudly to someone just why his style of shooting was totally wrong; the next minute he would retreat completely from the world and bury himself in an open book or manuscript. Then suddenly he would grab his things and be off—on a shoot, or off somewhere with a portable projector.”
Born in 1896, David Kaufman grew up along with his two brothers, Mikhail and Boris, in Bialystok, Poland, then a largely Jewish city within the Russian Empire. He studied piano and violin at the Bialystok Music Conservatory in addition to his regular schooling, but later described himself as a distractible pupil, interested in learning about everything but the task at hand. Instead, he wrote fantasy stories and poetry and founded a “Laboratory of Hearing,” inspired by the Russian Futurists who used art to glorify the machine age. In one experiment, he arranged the sounds of a local sawmill into a composition of noise. In 1915, his family fled the German army’s advance into Bialystok, moving to Russia proper. Kaufman briefly attended law and medical school in Moscow and Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), before securing a job editing newsreel for the Moscow Film Committee. In 1918, he changed his name and became the filmmaker we now remember.
Vertov’s metamorphosis was inextricable from the massive upheaval and turbulence of revolutionary Russia. Even as a blockade made filmmaking materials from the West a scarce commodity, Vladimir Lenin declared to Soviet culture minister Anatoly Lunacharsky that cinema was “the most important of the arts.” Newsreels were crucial in relaying information and propaganda to Soviet citizens, both peasants in the countryside and soldiers at the various fronts. Trains carried the latest edition of Vertov’s Film-Weekly series to remote locations, along with cameramen charged with capturing images for future editions.
The brief Film-Weekly segments resembled Gaumont or Pathé newsreels in style. Vertov creatively compiled the most compelling sequences into feature-length documentaries. The Battle of Tsaritsyn (1920) was his first film with footage shot under his supervision. He could find no one willing to edit it to his unusual specifications, until Svilova, a Moscow Film Committee colleague, offered help. She became Vertov’s lifelong editor and, in 1923, his wife. She joined Vertov and his cameraman brother Mikhail Kaufman as the “Council of Three” responsible for the kinoks’ gathering of images for Vertov’s Kino-Pravda newsreels (1922–1925), which incorporated animation, quick-cutting, reverse-motion, and other techniques previously unseen in documentary. The kinoks also became preoccupied with finding ways to film people without their reaction to their camera registering in the shot.
In the mid-1920s, Soviet Russia achieved recognition from foreign powers, and the film industry no longer had to scramble for supplies. A new generation of Soviet directors, Sergei Eisenstein, Esther Shub, Alexsandr Dovzhenko, Vsevelod Pudovkin, and Vertov, competed under a new system, dependent on financial resources channeled through new, state-controlled studios like Sovkino and VUFKU. As Soviet pictures attracted international attention and prospered at the domestic box office, Vertov became increasingly isolated, clinging tenaciously to a cinema free of any literary or theatrical influences. In early 1927, after calculating over-expenditures on Vertov’s latest film, A Sixth Part of the World (1926), Sovkino studio gave the director three days to provide a written scenario for his next undertaking, Man with a Movie Camera. He refused and was dismissed, ultimately bringing his project to the less prestigious Ukrainian film company VUFKU.
Man with a Movie Camera was intended as a visual argument for the place of the documentary filmmaker as a worker, educator, and eyewitness in a proletariat society. The film is an impressionistic view of urban daily life, seen from a purely cinematic perspective. Mikhail Kaufman played the title role, carrying a lightweight camera up the highest rooftops and smokestacks as well as deep into factories and mines to capture extraordinary images. According to scholar Yuri Tsivian, Kaufman thought of himself as “the Buster Keaton of documentary filmmaking.” He determined the camera setups and used no stunt doubles; Man with a Movie Camera was as much his own as his brother’s feat. When the duo disagreed, however, Vertov always won out, creating a rift between the pair. In reaction to Man with a Movie Camera, Kaufman directed In Spring (1930), which used thawing winter as a metaphor for revolution and rejected Vertov’s elaborate editing effects. The brothers never collaborated again.
The Kiev and Moscow premieres of Man with a Movie Camera employed orchestras, using Vertov’s detailed cues for musical themes, instrumentation, and tempo changes. After a brief theatrical run, the documentary became scarce within the Soviet Union. Its fast fade has generally been attributed to a policy shift under Josef Stalin. Artistic formalism was discouraged as an era of social realism took hold. Vertov’s next films, Enthusiasm (1931) and Three Songs of Lenin (1934), gracefully applied his experimental montage approach to soundtrack in addition to image. Both films received praise in the U.S.S.R. and abroad. In 1935, Vertov received the Order of the Red Star but, by mid-decade, his filmmaking was no longer deemed worthy of state support. He wrote of his predicament, “You want to go on working in poetic documentary? All right. In broad terms, we shall allow you to do so. But we cannot put you in the same competitive conditions as other directors.” The remainder of his career was marked by less experimentation and diminishing control over his work.
Since Vertov’s death in 1954, both his films and his writings have become increasingly available. Modest about her own contributions to his achievements, Elizaveta Svilova became a strong promoter of her husband’s legacy, arranging for his writings to be published in several languages and his films to be distributed. Dozens of books and hundreds of scholarly articles have been published on the works he left behind. Retrospectives and screenings have proliferated worldwide. In 1995, le Giornate del Cinema Muto (Pordenone Silent Film Festival) commissioned the Alloy Orchestra to compose a modern score based on Vertov’s musical instructions for Man with a Movie Camera, and, in 2009, a new touring print was struck at the Moscow Film Archive. The legacy of Vertov extends much further than this single extraordinary film—into the very way we think and talk about cinema. In 1961, French documentarians Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin borrowed Vertov’s term kino-pravda when creating a now widespread style of nonfiction filmmaking that we’ve called cinéma vérité ever since.
Presented at SFSFF 2010 with live music by Alloy Orchestra