Dziga Vertov (1896-1954)
Notes de cours
Dziga Vertov (1896 - 1954) Biography from Baseline's Encyclopedia
After WWI started the Kaufman family fled to Moscow. In 1916 Vertov enrolled in Petrograd Psychoneurological Institute. For his studies of human perception, he recorded and edited natural sounds in his "Laboratory of Hearing," trying to create new sound effects by means of rhythmic grouping of phonetic units. Familiar with the Russian Futurist movement, he took on the pseudonym "Dziga Vertov" (loosely translated as "spinning top"). In 1918 Mikhail Koltstov, who headed Moscow Film Committee's newsreel section, hired Vertov as his assistant. Among Vertov's colleagues were Lev Kuleshov, who was conducting his legendary montage experiments, and Edouard Tissé, Eisenstein's future cameraman. Vertov would recall later that they were most strongly influenced by Griffith's INTOLERANCE.
Vertov began to edit documentary footage and soon was appointed editor of Kinonedelya, the first Soviet weekly newsreel. His first film as a director was THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE REVOLUTION (1919), followed by two shorts, BATTLE OF TSARITSYN (1920) and THE AGIT-TRAIN VTSIK (1921), and the thirteen-reel HISTORY OF CIVIL WAR (1922). In editing those documentaries, Vertov was discovering the possibilities of montage. He began joining pieces of film without regard for chronology or location to achieve an expressiveness which would politically engage the viewers.
In 1919 Vertov and his future wife, the talented film editor Elisaveta Svilova, plus several other young filmmakers created a group called Kinoks ("kino-oki," meaning cinema-eyes). In 1922 they were joined by Mikhail Kaufman, who had just returned from the civil war. From 1922 to 1923 Vertov, Kaufman, and Svilova published a number of manifestos in avant-garde journals which clarified the Kinoks' positions vis-à-vis other leftist groups. The Kinoks rejected "staged" cinema with its stars, plots, props and studio shooting. They insisted that the cinema of the future be the cinema of fact: newsreels recording the real world, "life caught unawares." Vertov proclaimed the primacy of camera ("Kino-Eye") over the human eye. The camera lens was a machine that could be perfected infinitely to grasp the world in its entirety and organize visual chaos into a coherent, objective picture. At the same time Vertov emphasized that his Kino-Eye principle was a method of "communist" deciphering of the world. For Vertov there was no contradiction here; as a true believer he considered Marxism the only objective and scientific tool of analysis and even called a series of the 23 newreels he directed between 1922 and 1925 Kino-Pravda, "pravda" being not only the Russian word for the truth but also the title of the official party newspaper.
Nevertheless, Vertov's films weren't mere propoganda. Created from documentary footage, they represented an intricate blend of art and rhetoric, achieved with a sophistication that, among Vertov's contemporaries, would be rivaled only by Leni Riefenstahl. Vertov's achievement was also his tragedy. He considered his films documentaries, but they also strongly reflected his personal, highly emotional poetic vision of Soviet reality, a vision he maintained throughout his life. As early as the mid-1920s Vertov was arousing suspicion from party authorities with his utopian and ecstatic cine-tracts and his pioneering techniques, including slow and reverse motion, "candid camera" tricks, bizarre angles, shooting in motion, split screens and multiple superimpositions, the inventive use of still photography, constructivist graphics, animation and most importantly rapid montage that sometimes consisted of only several frames. All these advances also left the masses indifferent. Among filmmakers Vertov acquired the reputation of an eccentric, an extremist who rejected everything in cinema except for the Kinoks' work. Fortunately Vertov, like Eisenstein, received the support of the influential European avant-garde. His feature-length KINO-EYELIFE CAUGHT UNAWARES (1924) was awarded a silver medal and honorary diploma at the World Exhibit in Paris, and that success led to two more films commissioned by Moscow: STRIDE, SOVIET! (1926) and A SIXTH OF THE WORLD (1926).
By now, the central authorities were fed up with Vertov's formal
experimenting, and they refused to support his most ambitious project, THE MAN WITH A
MOVIE CAMERA (1929). To make the film, Vertov had to accept the invitation of the film
studio VUFKU in the Ukraine, where he moved with Svilova and Kaufman. These changes
resulted in the collapse of the Kinoks group and by the time the project was finally
realized there were already several similar "city symphonies" completed by such
innovative filmmakers as Alberto Cavalcanti (in Paris), Mikhail Kaufman (in Moscow) and
Walter Ruttmann (in Berlin). Then too, Vertov's youngest brother Boris Kaufman, who lived
in France, was about to start shooting A PROPOS DE NICE for Jean Vigo. However, Vertov's
film was significantly different from its brethren: its goal was not only to present a
mosaic of the life of a city (a combination of Kiev, Moscow and Odessa) by use of the most
advanced cinematic means, but also to engage spectators in theoretical discourse on the
relationship between film and reality, on the nature of cinematic language and human
In the transition to sound Vertov outstripped Eisenstein and most of the other silent cinema masters. He was prepared for the sound revolution because of his early experiments with noise recording, and in A SIXTH OF THE WORLD he had even discovered substitutes for the human voice: by using various prints in his intertitles and by rhythmically alternating the phrases with images, Vertov achieved the illusion of off-screen narration. His first sound picture, ENTHUSIASM: DONBASS SYMPHONY (1931), was an instant success abroad; Chaplin wrote that he had never imagined that industrial sounds could be organized in such a beautiful way and named ENTHUSIASM the best film of the year. Yet at home it was widely ridiculed as cacophony, in spite of its ideological fervor. Vertov's next film, THREE SONGS OF LENIN (1934), made in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of Lenin's death, had to wait six months for its official release, allegedly because it had failed to emphasize the "important role" of Stalin in the Russian Revolution. Subsequently, the proper footage was added. In spite of these complications, the film turned out to be a popular success both at home and abroad. Even those who had little reason to adore Lenin couldn't help praising the overall elegance of its structure, the elegiac fluidity of montage, the lyrical inner monologue and the highly expressive and technologically innovative synchronous sound shots of people talking. In spite of such success, by the end of the 1930s Vertov was deprived of any serious independent work. He was not persecuted, like many of his avant-garde friends; he lived for almost 20 years in obscurity, editing conventional newsreels, the same kind of films he had once proven so capable of transforming into art.
Six years after his death, French documentary filmmakers Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin adopted Vertov's theory and practice into their method of cinéma vérité. In recent years Vertov's heritage of poetic documentary has influenced many young filmmakers all over the world. In 1962 the first Soviet monograph on Vertov was published, followed by Dziga Vertov: Articles, Diaries, Projects, which was published in English as Kino-Eye, The Writings of Dziga Vertov. In 1984, in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Vertov's death, three New York organizationsAnthology Film Archives, the Collective for Living Cinema and Joseph Papp's Film at the Publicmounted the first American retrospective of Vertov's work, with panels and lectures by leading Vertov scholars and screenings of films by Vertov's contemporaries and his followers from all over the world.