It twists, it clunks, it shifts, it squeaks. Objects in motion, objects in synchronisation with sounds; audio-visual harmony, a perfect metaphor for Soviet collectivist supremacy. A pulsating network of people and machines and machines that make machines that people use to make machines to excavate coal and reap wheat and make movies. The dynamism of production shot with a gimlet-eyed mechanism and chopped with the finesse of a novice butcher.
Dziga Vertov’s symphonic 1930 experimental documentary film is primarily known as a bold foray into audio-visual synchronisation, commended for its deft and poetic use of concrete sound. Sound was not a new plaything for Vertov. Prior to experimenting with film, Vertov lurked in the orbit of cubo-futurist poet Mayakovsky, studied music, despatched miscellaneous essays and polemics about sound, radio and cinema and had attempted a major phonographic project - essentially a sound studio for the recording and cataloguing of concrete sound. He was also well versed in the art of propaganda film, having been an editor of the Kino-Pravda newsreels. He formed the Kino-eye collective, its remit to document actuality as opposed to theatrical or literary cinematic staging. Indeed, unlike that other Russian master of montage, Sergei Eisenstein, Vertov actually went out into the field, the factory, the street, to document quotidian life as it unfurled. Whereas Eisenstein would manipulate, restage and re-enact reality on scales both grand and pompous.
Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass deploys, as its title implies, a musical structure in three movements derived from the symphony. The first movement appears to riff on religion (as opiate) versus mass communication. The second engages with heavy industry and the third primarily deals with agriculture. The soundtrack bristles with a gorgeous Brillo pad fuzziness, the images the work of a kinetic, acrobatic, camera that has its roots firmly embedded in the follicles of constructivist geometry and futurist dynamism.
Enthusiasm begins with three sounds, a cuckoo and an andante pizzicato bass and woodwind motif. We see extreme close-ups of tightly framed faces, a telephonist or radio operator, symbolising the auditory. Vertov plays a Brechtian card - we see the conductor of the film’s musical score conducting the film’s musical score. The sound of a bell is juxtaposed with the image of an ornamental crown - the death knell of Czarist autocracy. Shots of fluid religious architecture follow - church spires, onion-domed temples that quiver in the lens, and phrenological studies of the proletariat. We hear Russian orthodox liturgy underscored with a cuckoo, people at prayer followed by the gorgeous close-up of a human ear. Vertov rather crudely juxtaposes religion with mass communication. He tries a few camera tricks - time-lapse, double exposure - to convey both ecstatic delirium and just what a man with a movie camera is capable of.
Then he pauses to show us a constructivist maquette of a factory, the merry-go-round of state industrial production. In a loop, miniature tractors and goods speed around, followed by shots of a real factory and a mine. Chiaroscuro industrial pornography shot from hard geometric angles - furnaces, gantries, chimney stacks, a bridge, a black mound of coke. These images are loosely affixed to the sound of a steam whistle edited into a modulating electro-acoustic drone, which recurs throughout Enthusiasm in different variations.
The final, agricultural, section features a dance in a grain field, demented folk music, a procession of collectivist agricultural workers intercut with yet more industrial smoke belches, filthy black mechanisms and more Stalinist brass band pomp.
Enthusiasm is ultimately a propaganda film for totalitarian Soviet collectivisation. However, the film does not depict Soviet efficiency so much as it is itself mechanised Soviet state capitalism incarnate. It was an innovative thing no doubt, yet the innovation took place against a backdrop of hardcore economic interventionism, famine, Gulags, ethnic cleansing and slave labour. Riefenstahl aside, one wonders why cinema historians don’t have the same regard for fascist cinema or, rather, why cinema critics are a little softer on communist totalitarianism than they are on fascist totalitarian art.