My first viewing of A Sixth Part of the World (1926) was over the internet - an erratic fuzzy copy with subtitles, strangely enough in indecipherable Esperanto. Mildly exasperating. Still, through the frozen screens and illegible intertitles, Dziga Vertov’s striking ethnographic and mechanical shots of bygone Soviet Russia and his note-perfect, rhythmic editing shone from the screen. Workers’ faces faded over mechanical cogs; an arctic fox was inspected , eye gleaming in gray scale; sheep were flung into the sea with fleece turning to frothing waves; fruit rolled and hopped into a wooden box in beautiful stop-motion, straw shuffling on top with brown paper following, all with a joyful, playful pace.
The Austrian Filmmuseum’s recent DVD release brings the context of these images alive. The film’s (thankfully English!) intertitles sing out an exultant panegyric to socialism. The images become visual prompts; impressionistic examples that bolster Vertov’s message. Russia is the ‘hub for the workers of the West; a hub for the people of the East who stand up to fight against the yoke of Capital’. Lenin is saluted as the ‘Icebreaker’, a great ship slicing through still oceans laced with icebergs: ‘You break the ice with your chest. You pave the way for our freighters, to trade our grain, to trade our furs for needed machines, machines that produce other machines which in turn accelerate the rate of growth of production of more machines.’
This unerring belief in industrialisation and endless quest to produce machine after machine conjures up a terrifying vision for 21st-century viewers, who have been reared on environmentalist messages and science-fiction nightmares, in which machines turn on mankind. Indeed, the politics of the film often appear just as antiquated as a 19th-century attempt to create and disseminate a universal, international language. Religion is seen as a dying phenomenon (‘Here and there, there are still women with veiled faces. Some still recite the rosary. Still some act crazy… slowly the old is disappearing like you disappear into the icy distance’). Capitalism cries its final death throes (‘on the brink of the historical downfall the capital celebrates’). A world socialist revolution is seen as inevitable (‘Oppressed countries gradually leaving the world of Capital. They will pour forth into the stream of the united socialist economy’). The capitalist system might have just crashed around us but Vertov’s utopian vision is yet to materialise.
Yet, while the political idealism of A Sixth Part of the World might jar with modern scepticism about political spin, the film still appears fresh and vital. Some of Vertov’s views do not provoke cynicism and successfully transcend his era, particularly those regarding race and racial diversity. He attacks racism (‘Black people existing for amusement as chocolate kids’) and celebrates ethnic differences across the Soviet Union (‘from the lighthouse at the Arctic Circle to the Caucasus Mountains’). In fact, the film, at times, acts as a kind of travelogue, chronicling and rejoicing in traditional ways of life, culture and dress. Vertov sent out his cameramen (or ‘kino-eyes’ as he referred to them) to the far reaches of the country, with instructions to shoot specific groups of peoples. The film asks these disparate ethnicities to unite behind socialism, addressing each in turn (‘You Tatars, You Buryats…’), never once asking them to lose their cultural differences.
More than this, the reason why the film appears so vibrant, rather than a clunking, dated piece of propaganda, is its stunning approach to the media of film and the subtlety of its rhetoric. The film never presents a didactic piece of dogma. Instead the message unfolds slowly, washing over the viewer. Just as Vertov’s later masterpiece Man with a Movie Camera (1929) created effervescent crescendos and lilting diminuendos, the rhythm of A Sixth Part of the World is extraordinary (and supplemented on this DVD version with a buoyant soundtrack by Michael Nyman).
The film, together with the feature Forward Soviet! (which enjoyed a limited release earlier in 1926) marked a departure for Vertov after three years working on a series of newsreels, Kino-Pravda. During his work on the newsreels, Vertov began to experiment with cinematic ‘artificialities’ and came under attack for his idiosyncratic, personal approach to films that were meant to serve a primarily informative, journalistic function (although the idea that a news story could ever avoid subjectivity is, of course, a problematic contention). Described as a ‘film poem’ in its credits sequence, A Sixth Part of the World was a controversial challenge to the documentary genre. The reception was mixed among contemporary critics and Vertov was forced to defend himself on two accounts: for not representing the world as a newsreel should; and, conversely, for not being artistic enough because he renounced fictional staging. A Sixth Part of the World was then, as now, hard to categorise.
Indeed, ‘poetry’ is the best term to describe its form. The poetry of oration: the rhythm and the power of words to uplift. Vertov may be known as a master of visual artistry but it is his language that stands out in this film. Repetitive refrains, inventive juxtapositions and emotional calls to arms ring out from the intertitles. The images are harnessed to support the text - to give the audience time to contemplate and let the words ripple over them. Like poetry, the film does not passively document, but rather attempts to present the viewer with a series of universal truths; truths about humankind as seen by Vertov. The work opens with a shot of a plane and the text ‘I see’ - a list starts to assemble of the things ‘I’ can see (‘the golden chain of Capital, foxtrot, machines’) until ‘I’ lands on ‘you’. The camera alights on the nape of a bobbed-haired woman: ‘And You. And You. And You.’ The repetition of ‘you’ draws the viewer into the text, into the images themselves. In one self-reflexive moment, Vertov even shows cinema-goers watching an earlier piece of the film (‘And you sitting in the audience’). But it is only at the very end of the film that Vertov suggests that the ‘I’ and ‘You’ could have been a political speech-maker and audience all along; the closing sequences show a crowd gathered around a speaker and the text of the intertitles becomes an edited version of a Central Committee report, given by Stalin at the Fourteenth Congress of the Communist Party in 1925. The film is far too subtle to set such roles in stone.
In his book, Dziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film, academic Jeremy Hicks has highlighted links between A Sixth Part of the World and the poetry of Walt Whitman, finding analogies between Vertov’s use of the first person and the recurring use of ‘I’ in Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’. Both use ‘I’ to serve as the collective nation, taking a broad sweep across humanity. When Whitman sent the first edition of his anthology, Leaves of Grass, to Emerson, he asserted that the greatest poet should change the character of the reader or listener. With A Sixth Part of the World, Vertov was attempting to do just that.