Tag Archives: propaganda

A Sixth Part of the World

A Sixth Part of the World

Format: DVD

Distributor: Austrian Film Museum

Director: Dziga Vertov

Writer: Dziga Vertov

Original title: Šestaja čast’ mira

Soviet Union 1926

73 mins

Also on the same DVD: Dziga Vertov’s The Eleventh Year (Odinnadcatyj, Soviet Union 1928)

More information on the Film Museum website.

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.

Eleanor McKeown



Format: DVD

Release date: 17 May 2010

Distributor: Mr Bongo Films

Director: Alexander Dovzhenko

Writer: Alexander Dovzhenko

Original title: Zemlya

Cast: Stepan Shkurat, Semyon Svashenko, Yuliya Solntseva, Yelena Maksimova, Nikolai Nademsky

Soviet Union 1930

76 mins

The Nazi ideologues despised other ‘races’ as inferior creatures. The ideologues of the Soviet Union turned their hatred inwards and despised the ‘classes’ that made up their country, including the very proletarians they exalted. Like Plato they believed that the workers could not be trusted with the truth, could not be relied upon to form the ‘right’ judgements on the basis of shared information; so the plan was to bring them to an appropriate form of consciousness by the manipulation of stirring art. Hence watchers of Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1930 silent film about collectivisation of agriculture in the Ukraine must accustom themselves to being treated like dimwits. You can see who the hero is because he is strong and tall and handsome: his confident bearing and zealous gaze tell you that you should side with him. Inspirational words are declaimed boldly by the good guys; the bad guys skulk and cringe. Don’t expect irony or subtlety: that would be un-Soviet.

Shouldn’t we make more imaginative effort to do what the makers of Zemlya (Earth) wanted its viewers to do, to identify with the heroic struggle of the workers? I don’t think the subsequent history of the Soviet Union attests to the value of that identification. Never mind the robbing and killing of those who were decreed to be on the wrong side of the struggle. Most of the several million Ukrainians who died in the famine that followed two years after this film was made were poor peasants.

Since we’re dealing with a propaganda film here, let’s assess it as a political ploy. Was it judicious to try to arouse the poor peasants’ resentment against the less poor peasants (the kulaks)? No: resentment and hostility between social groups was a factor in the failure of the Soviet project. Of course it was absurd to blame the kulaks for the plight of the poorer peasants. Soviet leader Zinoviev admitted: ‘We are fond of describing any peasant who has enough to eat as a kulak.’ But Soviet ideology demanded a ‘class enemy’, and the kulaks were the only candidates conveniently to hand. The release of Zemlya coincided neatly with Stalin’s 1930 decree that ‘the resistance of this [kulak] class must be smashed in open battle and it must be deprived of the productive sources of its existence and development’.

Was the appeal to collective interest above individual interest judicious? No: even the unarguably poor had their goods confiscated in the name of the collective, and the prospect of striding gladly into the future alongside their comrades was not sufficient compensation (many of them preferred to destroy their property and animals rather than hand them over). Individuals may be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of their families, but to induce them to do so for the sake of a collective, mostly composed of strangers, would require a stronger motivating message and far greater skills of dramatic persuasion than displayed in this film.

But wait - isn’t it supposed to be OK to like this film? Don’t its admirers say that it was subversive of Soviet policy? Isn’t Alexander Dovzhenko a Ukrainian cultural hero?

Certainly the reception of Zemlya in both Russia and Ukraine was violently mixed: but the cultural climate of the time was so mistrustful that it was almost impossible to make any artistic move without being criticised from one quarter or another as being insufficiently revolutionary-minded. The strongly Ukrainian character of the film may have made Russian viewers uncomfortable, and the Party faithful apparently did not like the fact that it showed the dark side of life rather than being relentlessly positive. We know that the Soviet censor edited the film before release. But the nature of his cuts (nudity, urination, prenatal labour) suggests that his discomfort was rooted in prudery rather than ideology.

Dovzhenko’s best hope for moral exoneration might be to embrace the subsequent criticisms of the most extreme Stalinist zealots: that his film was not as anti-kulak as it might have been. But that cannot alter the fact that the kulaks are the villains of his film - the enemies of its heroes.

What we have is a sincere paean to collective agriculture, released shortly after the launch of Stalin’s policy of forced collectivisation and confiscation, and used as propaganda for that policy, which involved killing and deporting large numbers of Ukrainians and deliberately depriving most of the remaining population of their means of subsistence. Which was Dovzhenko - a conscious agent of Stalinism? Or a ‘useful idiot’? Either way, his film contributed to the ruin of his beloved Ukraine.

I have scarcely mentioned the aesthetic qualities of the film: there are certainly some memorable images that stay in the mind and are strongly evocative of their time and place. I admire the simplicity and dignity of many of the shots and scenes. But Zemlya is hard to take seriously as a dramatic work because of its blinkered worldview and lack of interest in the ambiguity and mutability of human experience and interaction. I do not think it can have been purely on grounds of aesthetics that this was voted one of the 10 best films of all time in 1958. These critics were presumably motivated by thoughts about the historical significance of the film. But it is precisely its historical significance as a work of destructive propaganda that makes it a distasteful watch.

Peter Momtchiloff