Tag Archives: Soviet cinema

Man with a Movie Camera

Man with a Movie Camera
Man with a Movie Camera

Format: Limited-Edition 4-Disc Dual-Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 18 April 2016

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Dziga Vertov

Writer: Dziga Vertov

Cast: Mikhail Kaufman

USSR 1929

68 mins

Dziga Vertov’s silent Soviet classic remains a visionary masterpiece.

Made in 1929, Man with a Movie Camera was unlike any film made before (or since). It was directed by the cinematic visionary Dziga Vertov – a pseudonym that seems to translate as ‘whirling spinning-top’ and sounds more Soviet than David Kaufman. As he declares at the beginning of the film, Vertov’s aim was to find a new art form, a truly cinematic cinema free from the influence of the theatre and literature. And with Man with a Movie Camera he was wholly successful – creating an essay on the language of cinema written with the movie camera itself. Arguably one of the greatest films ever made, it is wildly entertaining, technically breathtaking and intellectually and theoretically fascinating. And yet this brave new direction was to lead to a dead end.

Lenin had declared cinema to be the most important of the arts and thus nationalised film production in 1917. He saw its great potential to educate and inspire Russia’s mass of illiterate workers. Dziga Vertov cut his teeth making agitprop movies on the famous propaganda trains that spread news of the revolution around the enormous Russian hinterland. Like many Soviet directors he rejected the language of bourgeois cinema and sought to create something new – a cinema fit for their great new society. Vertov thus passed a ‘death sentence’ on contemporary cinema, and with typical communist zeal, set about writing his manifesto – Kinoks: A Revolution. Writing in the style of a revolutionary poet he claims: ‘The innards, the guts of strong sensations are tumbling out of cinema’s belly, ripped open on the reef of revolution.’

Vertov and his collaborators, including his brother Mikhail Kaufman and his wife Elizaveta Svilova, shot news reels and documentary footage often shown on a train called ‘The October Revolution’. With his two documentary series Kino-Glaz (Kino-Eye) (1924) and Kino-Pravda (Kino-Truth) (1925) Vertov set out ‘to see and show reality in the name of the proletarian revolution’. The films show positive depictions of communal farming, village fetes and other slices of revolutionary and/or communal life. They were shot without a film studio, actors, sets or even a script, in candid camera style, filming participants unawares.

Vertov would continue to use these techniques in Man with a Movie Camera. Like Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), the film depicts a day in the life of a city – although actually shot over three years in four cities (Kharkiv, Kiev, Moscow and Odessa). All of life is contained in these 68 minutes – sleeping and waking, commuting, working, relaxing, drinking and more. We see two weddings, one divorce and a funeral. We see a baby as it is born and a dead body surrounded by flowers. There is the dramatic – fire engines and ambulances rushing – and the mundane – packing cigarettes, shining shoes and dying eyebrows. All of this is shown without the context of a story.

Man with a Movie Camera is as much about the process of making the film and watching the film as it is about the daily life depicted. The film crew are characters too. It is their everyday work we are seeing. We see the car coming to pick up the cameraman to start his day. We see shots directly into the camera lens, we see the cameraman carrying his tripod. This is more than a simple Brechtian distancing device or a post-modern gimmick – it is showing the reality. After the low-angle shot of the miners dragging the carts over the camera, the film cuts to the cameraman lying on the floor under the carts, employed in his own labour – the making of a film. There is no attempt to disguise the fact that what we are watching is something created. The film opens with a movie theatre and an audience arriving. We are even shown a film of a film being projected.

For Vertov it is a cinema free from exploitation – nobody is being fooled. He saw himself as a ‘positive illusionist’: there are camera tricks aplenty but Vertov is never trying to trick the audience. We see how the camera works – window blinds closed then opened to let in light; a vase of flowers is blurred and then focused. And yet Vertov does all this playfully and for entertainment. Double exposures show the cameraman in a beer glass, an edit shows a foot on the railway line as a train approaches. Fellow Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein called the film a ‘compendium of formalist jackstraws and unmotivated camera mischief’. Without Eisenstein’s didactic montage Vertov’s message is more subtle. He is showing reality on both sides of the camera, and he is making audiences think rather than telling them what to think. He is teaching his audience to read a film. And with no or minimal intertitles, he is creating an international language to match the Esperanto the Soviet leaders were learning – a cinematic language that could become a tool of international labour solidarity.

The film celebrates the process of rapid industrialisation that the USSR was going through at the time. And cinema, the exciting new art form, is perfectly suited to show this. Cogs and gears of industry are edited to match the movements of the camera apparatus. Cinema is the art of the mechanical age.

However, the times were conspiring against Vertov. The late 1920s were perhaps the greatest turning point in cinema history. With the coming of sound the newest art form began to develop new modes of production. The freedom of movement that the silent pioneers were allowed disappeared as cumbersome sound equipment restricted camera movements. The camera that Vertov’s cameraman seems to take anywhere and everywhere was stuck inside a sound studio. And the language of the theatre (script, sets, dialogue, acting) began to reassert itself.

Similarly the USSR was approaching its own turning point after a difficult first decade of civil war, the death of Lenin and compromise in order to feed the country. The next phase saw the internal struggle that would determine where the great social experiment would go next, and who would control it.

Both Vertov and Eisenstein were to find themselves out in the cold (though, unlike some, not literally) as Stalin consolidated power and the new doctrine of ‘socialist realism’ came to the fore. The regime famous for its doctored photographs – as disgraced former leaders were air-brushed from history – had no interest in depictions of reality. Art would be used to obscure the truth and create myths. Great heroes (often proletarian heroes) doing great deeds were needed. Dyed eyebrows and shiny shoes were surplus to requirements. And although Vertov’s influence was eventually to be felt – in the direct cinema, cinéma vérité and other such trends in the West in the 50s and 60s – his career in the USSR was over.

Vertov’s films were criticised for artiness, intellectualism and lack of popular appeal, and yet he had always imagined Man with a Movie Camera as mass entertainment. And it is an entertaining movie, fast-paced, funny, visually accomplished and full of fascinating details. The new Alloy Orchestra soundtrack adds to these delights. The drum kit and repetitive riffs enhance the pace. The metallic percussion punctuate the mechanical themes. We even get synced voices of crowds and synced bell chimes. Man with a Movie Camera now looks and sounds amazing – it is what cinema could have become had it been allowed to break free of the chains of literature.

Paul Huckerby

This review was first published in July 2015 for the BFI’s theatrical release of a remastered print of the original film.

Watch the trailer:


Kin Dza Dza

Format: DVD

Distributor: Ruscico, Mosfilm

Director: Georgiy Daneliya

Writers: Georgiy Daneliya, Revaz Gabriadze

Cast: Stanislav Lyubshin, Levan Gabriadze, Evgeniy Leonov, Yuriy Yakovlev, Irina Shmeleva

Soviet Union 1986

135 mins

Kin-dza-dza! is one of the strangest artefacts in all of Soviet cinema. It’s a science fiction satire in which Vladmir and Gedevan, a gruff Russian construction worker and a Georgian student, find themselves accidentally transported to Pluke, a barren desert-world with a barbaric, bureaucratic society. Gradually realising that they are not in a ‘capitalist country’, the two men begin a long and farcical voyage home that more closely resembles the theatre of the absurd than it does any preconceived notion of cinematic science fiction. The men befriend two locals, Bi and Wef, and are soon busking their way across Pluke and becoming ensnared in various misadventures that stem from the planet’s bizarre and unbendable social rules, and its two-tier social structure of ruling Chatlanians and subservient Patsaks.

There are many things to note about Kin-dza-dza!: the satire that struck a chord with a Soviet audience experiencing the first flourishes of glasnost but that can seem impenetrable to a contemporary audience; the ‘used future’ mise-en-scene that anticipates the subversive combinations of salvagepunk, with items that look like ships and ferris wheels half-submerged in the arid desert; the buried Christian themes; the melancholy-comic dirge that constitutes the film’s score.

But one of the most noteworthy things is the film’s creative use of language: the bizarre Plukanian tongue, which rivals A Clockwork Orange’s ‘nadsat’ as a futuristic dialect, despite mostly consisting of the word ‘koo’. The near identical ‘kyoo’ is a swear word, and there are a few other specific terms, such as ‘pepelats’ for spaceship, ‘etsilop’ for police, ‘etsikh’ for prison, and ‘Gravitsapa’, which they spend much of the film trying to obtain so that they can get back home.

Soviet science fiction had always been an arena for voicing social critique and ridicule, and could be cloaked in futuristic and fantastical trappings. Danelia and his co-writer Revaz Gabriadze (the founder of Tbilisi’s puppet theatre) took advantage of the far-fetched scenario by foregrounding Georgian-ness against the wider expanse of Russia proper. Georgian, which shares neither an alphabet nor a common root with the Russian language, is the first language of both writers, and some of the language used in the film comes from their native tongue. ‘Etsikh’ is from the Georgian word ‘tsikhe’ for fortress, while the film’s title, named for the galaxy that Pluke is found in, comes from ‘kindza’, the Georgian word for coriander. Most humorously, they capitalised on the non-Russian word ‘katsap’, used to describe Russians in other Soviet republics. The scriptwriters reversed the word, and also reversed the social order so that the Russians find themselves on the lower social strata.

The philosophers Deleuze and Guattari used ‘minor literature’ to describe work done from the point of view of a minority in the ‘major’ language of the coloniser. Kin-dza-dza! transposes elements of minor literature to cinema. The script reflects the frustrations of having a language imposed from above, most of it sounding like an unfamiliar, monotonous noise, but it also demonstrates the strangeness, potential and richness of language; French, Georgian (ideal for creative obscenities), German and English are all heard in the film along with Russian.

The puppet-like gestures that the lowly patsaks have to perform when confronted with their superiors back up this linguistic satire, where gesture becomes a grotesque parody in which power relations are laid bare. This is also true for the busking, done from inside cages, with Vladimir sawing the violin back and forth in a threadbare parody of musicianship.

Near the film’s conclusion, the desert is exchanged for a verdant paradise as Vladimir and Gedevan touch down on the planet Alpha, where they meet patrician overlords in white robes. Perhaps intended to represent the Soviet elite, the Alpha race don’t prove to be the key to redemption or restoration for Vladimir and Gedevan, despite their advanced society and utopian veneer. The film constantly raises questions, but answers few of them. The rules on these other planets simply ‘are’, and if they are not followed, then one risks ending up trapped in a box or transformed into a cactus.

Kin-dza-dza! is still adored in Russia and former Soviet republics, but is little known in the Anglophone world. Some of its humour and reference points may appear to be Soviet specific. But as we move towards an increasingly confusing and complex society, Danelia’s film is likely to become increasingly relevant, and perhaps the glossy new animated version (which was released in Russia in April 2013) will bring this salvagepunk prototype to wider acclaim.

John A. Riley

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