New Films 






# 8, April 2005

 John MacKay (Yale University )

The “Spinning Top” Takes Another Turn: Vertov Today

Interest in the work of Dziga Vertov (as distinct, at least partially, from vertovovedenie proper) has peaked at least three times since the moment Vertov (born David Abelevich―later Denis Arkadievich―Kaufman in 1896; died 1954) began to emerge as a significant artist of experimental-documentary film circa 1922.  The first period was Vertov’s own “golden age,” stretching from 1922 to 1934, during which time his films and provocative theories attracted enormous attention both in the Soviet press and (starting in the late 1920s) abroad as well.  The second began post-1956, and was spearheaded by Vertov’s widow and creative partner Elizaveta Svilova-Vertova, who by the late 1960s was in frequent contact with filmmakers and critics interested in Vertov’s legacy from all over the world.  

This second wave―on the basis of which Vertov’s contemporary reputation still depends―attained an early climax in Nikolai Abramov’s pioneering monograph[i] and Sergei Drobashenko’s collection of Vertov’s writings,[ii] but went on to intensify internationally through the 1960s and 1970s.  The idea of Vertov as a self-reflexive filmmaker who took a self-consciously “oppositional” stance both to the blandishments of fiction film and to dominant Soviet production practices (if not to the Soviet state itself) found enormous resonance among filmmakers (such as Jean Rouch, Richard Serra, and the “Groupe Dziga Vertov,” which included  Jean-Pierre Gorin and Jean-Luc Godard), theorists (for example, Stephen Heath, David Bordwell, Pietro Montani, Gilles Deleuze, and above all Annette Michelson), and film historians (especially, in the West, Seth Feldman) alike.  Meanwhile, Soviet scholars carried out path-breaking archival research with a focus on the beginnings of Vertov’s career, research still largely unknown in the West.[iii]  

The Western half of this “wave” culminated first in 1984 with the publication of the Michelson/O’Brien Kino-Eye collection and a large New York retrospective of films in April and May, and later in 1987 with Vlada Petrić’s Constructivism in Film (Cambridge UP, 1987), perhaps the best critical (and, to a lesser extent, biographical) monograph on Vertov in English.   The high point of this phase in Soviet scholarship was surely reached with Roshal'’s  Dziga Vertov (1982), still―in spite of a regrettable absence of footnotes and other scholarly apparatus―the fullest one-volume treatment of Vertov available.  

The perestroika period saw a noticeable waning of interest in Vertov among Soviet scholars, which had distinct consequences for Western Vertov studies as well, which had for so long depended entirely upon work originally done by researchers in the USSR.  On the Soviet side, perhaps a filmmaker who had so passionately hymned Lenin and the First Five-Year Plan (not to mention Stalin in Vertov’s Lullaby [1938], which came to public light during these years) began to seem unworthy of serious consideration, even distasteful, in those heady days of critique and “openness.”  Meanwhile, a kind of familiarity effect seems to have set in among Western film scholars (at least in the US), whereby Vertov was felt to be an established and “understood” classic―this, despite the fact that the vast majority of his work, and much regarding the context in which that work was produced, remained unknown.  This effect (if that’s what it was) probably occurred mainly through the academic institutionalization of Man with a Movie Camera (1929), by now a fixture in introductory film courses nationwide (in part because of its featured role over successive editions of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art).  At the same time, and with exceptions like the work of Bill Nichols, the study of documentary played a relatively marginal role in these formative years for academic film studies in the US, with the result that few were prompted to investigate the “documentarist” Vertov (who might even have been perceived as something of an embarrassing naďf, tagging along behind the avant-garde) or the Vertov of “intellectual-cinema” (with his high theoretical seriousness).  Finally, some of the difficult political questions surrounding Vertov’s work―questions raised in a manageably indirect way by Man with a Movie Camera―might have dissuaded some scholars, if only unconsciously, from complicating the legacy of the now-venerated modernist and/or prophet of later media culture.  

Oddly enough, then, after this extraordinary flush of “kino-eye” enthusiasm, Vertov-mania tapered off among scholars and critics, even while Vertov’s films and writings became pedagogically indispensable within film studies programs, and his position as one of the central figures in three distinct cinema traditions―those of documentary, avant-garde, and political film―was definitively established.  In truth, this “waning” was a relative phenomenon only; both veterans like Listov and Roshal', and younger Russian scholars, especially Aleksandr Deriabin and Yuri Tsivian, continued to produce outstanding analytic and archive-based work right through the 1990s.  The center of theoretical energy passed in many ways to Europe, and especially to Germany and France.  A fine collection of essays in German,[iv] and a superb one in French,[v] appeared in the wake of Vertov’s centenary, as did two Vertov-centered issues of the Austrian journal Maske und Kothurn.  Even a brief glance at Thomas Tode’s bibliographies of recent work on Vertov [vi]―not to mention Tode’s own collections, essays, and his excellent film on Vertov, made with Ale Muńoz and photographed by Rasmus Gerlach [vii]―gives the lie to any suggestion of a full-scale Vertov eclipse.  

Yet within the English-speaking sphere it is pretty clear that, after the mid-to-late-1980s, the importance of Vertov’s film and theoretical work grew strangely out of proportion to the amount of useful scholarly/critical writing available on that work.  Apart from a few recent and significant articles published in October, boundary 2, and elsewhere, English-language scholarship has lagged behind both theoretically and in terms of research.  The most recent study of Man with a Movie Camera [viii] incorporates virtually no original archival material―now readily possible to gather in Russia―with the result that its “close reading” of the film, while attempting to de-mystify the political-modernist Vertov of Michelson and others, ultimately lacks both novelty and the historical/cultural nuance that any treatment of Vertov’s work requires.  By the end of the 1990s, a certain drought of Vertov-resources was making itself felt, especially as both Petrić’s book and Feldman’s pioneering studies had long been out of print, and neither Abramov’s nor Roshal'’s monographs had found their way into English.  Deficiencies in the existing English resources, precious though they are, could hardly be ignored.  The justly classic Kino-Eye, for example, is an essentially unedited translation of the  Drobashenko 1966 edition, a Thaw-era production that both alters the experimental “constructivist” form of some of the essays and excises all political content (in particular, references to Stalin and his policies) that had become taboo by the mid-1960s.  Thus, these triple absences―new work on Vertov, new translations, and most importantly by far, new archive-based research―brought about a strange and entirely unnecessary “stagnation” in the study of this least stagnant, most permanently challenging of directors.  

It is no doubt in response to these needs that the third burst of Vertov-mania has flared up over the last few years.  The real beginnings of this surge can be traced back to the 1996 centenary, when numerous important essays appeared in Russia and in Europe, and when Kino Video released its DVD of Man with a Movie Camera, with a nonpareil commentary track by Yuri Tsivian and a wonderful score (based on Vertov’s “musical scenario” for the film) by the Alloy Orchestra.[ix]  The “third wave” reached a major culmination from 9 through 16 October 2004 in Sacile, Italy, where the largest-ever presentation of Vertov’s films (curated by Yuri Tsivian) took place.  The festival allowed spectators to see Vertov’s trajectory not merely from the beginning to the end of the silent period, but (as Tsivian points out in his program notes for the catalog) as a single ongoing project, a kind of Balzacian (and Leninist!) “Comédie” in documentary.  The program likewise made manifest all the cultural and historical streams that fed into Vertov’s art, from Civil War newsreel and the “agit-trains” through constructivism and Whitmanian “poetic cinema.”  Not only were virtually all the available films―from the Kino-nedelia newsreels (1918-19) through Man With a Movie Camera―exhibited, but also other kinok films like Moscow (1926) by Il'ia Kopalin and Vertov’s brother Mikhail Kaufman, and Kaufman’s extraordinary In Spring (1929), alongside related Soviet documentaries like Iakov Bliokh’s legendary Shanghai Document (1928).  We were also treated to extraordinary (and extraordinarily illuminating) oddities, such as the almost entirely unknown work of Albrecht Blum, who “appropriated” sections of Vertov’s The Eleventh Year (1928) and Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora (1928) for his film In the Shadow of Machines (1928), much to Vertov’s chagrin.  Arguably the one significant absence in the program (from a “context” perspective) was any film by Esfir Shub, whose The Great Path (1927) was originally Vertov’s project, prior to his being sacked by Sovkino at the beginning of 1928―though this is a minor quibble; the stunningly rich program was packed to overflowing as it was, and no doubt Shub deserves a (long-overdue) festival tribute all on her own.  

The screenings were designed to coordinate with a fascinating exhibition of Vertov paper materials (including poems, sketches, draft plans) and, more importantly, with a new volume of Soviet and non-Soviet reviews and responses to (and some by) Vertov in the 1920s, edited by Tsivian with translations by Julian Graffy and commentary by Aleksandr Deriabin.[x]  Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties is certainly the most important book to appear in English on Vertov since Kino-Eye; to my knowledge no other Soviet filmmaker’s reception has been as “thickly” and richly described as it is here.  Lines of Resistance gives the English-bound reader long overdue access to important aspects of that specific “system of period pressures” (in Tsivian’s phrase) within which Dziga Vertov lived, fought, and created during the 1920s.  Previously, as Tsivian indicates, we had been far more familiar with Vertov’s own ideas, his “impetus”―his struggle for “non-acted” film, his experimentalism, his antagonism toward “art”―than with the “terrain,” whether hostile or hospitable, within which that impetus was fated to develop.  Here, the terrain is offered us, along with valuable signposts for navigating through it.  And all the silent films are treated, from the Kino-Pravdas on―not just Man with a Movie Camera (!), although we learn some things about that film, too.

The book offers a wealth of almost wholly unknown critical commentary on and data about the reception of Vertov’s films.  Hitherto, our (English-language) conception of Vertov has largely been determined by those of his own writings that have been available (mainly in Kino-Eye and in Richard Taylor and Ian Christie’s The Film Factory[xi]) and through comments on Vertov by comparably important figures (mainly Eisenstein, to some extent Brik and Shklovskii).  We now get not only a richer, more diverse array of “takes” on Vertov, not only those of famous figures like Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, and John Grierson, but also the brilliance of critics like Khrisanf Khersonskii, Naum Kaufman, Konstantin Fel'dman, and others largely unknown in the West and mainly forgotten in Russia.  

What we get here for the most part are minds and voices other than Vertov’s.  These are often very sharp minds and strong voices indeed.  Our encounter with them will enable us to perceive for the first time the conceptual and institutional atmosphere in which Vertov worked and polemicized, and to see his pronouncements as part of a much wider early Soviet (and world-wide) debate about documentary and proletarian art.  Vertov’s ideas, which too often feel like “pronouncements” in isolation, can now be read as moments within a rich and (in my view) ongoing, still vital dialectic.  None of the binaries that dominated Vertov’s thought―acted versus non-acted film, bourgeois versus proletarian cinema, or the whole vexed relationship between “documentary” and “montage” aesthetics―went unquestioned in the 1920s, and the debates included in Lines of Resistance will surely resonate for those working in the study of documentary and “experimental” film more generally.  

While the selection and arrangement of texts constitutes a major interpretation of Vertov in itself, the more explicitly interpretive portions of Lines of Resistance―Tsivian’s introduction and his excellent commentaries to the images generously included in nearly every chapter―are unfailingly illuminating and amount to a whole series of miniature lessons in the close analysis of images.  The introduction provides the reader not only with clues to the overall shape of the volume and of Vertov’s entire silent career, but also with strategies for thinking about and linking the articles in rich and illuminating ways.  Finally, several of the chapter foci―like the controversy surrounding One Sixth of the World (1926), the Albrecht Blum scandal, Benjamin’s comments on Vertov, and (surprisingly enough) Eisenstein’s extraordinarily incisive critiques of Vertov, here gathered together for the first time―will come as revelations even to those readers who thought they “knew” Vertov.  

     The commentaries to the texts included in Lines of Resistance were written by Aleksandr Deriabin, whose knowledge of Vertov (and of Soviet documentary generally) is second to none.  The European launching of Deriabin’s own massive edition of Vertov’s Dramaturgicheskie opyty took place in Sacile as well; like Lines of Resistance, Dramaturgicheskie opyty goes a long way toward those “archival lacunae” discussed above.  Indeed, Deriabin’s volume makes at least three major contributions to the study of Vertov.  First, it gives us much more accurately edited and thoroughly annotated versions of all the available scenarios for Vertov’s documentary features than we have ever had before, from History of the Civil War (1922) through Three Songs About Lenin (1934; re-edited by Vertov in 1938) to The Oath of the Young (1944).  It also enriches our knowledge of the films and of Vertov’s working methods through its inclusion of variant or draft scenarios (especially for Stride, Soviet! [1926], One Sixth of the World, The Eleventh Year, Three Songs About Lenin, and Lullaby), and of documents pertaining to the actual exhibition of the films, such as the hitherto unpublished “musical scenarios” for One Sixth of the World and The Eleventh Year.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, Dramaturgicheskie opyty gives us an unprecedented look at Vertov’s unrealized plans, some produced before the great period of the silent features (ranging from “advertising films” like Incident in a Supermarket (1923) to abstract “etudes” like Hands, Legs, Eyes, Themes (written between 1922-24), but especially the nearly forty scripts drafted after 1934, during the long, bitter twilight of Vertov’s career.  Well over half of the book’s 536 pages are devoted to these unrealized projects; in the case of The Girl and the Giant (1940), the multiple script variants are augmented by a full presentation of the storyboards (drawn by the illustrator B. Eliseev), such that we get a genuine and detailed impression of Vertov’s plan for this stunningly imaginative (and Stalin-celebrating) film.  Like Emma Widdis’s fascinating analysis of Aleksandr Medvedkin’s unproduced The Accursed Force in her recent book on that filmmaker,[xii] Deriabin’s presentation of Vertov’s plans suggests that a vast dimension of Soviet (and non-Soviet) film practice―the world of the unrealized script―awaits full exploration by researchers, film historians, and theorists.

B. Eliseev's storyboards for Dziga Vertov's script for The Girl and the Giant (Dziga Vertov, Iz naslediia.  vol. I: Dramaturgicheskie opyty. Moskva: Eizhenshtein-Tsentr, 2004: 303).


On the level of content as well, Dramaturgicheskie opyty will deeply complicate our image of Vertov in several ways.  Most obviously, this massive volume forces us to return again to the whole question of the “script,” the “plan,” as it relates to Vertovian “non-acted” cinema.  For what, after all, are “dramaturgicheskie opyty” doing in Vertov’s corpus at all?  As Deriabin notes in his introduction, Vertov seems to have become both more touchy and more scrupulous about this issue after getting fired from Sovkino at the beginning of 1927 for refusing to provide his boss, Il'ia Trainin, with a script for the film he was then working on, Man With a Movie Camera.  Little is known about what the ultimate shape of this “first” version of the film would have been like, although many meters were shot for Man during the production of One Sixth of the World.  Missing from Deriabin’s very useful selection of statements by Vertov on this issue is one comment found in a typescript from a debate among members of the Association for Revolutionary Cinema (ARK) on 16 February 1928, when Vertov tried to defend his distinction between a “script” and a “plan” before a skeptical audience; it adds a slightly different nuance to what we already know about Vertov in this connection:  

A scenario demands not the filming of facts, but rather immediate staging [instsenirovka].  A plan differs from a scenario in that a kino-eye plan is a plan of action for the camera’s elucidations, for the determining of a specific theme (on the basis of serious preparation, and the elucidation in advance of as much as possible)...  A theme worked through in this way is turned into a calendar and itinerary plan...             [emphasis in the original typescript].  

When he insisted that, contrary to popular belief, a plan of this type differs less from the finished film than a literary script does, someone in the audience cried out (quite logically) that “surely this is the perfected form of a scenario!”  “No!” replied Vertov―  

If we are working with a pre-fabricated description of a room where we have never been, this description may turn out to bear no relation to reality.  You will then need to shoot everything you can see, and toss aside your preconceived scenario.  Each scene [stsena] will require staging [instsenirovka].  A scenario or a sum of scenes [summa stsen] equally require staging [instsenirovka].  Only a kino-eye plan, the “camera’s plan of action,” frees the film from acting [igra] and makes the film an unplayed film. [xiii]  

Thus, Vertov seems to imagine kinok cinema as neither a filming of staged events (instsenirovka) nor a post-facto imposition of (fictional) order upon chaotically filmed reality (summa stsen), but rather as an organized recording of reality based upon studying and “scouting-out” the given “theme” prior to shooting.  As both Deriabin and Listov point out, Vertov had to curb his anti-script bias starting in the 1930s, when the relatively independent, artisanal methods of the early 1920s were swallowed utterly by the Soviet studio system.  It might be added that the development of kinok techniques of shooting would have involved not only a different kind of (non-studio) cinema, but also the rise of a significantly different kind of production process involving the prior deployment of “kino-scouts” (kino-razvedchiki)—something between a police, military, and scientific expedition, now made permanent.  

However the place of the “text” is theoretically evaluated in the context of Vertov’s work, it is clear that, as far as the actually realized films are concerned, the place of each concrete opyt can only be assessed within the context of a detailed reconstruction of the production history of a given film, a task already begun by Roshal', Listov, and particularly by Deriabin in his detailed essay on Lullaby.[xiv]  Mention of this film recalls what should be another major effect of Dramaticheskie opyty: namely, what it reveals about the place of Stalin, or more precisely, the image and idea of Stalin, in Vertov’s later work.  Those who have seen Lullaby will be less than surprised when they encounter phrases and sometimes whole sections celebratory of Stalin among Vertov’s scripts.  The scenarios in the Drobashenko edition (on which, again, Kino-Eye is entirely based) are purged of all references to Stalin in a typical Thaw-period gesture of  “liberalizing censorship.”  The differences seem to be of omission rather than actual alteration of the scripts―the post-1934 scenarios included in Drobashenko, such as those for A Girl at the Piano (1939) and Letter from a Woman Tractor Driver (1941), do not differ appreciably from the versions in Dramaturgicheskie opyty―but some of the scripts not in Drobashenko, such as those for Lullaby and The Girl and the Giant, are pretty hard to “de-Stalinize.”  Needless to say, these new materials will also have to be assessed in light of other documentary materials (working notes, diaries, and so on), as well as in terms of the time in which they were produced, before they can be integrated into our overall conception of Vertov; no designation of Vertov’s aesthetic-political stance can be made simply on the basis of these scripts, as revealing as they undoubtedly are.  

Thus, the “third wave” of Vertov studies is well underway, and shows no sign of abating.  This coming summer (at the beginning of July 2005) Vertov’s sound films are to be presented at the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, although no major books such as Tsivian’s are planned to coordinate with that event.  Many younger and veteran scholars, including the author of this review, are busy writing studies of Vertov, large and small, and in a few years the Vertov bibliography is once again going to look significantly different.  Meanwhile, the recent resurgence of interest in documentary cinema among film scholars (I might name Philip Rosen, Oleg Aronson, Charles Musser, Emma Widdis, and many others), and the extraordinary burst of worldwide interest in documentary films and documentary production (from the work of Michael Moore to that of Agnes Varda, Sergei Dvortsevoi, and Wang Bing’s incredible―and quite Vertovian―film about Chinese industry, West of the Tracks [2002]), bode well for Vertov’s ongoing, post-Soviet relevance, a fascinating situation for this most self-consciously “Soviet” of filmmakers to find himself in.

[i] N.P. Abramov, Dziga Vertov (Moscow: Akademiia Nauk, 1962). 

[ii] Dziga Vertov,  Stat'i, Dnevniki, Zamysli.  Ed. S. Drobashenko (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1966).  Later selections of Vertov’s essays in European languages, including our own still indispensable Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (ed. and intro. Annette Michelson, trans. Kevin O’Brien.  [Berkeley: U of CA P, 1984]), are almost entirely based on this collection. 

[iii] I have in mind here the work of V.S. Listov from 1967 through 1975 on Vertov’s early work, V.M. Magidov’s similarly focused 1973 dissertation, and L.M. Roshal'’s more theoretically gauged 1972 study Mir bez igry (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1972).  For a fuller bibliography of Russian work from this period see Dziga Vertov, Iz naslediia. Tom pervyi: Dramaturgicheskie opyty (ed. and intro. A. S. Deriabin; intro. V. S. Listov [Moscow: Eizenshtein-Tsentr, 2004: 27]), to be discussed below. 

[iv] Natascha Drubek-Meyer and Jurij Murasov, eds.  Apparatur und Rhapsodie: Zu den Filmen des Dziga Vertov.  Berliner Slawistische Arbeiten 8 (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2000).

 [v] Jean-Pierre Esquenazi, ed.  Vertov : L'Invention du Rčel : Actes du Colloque de Metz, 1996 (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1997).

 [vi] See Thomas Tode and Alexandra Gramatke, eds.  Dziga Vertov: Tagebücher/Arbeitshefte.  Close Up 14 (Konstanz: UVK, 2000); and a supplementary bibliography in Maske und Kothurn 50 Jahrgang, Heft 1 (2004): 125-130.

 [vii] Im Lande der Kinoveteranen: Filmexpedition zu Dziga Vertov (1996).

 [viii] Graham Roberts. The Man with the Movie Camera.  KINOfiles Film Companion 2 (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000).

 [ix] Since 1996, the film has been released on DVD with many different original scores, by artists such as Michael Nyman, Ivan Smagghe, In the Nursery, and the Cinematic Orchestra.

 [x] Yuri Tsivian, ed.  Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties.  Trans. (Russian texts) Julian Graffy, commentary by Aleksandr Deriabin.  (Sacile: Giornate del Cinema Muto, 2004).

 [xi] Richard Taylor and Ian Christie, eds.  The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896-1939.  Trans. Richard Taylor.  (London: Routeldge & Kegan Paul, 1988).

 [xii] Emma Widdis, Alexander Medvedkin (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005).  Medvedkin first proposed The Accursed Force in 1935, and “produced at least fourteen versions of the screenplay between 1935 and his death in 1989” (Widdis 67).

 [xiii] RGALI f. 2091, op. 2, d. 201, l. 40.

 [xiv] A.S. Deriabin, “Kolybel'naia Dzigi Vertova: Zamysel―Voploshchenie―Ekrannaia sud'ba,” Kinovedcheskie zapiski 51 (2001): 30-65.