by Nina Power
from Film Quarterly Summer 2010, Vol. 63, No. 4
“Soviet cinema is currently experiencing an unforgettable turning point,” wrote Dziga Vertov in 1926, in an April 12 letter collected in Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (University of California Press, 1984). Judging by the two short films, A Sixth Part of the World (1926) and The Eleventh Year (1928), Vertov was doing little more than stating the truth. Man with a Movie Camera would follow in 1929, with Enthusiasm and Three Songs about Lenin following in 1931 and 1934 respectively, before the creep of socialist realism put paid to much truly experimental cinema. This vital and fascinating new Vienna Film Museum edition of two of Vertov’s most important middle-period films serves to remind us of just how astonishing cinema can be, and how inappropriate our usual cinematic categorizations—comedy, romance, documentary—are when it comes to directors (or “author leaders,” as these films have it) like Vertov—whose vision, it should not be forgotten, cannot be easily disentangled from the work of Elizaveta Svilova, his wife and editor, and of Michail Kaufman, his brother and cameraman.
A Sixth Part of the World, whose title refers to the immense landmass of the Soviet Union, is a celebration of the people and the industry of the USSR. If that sounds either dull or propagandistic, it should be noted that it is most definitely not the former nor straightforwardly the latter. Vertov, whose ability to understand his own work far exceeds that of anyone else, described it in the following way during an August 17, 1926 interview for the Kino newspaper: “A Sixth Part of the World is more than a film, than what we have got used to understanding by the word ‘film.’ Whether it is a newsreel, a comedy, an artistic hit-film, A Sixth Part of the World is somewhere beyond the boundaries of these definitions; it is already the next stage after the concept of ‘cinema’ itself … Our slogan is: All citizens of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics from 10 to 100 years old must see this work. By the tenth anniversary of October there must not be a single Tungus who has not seen A Sixth Part of the World” (quoted in Barbara Wurm’s essay in the DVD booklet). It is no coincidence that Vertov mentions the Tungus, an older name for one group of indigenous people of the Russian north, as, unlike much of the fiercely metropolitan Man with a Movie Camera, A Sixth Part of the World is an attempt to capture the diversity of Soviet peoples, as well as the variety of the nation’s industry. The film is also a complicated critique of capitalism, and of the USSR’s involvement with the global market (the film was completed just before the first of the five-year plans was introduced). By the time Vertov made A Sixth Part of the World, Lenin’s New Economic Policy had been in operation for five years, and export to capitalist countries formed a central part of the Soviet economy. The somewhat unwieldy subtitle of the film, A Kino-Eye Race around the USSR: Export and Import by the State Trading Organization of the USSR reveals something of the complex geopolitics of Vertov’s cinematic subject.
A Sixth Part of the World begins not with the USSR, however, but in the capitalist world. A German plane descends, eerily reminiscent of the opening shot of Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). Men and women dance the foxtrot, while fancy bows at the back of silk dresses swish and a gramophone record rotates (a wind-up gramophone playing a Lenin speech will return later on board a ship picking up furs for export to the Leipzig fair). The scene cuts to a machine picking up metal with “Krupp,” the name of the German steel manufacturers and the largest corporation in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, written on the side. A woman and a man smoke and drink tea. “More machines … and more … and even more,” read the inter-titles, as if shaking their head at a system rapaciously committing itself both to limitless production and to such cultural decadence. “But for the worker,” we are told, “it is just as difficult.” Capitalism is structurally unfair.
One striking feature of A Sixth Part of the World’s inter-titles is that Vertov repeatedly uses “you” (both formal and familiar) in different ways throughout: the “you” of the member of the various ethnic groups of the USSR included in the footage, the “you” of the audience watching the film, but also the “you” of the Soviet Union as a political totality. To complicate things further, the camera apparently possesses an agency of its own: the phrase “I see” is particularly prevalent at the beginning of the film, where Vertov’s kino-eye turns its critical gaze upon the negative dimensions of the capitalist world: “I see colonies,” “slaves,” it reports, as we see footage of black men and women picking crops under the stick-wielding direction of a colonial master. “Capital” (misleadingly subtitled as “the capital” throughout, one of the rare faults of this superb edition), the watcher slowly realizes, may involve fancy hats, stuffed animals, and dancing at one extreme, but at the other lies exploitation, racism, and cruelty. One of the most important juxtapositions comes when a scene of a black workers grinding grain is followed by footage of a minstrel show with the interspersed titles: “black people … existing for amusement as … ‘chocolate kids’.” Vertov’s message is clear—although there are many smiles in the first few frames, none of them are true: the rich may smile because they’re better off than their neighbors, the slaves may smile because it’s better than crying, and the minstrels may smile, well, because they have to—but none of these expressions of happiness are remotely authentic. “Convulsions” reads one intertitle, as faux-tribal dancers step up their pace, jazz bands play, and a woman smokes. The capitalism of the 1920s may well be frenetic, exciting, and dynamic but it is also, according to Vertov’s script, “on the brink of historical downfall.” History would bear him out on this point, at least.
After twelve minutes or so, A Sixth Part of the World abruptly shifts register, turning to the “you” of the Soviet population, the film’s main addressee: “you bathing sheep in the waves of the sea … and you bathing sheep in the stream.” What follows is a poetic, fast-moving but reflective mix of newsreel, found footage, and Vertov’s own documentary footage, a celebration of what the director sees as the true unity and perhaps true happiness of the Soviet people in contrast to their capitalist counterparts (Vertov is an expert at capturing authentic smiling and laughter). A genuine sense of the extraordinary diversity of the USSR is conveyed in little over an hour, always tied together by invocation of the unifying energy of the communist project as a whole. The final inter-title sums up the idea of totality: “we build in our country a complete socialist society.”
This sense of a journey, a rapid cross-cutting across vast swaths of often inhospitable land creates a glorious kind of cinematic geography, and a profound sense of the space that the flat screen can only rarely conjure. As Oksana Sarkisova puts it in “Across One Sixth of the World: Dziga Vertov, Travel Cinema, and Soviet Patriotism” (October, summer 2007): “His cinematographic journeys transported viewers to the most remote as well as to the most advanced sites of the Soviet universe, creating a heterogeneous cine-world stretching from the desert to the icy tundra and featuring customs, costumes, and cultural practices unfamiliar to most of his audience.” Unsurprisingly, however, it is in the rather more typically “Vertovian” treatment of cities and industry that we find the kind of innovative, powerful techniques—split screens, haunting superimposition, tracking shots, and complex compositions—that would be perfected in Man With a Movie Camera.
Vertov’s depiction of Soviet economics is an intriguing exercise in argumentation, as part of his remit is to skillfully depict the complicated ties with the west that formed part of Lenin’s loosening of strict state planning. While it is perhaps surprising to see boxes baring the legend “Ford” boxed up for export, and dead Soviet animals displayed in footage from the decadent west, there is an argument of sorts for this trade: natural goods are exchanged for machines that will make other machines, thus in the long term allowing the USSR to do without dependency on capitalism for anything: “We want to produce not only tractors but also the machines needed to produce tractors.” There is an intriguing sequence that presents the idea that this mixed economic program is the “cure” for a certain notion of patriarchy and the religious oppression of women that still permeates remoter parts of the USSR (“here and there there are still women with veiled faces”), an argument made now by those keen to divest Muslim countries of their “backwardness,” or at least use a superficial kind of feminism in the misplaced defence of a destructive foreign policy. Vertov’s secularism, though, is played out in the name of a genuinely egalitarian (if rather hard-working) vision of humanity. Vertov’s presentation of the cultural diversity of the USSR in A Sixth Part of the World strives to unite the audience, who are both its subject and its intended recipient: cinema as social inclusion. This land is your land: your oil, your cotton, your flax, your machines. There may be those who still worship Menkva (spirit beings believed in by Siberian shamans) but “slowly the old is disappearing” in favor of the new. A Sixth Part of the World is a reminder that Vertov is a master of capturing nature, particularly rough seas (black or otherwise), animals (reindeer remind us of just how cold the country is) and flora, even if the latter are being hacked at or eaten. Shots of icebreaker boats named Lenin ploughing through arctic waters provide Vertov with a metaphor (appropriate to the climate) that connects these images of nature to questions of society: communism too breaks through ossified human traditions. As a geographical and political project, symphonic in scope and method, the remarkable experimentalism of A Sixth Part of the World puts to shame the often ponderous environmental and geological films that came later, such as Koyaanisqatsi (1983), which tend to oppose technology and nature, with humanity operating as the damaging mediator.
The difficult historical relation between people, nature, and technology is relevant also to a strange story about the second feature contained on the disc, The Eleventh Year (1928). The film is another attempt to present an optimistic and global celebration of the achievements and glories of the USSR in the eleventh year of the revolution, notably innovations in hydroelectricity, irrigation, and electrification (one is instantly put in mind of Lenin’s famous claim that “communism is the government by the Soviets plus the electrification of the whole land”). The Eleventh Year is a paean to heavy industry. Unlike A Sixth Part of the World, The Eleventh Year uses very few intertitles, relying on the sheer force of its images of mines, power plants, and dams to do most of the work. Man has successfully brought nature to heel, as the “giant” workers atop lumps of rock indicate.
Before they were screened outside Russia, extracts from this mainly Ukrainian-shot film were inserted in a rather different, German compilation by the Austrian communist A. V. Blum (working with Leo Lania), who had somehow managed to come across what Blum described as “partly unpublished Ukrainian films.” Their short film, In the Shadow of the Machine (1928), thoughtfully included on the second DVD of this edition, presents an explicit critique of the very technology that Vertov sought to praise. Thus Blum’s film, a blend of the final reel of The Eleventh Year and footage from Dovzhenko (among others), stresses the dark side of industrialization—hands mangled in workplace accidents, train wrecks, coffins—and connects to a particularly German concern with the negative effects of technology stretching from the Romantics to Heidegger, Horkheimer, and Adorno in the twentieth century. (The idea that man might ultimately become the instrument of the machine is not a million miles away from certain elements of contemporary environmentalism, of course, which makes the message of Blum’s film rather more acceptable in today’s ideological climate than Vertov’s.) The Eleventh Year was first screened in Germany in 1929, after In the Shadow of the Machine, and the misleading sequence of events caused a minor scandal. Vertov was accused of plagiarism—whereas, of course, it was Blum who had failed to acknowledge his debt to his Soviet counterpart. Blum and Vertov exchanged a series of letters in the German press that year, with Vertov vehemently defending the provenance of the footage as coming from the by then well-established Kino-Eye group, with Blum sheepishly arguing that German films weren’t allowed to reference sources if footage came from outside the country.
Inadvertently, though, Blum performed a service to the history of cinema, as an incredibly detailed documentary included in this release demonstrates: some scenes from The Eleventh Year lost to age and decay actually appear in In the Shadow of the Machine. A shot-by-shot analysis by scientists at the Vienna Institute of Technology reveals not simply the extent of Blum’s borrowing, but also what appears lost from Vertov’s original. At the end of In the Shadow of the Machine, there are an additional thirty-nine rapidly edited shots which include not only repeated images from The Eleventh Year, but also images of a railway cart rattling back and forth, which seems to be footage shot by Vertov for Man with a Movie Camera. Digitalization of these images reveals that these shots are extremely close to scenes in Man with a Movie Camera, which was made during the same period. The question posed by Blum’s accidental preservation of Vertov’s footage is whether the latter originally intended to use this material in the earlier film: does Blum’s use of the footage indicate that this final scene was the original finale of The Eleventh Year? The shot-by-shot comparison included in the documentary as the final part of the second DVD is extremely intriguing on this perhaps unanswerable point.
Both Vertov films are accompanied by original soundtracks by Michael Nyman, which will presumably go some way to popularizing the release. John MacKay notes in “Film Energy: Process and Metanarrative in Dziga Vertov’s The Eleventh Year (1928)” (October, summer 2000), that the original “musical scenario” for The Eleventh Year included, “such stirring material as the Flying Dutchman and Rienzi overtures,” but Nyman’s compositions, although stirring in their own way, are often rather too soupy for Vertov’s stark visual juxtapositions; Nyman captures something of the repetition of the machines, for example, but his overly layered orchestral pieces lack the requisite machinic dynamism, somewhat smothering the images, particularly in A Sixth Part of the World. Nevertheless, this minor criticism aside, this comprehensive, expertly compiled edition does two of Vertov’s most obscure, unseen, and thrilling films exactly the justice they deserve.
Nina Power is a Film Quarterly Writer-at-Large and the author of One Dimensional Woman (Zero Books, 2009).