PRINT April 2011


On April 15, a comprehensive retrospective of the films of DZIGA VERTOV opens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the pages that follow, film scholar JOHN MACKAY assesses the continuing impact of Soviet cinema’s—perhaps simply cinema’s greatest innovator of nonfiction film form.

Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera, 1929, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 68 minutes.

BEST KNOWN AS THE MAKER of the endlessly astonishing documentary Man with a Movie Camera (1929)—and also as the eponym and inspiration for a group of radical Left Bank filmmakers in the late 1960s headed by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin—Dziga Vertov (1896–1954) is widely acknowledged to be one of the seventh art’s preeminent practitioners. And yet if one were to formulate a rigorously Vertovian response to the question of his historical stature, it would have to be that his work falls outside the history of cinema altogether. After all, according to Vertov (born David Abelevich Kaufman in Białystok, then a provincial city in the Russian Empire and now a part of Poland), what is conventionally designated the history of cinema would more properly be termed the history of cinema’s suppression:

The movie camera was invented in order to penetrate deeper into the visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena, so that we do not forget what happens and what the future must take into account.

But the camera experienced a misfortune. It was invented at a time when there was no single country in which capital was not in power. The bourgeoisie’s hellish idea consisted of using the new toy to entertain the masses, or rather to divert the workers’ attention from their basic aim: the struggle against their masters. Under the electric narcotic of the movie theaters, the more or less starving proletariat . . . unclenched its iron fist and unwittingly submitted to the corrupting influence of the masters’ cinema. The theater is expensive and seats are few. And so the masters force the camera to disseminate theatrical productions. . . .

The essential thing in theater is acting, and so every motion picture constructed upon a scenario and acting is a theatrical presentation, and that is why there are no differences between the productions by directors of different nuances.

All of this, both in whole and in part, applies to theater regardless of its trend and direction, regardless of its relationship to theater as such. All of this lies outside the genuine purpose of the movie camera—the exploration of the phenomena of life.¹

The condescending, schoolmasterly tone Vertov adopts here is but one of the many polemical instruments, ranging from shrill denunciation to subtle on-screen critique of pre- and postrevolutionary genres, that he used in his long, losing battle against fictional, acted cinema in the Soviet 1920s and ’30s. To be sure, the polemic itself might seem dated today, given its roots in old “cinema versus theater” debates raging in the 1910s and ’20s. These concerns were pushed to the sidelines by post–World War II critiques of the manipulations of editing (epitomized, perhaps, in the writings of André Bazin) and still later by historical and theoretical inquiries into the discursive structuring of film, whether narrative or nonnarrative, and its relationship to spectator experience. Vertov’s complexly structured films, if not his theories, would nonetheless prove of ongoing importance to those preoccupied with the latter set of questions; and those interested in affinities between Vertov and the film theory of the mid-twentieth century—a period (roughly, 1945–60) when his films and thinking were largely forgotten—might recall Bazin’s witty observation that, inasmuch as cinema has yet to reach the condition of the “myth” that inspired it (specifically, the ideal of “an integral realism, a re-creation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time”), cinema has therefore “not yet been invented!”²

Indeed, it would be difficult to argue that Vertov and his ideas are quite the outliers from film history that his polemics at times imply. In his own lifetime, he constantly insisted on his own paternity vis-à-vis the entire later history of Soviet nonfiction film; was both profoundly flattered by the attention his films received and intensely anxious about others stealing his work; and sometimes exaggerated his own importance, to the verge of fantasy (as when he claimed, without foundation, that the “Camera Eye” and “Newsreel” sections of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy [1930–36] were written under his influence).³ Following a long period of neglect and even ostracism between 1938 and his death in 1954, Vertov became a constant object of film-historical research and theoretical argument in Russia from the mid-’50s onward, and abroad starting in the late 1960s. Artforum, along with Film Culture and Screen, was one of the early founts of English-language writing on Vertov: Annette Michelson’s “The Man with a Movie Camera: From Magician to Epistemologist,” still the most important essay ever written on the filmmaker, appeared in these pages in March 1972, and Artforum writers over the years have drawn comparisons between Vertov and artists as different as Jean Vigo, Peter Kubelka, Nam June Paik, and, in one notable intervention, Ken Jacobs. Wrote critics Lois Mendelson and Bill Simon in September 1971, “Ken Jacobs’ film Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son [1969], is, with Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera [1929], one of the two great works of a reflexive cinema whose primary subject is an esthetic definition of the nature of the medium.” If Dziga Vertov is not (yet!) a household name in the United States, Russia, or elsewhere, his Man with a Movie Camera is encountered by most students taking introductory courses in film studies today. And Vertov-themed essays and books continue to appear on a regular basis. Isn’t Vertov a classic of film history?

Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera, 1929, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 68 minutes.

Probably. Yet it is hard to deny that the filmmaker’s own myth of cinema, at least in its most unbending, early-1920s formulation, depicts the kind of practice he advocates—what he called Kino-Eye (kino-oko in the more resonant Russian), or experimental nonfiction filmmaking—as nothing less radical than a Communism of film, on an analogy with that truly human history that would commence, according to Marx, once “the prehistory of human society” ended with the disappearance of bourgeois capitalism. Working in the immediate wake of the October Revolution, Vertov and his followers—the latter including, foremost, his wife and editor, Elizaveta Svilova (1900–1975), and his brother and cameraman, Mikhail Kaufman (1897–1980)—evidently believed that such an approach to film would create new ways for a revolutionary society to represent itself to itself, by breaking away from the tropes, templates, types, and canons of “art” and indeed from the limitations of language and human subjectivity as such, while still generating ultimately legible (if initially obscure), endlessly novel, and sensuously captivating representations of the world.

As with other Constructivisms and affiliated movements, a certain idealizing disposition toward technology no doubt undergirds these hopes. The camera (together with associated technologies of dissemination and exhibition) is at once objective and infinitely mobile, allied to the industrial working class by virtue of its mechanical character but outside the limiting circle of proletarian or any other subjectivity, and blessed with a kind of communicable and even storable perception. Free from prejudices, hang-ups, and anxieties, cinema is thus capable of providing a space for interactions between people of different classes, between different cultures, and even between the human and the nonhuman (the camera is inorganic, after all). Put in these ambitious terms, cinema for Vertov feels rather like a trope for what today is called the public sphere or even (borrowing from an ideological repertoire incompatible with Vertov’s) the free market.

“The history of Cinema,” wrote Michelson at the beginning of “Film and the Radical Aspiration” (Film Culture, Fall 1966), “is, like that of Revolution in our time, a chronicle of hopes and expectations, aroused and suspended, tested and deceived.” Those hopes, in the Soviet case, came to be tested strenuously and early, both outside and inside the “workers’ state.” Certainly, we did not have to wait until the present day to find critics ready to expose Vertov’s Kino-Eye doctrines as naive and utopian in the bad sense, if not address their affinities to Soviet practices of surveillance and social control. Already in 1927, Aleksandr Kurs, an important Soviet journalist and screenwriter, perspicaciously analyzed Vertov’s overhasty ascription of emancipatory power to the camera:

“Life as it is” (Vertov) [expresses] the excessive longing to leap ahead to a time when work, art and science will fuse into a single, united human activity. Until that time, as long as life itself has not become art and science, art will remain an activity filling up the gaps within “life.” Even Vertov’s art, however much it might disclaim the illusionistic [theatrical] cinema. . . . [For] in no way does Vertov show life as it is, but rather life as it is caught at a certain point by a fixed camera pointed in a certain way.

There is no doubt but that Vertov was capable of saying (and probably thinking) remarkably naive things about documentary “objectivity”—even though, as many have noted, he was also incomparably conscious of the mediacy of film image and sound. His faith was surely in part a consequence of his worldly, thoroughly “enlightened” upbringing. His father, Abel Kaufman, a prototypical member of the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia of the early twentieth century, not only operated a large bookstore and reading room of a highly secular cast but also sent his oldest son to both the science-oriented Modern School (Realschule) in their native Bialystok and (in 1914) the Psychoneurological Institute in Petrograd, probably the most progressive and (in the philosophical sense) materialist institute of higher learning in Russia. And a certain scientism—charged with heavy doses of fantasy and longing, to be sure—was one of many streams that converged in the 1920s to give early Soviet culture, and Vertovian cinema, its peculiar character.

Dziga Vertov, Kino-Eye: Life Caught Unawares, 1924, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 78 minutes. Sign in image on left reads: “Today is the international day of cooperation.”

Vertov was also, from the start of his involvement in cinema, in 1918 (when he was brought on board by an old Bialystok friend, journalist Mikhail Koltsov), a propagandist. His polemical labors involved a constant if ambivalent struggle against superstition and “untruth,” beginning with religion and ending with fiction film. A short titled The Exposure of the Relics of Sergius of Radonezh (1919), which Vertov probably helped produce and certainly exhibited many times during the years of the Russian Civil War (1917–21), depicts priests coerced into opening the ark containing the remains of Saint Sergius, which Orthodox lore held to be imperishable. After the ark is shown to contain but dust and bone, an intertitle appears:

Swindling the wretched, poor, and ignorant people out of their last hard-earned cent, for five hundred years the priests and monks nasally intoned: “And here as the sun rose, your good remains were found to be imperishable . . .”—above this heap of decayed rags, dirt, dead moths, and traces of bone.

The intertitle implies that the camera possesses the capacity to capture and publicly verify a truth that centuries had covered in mystification (or even in actual costumes: another “exposure-of-relics” film describes saints’ bones disguised by “flesh-colored cardboard”).

To be sure, this will to expose could carry alarming implications, particularly later, during the mask-shredding mania of the Stalinist 1930s. While on a rare holiday in August 1936, Vertov was much preoccupied by the “Trotskyite-Zinovievite” show trial then going on, a media event that provoked him to a prolonged consideration of duplicity and falsification, culminating in 1938–39 with a study of Diderot’s essay “Paradox of the Actor.”⁵ Vertov recalled in September 1936 how he had once witnessed a silent-film actor on the set playing a suffering man; while the actor’s body and face were twisted with pain, he was telling a joke to those watching him. “His brain,” wrote Vertov, “was free to tell funny stories. This ability to bifurcate himself horrified me at the time.”⁶ Increasingly, the theme of duplicity came to play a major role in his diary entries. He didn’t like what he called “unsynchronized people . . . [those who] think one thing and say another . . . my friends are inventors, enthusiasts, young people in love, composers in moments of inspiration . . . you can sense these people at first sight, with the first handshake.”⁷ The only methods that could get at the reality behind the masks of public conduct, Vertov surmised, were those he was then (September 1936) proposing for a documentary “cinema of behavior”: “concealed observation, hidden shooting, miniature camera, super sensitive and infrared film, special lenses . . . filming is ‘Kino-Eye’ filming only if the mask is thrown off, if from behind the mask . . . the thief becomes visible.”⁸

Kino-Eye is about editing as well, of course, and Vertov’s propaganda work involved not only exposure but also concealment and even excision, especially (again) during the years of Stalin’s Terror. Some notable frames from Lullaby, Vertov’s 1937 film tribute to Soviet women, have been blacked out on the right-hand side by a dark strip—intended, it is virtually certain, to conceal the presence of General Yan Gamarnik, who had been chief of the political administration of the Red Army before killing himself in May 1937, just prior to the terrible purge of the Soviet military command.

The erasure was not a matter in which Vertov had any choice, if he wanted his film to be released. (As it turns out, Lullaby played for only a few days in Moscow anyway.) All the same, if Vertov believed that many “enemies of the people” were guilty as charged—and he evidently did believe this—he still chafed against the mounting bureaucratic interference in his work from the mid-’30s onward, interference that culminated in his near-total exclusion from filmmaking. In 1936, he joked (in a witticism that admittedly is funny only in Russian) that the motto of his film studio had moved from “catch up and overtake [the capitalist West]” (dognat’ i peregnat’, a famous Stalin-era slogan) to “touch up and retake [films]” (dosniat’ i peresniat’).⁹ By the time he died of stomach cancer in February 1954, Vertov had undergone a kind of erasure himself, and the combination of bitter creative frustration, probable depression over the deaths of his parents in the Holocaust, shock at being publicly pilloried during the anti-Semitic “anticosmopolitan” campaign of the late ’40s, and illness had made his last years (in his words, often repeated) a “torment.” Without Svilova’s post-1954 efforts to promote his work, Vertov might truly have remained an outlier.

All the more reason, then, to take seriously Vertov’s difficult injunction “to not forget what happens and what the future must take into account.” The orienting power of memory is a major theme in Vertov’s work, from beginning to end—his famous “rhythmic-metrical” editing strategies seem to have had a primarily mnemonic motivation—but for us, digging down to get at the kernels of Vertov’s life and work through the mounds of forgetting, incomprehension, and obfuscation is no easy task. Still, a brief tour through his career (like the one that follows) may reveal new nodes between objective recording and active experimentation in what is one of the largest, most complex, and most historically fraught corpora of any major filmmaker.

Dziga Vertov and Elizaveta Svilova at work, ca. early 1920s. Still from the documentary-film compilation A Survey of Goskino, 1924.

THE KINO-NEDELIA (Film Week) newsreels (forty-three installments issued between May 1918 and June 1919), the first newsreels produced under Soviet state auspices, are also generally the first works to appear in any Vertov filmography. Yet they cannot be considered “Vertov films” in the strict sense: We have no way of attributing any specific sequences to him, involved though he was, along with a number of others, in the editing, at least from mid-October 1918 onward. The most interesting aspect of his involvement in Kino-Nedelia began in March 1919, when he was asked to supervise a restoration of all the newsreels in the series produced up to that point. (The project was never completed.) Vertov (among others) had commandeered material from most of the previous installments of Kino-Nedelia for inclusion in longer compilation films. The unusual request to restore those installments to the condition in which they were originally exhibited—no easy task, given that detailed montage lists seem not to have survived—presumably reflects an early recognition both of the historical value of the series and of the importance of controlling and archiving state-produced footage.

Much of Vertov’s time between late 1919 and early 1922 was spent developing and sometimes working in the mobile cinema units that traversed the Soviet Union during those Civil War years. The most important of these were certainly the film units on the famous agit-trains, which operated between 1918 and 1921. These trains, which more often than not moved through regions utterly ravaged by war, hunger, and epidemics, carried on a wide range of propaganda activities, including film screenings. These were attended by very large numbers of people—well over two million during that three-year period—and Vertov and other agitators both provided live commentary on the films and reported on audience reactions. The first line of discursive assault, however, appeared on the trains themselves, in the form of brightly colored murals that combined large, bold, “agitational” slogans with longer explanatory “propaganda” texts of smaller size and elaborate visual narratives across a single surface. Clearly, important features of the agit-train experience—particularly the agitprop morphology of the murals and an awareness of audience and address—formed part of the permanent matrix of Vertov’s cinema as it later developed.

Having conducted various experiments in poetry and sound montage between 1916 and 1921, Vertov got his first real chance to experiment with film in 1922, when he and his fledgling group of Kino-Eyes (or kinocs) were assigned the task of producing a newsreel that combined information and agitation in a specifically “Soviet” manner. In fact, two newsreels, both very rarely screened today, emerged from this assignment: the more strictly informational (though highly interesting and unduly neglected) Goskinokalendar’ (State Cinema Calendar) series (1923–25) and the famous, more agitational Kino-Pravda (Film Truth) experimental newsreels (twenty-three installments made between June 1922 and March 1925). Fundamentally, Kino-Pravda was a laboratory for trying out all kinds of ways of linking pieces of footage—archival material, documentary images, animation, intertitles, printed or written texts, even (horror of horrors!) staged sequences—together into unconventional wholes. The culmination of the Kino-Pravda cycle is Vertov’s first major feature, Kino-Eye: Life Caught Unawares (1924). Each section of this six-part film about the Young Pioneers (the Soviet Boy and Girl Scouts) is structured in an “autonomous” manner, like an individual Kino-Pravda installment, according to themes or principles such as the contrast of propaganda and agitation work (section 1), construction (section 2), and the intertwining of labor and play (section 3). The film also bears faint traces of Vertov’s too-brief though not wholly unsuccessful efforts to incorporate the Pioneers into his fledgling Kino-Eye movement, to socialize film production, as it were, in part by promoting Kino-Eye discussion groups in various cities and towns; he may even have been involved in distributing still cameras to a couple of Pioneer troops in 1924.

In part, it was Vertov’s success as an auteur, particularly with the Lenin tribute Kino-Pravda 21 (1925), that put an end to these collectivist aspirations. In 1925, he received commissions to direct feature films from two state institutions: the Moscow Soviet, which charged him with making a film celebrating the Soviet’s achievements in the run-up to city elections (Stride, Soviet! [1926]), and the State Trade organization (Gostorg), which wanted a film that would promote Soviet products abroad. The latter film in particular, released in late 1926 as A Sixth Part of the World, created enormous controversy due to its cost, the difficulties attending its production (which involved organizing huge amounts of footage shot all over the USSR), its idiosyncratic form (which mobilized a Walt Whitman–derived structure of enunciation and address in startling ways), and its apparent uselessness for promotional purposes. Concurrently with the Sixth Part production, Vertov was gathering footage for still another film, the first version of what we now know as Man with a Movie Camera. When he refused, on strict Kino-Eye “antiscenario” grounds, to present studio supervisors with a script for that pet project, he was fired and forced to relocate for five highly productive years to the important studio in Kiev, Ukraine.

Poster designed by Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg for Man with a Movie Camera, 1929.

The films he made in Ukraine—The Eleventh Year (1928; about the massive Dniepr Hydroelectric Station, then under construction), Man with a Movie Camera, and Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1930; Vertov’s first sound film)—arguably constitute the center of his corpus. In their programmatic and unprecedented infusion of reflections on image and sound production, organization, dissemination, and reception into their documentary explorations of “the phenomena of life,” they radically undermine the self-evidence of “life as it is” by showing our relation to that life to be wholly dependent on the work of representation. Enthusiasm and especially Man with a Movie Camera have probably exerted a greater influence on filmmaking and film theorizing in the past thirty years than any other Soviet films. At the same time, through the attention they lavish on (cinematic, industrial, economic) production/construction, these films generate not only a Constructivist analytic of film but also rhythmically stirring iconographies of construction (and constructors) that invite investment in themselves as values and objects of emulation. It is in this drift between construction as critical tool and construction as social-iconographic value that Man with a Movie Camera and Enthusiasm articulate a pivot point between the most radical impulses of the Constructivist avant-garde and the full-scale “proletarian” mythologizing of incipient socialist realism.

After a largely successful tour of Europe in 1931, Vertov returned to Moscow to make his last great film, Three Songs of Lenin (1934). His most popular work during Soviet times, Three Songs has been wrongly maligned as boilerplate socialist-realist hagiography. Attentive viewing of the film reveals that it actually shares many of Vertov’s earlier “experimental” concerns—particularly with the very difference between movement and stasis, explored with incomparable subtlety and power in the second of the film’s three sections—even as it carefully reworks them in terms of the new, privileged codes of socialist realism, the codes of “folk creativity” and “individual experience” in particular. Vertov secured the film’s rerelease in 1938 by duly removing images of luminaries who had become “enemies of the people” in the meantime, but this was possibly his last (if highly ambiguous) triumph: The decline in health and career fortunes outlined above was already under way, and apart from Lullaby and 1943’s To You, Front (on wartime production in Kazakhstan, where Vertov and Svilova lived out the war), he never made another significant film.

The future—that is, future artistic and critical responses to Vertov—will no doubt remember him in new ways, as we learn more about his work, its influence, and the time and place in which he lived. That time and place, Russia and the USSR between the 1890s and the 1950s, remains, twenty years after the fall of “Communism,” the most ideologically flammable locus within today’s political unconscious. To encounter Vertov’s films is to force an encounter with that unconscious—our own—as well. “Revolution,” a word hidden within the name Vertov itself,¹⁰ today seems at once unthinkable, undesirable, and banal—or at least had seemed so, until recent events in the Middle East abruptly transformed the vista of political possibilities. But even after witnessing the largely peaceful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, who could imagine nonfiction film as having a socially revolutionary effect? Who would even want it to? Yet Vertov could, and did; and whatever sobering lessons his career might offer, his visionary madness reminds us that being able to picture that sort of change may be necessary to conceptualize any future that we might desire on the far side of the present—that is, any authentic future at all.

John MacKay is chair of the Film Studies program at Yale University.

Poster for Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, 1930.


1. Dziga Vertov, “Kino-Eye,” in Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, ed. and intro. Annette Michelson, trans. Kevin O’Brien (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 60–79; here 67–69.

2. André Bazin, “The Myth of Total Cinema,” in What Is Cinema?, vol. 1, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 17–22; here 21.

3. Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI) f. 2091, op. 2, d. 241, ll. 48, 51; d. 214, l. 9.

4. A. Kurs, Samoe Mogushchestvennoe (Moscow: Kinopechat’, 1927), 48. See also John MacKay, “Disorganized Noise: Enthusiasm and the Ear of the Collective,” KinoKultura 7,

5. RGALI f. 2091, op. 2, d. 256, ll. 12–14. Diderot’s complete works appeared in Russian translation in the USSR over the course of the 1930s.

6. RGALI f. 2091, op. 2, d. 253, l. 46.

7. RGALI f. 2091, op. 2, d. 254, l. 24; from April 1937. In Russian, “unsynchronized people” reads “kakie-to nesinkhronnye liudi.”

8. RGALI f. 2091, op. 2, d. 253, l. 45ob.

9. RGALI f. 2091, op. 2, d. 253, l. 32. “Touch up” (dosniat’) here means more literally “to shoot additional footage.”

10. Vertov is an invented name, deriving from the verb vertit’sia, “to spin or revolve”; dziga is the Ukrainian word for a (spinning) top. By 1918, the filmmaker had adopted “Vertov,” previously a pseudonym appended to his poems, as his official last name.