Dziga Vertov (January 2, 1896 - February 12, 1954), was a Russian documentary film and newsreel director. Vertov was born Denis Abramovich Kaufman to Jewish intellectuals living in Bialystok--at the time a Russian territory--and Russified his Jewish patronymic to Arkadievich in his youth. Kaufman studied music at Bialystok Conservatory until his parents fled with their family from the invading German army to Moscow in 1915; they soon settled in St. Petersburg, where Kaufman began writing poetry and science fiction/satire. In 1916-1917 Kaufman was studying medicine at the Psychoneurological Instituted in St. Petersburg and experimenting with "sound collages" in his free time. Kaufman adopted the name "Dziga Vertov", which connotes "turning, revolving"; Vertov's political writings and his work on the Kino-Pravda newsreel series shows a revolutionary bent which is perhaps unsurprising.
In October 1917, at the age of 22, Vertov began editing for Kino-Nedelia (the Moscow Cinema Committee's weekly film series, and the first newsreel series in Russia). While working for Kino-Nedelia he met Elizaveta Svilova, who was later to become his wife (at the time she was employed in film preservation). The first issue of the series came out in June 1918.
Vertov worked on the series for three years, helping establish and run a film-car on President Katilinin's agit-train during the ongoing war between Communists and counterrevolutionaries. Some of the cars on the agit-trains were equipped with actors for live performances or printing presses; Vertov's had equipment to shoot, develop, edit, and project film. The trains went to battlefronts on agitation-propaganda missions intended primarily to bolster the morale of the troops; they were also intended to inflame peasants into a revolutionary fervor.
In 1919, Vertov compiled newsreel footage for his documentary Anniversary of the Revolution; in 1921 he compiled History of the Civil War. The so-called "Council of Three," a group issuing manifestoes in LEF, a radical Russian newsmagazine, was established in 1922; the group's "three" was simply Vertov, his wife and editor Elizaveta Svilova, and his brother and cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman. Vertov's interest in machinery led to a curiosity about the mechanical basis of cinema. Vertov's brother Boris Kaufman was a noted cinematographer who worked for directors such as Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet; his other brother, Mikhail Kaufman, worked as Vertov's cinematographer until he became a documentarian in his own right.
In 1922, the year that Nanook of the North was released, Vertov started the Kino-Pravda series. The series took its title from the government newspaper Pravda, founded by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in 1912. "Kino-Pravda" (literally translated, "film truth") continued Vertov's agit-prop bent.
Vertov's driving vision, expounded in his frequent essays, was to capture "film truth"--that is, fragments of actuality which, when organized together, have a deeper truth that cannot be seen with the naked eye. In the "Kino-Pravda" series, Vertov focused on everyday experiences, eschewing bourgeois concerns and filming marketplaces, bars, and schools instead, sometimes with a hidden camera, without asking permission first. The episodes of "Kino-Pravda" usually did not include reenactments or stagings (one exception is the segment about the trial of the Social Revolutionaries: the scenes of the selling of the newspapers on the streets and the people reading the papers in the trolley were both staged for the camera). The cinematography is simple, functional, unelaborate--perhaps a result of Vertov's disinterest in both "beauty" and "art." Twenty-three issues of the series were produced over a period of three years; each issue lasted about twenty minutes and usually covered three topics. The stories were typically descriptive, not narrative, and included vignettes and exposés, showing for instance the renovation of a trolley system, the organization of farmers into communes, and the trial of Social Revolutionaries; one story shows starvation in the nascent Marxist state. Propagandistic tendencies are also present, but with more subtlety, in the episode featuring the construction of an airport: one shot shows the former Tsar's tanks helping prepare a foundation, with an intertitle reading "Tanks on the labor front."
Vertov clearly intended an active relationship with his audience in the series--in the final segment he includes contact information--but by the 14th episode the series had become so experimental that some critics dismissed Vertov's efforts as "insane." Vertov responds to their criticisms with the assertion that the critics were hacks nipping "revolutionary effort" in the bud, and concludes the essay with his promise to "explode art's tower of Babel." In Vertov's view, "art's tower of Babel" was the subservience of cinematic technique to narrative, commonly known as the Institutional Mode of Representation.
By this point in his career, Vertov was clearly and emphatically dissatisfied with narrative tradition, and expresses his hostility towards dramatic fiction of any kind both openly and repeatedly; he regarded drama as another "opiate of the masses." Vertov freely admits one criticism leveled at his efforts on the "Kino-Pravda" series--that the series, while influential, had a limited release.
By the end of the "Kino-Pravda" series, Vertov made liberal use of stop motion, freeze frames, and other cinematic "artificialities," giving rise to criticisms not just of his trenchant dogmatism, but also of his cinematic technique. Vertov explains himself in "On 'Kinopravda'": in editing "chance film clippings" together for the Kino-Nedelia series, he "began to doubt the necessity of a literary connection between individual visual elements spliced together.... This work served as the point of departure for 'Kinopravda.'" Towards the end of the same essay, Vertov mentions an upcoming project which seems likely to be Man with the Movie Camera, calling it an "experimental film" made without a scenario; just three paragraphs above, Vertov mentions a scene from "Kino Pravda" which should be quite familiar to viewers of Man with the Movie Camera: "The peasant works, and so does the urban woman, and so too, the woman film editor selecting the negative...."
With Lenin's admission of limited private enterprise through his New Economic Policy, Russia began receiving fiction films from afar, an occurrence that Vertov regarded with undeniable suspicion, calling drama a "corrupting influence" on the proletarian sensibility ("On 'Kinopravda,'" 1924). By this time Vertov had been using his newsreel series as a pedestal to vilify dramatic fiction for several years; he continued his criticisms even after the warm reception of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin in 1925. Potemkin was a heavily fictionalized film telling the story of a mutiny on a battleship which came about as a result of the sailors' mistreatment; the film was an obvious but skillful propaganda piece glorifying the proletariat. Vertov lost his job at Sovkino in January 1927, possibly as a result of criticizing a film which effectively preaches the Communist party line, while at the same time producing films which effectively challenge or subvert it.
Vertov says in his essay "The Man with a Movie Camera" that he was fighting "for a decisive cleaning up of film-language, for its complete separation from the language of theater and literature." By the later segments of "Kino-Pravda," Vertov was experimenting heavily, looking to abandon what he considered film clichés (and receiving criticism for it); his experimentation was even more pronounced and dramatic by the time of Man with the Movie Camera. Some have criticized the obvious stagings in Man With the Movie Camera as being at odds with Vertov's credos "life as it is" and "life caught unawares": the scene of the woman getting out of bed and getting dressed is obviously staged, as is the reversed shot of the chess pieces being pushed off a chess board and the tracking shot which films Mikhail Kaufman riding in a car filming a third car.
However, Vertov's two credos, often used interchangeably, are in fact distinct, as Yuri Tsivian points out in the commentary track on the DVD for Man with the Movie Camera: for Vertov, "life as it is" means to record life as it would be without the camera present. "Life caught unawares" means to record life when surprised, and perhaps provoked, by the presence of a camera. (16:04 on the commentary track). This explanation contradicts the common assumption that for Vertov "life caught unawares" meant "life caught unaware of the camera." All of these shots might conform to Vertov's credo "caught unawares."
Vertov's cinema success continued iunto the 1930's. In 1931, he released Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbas, an examination into Soviet miners. Enthusiasm has been called a 'sound film', with sound recorded on location, and these mechanical sounds woven together, producing a symphony-like effect.
Three years later, Three Songs about Lenin looked at the revolutionary through the eyes of the Russian peasantry. For his film, however, Vertov had been hired by Mezhrabpomfilm, a Soviet studio that produced mainly propaganda efforts. To conform to the studio's, and the Soviet government's expectations, the film was edited to include Stalin and provide a more acceptable, 'Stalinesque', ending. With the rise and official sanction of socialist realism in 1934, Vertov was forced to cut his personal artistic output significantly, eventually becoming little more than an editor for Soviet newsreels. Lullaby, perhaps the last film in which Vertov was able to maintain his artistic vision, was released in 1937. Dziga Vertov died of cancer in 1954, after surviving, unscathed, Stalin's purges.
Additional resources on Vertov:
- Abstract Film and Beyond. Le Grice, Malcolm. Studio Vista, 1977.
- Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film. Warren, Charles, ed. Wesleyan University Press, 1996.
- Cinema's Second Avant-Garde by Christian M. Keathley (Master's Thesis, UF 1993).
- Documentary: a History of the Non-fiction Film. Barnouw, Erik. Oxford University Press. Original copyright 1974.
- The Documentary Idea: A Critical History of English-Language Documentary Film and Video. Ellis, Jack C. Prentice Hall, 1989.
- Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Grant, Barry Keith, and Jeannette Sloniowski, eds. "'Peace between Man and Machine': Dziga Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera," by Seth Feldman, pp. 40-53.
- Kino-Eye : The Writings of Dziga Vertov, by Dziga Vertov. Michelson, Annette, editor; translated by Kevin O'Brien. (Paperback - August 1995)
- Dziga Vertov's Man with the Movie Camera DVD, audio commentary track by Yuri Tsivian.