April 20, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Dziga Vertov
The Man with the Movie Camera. 1929. USSR. Directed by Dziga Vertov

The Man with the Movie Camera. 1929. USSR. Directed by Dziga Vertov

These notes accompany the Dziga Vertov program, screening April 21, 22, and 23 in Theater 3.

Dziga Vertov (1896–1954) presents some unusual problems with regard to his inclusion in this series. If we define an “auteur” as a filmmaker with a vision who places the stamp of his personality on his work, that presumes that there is a discernible personality or way of looking at the world. While no one could possibly miss the fact that from a technical standpoint, Vertov was a great innovator and expander of the medium (a rival to D. W. Griffith, F. W. Murnau, Sergei Eisenstein, or Alfred Hitchcock), there is reason to question who this guy really was. We do know he was born Denis Arkadievitch Kaufman in what is now Poland (then part of the Czarist empire) and was the elder brother to two other distinguished filmmakers, Mikhail (cameraman on several Vertov films and later a director) and Boris Kaufman (cinematographer for Jean Vigo, Abel Gance, Elia Kazan, and Sidney Lumet).

Vertov was essentially a crusader against the concept of the filmmaker as an artist, and for the idea of the filmmaker as a machine—a conduit for capturing (and shaping) reality. This appealed to Lenin, and Vertov produced a series of Kino-Pravda (Cinema-Truth) “newsreels” in the early 1920s, a selection of which are in this program. However sincere he may have been, Vertov still relied on the manipulative possibilities of the movies. While Georges Méliès had sought magical entertainment and Griffith authentic human emotion, Vertov put his skills at the service of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The pseudonym Denis Kaufman chose suggests in Russian a kind of perpetually spinning top or, in human terms, a Whirling Dervish. This seems quite appropriate given the energy level of his most famous film. Chelovek s kinoapparatom (The Man with a Movie Camera) (1929) is generally considered his masterpiece, and to some it is the high-water mark of cinematic imagination and purity. Although Eisenstein called the film “unmotivated camera mischief,” it is unquestionably dazzling. Yet to me it is as much of a dead-end as some of Eugene O’Neill’s most ambitious experiments from that same period—Strange Interlude, with its spoken thoughts, for example. I find myself impressed but wondering, Where does all this innovation lead? Is it eye-candy or spinach? One thing it does not seem to be is emotionally affecting. Who is this man with a camera whose shadow we see and who tells us, “I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see.” Critic Sharon Lee put her finger on Vertov’s limitations when she claimed “he has shown us reality; he has expanded our vision of life, but it is a reality that only exists on film.”

With the coming of sound, Vertov became more political, making Entuziazm (Enthusiasm) in 1933 and Tri pensi o Lenine (Three Songs of Lenin) in 1934. His apprentice, the American Jay Leyda (later on the staff of the MoMA Film Library, author of Kino, and Professor of Cinema Studies at NYU) saw these as his most personal and successful films. Leyda believed that their use of sound was a realization of the boy-poet Vertov’s childhood dream of somehow marrying cinema with poetry, “of making an art of the sights and sounds of the world around him, arranging harmonies and dissonances out of these realities.”

As was the case with so many of his contemporaries, Vertov gradually ran afoul of Stalin, and his career dissipated. However, for good or ill, he had an enormous influence on documentary and other filmmakers, both in the Soviet Union and abroad. Thanks to him we can celebrate the rationality of Jean Rouch or Frederick Wiseman, but perhaps we can also mourn the inanity of television news.