Dziga Vertov’s Truth Machine

When the dust settled from the October Revolution in 1917, diagnosis there was a brief, shining period of uninhibited artistic experimentation in Russia. Before the authorities clamped down on such “decadent” behavior, Russian artists in the 1920s explored communist ideals with more sincerity, hope and optimism than probably at any other time in history in every medium, from architecture to graphic design. In the realm of film, this exploration manifested itself as Kino-Eye, or camera eye. Devotees of this filmmaking style believed that the camera should be used to record the truth of Soviet life without the aid of screenplays, actors, makeup or sets. “I am kino-eye, I am mechanical eye,” wrote Dziga Vertov in the Kino Eye Manifesto in 1923. “I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it.” The crowning achievement of the movement was the 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera, made by Dziga Vertov (a name that translates to “Spinning Top”) and his brother, Boris Kaufman. The film presents the day in the life of a Soviet city from morning until night, with citizens “at work and at play, and interacting with the machinery of modern life.”  The below is Part 6 of Man with a Movie Camera, one of the most dynamic sequences in the film (the entire film is behind the cut). Best if watched with speakers on:

Though the original, which premiered at a planetarium in Hanover at an event hosted by Kurt Schwitters (someone get me a time machine, now!), was silent, the director left behind notes for how music for this film should be composed. Dozens of interpretations have emerged over the years; the Biosphere, In the Nursery and Cinematic Orchestra versions are among the most well-known.

Sadly, things didn’t end well for Dziga Vertov in Russia, though they ended better for him than for most people in his position. When Socialist Realism was declared the “official form of art” in 1934, many of his colleagues were ostracized or exiled. Vertov was able to get away with a couple more films in the 30s, but they were edited to conform to the government’s expectations. After his last creative film, Lullaby, in 1937, Vertov worked on editing Soviet newsreels for the rest of his life. Interestingly, his brother Boris was able to move to America and worked with Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet as a cinematographer. Kazan infamously named many colleagues as communists to McCarthy’s committee, but Vertov’s brother wasn’t one of them. I wonder if the two brothers stayed in touch, and how they felt about their work and how their lives had diverged. Was Vertov a bitter man as a news editor? Not necessarily; a lot of people, even when robbed of their ability to make art, made up excuses and remained devoted to communist ideals to the very end.  And how did his brother Boris Kaufman fare in the paranoid environment of McCarthyism? Who felt that he got the better end of the deal, I wonder?

[via my pops, who now has a blog]

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Part Four:

Part Five:

Part Six:

Part Seven:

Part Eight:

Part Nine:

One Response to “Dziga Vertov’s Truth Machine”

  1. Tequila Says:

    Whoa this is cool…leave it to youtube to become the cinematic depository for the world. Well that and booty shakin’ videos.

    Part 4 is the one I like the most of those I’ve had a chance to watch. The opening with the camera looks so ominous and cool…may have to lift that for a comic panel at some point. :P

    In terms of Kino-Eye how intense must it have felt to be in the early decades of the motion picture camera? It was the first time we could record moving life as we knew it. At the time it was the present but for us it’s the past and we’ll never see it the way those that shot it did…even if in a way we’re all seeing the same images. Makes my brain knot up thinking about it…it’s wonderful to have. These images simply become more valuable as time goes on even in an age where you can see an entire persons life via their flickr stream. The Kino Eye ideal no doubt had roots in standard photography (closer to what we think of as photo journalism now maybe?) but it’s impact is so different. Look at any sequence in those film then just pause it as a still image…it’s not the same is it? I was gonna say this reminds me a lot of Cinéma vérité…and it looks like the term originates within his work. How cool is that?

    “And how did his brother Boris Kaufman fare in the paranoid environment of McCarthyism? Who felt that he got the better end of the deal, I wonder?”

    Ah, a discussion all unto itself given the time period. I love Kazan’s work and can understand why he did what he did. It was a unique time period mixed with part inquisition and part real world threat. Hollywood is notorious for eating its own as is so I think Kazan gets way too much flack for “selling out his fellow artists” given the nature of Hollywood and how it works. Many have done far worse without the threat of the government hounds.

    I would think both brothers probably saw the other as in worse shape or at the very least in a harder place. In looking back now what was the real difference? Both nations had harsh censorship and propaganda at the time. The U.S. may have had the edge on being more open freedom wise but the amount of hoops mainstream filmmakers still had to jump through was nuts. That’s without even taking into account the rampant corruption, racism, classicism, and segregation of the era. People got screwed with McCarthyism but those with the power to stop it did nothing and those who suffered the worst of it didn’t have to look hard to see others equally as screwed over. Plus it’s not like Hollywood learned a thing from it…unless you talk to George Clooney who is under the misguided delusion his industry was the tip of the spear in social and political reformations.