Dziga Vertov (Дзига Вертов, Дзиґа Вертов) January 15, 1896–February 12, 1954) was a Soviet pioneer documentary film and newsreel director. His brothers Boris Kaufman and Mikhail Kaufman were also notable filmmakers.
Born David Abelevich Kaufman (Давид Абелевич Кауфман) into a family of Jewish intellectuals in Białystok, Congress Poland, then a part of the Russian Empire, he Russified his Jewish patronymic to Arkadievich at some point after 1918. Kaufman studied music at Białystok Conservatory until his family fled from the invading German army to Moscow in 1915. The Kaufmans soon settled in Petrograd, where Denis Kaufman began writing poetry, science fiction and satire. In 1916-1917 Kaufman was studying medicine at the Psychoneurological Institute in Saint Petersburg and experimenting with "sound collages" in his free time. Kaufman adopted the name "Dziga Vertov", which means "spinning top"; Vertov's political writings and his work on the Kino-Pravda newsreel series show a revolutionary romanticism.
After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, at the age of 22, Vertov began editing for Kino-Nedelya (Кино-Неделя, the Moscow Cinema Committee's weekly film series, and the first newsreel series in Russia). While working for Kino-Nedelya he met Elizaveta Svilova, who at the time was employed in film preservation; she was later to become his wife. 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 Mikhail Kalinin's agit-train during the ongoing Russian Civil 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 stir up revolutionary fervor of the masses.
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" were 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 official government newspaper Pravda. "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 the "grandeur of fiction." 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 admitted 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.
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 (filmed in Ukraine). 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."
Dziga Vertov believed his concept of Cine-Eye would help contemporary man evolve from a flawed creature into a higher, more precise form. He compared man unfavorably to machines: “In the face of the machine we are ashamed of man’s inability to control himself, but what are we to do if we find the unerring ways of electricity more exciting than the disorderly haste of active people[...]”
Like other Russian filmmakers, he attempted to connect his ideas and techniques to the advancement of the aims of the Soviet Union. Whereas Sergei Eisenstein viewed his montage of attractions as a propaganda tool through which the film-viewing masses could be subjected to “emotional and psychological influence” and therefore able to perceive “the ideological aspect” of the films they were being shown, Vertov believed the Cine-Eye would influence the actual evolution of man, “from a bumbling citizen through the poetry of the machine to the perfect electric man.”
Vertov believed film was too “romantic” and “theatricalised” due to the influence of literature, theater, and music, and that these psychological film-dramas “prevent man from being as precise as a stop watch and hamper his desire for kinship with the machine.” He desired to move away from “the pre-Revolutionary ‘fictional’ models” of filmmaking to one based on the rhythm of machines, seeking to “bring creative joy to all mechanical labour” and to “bring men closer to machines.”
Vertov's cinema success continued into the 1930s. In 1931, he released Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, 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 revolution 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.
Vertov's legacy still lives on today. His independent, explorative style influenced and inspired many filmmakers and directors, including the Situationist Guy Debord and companies such as "Vertov Industries". The Dziga Vertov Group borrowed his name.