He might be the most influential filmmaker hardly anyone knows anything about. Though his admirers have run the gamut — Charlie Chaplin, Jean-Luc Godard, those who venerate cinéma vérité — his innovative documentaries are close to impossible to see. Which is what makes "Kino-Eye: The Revolutionary Cinema of Dziga Vertov" such a significant event.
Starting Saturday night, the UCLA Film & Television archive will present, courtesy of the Austrian Film Museum's impressive collection, 11 Vertov programs at the Hammer Museum's Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood. It is the most comprehensive tribute to the man ever put on in Los Angeles. Trust me, a series like this will not happen again in our lifetime.
Both Vertov's gifts and his obscurity flow from the same source: his undying passion for the 1917 Russian Revolution and the Soviet system it brought into being. An unusual combination of tireless propagandist and groundbreaking artist who brought unprecedented passion and style to the documentary form, Vertov never wearied of writing theoretical manifestoes celebrating his nonfiction style and denigrating all things dramatic.
Vertov, for example, called the work of the esteemed Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein "the same old crap tinted red" and was given to statements like: "Down with the bourgeois fairy-tale scenario. Long live life as it is!"
Though Vertov (who died in 1954) and his work can sound didactic in print, experiencing the films on a big screen (especially with the UCLA series' live piano accompaniment by Robert Israel and Cliff Retallick) is a deeply exciting experience, filled with energy and passion.
The fervor and skill of the director and his tightly focused team, primarily cinematographer (and brother) Mikhail Kaufman and editor (and wife) Elizaveta Svilova, brought a tremendous amount of energy to documentary films that were simultaneously hypnotic, poetic and didactic.
This vigor stemmed from the fact that Vertov and his gang were true believers in the notion that the Russian Revolution had created nothing less than a new breed of humanity called Soviet man, a superior species that demanded the creation of "a new form of art. The art of life itself. Life caught unawares ... a cinema of facts."
Vertov believed this because he was one of those self-created Soviet men. Born Denis Kaufman in Bialystok, in what is now Poland, in 1896, he changed his name to the made-up Dziga Vertov because it translated roughly as the "spinning" top he felt himself to be. (In a "Ripley's Believe It or Not" scenario, Kaufman's brother Boris left Russia to work with French director Jean Vigo and eventually won an Oscar for cinematography for "On the Waterfront.")
Though the UCLA series does feature a newly restored print (courtesy of the EYE Film Institute Netherlands) of Vertov's most celebrated work, the dizzying "The Man With a Movie Camera," it is the elusive work Vertov did both before and after that 1929 film that make the Wilder Theater presentation so special.
Opening night is 1926's "A Sixth Part of the World," which presents Vertov in full patriotic cry with a fiercely utopian vision of an international socialist economy. Its wide variety of documentary footage shot across the vastness of the Soviet Union is stitched together with Vertov's exceptional brio. Adding to the excitement are the director's trademark exhortatory intertitles, words like "You! Yes, you! All of you are masters of the Soviet land. In your hands lives one sixth of the world."
Vertov got his professional start in 1918, working for a Soviet newsreel magazine call Kino-Week that began shooting when the revolution was barely 6 months old ("kino" is the Russian word for film). Though Vertov's style had not yet asserted itself, as a record of the early days of one of the 20th century's most tumultuous periods, this footage is close to priceless. Here we see Lenin recovering from an assassination attempt, Trotsky visiting the front, a furious crowd in Minsk denouncing the murder of Rosa Luxemburg. Amazing.
Vertov really hit his stride with Kino-Pravda, his next newsreel project, where, starting in 1922, his innovative philosophy of inventively cutting film to create the strongest possible emotional effect was shown to advantage in segments as diverse as the fate of starving children and the anniversary of Lenin's death. As much as Vertov revered the truth, he was not averse to massaging events to make them, so to speak, truthier. As film historian Jeremy Hicks writes, the director used dynamic editing to more effectively "unleash a tremendous rhetorical force."
Though some of Vertov's longer films, especially "The Man With a Movie Camera," are available on DVD, the Kino-Week and Kino-Pravda material have to be seen on the big screen or not at all.
From Kino-Pravda, Vertov moved on to celebratory features like "The Eleventh Year," made in 1928 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the revolution, a film of visual beauty that shows the director intoxicated by powerful machines and their endlessly moving parts.
In a similar vein is Vertov's first sound film, 1930's "Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass." Making inventive use of sound effects and a non-synchronized soundtrack, this casually avant-garde film wowed Charlie Chaplin, who wrote, "I never would have believed it possible to assemble mechanical noises to create such beauty." Only Vertov could have done it, and only UCLA is putting it up on the screen.