As a pioneer in the development of technology to bring sound to silent films, Russian documentarian, Dziga Vertov, has earned faint praise. From his earliest days as a newsreel editor for the Soviet political establishment of the 1920s, Vertov strived to push the limits of the medium to tell a more compelling story than mere moving images would allow. Following is Part I in a two-part story of a film ‘artist’ whose vision was firmly embedded in Russian Constructivism and the modernist movement following World War I.
“My mission is the creation of a new perception of the world. Thus, I decipher in a new way a world unknown to you.” ~Dziga Vertov (c. 1922)
“The cinema is the greatest means of mass agitation. The task is to take it into our hands.” ~Joseph Stalin, 13th Party Congress, 1924
Born Denis Abelevich Kaufman in 1896, though best known by his pseudonym, Dziga Vertov was a prodigious Russian film-maker and theorist during the formative years of the Soviet Union’s film industry, and a major innovator in the history of cinema. Most notably, for this essay’s purposes, he was instrumental in re-imagining the soul of film in modern Soviet Life, with particular emphasis on providing a multi-sensory experience for the viewer—“to see and hear life…to follow the growth of the young Soviet organism, to record and organize […] life’s phenomena into a whole, an essence, a conclusion” [Roberts: xiii]. artes fine arts magazine
From the beginning of his documentary film career, Vertov opposed the “played” film (i.e. rehearsed), favoring, instead, his own version of “life as you found it” filmic action. His followers, or Kinoks—i.e.-‘kino-eye’ proponents—claimed the camera eye “more perfect than the human eye to conduct a sensory exploration of the world, capturing “that which the eye doesn’t see.” From the earliest days of his involvement in film editing and production, Vertov sought the possibility of unfettering film art from the bonds of verbal language; creating a new visual medium, based instead on properties inherent to film—most importantly, its ability to present sensory “facts” to the viewer [Michaelson: 41].
Vertov regarded his camera as a non-participatory witness to events unfolding in front of the lens, “instead of fake copies of life, the montage of life itself.” These “film facts” would allow him to catalogue “life unawares,” later manipulated or “organized’ into “montages” in the course of planning, shooting and editing .
This innovative approach to narrative development was, as critics soon pointed out, anything but “unplayed,” the very presence of the camera altered human behavior. Additionally, Vertov’s interest in re-ordering footage conflicted with his avowed commitment to an unmanipulated documentary style. But, this “Vertov Paradox,” as film historian Vlada Petrić called it, served an important purpose: allowing for the introduction of disparate or discontinuous visual elements to create a rhetorical structure supporting his long-range objective—“an unstable position at the juncture of science and aesthetics, structure and [production] value, truth and beauty” [Papazini: 72].
From his earliest days as a film editor, Vertov sought to provide visual evidence of sound to accompany the screen action. Even as a child living in what is Poland today, his pre-cinematic obsessions focused on the conflation of music, language and random sounds. Vertov later defined his word/sound constructs as: “rhythmic montages of verbal and acoustic material: creating ‘music’ out of melodic word strings; random environmental noises and poetry set to the music of Russian composer, Alexander Scriabin.” The goal of these early experiments (1912-15), Vertov later recalled, was to eradicate the boundaries between the different arts, calling this scientific approach his “Laboratory of Hearing” [Tsivian: 23], or in other translations, “Laboratory of the Ear.”
Vertov historian, Graham Roberts, recounts that after moving to Moscow with his family in 1915, Vertov attended school sporadically, including a period of study at the Bechterev Institute of Psychoneurology, where his previous musical training–and now neuropsychological studies–would soon come into play unexpectedly. Having impressed key October Revolution (1917) officials with an early film project, in 1918 he was recommended for a position on the Moscow Film Committee. Originally hired as a clerk, he quickly rose through the ranks to become a film title writer, then head of the newsreel department. While the winds of political change blew around him, as newsreel editor, Vertov, soon found himself working to serve Lenin’s rise to power. Under the direction of the new Bolshevik state apparatus, he began reformatting news footage from 1918-21, creating longer narrative features aimed at celebrating the Marxist cause. Russia’s Kino-Nedelia (film news) morphed into Kino-Pravda (Film-Truth), a term chosen by Lenin, himself. Soon these newsreels became an indispensible, influential component of the country’s public information machine .
In his own 1918 account of how he first came to recognize a specialized role for himself in film production and editing, Vertov wrote:
“And once, in the Spring of 1918, I was returning from a railroad station. In my ears, there remained the sighs of steam and rumbles of a departing train…somebody cried out…a kiss…laughter, a whistle, voices, the station bell, the chugging of a locomotive…whispers, shouts, farewells…and walking away I thought: there is a need to find a machine not only to describe, but to register, to photograph these sounds. Otherwise one cannot organize or assemble them. They rush past, like time. Perhaps a camera? That records the visual. I must get a piece of equipment that won’t describe, but will record, photograph these sounds. Perhaps that is the answer? And at this moment I met Mikhail Kol’tsov who offered me a job in cinema. I began work on Kinonedelia (newsreels) [Feldman: 2].
And so, beginning his new responsibilities, Vertov’s interest in the convergence of the visual and auditory was already incubating. Later recalling this pivotal moment, leaving the railroad station surrounded by the sounds of urban life, he was already envisioning a non-traditional approach to image-making—one in which the power of film would allow the eye and ear to juxtapose, allowing the “eye to hear what the ears see” [Feldman: 2].
It was at this epiphanal moment that random sounds intruded on Vertov’s consciousness, as definitive events in the visual landscape—allowing for assimilation of a life-time’s worth of music theory, poetic/linguistic exercise, academic training and rudimentary film theory. Armed with that insight, he began to reassemble his vision for what documentary film-making could be for him. His rudimentary theory of sensory integration had its foundation in neuropsychology studies of the day, with which he was familiar. But, to represent sounds-as-images, Vertov was not thinking like a scientist—rather, as other artists of his time. “He was an enlightened technician operating under the influence of Russian Constructivism. A distinctively-Russian artistic movement, Constructivism argued for the organization of image fragments (constructions) into unified visual statements, thus rejecting the traditional idea of ‘composition.’ By blurring the line between the artistic and industrial/technological worlds, these future-oriented artists were convinced that society could be transformed for the better” [Bulgakowa: 145].
Vertov promptly began manipulating newsreel images available through the vast-and-growing kino library, structuring a novel viewing experience for his audience. Drawing on his earlier music conservatory experience and “Laboratory of Sound” experiments, Vertov intuited that noise (i.e.-industrial, street) is not far-removed from music, which, after all, is merely sound that has been formally organized. Both, he concluded, would be widely comprehended, with a resulting emotional and intellectual appeal for audiences. The challenge was to find sound correlates to visual imagery, inviting the viewer to conceptually replay projected scenes of folk music, country dances, marching bands, train and factory whistles, trolley bells, street crowds, etc., as imagined sound tracks to his montage of silent images. This concept of sensory convergence, or sight/sound correlates, went far beyond public appeal of watching life captured “unawares,” and to the heart of his belief in the power of cinema, tapping the very core-consciousness of his viewers, on his terms.
Vlada Petrić notes that, as an avid Bolshevik, Vertov regarded his medium as a vehicle for winning the hearts and minds of the oppressed common man, converting him to a zealot for the proletariat cause. Beginning with his newsreels, “basic material” (film clips) was edited together, transformed through a “montage way of seeing” into a new cinematic vision. This extended cinematic vision was later described in 1925, when he anticipated the addition of Radio-Eye (Radioglaz)—a montage format that simulates “film hearing”—to Film-Eye (Kinoglaz), his evolving technique of “film-seeing.” This dual-method established Vertov’s concept of narrative development long before spoken word would find its way into film. His “dual cinematic organization” of Film-Eye and Radio-Ear would begin to reveal itself in his 1922-1925 Kino-Pravda newsreel series [Petrić: 57].
Kino-Pravda (Film-Truth) was a series of twenty-three newsreels made by Vertov between June 1922 and mid-1925. These films were compiled and edited film sequences, using a news magazine format, centering on political organizing events. More importantly, though, Vertov’s emergence as a film editor, coincided with his increased reliance on film clips depicting moving figures, industrial equipment and busy urban settings, where he invited the mind’s ‘ear’ to attribute the visual cues appearing on the screen to their auditory equivalent: familiar noises, rhythms or implied interval percussive beats—all readily familiar to the audience. So, in the decade before sound was introduced to film, Vertov’s experimental Kino-Pravda had its own ‘sound track’—one that ran subliminally in the mind of each viewer.
In his diary, Vertov recorded details of the themes developed in each film. As the number of Kino-Pravda productions grew, so too, did his production notes referencing image-sound correlates found in the editing process. In entries for, Issue #7, July 25, 1922—its distinctive directorial credit described as “an experimental newsreel by Dziga Vertov”—he first references the use of visuals with overt sound associations: a traveling circus; carnival hawkers, a cavalry parade, Moslems in prayer and exhaust-spewing, vintage army tanks grading an airfield. According to Michaelson, in her compilation of Vertov writings, with the production of Issue #23, April, 1925 (see below), the use of visual-sound correlates and portrayal of public receptivity regarding the power of Radioglaz were enthusiastically referenced in his diaries [Michaelson: 95].
Though heavily steeped in themes of bright-eyed youth engaged in farm collectivization, rural organization and bourgeoisie ineptitude, one senses that Vertov’s style is one of a visionary film-maker, constantly evolving. By 1925, the importance of film’s role as a tool in conveying the power of the spoken word in political organizing, is clearly recognizable, represented in his Film #23, and subtitled, “Radio-Pravda, First Issue.” In it, a group of villagers complain to a local commissar that “the countryside is isolated from public affairs.” Soon a tree is felled, then re-erected, “as a mast…What a mast—to the sky itself!” complete with an antenna atop. Inter-titles declare, “We see that the antenna has been erected next to a reading room.” (movie-goers might be left to speculate as to whether the spoken word would soon supplant the printed word in the new Radio Age!). An unassembled radio arrives, and under the capable hands of the locals, the screen text tells us, “the receiver is able to construct itself.” Later, peasants are seen together, listening to a concert. As visual allegory, this expresses Vertov’s bias toward the spoken word and its persuasive value in a progressive, socialist culture [Feldman: 73]. In its nascent period, radio was viewed as a powerful populist tool that could dispense culture and ideology to the masses.
During the transition from newsreels to experimentation with his own montage concepts (1923-25), Vertov introduced Kinoglaz #20 (The Cinema-Eye, 1924). With its screening— the first of his many Kino-Eye titles— he used visual/sound metaphors, or sound cognates, that were fully integrated into his heavily-edited silent narrative: women dancing; children marching; a man playing an accordion, a procession through a market square; a drummer walking down the road; peasants speaking to a group (head shots, mouths moving, others attentively listening, ears foremost in the shots); the innovative use of animated script to simulate the spoken word, a spinning gramophone record; trolleys and street commotion; a moving car; a mustachioed man addressing a crowd [Feldman: 84].
While Kinoglaz #20 retained the episodic structure of newsreels past—dealing with common scenes of Soviet youth engaged in community outreach and education—Vertov increasingly understood the power of the movie camera as a truth machine (“Film Truth”), capable of exploring and exploiting the ‘psychoanalysis of gesture’ [Benjamin: xlv]. The tendency of the human brain, attendant to images on the screen, illustrating montages of noise, music or speech, would be perceived cognitively, and mentally processed as such. The result was a more enriching, compellingly multi-sensory viewing experience. Using his method, Vertov accomplished two objectives: to chronicle and promote the Soviet cause through an increasingly powerful and popular medium; while continuing to develop his filmic processes with each new project. And with each success, the conceptual seeds for The Man with the Movie Camera, A Visual Symphony (1929), a multi-sensory viewer experience—unfettered by reliance on newsreel footage and political agendas—were germinating.
It is important here, to call upon two conceptual influences that helped shape Vertov’s work in planning The Man with the Movie Camera—the first being the aforementioned, Constructivism, and the second, the philosophical framework for “seeing” by noted Russian contemporary Viktor Shklovsky. First, in Constructivist theory, montage (or in the case of the studio artist, assemblage) was, by design, self-referential. In defying traditional forms of painting, focused on themes of nature, the Constructivist artist employed snapshots of-and-by himself to form a complex, multi-layered, self-referential finished product. Image fragments, deconstructed, and then reassembled, acted to shape a new or altered reality, with the artist at the center of this imaginary new world. Vertov found inspiration in this approach to art-making, conceiving of film, both by and about the film-maker. The dualistic relationship between the film’s visual content and the unorthodox means by which the images were gathered and constructed into a reflexive narrative was revolutionary for movie-making, yet not unique to the art world at the time.
Secondly, the theoretical writing of contemporaneous poet and critic, Viktor Shklovsky, advocated an approach to artistic and literary representation entailing depiction of a familiar object or environment in unusual ways (“defamiliarization”), “thus provoking the viewer to experience an unconventional perception of the world…Shklovsky invented the self-referential terms ‘making-it-difficult’ and ‘making-it-strange.’ In his essay, Art as Device (1925), [he] explains that poetic structure should be ‘difficult’ or ‘strange’ in order to stimulate the reader to discover subtle and often unlikely meanings that are obscured by the conventions of everyday speech” [Petrić: 10-11]. Vertov’s use of extreme low and high-angle shots, object details, backlit forms, freeze frames and ambiguous architectural shapes, together with his visual-auditory montage sequences, suggest an adaptation of Shklovsky’s theories to his film production methodology. Vertov described his adaptation of this modernist framework for ‘perceiving’ as, “seeking the greatest line of resistance to realize my goals with the camera” [11-12].
Vertov’s declaration in the opening credits of The Man with the Movie Camera that he would not rely on actors, plot or inter-titles, heralded the arrival of an important new film genre in Soviet theaters. It also reflected his confidence that film narrative could ‘speak for itself.’ In this 1929 production, there is an increased reliance on complex, highly symbolic montages is linked by inferred ‘sounds:’ the orchestra’s instruments stand poised and silent, but ready to play; the whirling of factory spindles; the clanging of trolley bells and squeal of their wheels; ringing phones; the whirrr of the sewing machine; the roar of his brother, Mikhail’s, motorcycle; the crack of a carnival game rifle; the juxtaposition of the circular form of a loudspeaker and the various superimposed forms of the ear, mouth, accordion and piano keyboard; “the fingers poised above a keyboard; a conductor beats the time; a dancer’s legs convey the melody—moments of pure auditory cinema [and] the audience is listening” [DVD commentary, Man with a Movie Camera, 2003 ed.]. In fact, Vertov saw in his 1929 production, the opportunity to realize his 1918 memory of the sounds of locomotives and the din of the crowd at the city’s railroad station, and was able to represent that scenario as a visual-auditory montage in The Man with the Movie Camera.
Here, Vertov was celebrating the city-symphony, emphatically depicting the metropolis as the locus of modernity. The Man with a Movie Camera aspired to be just as modern as its subject matter. The spontaneous character of these non-studio-bound depictions of urban life evoked the restless, impressionist gaze of the film-maker-as-daring-risk-taker, while numerous bird’s-eye-views and diagonal camera set-ups were informed by constructivist photography. Furthermore, experimental techniques, his city symphonies not only depicted the metropolis, but they also evoked the rhythms of metropolitan life, encouraging the audience to process sounds through the technique of Kino-Eye. The clip-clop of horses’ hooves or the rumble of wagon wheels over pavement would have resonated loudly in the consciousness of theater patrons, many of whom would be familiar with the sights and sounds of the city and the industries found there.
As Vertov described it: “From silence, sounds begins to grow as the city awakens—a city symphony—the pounding of hammers, the din of factories, the miner’s pick axe, the spinning of the steam engine’s wheels.” Embodied in The Man with the Movie Camera, A Visual Symphony, narrative is the core concept of the kinok philosophy: that in an ideal future, people would relegate their imperfect sensory faculties, like seeing and hearing, to more perfect machines capable of comparing images and analyzing them. Resonant in this objective were aspirations contained in earlier statements, as 1923, when Vertov extolled, “I am Kino-Eye…and through montage, I create a new, perfect man; or as he wrote earlier, in his 1922 manifesto, We, “Our path leads through the poetry of machines, from the bungling citizen to the perfect electric man” [Papazian: 100-101].
By the end of the 1920s, Vertov had gone a long way toward realizing his political objective as the film ‘voice’ of the socialist cause. But the missing ingredient—the holy grail of cinematography—was sound…authentic sound, not its visual cognates. He had known for years that the effectiveness of his montage method would be greatly enhanced by the inclusion of synchronous sound recording. He then turned his attention to that problem, even as he was greeted by other skeptics and detractors, in search of a realistic solution to the challenge of field recording. In 1930, Eisenstein had publically derided any effort to bring sound to cinema as “nonsense.” At about the same time, Ippolit Sokolov insisted that sound should be “recorded entirely in the studio” to insure “the aesthetic relationship between sound and the image” [Petrić: 58]. Sokolov contended that auditory reality was essentially “non-phonogenic, where sound that faithfully corresponded to images on the screen would destroy the culture of montage” . Ironically, the very issue of field recording that Sokolov cited as “unorganized, random and cacophonous (calling it a “feline caterwaulling”) , would favor Vertov’s unique vision of “Film Truth” through his principle of “Radio-Ear,” his search for auditory “life fact” and his cinematic pursuit of “life unawares.”
Contrasting to these critical views of the role of sound in film, Vertov had written for years on the feasibility of sound as a creative tool, believing that technology could be developed to capture “audio facts” in the field, elements of which his Radio-Eye could be used as building blocks to compose a “cinematic symphony.” Based on his experience as a Constructionist, he concluded that it was possible to manipulate sound, just like images, without sacrificing Schlovsky’s “phonogenic” qualities. Papazian describes this process as, “making ‘film-things’ from his growing visual and sound-symbol archives out of sequence, [thus] creating an endless mix of ‘free-floating signifiers’ that could be used and re-used to construct new meanings in a single cohesive narrative…” [Papazian: 106].
In 1929, Vertov traveled to Germany and England to become acquainted with advances in remote and portable sound technology. Later that year, he began filming his Symphony of the Donbas (Enthusiasm), 1930. A paean to the Soviet communist model and Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan, it was shown widely and enthusiastically-received. Charlie Chaplin, upon seeing it in London, called it “one of the most exhilarating symphonies I have ever seen” [Tode: 147].
By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor
In Part II, Vertov’s contribution to surmounting the problems of sound recording in the field will be presented, as well as his dramatic use of audio tracks accompanying his visual montages, to portray Soviet country life, the synical criticism he faced in his efforts to use sound in documentary and his homage to his powerful, long-deceased idol, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
View the brief documentary “Dziga Vertov: In his Own Words” at the bottom of the page…
Works Cited: Ahwesh, Peggy and Keith Sanborn. Vertov from Z to A. Trans. Keith Sanborn. New York: Ediciones La Calavera, 2007.
Bulgalowa, Oksana. “The Ear against the Eye: Vertov’s Symphony,” Kieler Beiträge zur Filmmusikforschung, no. 2 (2008): 142-158.
Feldman, Seth R. Dziga Vertov: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1979.
Fisher, Lucy. “Enthusiasm: From Kino-Eye to Radio-Eye,” Film Quarterly, no. 2 (Winter, 1977): 25-34.
Hicks, Jeremy, Dziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.
Image Entertainment (Executive Producer). “Man with a Movie Camera.” Alloy Orchestra version (2002).
Kino on Video (Executive Producer). “Man with a Movie Camera.” New York: Kino International Corp. (2003).
Mackay, John. “Diagnosed Noise: Enthusiasm and the Ear of the Collective,” Chap 1- A Superhuman Eye. Dziga Vertov: Life and Work. John MacKay, Ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.
—, Chap.4- No Noise. Dziga Vertov: Life and Work. John MacKay, Ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.
Michaelson, Annette, Ed. Kino-Eye: The Writngs of Dziga Vertov. Trans. Kevin O’Brien. Berkley: University of California Press ,1984.
—. “The Man with the Movie Camera: From Magician to Epistemologist,” Artforum 10:7 (March 1972): pp. 60-72.
Papazian, Elizabeth Astrid. Manufacturing Truth: The Documentary Moment in Early Soviet Culture. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009.
Perry, Ted, Ed. Masterpieces of Modernist Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Petrić, Vlada. Constructivism in Film: The Man with a Movie Camera, a Cinematic Analysis. London: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Tode, Thomas and Barbara Wurm, Ed. Dziga Vertov: The Vertov Collection at the Austrian Film Museum. Vienna: SYNEMA Gesellschaft für Film und Medien, 2006.
Tsivian, Yuri, Ed. Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties. Trans. Julian Graffy. Gemona, Italy: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 2004.
Roberts, Graham. The Man with the Movie Camera. London: I.B. Tauris, 2000.