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by  Jeremy Murray-Brown   

This monograph contains some 11,500 words. Sections may be reached quickly by clicking on sub-headings as follows:   

  • Opening 
    As the Soviets struggle with yet another rewriting of their history, questions must soon be raised about the role of those who undertook to sell the old, now discredited, history through various forms of artistic propaganda. In this respect, it will be interesting to see what happens to the reputation of the early Soviet filmmakers who are acclaimed in Western film histories as having revolutionized the art of film much as Lenin revolutionized the art of politics. Since these Soviet filmmakers were active propagandists for the Stalinist system, reappraisal of their artistic claims has long been necessary.   

    Of particular interest to students of propaganda and disinformation is the attention Western film texts give to a man known as Dziga Vertov, a contemporary of Sergei Eisenstein, who concentrated on the manipulation of actuality, or documentary, images. Few people outside academic film circles will have heard of Vertov. His films were never successful in popular terms, nor did he enjoy the reputation in his lifetime that has subsequently been bestowed on him in textbooks and other film literature.  

    The general pattern of these writings is to present Vertov as an avant-garde genius who was put down by Stalinist orthodoxy, a filmmaker who shared the same vision as Lenin when Communism, so the Khrushchev/Gorbachev thesis runs, not only had a human face but a face brightly lit with revolutionary art. This thesis itself is due for reappraisal; meanwhile there is clear evidence that the present-day interest shown by some in the West in the half-forgotten figure of a Dziga Vertov stems more from politics than aesthetics, forming part of a program advanced by activists in what they call radical film making. In keeping with this program, many of these activists have inserted themselves into film study centers, where they promote their political objectives using Vertov's name as an alibi. They have been aided in this enterprise through associating Vertov with the film term cinéma-vérité, a term which still enjoys a certain réclame in some film circles. Thus the concept of cinéma-vérité and Vertov's role as a Soviet propagandist both merit closer examination.   

    THE LIFE   

    Virtually all our information about Vertov comes from Soviet sources and is of relatively recent origin. A handful of Westerners sympathetic to the Soviets knew him personally when they visited Moscow in the early 1930s to study cinematic techniques, but they have added little to our knowledge of him. The role of these few Western individuals in helping promote Vertov's name must also form part of our enquiry, but the main biographical facts concerning his life seem agreed on.[1]   

    Dziga Vertov was born Denis Kaufman, the eldest of three sons of Jewish intellectuals from Bialystok, in the Polish territories of the Czarist empire. In 1914 Vertov's parents moved to Moscow, interrupting Vertov's studies in music in which he might otherwise have made a career. In Moscow, during the fateful years 1914-17, he adopted the name Dziga Vertov, perhaps, as some say, in a youthful gesture of avant-garde adventurism (he was born in 1896), but more plausibly in order to shed his Jewish identity.[2] Vertov briefly contemplated a medical career at a Leningrad institute chosen by many Russian Jews because it placed no limit on the number of Jewish applicants. Here he met a fellow Jewish intellectual who also changed his name and soon became well known as Mikhail Koltsov, a Communist Party member and a high ranking Soviet journalist. In 1918 Koltsov brought Vertov into the Bolshevik regime's fledgling apparatus for controlling film. It seems that an encounter with a newsreel cameraman in 1917, during Russia's brief experience of liberal government, had led to Vertov's being captivated by the ways visual images can be manipulated through camera and editing procedures.  

    Vertov's apprenticeship in the film business lay in helping to organize into suitable propaganda form film material taken of Red Army activity. He also participated in the mobile propaganda studios which moved by train and steamer through Bolshevik controlled territory.  

    In 1919 Vertov's parents emigrated to Paris with his youngest brother, Boris. Born in 1906, Boris Kaufman became a cameraman in France, where he worked for Jean Vigo, eventually making his way to North America. He was the chief cinematographer for Elia Kazan's famous picture, On The Waterfront.  

    Vertov's other brother, Mikhail, one year his junior, took up still photography in the Red Army and became a movie cameraman when the Civil War was over. Vertov, Mikhail Kaufman, and a film editor, Elizaveta Svilova (whom Vertov married in 1923) engaged in polemics about the nature of cinematic reality, calling themselves a "Council of Three". The trio worked together on several films.   

    With the end of the Civil War and the switch in Bolshevik tactics to the New Economic Policy, Vertov turned to the production of periodic releases of "newsreels" which he called Kinopravda, the cinematic equivalent of the Party paper. Between 1922 and 1925 it seems that some twenty-three of these propaganda pieces were produced, most of them running for ten to fifteen minutes, although it is not clear how they were distributed and shown publicly, if indeed they ever were on a consistent basis. From a fragment preserved at the Museum of Modern Art in New York it would appear that they were sometimes shown in the street in an ad hoc manner by Vertov and his unit themselves, the screen being suspended from overhead trolley lines. Some may have played occasionally in workers' clubs and neighborhood reading rooms. It's possible that Vertov may also have had some role in the production of another newsreel at the same time that he was working on his Kinopravda ideas.[3]


    Index of Papers   1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  References 

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