Dziga Vertov's Long-Lost Films

Two early films by the great Soviet pioneer, including the first feature-length documentary ever made, have been reconstructed and restored.
Dorota Lech

Anniversary of the Revolution

David Abelevich Kaufman, also known as Dziga (a Ukrainian phrase meaning whirling top) Vertov was born in 1896 into a Jewish book-dealer’s family in Białystok, Russian Empire, now modern-day Poland. Despite being known for his widely celebrated and pioneering 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera—a visually dynamic snapshot of urban life in various Ukrainian cities—until recently it’s been impossible to fully measure Vertov’s achievements, as his ambitious 1918 debut, Anniversary of the Revolution, a compilation film that stands as the first feature-length documentary ever made, was believed to be lost. Released in several Russian cities on November 7, 1918, the 119-minute compilation of 3000 meters of newsreels for the first anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution depicts the period from the bourgeois February Revolution in 1917 to the beginning of the Civil War in 1918. The film’s 30 positive prints circulated the Russian Soviet Republic on so-called October Revolution agitational trains (or “agit-trains”) that traveled through territories captured by the Red Army. Most copies were practically destroyed, succumbing to wear and tear within several years. It was only in the summer of 2017 that Svetlana Ishevskaya, an employee of Russia’s Institute of Cinema (VGIK), found a complete list of inscriptions (or intertitles) in the form of an official, printed poster announcing the film’s premiere that made the historical restorations of Vertov’s early films possible.

Following this discovery, Russian film scholar Nikolai Izvolov—Russia’s preeminent Vertov expert, author of the book From Vertov to Medvedkin: Unknown Pages of Russian Avant-Garde Film History and head of the department of the History of Russian Cinema at the Moscow Cinema Art Institute—spent several months doing a thorough investigation of the archives in the city of Krasnogorsk to find fragments coinciding with the list of 242 inscriptions to demonstrate their authenticity. After his historical restoration of Anniversary of the Revolution was released in autumn 2019, Izvolov, now knee-deep in the archives, immediately began assembling Vertov’s History of the Civil War (1921), another of his films presumed missing whose archival components took two years to reconstruct.  Alongside Natascha Drubek, a researcher, author, and editor who teaches Comparative Literature and Film and Media Studies at the Free University of Berlin, Izvolov is currently developing a digital commentary method called Hyperkino, which details a standardized system of referencing and annotating films on digital carriers by attaching related content and analysis to individual frames. Last autumn I met with Izvolov for a conversation following the premiere of the Anniversary of the Revolution restoration atthe International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. The expertise of Izvolov, who referred to Vertov as a “prophet,” helped illuminate the filmmaker’s rise and significance, situating the recent restorations in the artist’s greater body of work. 

In 1915, Dziga Vertov’s family fled the German army’s advance and moved east to Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). Like others of his generation, Vertov was influenced by futurism and honed his skills as an experimenter by writing science fiction and manipulating the perception and arrangement of sound through the creation of audio art, inventing new sound effects by playing with the rhythmic grouping of phonetic units. He briefly attended medical school in Petrograd and studied law in Moscow while frequenting mathematics lectures. He then secured a steady job editing newsreels – the most common and popular form of cinema in that period – for the Moscow Film Committee. Though sympathetic and committed to the Soviet cause, he didn’t join the Bolshevik Party, indicating instead in a 1918 questionnaire that his political sympathies were “anarchist-individualist” in character. It was that same year that he made his first film, Anniversary of the Revolution, and intermittently worked as an administrator and film programmer on the agit-trains (where he regularly re-edited his popular debut). These trains were not only used to distribute information, they were also equipped with mobile, independent film production units and cinemas. During this period of unrest and civil war, Vertov created propaganda for the new regime and worked his subsequent projects, the short films The Battle of Tsaritsyn (1920), edited by his future wife Elizaveta Svilova, and The Agit-Train Vsik (1921), as well as his second feature, History of the Civil War (1921). 

While working at Moscow’s Film Committee, Vertov was inspired by contemporary revolutionary ideas and remained committed to his own rise as an artist and advocate for what is today known as “direct cinema.” In March 1919, he took over administrative responsibility of the first Soviet newsreel series, Kinonedelya (Cinema-Week), which produced 43 issues between May 1918 and June 1919. Under the supervision of Vladimir Gradin (and with Lev Kuleshov as a colleague), Vertov was charged with restoring all dispersed editions of the series, which, after months of circulation, were largely in disrepair. Tasked with bringing order to a “Russian salad” of positives of edited films, separate pieces of negatives, and separately filmed intertitles (which from the outset do not have negatives), Vertov cataloged materials and gathered footage for his own projects. Izvolov explained that during this time, traveling cameramen would deliver raw materials in the form of inscriptions and negatives to the Film Committee from which positive prints were made and matched with intertitles. The newsreels—which were as a rule composed or directed by the cameramen—represented only a positive copy and the negatives were used by Vertov for printing positives of other Cinema-Week films and for his own films. In the case of Anniversary of the Revolution, its negative was repeatedly used in the production of other newsreels.Notably, when Vertov completed his restoration of the Cinema-Week archive, he left a note that the missing negatives could be found within his own oeuvre.

Few expected the Bolsheviks to survive, least of all the disadvantaged revolutionaries themselves, believing they were destined to perish in glorious sacrifice for their principles like the members of the infamous Paris Commune whom they admired. Surrounded from every side by superior enemies, they were prepared for a fight to the finish. Vertov’s early panoramic films document this revolutionary zeal leading to Bolshevik victory. Presented in the style of cinéma vérité well before the concept was widely known or employed, Anniversary of the Revolution is a visual gold mine for historians: one can witness vignettes from the October Revolution in Moscow and Petrograd, the liquidation of the Constituent Assembly, carnage and ruins in the cities and countryside, displaced refugees along the Volga, celebration of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, glimpses of the Civil War on the Czechoslovakian front, the return of Russian prisoners of war from Germany, newly-minted politicians proudly posing for the camera, mass demonstrations and images of everyday life amidst the chaos, and finally, the birth of labor communes that would someday become collective farms. The dictatorship, the purges, and other brutalities would come soon after, but for the unknowing citizens in the film, these hardships would seem unimaginable. A sense of romance and seemingly endless possibilities fills the screen. We meet Vladimir Lenin, briefly introduced on the Red Square conferring with his personal secretary Vladimir Bonch-Bruyevich, in a scene that was shot with a hidden camera—Lenin did not like to be filmed, having just survived an assassination attempt. But the film’s outstanding figure is Leon Trotsky, who is portrayed as a bold and celebrated military commander with all the respect of his troops. However, the film was quickly eclipsed by other propaganda movies and soon deliberately discarded due to the glorified Trotsky, who by the end of the 1920s had broken with the Soviet leadership and was expelled from the party and exiled before being assassinated in Mexico City in 1940.

Like its predecessor, History of the Civil War is also crafted from newsreels, but it is not a compilation film. Broken into 12 distinct chapters, it cinematically and deliberately depicts the years when the reigning Bolsheviks met domestic opposition by the defeated White Army from within their own ranks.A troop of cameramen—including Eduard Kazimirovich Tissé, who went on to work with Sergei Eisenstein for 20 years—captured guerilla warfare, military tribunals, and most prominently, glorified sequences of the victors’ history. This footage was meant to be disseminated across the territories’ 22,402,200 square kilometers. Through these events, which are sewn together with a propagandic thread (conveniently, events like the Bolshevik’s failed Polish campaign during the Polish–Soviet War were excluded), we enter a monumental cinematic work capturing one of the most important historic events of the 20th century. In it, we follow a cast composed of several members who would face their downfalls in forthcoming purges, like Trotsky and the politician Ivar Smilga, who in the film acts as the prosecutor at the show-trial of Filipp Mironov, one of the Red Army’s first commanders who was condemned to death, pardoned on the eve of his execution due to his previous contributions to the revolution, but later re-arrested and shot. Smilga himself would be condemned in the Great Purge, but unlike most of the other eminent Old Bolsheviks, he was not subjected to a public trial. Other politicians including Fyodor Raskolnikov, who after his 1939 Open Letter to Stalin, promptly died from “falling out of a window” in Bulgaria (the responsible party rumored to be Sergei Efron, agent of the NKVD, the interior ministry of the Soviet Union and preamble to today’s KGB, and husband of the great poet Marina Tsvetayeva), Kliment Voroshilov (who remained in high standing until the era of Nikita Khrushchev), and Sergo Ordzhonikid (who allegedly shot himself in his home after a falling out with Stalin) are seen depicted alongside military commanders Semyon Budyonny of the Red Army and Alexander Kolchak, a leader in the White Army who was put to death before the film’s release. Notably, it also includes the only known footage of celebrated writer and revolutionary Larissa Reissner, wife of the politician Fyodor Raskolnikov and one of the only women who rose to prominence when the Bolsheviks seized power before meeting her untimely death at age 30 due to typhoid.

Unlike Anniversary of the Revolution, which circulated for years, History of the Civil War was not widely copied and distributed and only screened once in 1921 at the World Congress of the Comintern to an audience of around 600 Communist officials, and concurrently, on the streets of Moscow for passersby. While the film was politically significant when it premiered, it quickly lost relevance as the Red Army gained control during the Civil War and the masterful work was written off as old news (as opposed to a work of art). As the storage and preservation of film was not yet in practice, it was subsequently cannibalized for material in other montage films about this early period of Soviet power—especially by Vertov, who in his work continually repurposed footage. The reconstruction of History of the Civil War, for which Izvolov is credited as the director of restoration, is based on a description of cinematographer Grigory Boltyansky that was housed in the Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow. The process took two years and required locating, scanning, and editing the original materials, which were often in mislabeled canisters and scattered across different archives—including a single shot that came from the Danish Film Archive thanks to the travels of Alexandra Kollontai, the first female diplomat from Soviet Russia who, in the 1920s, brought footage to Scandinavia—. The restored 94-minute film is as close to the original as presently possible. The last chapter, which features Joseph Stalin—who, while Lenin was still alive and with Trotsky next in line, was at the time not yet a prominent party member —remains unaccounted for.

Known for employing what are now common techniques in filmmaking such as crosscutting, freeze frames, extreme close-ups, stop-motion animation, and Dutch angles, Anniversary of the Revolution and History of the Civil War are unquestionably groundbreaking. Before the documentary form was more sophisticatedly developed, Vertov called his method of directing Kinoglaz (or Cine-eye), which paired his conceptualization of documentary filmmaking or Kinopravda (or Film-Truth) with his principle of shooting zhizn' kak ona est (Life-as-it-is). Surrounded by his disciples—called the Kinoki (Film-eye, as opposed to cinematographers)—he sought to promote the idea of the newsreel as the only truthful recording of reality, or Zhizn' vrasplokh (Life-caught-unaware). Documentary, free from manipulation and profiteering and bourgeois fairy tale scenarios, was the most purely humanistic cinematic form. A staunch believer in the promises of the USSR, Vertov clutched to the idea that the Cine-Eye movement would influence human evolution “from a bumbling citizen through the poetry of the machine to the perfect electric man,” as proclaimed in the group’s manifesto.1 He was an active propagandist who published his views in avant-garde journals and in his private journals, which showed him to be a true believer convinced that his dogmatic way of seeing the world would carve out a path towards socialist liberation. 

In July 1924, he lamented in his diary2:

"We have many enemies. It is almost as if one cannot exist without them. They often prevent us from realizing our most cherished goals in life; but on the other hand, this steels us in our struggle and forces our thinking to be more precise."

In April 1926, further honing his ideals of politics as art and vice versa, he wrote:

"…to close one's eyes to the surrounding ugliness, to smile blissfully and kindly while they make fun of you, to gratefully bow and scrape to get some trifling present in the form of permission to work on a film— this is not optimism or "tragism"—it is licking someone's boots. Such ass-lickers, however high they may climb, cannot become revolutionaries, either in real life or in the cinema. "

At the same time, Vertov struggled with the art of documentary filmmaking and further, felt slowed down by the lack of enthusiasm and support from his government and society. In March 1927, he complained in two separate entries:

"It is extremely difficult to catch-life-unaware. You are almost inevitably bound to fail. Everyone watches you; children surround you; everyone looks at the camera. You do your best to remain unnoticed so that you can carry on your affairs without disturbing other people's activities. But this simply does not work. Women start fixing their hair while men try to imitate the expressions of Douglas Fairbanks or Konrad Weidt3."
"I saw the film, Paris qui dort4. It upset me. Two years ago, I had already thought of an almost identical project in which I wanted to use technical devices the way they have been employed in this film. I have been continually searching for a way to produce it, but such an opportunity has never arisen. Now they have made it abroad. Cine-Eye missed another chance for attack. It is such a long way from the idea-concept-plan to its final realization. "

Although he felt greatly underappreciated and, according to Izvolov, did not fully comprehend why his creativity was constantly regulated by the state that he unquestionably supported until his death, Vertov was indeed at the center of non-fiction filmmaking until the Cine-Eye movement dissolved and he moved to Ukraine in 1927. His films from that period—One Sixth of the World (1926), Man with a Movie Camera (1929), World Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1930)—an early sound film that, as a result of Vertov’s previously honed skills with sound arrangement, was quite masterful, garnering the attention of admirers like Charlie Chaplin, who called it the best film of the year—as well as Three Songs About Lenin (1934)— remain models for generations of filmmakers. But with the rise of socialist realism in 1934, Vertov’s creativity was increasingly limited, and the artist was relegated back to editing Soviet newsreels. His 1937 film Lullaby is arguably the last in which Vertov was able to maintain his artistic vision. That same year his diary read:

"Perhaps I'm only playing a game. Perhaps I'm only playing the role of the seeker of Film-Truth. Am I really searching for the truth? Perhaps it is merely a mask of which I am not aware. Hardly. I love people. Not everyone, of course, but those who tell the truth. That is why I love little children. I also like folk art. In it truth is the goal. All our devices, modes of expression, genres, etc. are only the means; the path may be different, but there ought to be a single goal—the truth. 

Most people do not like the truth. You tell them the unpleasant truth, they may smile, but only to hide their spite. I hate the pleasant lie. Not many people are capable of hating pleasant lies. 

When critics write, they often view our means as the goal itself. Hence, they attack the means, thinking they are attacking the goal. The incapacity to distinguish between the means and the goal is the greatest problem with our film critics."

Increasingly resentful of his inability to express himself creatively and experiment with the form he jotted down the following passage in the winter of 1940:

"Who cares and who wants to see only form in art—he is a weak artist. But whoever sacrifices the form entirely, he is not an artist at all. (Romain Rolland)5."

As the World War II (or the Great Patriotic War, as it is known to the Russians) raged and more time passed without respite, Vertov’s bitterness persisted in this 1944 entry:

"What a great injustice was done toward the director Vertov when they recently gave him an ultimatum: Either Sisyphean labor or being accused of inactivity. Everyone knew about this, everyone sympathized. Others protested, but in the end threw up their hands in despair: You're an extraordinary artist. You're capable of finding it yourself. Embrace the unembraceable. Measure the immeasurable."

While Vertov continued making films such as Three Heroines (1938), Kazakhstan for the Front! (1942), In the Mountains of Ala-Tau (1944), and News of the Day (1954), his hands were effectively tied, and he grew increasingly bitter until he died of cancer at the age of 58. In 1953, the year before Vertov’s death—and before so-called auteur theory was popularized—Vertov wrote:

"The success of a film often does not depend so much on the creative ingenuity of the director but on the authenticity of the subject - theme and real footage. The desire to see a real event on the screen is so intense that in this case the director needs only to splice together —mainly in chronological order— the shots at his disposal. His involvement, obviously, is limited to knowing how to handle the theme and the given material, which is more an organizational task rather than creative problem. There are also examples of the opposite. This occurs when the footage turns out to be boring and unimpressive, totally heterogeneous, and even disconnected at the first viewing. Therefore, nobody is very excited about seeing it. Yet the theme is complex and arouses all sorts of questions, though the actual images are not limited by the units of time and space. In this case the film may be successful only due to the director's strong will, the force of his creative imagination, selfishness in the process of working out the production, as well as his capacity to experiment with montage. In this case the role of the director, especially the "author-director' is by no means comparable to the work of an ordinary director."

Now, nearly seventy years after Vertov’s passing, Izvolov—whose work on restoring and preserving Vertov’s filmography in its authentic forms, and subsequently elevating his legacy as an artist—lauds History of the Civil War, rather than Anniversary of the Revolution, as Vertov’s first unique artistic contribution as an author-director before developing into a master. These films illuminate the evolution of a brilliant filmmaker and thinker who at first resisted formal innovation, but who later, developed, repurposing his own raw materials to create outstanding contributions in the field. Presently, Izvolov is focused on restoring Man with a Movie Camera, which has not been seen in its correct form since the ’30s due to its wide replication and distribution in an inaccurate speed, which has significantly changed its original rhythm and accents in a way that does not match its original score. 

Among the many gifts Vertov bestowed upon us, his preservation of a moment in time that arguably more than any other influenced the 20th century is unparalleled. By further understanding the theoretical concepts and craftsmanship that went into his early cinema, we are able to more fully appreciate this pioneering genius whose theories and practices not only gave us a glimpse of these world events but also went on to shape the future of documentary well beyond his lifespan, effectively contouring the development of cinema in both Soviet and international spheres. Six years after his death, the French filmmakers Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin adopted Vertov’s practices into a method called cinéma vérité, which did not greatly differ from the Kinoki, whose checklist for the essentials of filmmaking included rapid means of transport, highly sensitive film stock, light handheld film cameras, equally light lighting equipment, and a crew of super-swift cinema reporters.

As a testament to his legacy, Vertov’s name was evoked in the Dziga Vertov Group, a radical filmmaking cooperative active in the 1960s and ’70s that included Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, among others, and whose theories and practices continue to echo globally throughout the corridors of film schools and cinemas. A thread can be made between Vertov and the great modern documentarians—from David and Albert Maysles and D. A. Pennebaker to Jonas Mekas and documentary's greatest living artist, Frederick Wiseman—all of whom drew on his principles and have continuously developed the cinematic form—the truest of its kind.

Thanks to Nikolao Izvolov, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, Eric Hynes, Hillary Weston, and Beatrice Loayza.

1. First published in Russian as “My. Variant manifesta,” in the program for the Kinoki in 1919. First appeared in print in the journal Kino-Fot 1 (1922): 11–12. First appeared in English in the Art Council of Great Britain’s Art in Revolution: Soviet Art and Design Since 1917 (London: Hayward Gallery, 1971), 94–96.

2. English translations of Vertov’s diaries are c/o Vlada, Petric. “The difficult years of Dziga Vertov: Excerpts from his diaries.” Quarterly Review of Film & Video 7:1 (1982): 7–22.

3. ​​Douglas Fairbanks and the German actor Konrad Weidt were among the most popular male movie stars in Russia both before and after the October Revolution.

4. Directed by René Clair Paris qui dort a.k.a. The Crazy Ray a.k.a. At 3:25 (1923) was one of the most avant-garde narrative films of the silent era.

5. Romain Rolland (1866-1944) wrote La vie de Beethoven in 1903.

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