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Movie Posters of the Week: The Posters of Dziga Vertov

Some of the first movie posters that I ever took seriously, or seriously loved, were Soviet posters of the 1920s. Instantly arresting, intensely colorful and irresistibly dynamic, as well as being rendered more appealingly abstract because of their Cyrillic typography, the best of these posters, like those of the Stenberg Brothers and Alexander Rodchenko, are, it almost goes without saying, among the greatest works of 20th century graphic design. Having said that, I haven’t really thought about them much lately. The most famous of them have inevitably become so overexposed (pastiched by Shepard Fairey and Franz Ferdinand, sold on t-shirts on Soho trestle tables, printed on mugs and aprons...), and their genius a given, that they've become like the Citizen Kane of movie posters, unassailably great and thus rarely discussed.

But the Dziga Vertov retrospective, starting today at the Museum of Modern Art, nudged me to look at some of these posters again and remember just how special they are. As far as I can tell, posters only exist for five of Dziga Vertov's features, all from his peak period from 1924 to 1930. Since the posters very much mirror the films themselves in their revolutionary invention and rule-busting wit, I would love to see the poster for Vertov's Stalin-era Lullaby from 1937 and see how much poster design had also been straight-jacketed by socialist realism.

 

Plenty has been written about Vertov elsewhere (and collected on MUBI here) that I have nothing to add about the great spinning top of Russian Cinema himself, but here are the posters in chronological order:

Kino-Eye (1924) 

Designed by the great artist and activist Alexander Rodchenko, this poster for Vertov's first film is one of the canonical works of Soviet Graphic Design. The concept of the eye (especially the mechanical eye) is paramount in Vertov’s work and reappears in a number of his posters.

A Sixth of the World (1926)

Three very different posters for this film which was commissioned to display the beauty and achievements of one sixth of the world to the other five-sixths. Rodchenko's design (top left) has a trompe l'oeil poster peeling away to show that one sixth of the world is red (and, by implication, more to follow). The second design, provenance unknown, is very curious, especially with the two incongrous jazz-era figures at the bottom (I wonder if it was for a double-bill of films; if anyone can read the poster please let me know). The third design, bottom, is by the incomparable Stenberg Brothers (more on whom in a later post) with Alexander Naumov.

The Eleventh (1928)

The Stenbergs designed two posters for this film celebrating the eleventh anniversary of the Russian Revolution: the one at the top left of this article with its hypnotic yellow concentric circles (which I blatantly ripped off for my own poster for the documentary Zizek!) and the one above left which used the face of of Vertov’s friend and patron Michail Kol'cov. The third poster, above right, is from Uzbekistan.

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Again the Stenbergs designed two posters for Vertov's most famous film. Their poster at the top right of this article, with its spiralling text, its dizzying urban perspective and its fragmented dancer, could, to my mind, and despite its ubiquity, lay claim to being the greatest movie poster of all time. Their other design, above left, concentrates more on the film’s main character, the camera itself (note the eye again) than on the city symphony it describes. The third poster, above right, is a German design by the artist Sachs Kupfer, in which what J. Hoberman so perfectly described as the film’s “whirligig visual ruckus” is conveyed by the world flying by the motorcyle-mounted camera.

Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1930)

Vertov's first sound film, an experimental symphony of sound effects, is brilliantly conveyed in this uncredited poster in which type stands in for reverberating sound.

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Poster images generously provided by the Austrian Film Museum from Dziga Vertov: The Vertov Collection at the Austrian Film Museum; Vienna: FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen Vol. 4, 2006; edited by the Austrian Film Museum, Thomas Tode and Barbara Wurm.

The book is available for purchase for European readers here and for American readers here.  More resources on Dziga Vertov from the Austrian Film Museum can be found at their Online Vertov Collection resource, here.

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From April 15 - June 4, 2011 New York's Museum of Modern Art is showing a large retrospective on the work of Dziga Vertov.

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For “A Sixth of the World” poster #2 with the incongruous jazz-era figures at the bottom, I can read some of it. The very top of the poster reads “Kino Mal. Dmitrovka”. I haven’t seen the film so I’m not sure what this refers to. Maybe it’s the location of the screening hall. In the middle of the globe it reads “Autor (something) Dziga Vertov”. I don’t understand the text on the bottom left and its too hard to read. The bottom right says “Theatre Otkrbit, from 12 in the afternoon to 12 at night, 2 jazz band orchestras.” Maybe this was live music accompanying the film or maybe some unrelated party/performance. Hopefully some of our Russian colleagues can clarify all of this. These posters are brilliant!
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By the way, if it’s not clear, “autor” means “author”, or “auteur”. In other words, “director”.
http://www.kinopoisk.ru/picture/1136089/ - in a bigger size At the left: "From the 31 of December, apart from the main program, there will be Tatar dances by “Chaban” and “Hay-Torma” in the foyer. The Tatar orchestra directed by Sherfetdinov" At the right: “The theater is open from 12 in the afternoon to 12 at night, 2 orchestras and a jazz band” Kino Mal. Dmitrovka is the name of that theater, with its phone number just beneath (5 digits) That “author-leader/supervisor Vertov” sounds very strange, I have never seen this definition before, could be his own coinage.
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Great post! I just had a chance to see “A Sixth of the World” so I might know what the puzzling figures in the second poster are about. They refer to a very interesting sequence in the film that features footage from a jazzy minstrel show that forms part of the first section of the film, documenting a series of leisure activities enjoyed by capitalists. Given Vertov’s animosity towards the ecapism of entertainment and theater, it is interesting that he foregrounds a critique of colonialism and slavery in the cruelty and superficiality of the minstrel show. These symbols of Western racism were probably included in the poster to contrast with the celebration of ethnic diversity in the Soviet Union that is so central to the film.

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