Born in Poland in 1896, Dziga Vertov, born David Abelevič Kaufman, moved to Russia where he first studied medicine and then poetry and fiction. In Moscow he begins to take an interest in cinema thanks to surrealism from which he takes inspiration also for his nickname with which he becomes known, Dziga Vertov.
After the Russian Revolution, he found a job at the editorial office of the film week, a rotogravure with propaganda content run by the Socialist Party.
As a state employee he made his first short film, The Anniversary of the Revolution , but his true cinematic personality begins to emerge with the documentary series Kino Pravda, a 20-minute film in which he begins to elaborate his theory on cinema and reality, which flows into a manifesto called Kinoglaz . The manifesto stated that the camera must film reality in the most authentic way possible.
The Kinoglaz Theory
According to Dziga Vertov, the director’s vision and his creative act therefore take place exclusively from the editing of the film. To support him in his theories were his brother Mikhail, great operator and director of photography of the Russian cinema, and his wife Yelisaveta, editor of his films.
The theory of Dziga Vertov did not attract sympathy: on the one hand there were the productions that were interested in growing the audience of fictional films. On the other was the ruling party which had made image manipulation and visual propaganda information its main means of persuading the masses.
The fact of filming reality in the most objective and detached way possible was a concept that annoyed many and broke down the foundations of how cinema was used at that time: creating fictional realities or imaginary worlds to please the public and manipulate his way of thinking and living.
Vertov believes in the art of cinema so much that he claims that only cinema can raise the awareness of the masses, much more than literature and theater. Indeed, it was already clear then that the cinematographic image had a more “metaphysical” nature than any other art.
The man with the camera
In his most famous film that has marked the history of cinema, all his ideas and theories of him come together. The man with the camera is a masterpiece that remains avant-garde through time, to the point of appearing incredibly modern even today.
A day in Moscow from sunrise to sunset, like a great visual symphony. The city wakes up and begins to move: the dance of life transformed by Vertov into pure cinematic rhythm begins. A cameraman travels around Moscow with his camera and his tripod, experimenting daring and reckless shooting techniques around him.
The film is pure kinetic energy, without captions, without dialogue. A series of visual inventions that cannot be reproduced by other means than the cinema. Instead of being a document on reality it seems to have a spiritual and transcendent nature that defies any classification.
Probably the man with the camera is the film that delves deeper into the nature of the cinematographic medium created up to that point, and one of the most significant in the history of cinema.
For many viewers, the camera man can mean this: discovering what cinema really is, whether they like it or not, after having seen hundreds of films that exploit other arts, mainly theater and literature, to create a traditional visual story.
The Man with the Camera, also considering the context in which it was shot, is one of the most revolutionary films. Dziga Vertov had developed a theoretical awareness of the cinematographic medium that allowed him to find its essence. Most directors weren’t interested in theory at all.
From this film will be born a genre called “ City Symphony “. A genre of films that have had space to experiment with avant-garde techniques up to the contemporary age. Symphony that Dziga Vertov will perform again after the advent of sound in 1931 with the film Sinfonia di Donbassa / enthusiasm .
With Three songs about Lenin , however, he will make a documentary on commission, for propaganda purposes. Through three chants Lenin is told how the new messiah arrived to free the Russian people. For some, this lyrical and musical documentary, so different from previous experimental films in opposition to the regime, is Vertov’s best work.
In reality, this film is also highly experimental in nature, and subverts the rules of the propaganda documentary. It is a work of art devoid of rhetoric that once again seeks its center in the musical and rhythmic quality of the images.
In the following years, Dziga Vertov and his cinema were overshadowed by the Kolossal films produced by the regime of another Russian director: Sergej Eisenstein . Vertov will always be frowned upon, and in some moments persecuted by the Stalinist regime without ever being a victim of it. In fact, he will continue to carry on the cinematographic research until his death in 1954.
The poetics of Dziga Vertov
Dziga Vertov’s poetics is presented as the application of an iconoclastic thought to cinema. The systematic rejection of the creation of images as an instrument of ideological or cult propaganda. His work is not just expressionist experimentation and documentary cinema. It is a nihilistic poetics towards traditional images and against the values of the dominant powers.
Vertov’s films appear today more complex than they seemed to mean in the past: a cinema-truth without the filters of fiction to record the “presumed” truth of reality. An approximate analysis suggested by the historical period in which the Russian filmmaker worked. He himself, committed to playing the role of the protester of the time, was imprisoned in this vision of the cinema of reality as a search for truth at all costs.
The roots of Dziga Vertov’s theory of gaze may perhaps be sought in a subversive thought that denies the mechanical eye of the camera, the eye that was able to observe the twentieth century, the possibility of actually observing reality. The same eye cut by a razor blade in Luis Bunuel’s first surrealist film, Un chien andalou.
The impossibility of seeing reality
His work could be interpreted as an angry battle of a revolutionary spirit against the impossibility of the gaze to truly perceive reality and its events. With his cinematic style, Vertov absolutely rejects any iconic representation of the imaginary proposed by power. The reality, contrary to what the ruling class wants to support, is unrepresentable and incredibly complex. Images cannot tell it, but only suggest a distant intuition. Showing something doesn’t mean getting to know it.
Giving up the images that the public expects to propose a universal void. An alternative vision that consists in the elimination of every possible form. Vertov theorizes in his cinema-truth the impossibility of representing any possible truth, just as Brian De Palma did many years after, in 2007, with his film Redacted.
As happens in the age we are living in: we are filmed in every possible way, from the webcam to the smartphone, up to the surveillance cameras. We live in a world populated by billions of images where the sense of reality ends up eluding us for good.
The camera from The Man with the Camera is run over and destroyed by a moving train. Reality can destroy a mechanical eye but not the director’s human gaze, his impressions and feelings of the moment. The selection of events that he will do in his mind through the editing of the scene.
The mystery of images
Therefore, according to Dziga Vertov, cinema has mysterious powers that allow, through the images of reality, to reveal an intimate and secret truth. The rejection of a traditional story and the fiction of the staging becomes an observation of reality that tries to grasp the mysterious links between the observed events, the unexpected assonances.
Reality is transformed into a magical and inexplicable event, with the help of film editing that eliminates the superfluous things and leaves only the essential. The observation of reality is only the phase that precedes the search for its meanings and its hidden correlations.
The director films without having any thesis to prove. Instead, his is a search for what he does not know and what moving images can reveal to him. As happens, for example, in the lyric and poetic cinema of the independent filmmaker Franco Piavoli: His images are a tool to seek the sacredness of the passage of time and the transformation of nature. Without a real script, without ideas and preconceptions in mind. While Dziga Vertov films the frenzy of the big city, Franco Piavoli films the imperceptible slowness of the transformation of nature.
Vertov’s mechanical eye thus becomes the exemplary demonstration that any device that reproduces reality can neither see nor perceive reality. The single images recorded are nothing more than a series of infinite possibilities of the perception of reality that can only be achieved through editing and one’s own vision of the world.