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Vertov, Dziga

(1896–1954), documentary film director and film theoretician. The most radical of Soviet montage theorists and father of cinéma verité was born Dovid (later Denis) Kaufman, the son of a Białystok bookseller and a rabbi’s daughter. A precocious poet and aspiring avant-garde composer who renamed himself Dziga Vertov (a Polish-Ukranian hybrid that suggests “perpetual motion”), he studied medicine first in Moscow and then Saint Petersburg, while continuing to write music. After the October Revolution, Vertov left school to edit a weekly newsreel; during the civil war, he served as a battlefield cameraman.

Vertov was opposed to fictional filmmaking on principle. In 1922, he launched a new newsreel, Kino-pravda (Film Truth), and issued a manifesto denouncing “film drama” as “the opium of the masses.” He did not, however, believe in neutral documentaries. Thoroughly experimental, Vertov and his associates used bizarre camera angles, extreme close-ups, reverse action, and slow motion, as well as a hidden camera, to create, through editing, what he termed “a factory of facts.” Vertov argued that, rather than reflect reality, motion pictures constructed a reality: “The film object [is] made with footage just as a house is made with bricks” (“On Kinopravda” [1924], in Michelson, ed., 1984).

After 23 issues of Kino-pravda, Vertov made a series of longer, more elaborate and intricately edited documentaries culminating in his epic city symphony, Chelovek s kinoapparatom (The Man with a Movie Camera; 1929). Vertov’s masterpiece, Chelovek s kinoapparatom might be the most self-reflexive movie ever made—a primer, in fact, for film viewing—that matches the rhythms of a day to the cycle of life and the mechanisms of movie-making to the logic of industrial production. Vertov considered it to be the movie which finally broke free from “the tutelage of literature and the theater and brings us face to face with 100 percent cinematography” (“The Man with the Movie Camera” [1928], in Michelson, ed., 1984). Two years later, he made his first sound film, the highly original and nearly wordless Entuziazm (Enthusiasm), also called Simfoniia Donbassa (Donbass Symphony), ostensibly created to celebrate the industrialization of the Donbass region.

Misunderstood in his lifetime by audiences and cultural bureaucrats alike, Vertov underwent a posthumous revival in the 1960s. Throughout his career, he was accused of formalism and worse. Vertov’s movies grew more conventional during the 1930s and, although the hagiographic Tri pesni o Lenine (Three Songs About Lenin; 1934) was well received, he made only one further feature—thereafter surviving on the margins of the Soviet film industry as an anonymous newsreel editor.

Vertov was assisted throughout the 1920s by his younger brother Mikhail Kaufman, later a director in his own right; Boris, the youngest Kaufman brother, was a cameraman who emigrated to France (working with the avant-garde filmmaker Jean Vigo) and later Hollywood, where he won an academy award for On the Waterfront (1954).

Suggested Reading

Peter Kenez, Cinema and Soviet Society, 1917–1953 (Cambridge, 1992); Annette Michelson, ed., Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, trans. Kevin O’Brien (Berkeley, 1984); Vlada Petrić, Constructivism in Film: The Man with the Movie Camera (Cambridge, 1987); Richard Taylor and Ian Christie, eds., The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896–1939 (London, 1988).