From the Old to the New: Stride, Soviet! (Dziga Vertov 1926)
2000 Meters in the Land of the Bolsheviks [2000 metrov v strane bolshevikov] – A Kinoglaz [film-eye] effort about the work of Mossoviet; matured into one of the great documentary works, Shagai, Sovet! over the course of the experiment. The central press unanimously hailed its release. Pravda wrote that “Shagai, Sovet! is the model of a dialectically constructed film.” (12.3.1926).
Where are you hurrying to?, Meeting of Automobiles, The Night is Full of Contrasts, Memories, among others, are experiments from the film Shagai, Sovet! concerned with creative comprehension of great content. ‘Only the truth and only nature. Yet they are brimming with meaning.’ (Izvestiya, 4.6.1926). ‘The spirited film Shagai, Sovet! succeeds in combining the official and the factual with art. Its range of representation is extremely broad, from the pathos of the Revolution (intercut with shots of Lenin, deceased and living) to tender smiles (shots from children’s home) and eccentric grimaces (Where are you hurrying to?)’ (ibid.).
Two years after the end of the war and four years after having delivered his first and last feature fiction film, To You, Front (Tebe, front), Dziga Vertov composed an extensive “Artistic Calling Card (1917-1947)” in which he, over the course of 137 paragraphs, meticulously described one project after another – thirty years of work as the pioneer in Soviet cinematography.1
By recollecting memories, quoting influential reviews, and addressing what he thought of as the great misunderstandings and obstacles in his (failed) career, Vertov self-consciously engaged in the self-historicisation of his œuvre. Here, each film becomes part of a larger conception in revolutionary media practices.
Within the evolutionary framing of this “Artistic Calling Card” the film Stride, Soviet! (Shagai, Sovet!), premiered on July 23, 1926, is related to as an experiment in finding a first application of “devices for shooting according to the method of ‘Distracting Attention’”.[Ibid., p. 98.] “Later”, he writes, “this method was adopted for use in feature films, albeit without notable success.” Thus, in terms of formal questions, Stride, Soviet!, together with its predecessor Kinoglaz (Vertov’s first feature-length film manifesto from 1924), stands for establishing a technically advanced and device-oriented non-fiction film within the broader field of the common (communist) tasks of Soviet cinema. For Vertov, at that time the only noticeable counterpart of Sergei Eisenstein (whose Stachka (Strike, 1927) was praised as the first victory of Revolutionary Film), the use of avant-garde means in non-fiction was crucial: Fighting for his film-eye (kinoglaz) method meant fighting against Eisenstein’s film-fist (kinokulak) method, even if only on the level of rhetoric. If Kinoglaz was a first demonstration of a radically different approach in educating the new viewer’s eyes, Stride, Soviet! was to become a second punch in the genre battle.
However, there was another dimension to it. Both films, Kinoglaz as well as Stride, Soviet! were also conceived as a playground for an ideological experiment, namely as a “first attempt to demonstrate negative facts.”2 If in Kinoglaz themes like cocaine and alcohol addiction, private enterprise, street children, or theft, are brought up, Stride, Soviet! displayed prostitution – in documentary film. This linked Vertov’s first two larger films with another non-fiction-branch, at the time prominently featured in Soviet cinema: the kulturfilm, and especially its social-hygiene issues (the term for the genre was taken from German). Stride, Soviet! is thus a film that educates the viewer as the new man, and vice versa, the new man as a new viewer. Vertov’s conception of the Soviet Man cannot be thought of outside the range of cinematic vision; on the other hand, the enlightened cinema-goer becomes an essential element of the new society, its revolutionised everyday life, its values and ways of behavior. Similar to all of Vertov’s silents, but nevertheless outstanding hereby, Stride, Soviet! is thus a definitive masterpiece in the mutual integration of aesthetics and politics, a cornerstone of a Soviet cinema newly conceived both formally and ideologically.
In a sense, one can already call the organisation of his kinoki-team revolutionary: In the credits of Stride, Soviet!, the film is defined as a (collective) “work of the kinoks” (rabota kinokov), with Dziga Vertov (aka David Abelevich Kaufmann) as the “author-leader” (rukovoditel), Vertov’s partner and wife Elizaveta Svilova as “assistant”, the congenial camera-man Ivan Beliakov as “main cameraman” (glavnyi kino-operator), and Ilya Kopalin as the “film researcher” (kino-razvedchik). If Kinoglaz was to prove that eventually the new generation of Soviet citizens, led by the pioneers portrayed in the film, would be enabled and empowered to take over all means and devices on the education front (including the film-eye), Stride, Soviet! intended to establish a tight collaborative bond between a professionalized and collective documentary filmmaking on the one hand, and the specific political institutions of the new Soviet regime on the other. One may think that in the first case, Vertov was absolutely free in developing a “filmed version” of this manifesto idea, conceiving a complex, recursively structured parallel enlightenment campaign of film-eye (kinoglaz) and pioneers, whereas Stride, Soviet! was “just” a commissioned work. But Vertov also liberated himself in the latter film, and his team from all sorts of limitations and complaints from the commissioner, “Mossovet” (Moscow Municipal Soviet). In his catalogue text for the Vertov show at the 23rd Pordenone Silent Film Festival Yuri Tsivian writes: “Though evidence exists (a formal scenario – even though in his writings Vertov denounced the use of scenarios in filmmaking!) that in the beginning Vertov honestly tried to make the kind of picture the Mossovet was expecting, he obviously soon got into his stride, for in the end Stride, Soviet! is very much a Vertov movie, a film experiment, an emotional film – anything but a promotional picture which would help the functionaries of the Mossovet get re-elected. No sessions are shown, no officials introduced, no names named, and the heroic role of the Moscow Soviet is pretty much relegated to intertitles. […] Stolen freedom is freedom nonetheless. […] In the end, the Mossovet refused to recognize Stride, Soviet! as the film it had commissioned; though it was widely discussed by the press, it was largely boycotted by film theatres.”3
What then were the film’s specific cinematic solutions in propagandising the city council’s achievements? As Jeremy Hicks has pointed out, the film marked a clear transition from newsreel to additional use of “found and unstaged footage, not simply to show, or record, but to construct an argument.”4 Some of the material used stems from Vertov’s earlier compilation films or Kinopravda issues, and it is neatly plotted along the general pro-(and re-)gressive time line of the film, which starts off from an account of (the normal) Segodnia (Today) and repeatedly refers back to the (chaotic) past (drought, hunger, and destruction during the civil war – a “nightmare”) and forth to a (still utopian) future (of a man-machine-fusion and a fully electrified country). The montage follows a strictly rhythmical, even metrical, pace, with each shot sequence being associatively tied to the intertitles that open up the sequence. Word (topics, headlines, threads) and images (diverse footage) are tightly intertwined. This led the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky to accuse Vertov of depriving the newsreel material of “its soul – its documentary quality. […] The whole meaning of newsreel lies in the date, the time, and the place. Newsreel without that is a card catalogue in a gutter.”5 What Shklovsky missed was a plot. But the film – and Vertov’s documentary filmmaking in general (the following film Shestaya chast mira [One Sixth of the World, 1926] definitively proves this) – is constructed along the thin (braided) line between ornamental “poetic” patterns and a revolutionary-socialist, teleological “narrative”. The appeal “Forward” – another way of translating the Russian title Shagai, Sovet! was Forward, Soviet! – is accomplished exactly by combining the recursive and repetitive structure of the poem with the progressive movement and development described on the level of infrastructural and economic improvements (from the days “without bread … water … wood … lighting” to the “rise of industry”; from “one oil lamp in the city center” to “the electrification of the village and the periphery”). In this setting, “even a flushing toilet seems a miraculous achievement”.6
The best term to describe Vertov’s montage principle seems to be what the Russian avant-garde called “shift” (sdvig), the homonymous “overlapping” of one element with at least two possible associations or affiliations. On his way to an utterly “plotless” documentary cinema (as in One Sixth of the World), Vertov in Stride, Soviet! produces signifying units that are not yet completely self-contained: the shots and sequences bare traces of referentiality and indexicality, but their semantic value comes also from their syntactic structure and position. Each shot is contaminated by its predecessor and contaminates the following one; but at the same time it always correlates with several other “rows” (or orders), with intertitles, with minimally divergent shots (of the same ‘objects’), and, last but not least, with shots of the same ‘content’, yet with radically different algebraic signs.7 Stride, Soviet! sketches (everyday, working) life on what Esfir Shub shortly later called the “Great Path” (Velikij put): from the old to the new. Pravda was right and, for a change, truthful: “Shagai, Sovet! is the model of a dialectically constructed film”.
- Dziga Vertov, “Artistic Calling Card (1917-1947)”, in Dziga Vertov, The Vertov Collection at the Austrian Film Museum. ed. Thomas Tode and Barbara Wurm (Vienna: Austrian Film Museum, 2006), pp. 81-158. ↩
- Ibid., p. 99 ↩
- Yuri Tsivian, “Shagai, Sovet! (Mossovet v nastoiashchem, proshlom i budushchem / Mossovet) / Stride, Soviet! (The Moscow Soviet in the Present, Past, and Future / The Moscow Soviet)”, in Le giornate del cinema muto: 23rd Pordenone Silent Film Festival (festival catalogue, 2004), pp. 49-51. ↩
- Jeremy Hicks, Dziga Vertov. Defining Documentary Film (London: IB Tauris, 2007), p. 39. ↩
- Viktor Shklovsky, “Where Is Dziga Vertov Striding?”, in Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties, ed. Yuri Tsivian (Sacile/Pordenone: Le Giornate del cinema muto, 2004), p. 170 ↩
- Hicks, Dziga Vertov, op. cit., p. 140. ↩
- For a complex shot pattern analysis of the film see Harvey Denkin, “Linguistic Models in Early Soviet Cinema”, in Cinema Journal 17:1 (Fall 1977): 13. ↩