Dziga Vertov and the Kino-Eye
If Vertov’s influence is not felt formally, then it is at least felt spiritually by the best of his successors seeking to rediscover the emancipatory potential of film.
Didn’t you know? We can raise the dead. We can reverse the course of suffering and turn it into one of bliss. Redemption is within our grasp.
Dziga Vertov, the great Soviet filmmaker, was certainly aware of this, saying as much with his films, which were, in so many ways, historical materialism in action. In Kino Eye (1924), the first of his two masterpieces, Vertov staged a resurrection, turning a bull carcass hooked in a city slaughter house into a living bull, happily grazing in a field. “Kino Eye moves time backwards,” the title card reads just before the miracle.
During a recent showing of Kino Eye at Anthology Film Archives (screened as a part of their fantastic Essential Cinema series), I sat with other viewers in complete silence for the film’s 78-minute runtime. The silence was interrupted, however, by a just-audible exhalation during the bull sequence. The sense of redemption was real, even if the bull did actually die, because we could see, thanks to Vertov’s Kino-Eye, the other course of history—the contingency involved in the bull’s death, the real death, and the potential for life contained in the same sequence.
The Kino-Eye—the eye of the camera—is able to see in ways that humans cannot. It can reverse time, expand it with slow motion, condense it, conjure chimeras and ghosts through double exposure, collapse space through the closeup. But the camera is a human instrument. Therefore the Kino-Eye, though more capable than the human eye, is not separate from but an extension of the human way of seeing. If early American narrative cinema was akin to filmed plays, demonstrating, above all else, the camera’s ability to record life, Vertov’s cinema was after something more radical—the augmentation of the eye, the use of the camera to reveal more than what the human eye could see, which was a limit of cinema prior to his intervention.
In the wake of the USSR’s establishment prior to the Stalinist freeze, artists (Vertov included) took to task overthrowing pre-established forms and subjectivities in service of the revolution. In this newfound freedom, montage and the Kino-Eye saw everyday life, now emancipated from the chains of czarism and emerging from the immediate crisis of war, as raw material for art—art which, in Constructivist fashion (and like the self-abolishing proletariat), sought to abolish the separation between art and life, making everyday life just as rich as art and vice versa. Thus, the Kino-Eye turned to the bustle of the city, to its shifting streetcars, beggars and workers, down to the movement of a clock hand, the thrum of machinery, and out to the countryside, its farmers in fields, and bales of hay.
Because of Vertov’s drive to establish a new way of making cinema suited to the times, his films have an almost didactic element to them (or in the case of his many newsreels and propaganda films, an explicitly propagandistic purpose). Unlike the didacticism or, worse, moralizing of run-of-the-mill soviet propaganda or the culture industry output of the West, Vertov’s didacticism is rooted in form, not plot. Thus, his montage-editing of disparate elements conjures cinematic meaning through the cutting of one shot to the next, from what precedes and what follows. Vertov is not necessarily interested in cinematic meaning arising out of a narrative sense. Rather, Vertov is invested in the construction of images through which cinematic meaning emanates, which is then interpellated by the audience itself.
Vertov’s mission was both genuinely democratic and emancipatory. The Kino-Eye expanded humanity’s visual capacities, changing not just what people could see, but how people looked in the first place. It was Vertov’s task to use this technology to in turn teach people both how to see and what to see—i.e. everything. All visible material was leveled onto the same plane, ripe for use by the emancipated eye just as all material, in its physical form, was now free to be utilized in the advancement of the people. But simply seeing was not enough. The expanded visual field of the Kino-Eye was only one half of the equation; the other half was montage. In this sense, Vertov’s use of montage (which is related but not necessarily the same as what is depicted in Eisenstein’s theory of montage) toys with rhythmic editing and the manipulation of visual material, proffering a new form of cinematic stimulation. The juxtaposition of shots—the dialectical tension between disparate images—solicits meaning hitherto unknown. Any person can see, but the emancipated person can craft new meanings and assemblages through how they see. If the Kino-Eye unlocks the storeroom of visual materials, montage gives people an idea of how to use those materials.
An illustration: Vertov would often follow a frenetic wide shot of a crowd with a quick close up, then back again to the crowd: a means of both collapsing space but also of giving the new collective consciousness a visual form, pointing to the audience that they must see themselves subsumed within the collective even as they retain their individuality. Or, going back to the aforementioned bull resurrection in consideration alongside the end of Kino Eye, in which a remote village receives electricity, we can see Vertov giving form to the abolition of the antithesis between town and country. The camera collapses not only time, but distance as well.
Vertov’s concerns, however, were at once loftier and more modest than the education of the Soviet citizenry. He was also attempting to craft a purely cinematic language. Hence the absence of sound or title cards in his films, such as The Man with the Movie Camera (1929). As Vertov wrote in one of his early manifestos, “Synthesis should come at the summit of each art’s achievement and not before.” Vertov saw the danger posed by soundtrack (be it music or speech) and narrative to the nascent art form—as arts with much longer histories, narrative, music, and speech offered the comfort of the familiar and risked assimilating film for their own purposes, arresting the essence of the cinematic. Montage and the Kino-Eye were the sine qua non of this new art—only through this new way of seeing and arranging could the raw material of everyday life be emancipated from its inertness. But always, Vertov’s art returned to the political: just like his cinema animated inert material, it also sought to turn the masses from the objects of history into its proper subject. As Jacques Rancière stated, “in this sense cinema is much more than an art; it is the utopia of a modern world that may be naturally communist.” At the risk of hyperbole, one might say that in Vertov’s cinema we can see certain central Marxist categories made manifest: meaning, the superstructure of the film, emerges from the material base, i.e. the raw material captured by the Kino-Eye—the rhythm of the montage, which animates the interplay, is class struggle.
But that ship has sailed—it set sail even during Vertov’s time. Every revolution is prone to reversal, to co-optation and disintegration. Vertov’s quest to forge a uniquely cinematic language was suspended by the subordination of form to plot, by the imposition of market or political forces desiring conformity, transparency, and assimilability. There’s a sense in which the best filmmakers have continued to search for Vertov’s pure cinema—Godard (along with his compatriots) utilized soundtrack in what he referred to as “vertical montage,” adding sound to the phraseology and rhythm of montage, assimilating it into films in a specifically cinematic way; Guy Maddin continues to create his postmodern and recursive silent films, which seem to utilize film history as the raw material of their creation. In any event, if Vertov’s influence is not felt formally, then it is, I think, felt spiritually by the best of his successors, who all, in ways inevitably mediated by technological advancement and changing sociopolitical context, seek to rediscover the emancipatory potential of film.
Vertov’s films emerge for us, then, as a promise forestalled, and in the endless deferral of his vision we can see the tragedy of the twentieth century: resurrection, like birth, is not a cure for death. At the end of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin states: fascism seeks to aestheticize politics, “communism replies by politicizing art.” Vertov was the embodiment of the reply, but since his radical vision for film was swept asunder by the vicissitudes of history, and since the effort to claw back cinema’s emancipatory potential remains always on the horizon, the world has been largely and increasingly living in fascism’s aesthetic vision.
Just before the end of the third reel of Kino Eye, Vertov films a group of young divers, in one shot positioning the camera looking down into the water from atop the platform from which they dive. We see the water shimmering in its stillness, then ripples, then a burst, the diver’s body emerging and rising, miraculously, back to the platform.
Twenty years later, many of those youths were fighting and dying in the fields of Europe. And that same angle that had captured them diving in the prime of their youth was now being deployed to film bombs dropping all across the continent.