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TitleDziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film (KINO - The Russian Cinema)
ISBN 139781435603523
CategoryArts - Film
File Size7.6 MB
Total Pages209
Document Text Contents
Page 2

Dziga Vertov

Page 104

fate of Three Songs of Lenin with the Soviet public and critics before
analysing the film proper.


Recently arrived in Moscow, American Communist Jay Leyda claimed
Three Songs of Lenin rendered ‘all other documentary films of the period
a little ordinary by comparison’ and was ‘outstanding for now and a
long time after’.11 Nevertheless, it was not immediately influential in the
Soviet Union itself, where it encountered a series of obstacles delaying
its distribution and was not screened at the Bolshoi Theatre on the 24
January tenth anniversary of Lenin’s death, despite being ready.12 Vertov’s
efforts to get the film shown ‘ended in splendid victory’.13

On 1 November it opened at 11 of the largest cinemas in the land,14

and was supposedly discussed at 200 public screenings.15 Yet it lasted
only a few days. Vertov claims that this was despite substantial receptive
audiences and implausibly blames minor bureaucrats for keeping the
film from the public despite its good press.16

Certainly, where reviewed, the film’s hallowed theme meant criticism
was, at worst, guarded. A good example is a Sovetskoe kino review of
various films released near the fifteenth anniversary of Soviet cinema,
which praises Three Songs of Lenin as evidence that Vertov has reformed:
‘[T]he logic of events comes first, the meaning of these events and not
the frequent succession of Formalist visuals, of brief montage shots, as
in Vertov’s previous works.’17

If this compliment seems backhanded, the rest of the review
directly criticises Three Songs of Lenin for concentrating on the non-Slavic
ethnic groups of the Soviet Union, and not portraying industrialisation
in the centre of the country. This hostility towards the film’s Eastern
theme came directly from Stalin himself. Boris Shumiatsky recalled
that prior to showing Leningrad Party boss Kirov his favourite film,
Chapaev [1934], Stalin commented on Three Songs of Lenin:

[F]undamentally it was incorrect: Lenin is shown purely using Central
Asian material. This places completely unwarranted emphasis on Lenin
the leader and standard bearer solely of the East, solely as ‘the leader
of the Asiatic peoples’ which is profoundly mistaken.18

The true problem could not be voiced. Vertov had placed undue
emphasis on Lenin: he alone inspired emancipation. The cult of Stalin
was eclipsing that of Lenin, and Vertov had failed to make Stalin and his
achievements sufficiently prominent. On the tenth anniversary of Lenin’s

D O C U M E N T A R Y O R H A G I O G R A P H Y ? 91

Page 105

death Stalin occupied over half the front page of Pravda, whereas Lenin
was part of the background.19

Stalin preferred Chapaev, also released for the October celebrations.
Critics competed to praise its combination of historical truth with
artistic licence.20 This free adaptation of a famous civil war diary in fact
sacrificed all accuracy to dramatic effect. If acted and fictionalised films
of recent history were treated as trustworthy, then documentary was
threatened still further. Although Three Songs of Lenin helped win Vertov
the Order of the Red Star at the celebrations of the fifteenth anniversary
of Soviet film in January 1935, it was Chapaev, and not Three Songs of
Lenin, that dominated the inaugural Moscow Film Festival later that year.

The East

Given that it was the ostensible reason the film failed to impress, why
did Vertov choose the peoples of the East to illustrate his Lenin theme?
Vertov’s own answer is that the women of Soviet Far East were ‘triply
emancipated’,21 and therefore, as Drobashenko explains, the progress of
the revolution was most dramatic and evident there.22 Official appeals to
Soviet Central Asian women as the ‘surrogate proletariat’ of the East,
called upon to liberate their societies under the aegis of the Soviet state,
were commonplace.23

In keeping with this vivid account of sexual, cultural and class
liberation, the structure of the film traces a narrative from the opening
song’s deliberately slow rhythm depicting the oppression and stagnation
of traditional Asiatic society, symbolised by women wearing the veil.
The revolution overturns this and the final sequences of the third song
employ Vertov’s familiar fast editing style.24 The final quotation confirms
the film’s progression from the liberation of individuals and peoples of
the East to that of the whole country, and humanity: ‘Centuries will pass,
and people will forget the names of the countries in which their ancestors
lived but they will never forget the name Lenin, Vladimir Ilich Lenin.’25

The third song mirrors the first, so that ‘my collective farm’ becomes
‘our collective farm’, indicating the same movement from specific to
general emancipation.26

While this shift may be seen as a forgetting of the East in favour of
the implicit hegemony of European Russia,27 it is also bound up with
the film’s central theme of memory. The quotation at the end of the
film echoes the quote from the second song: ‘[A]nd neither we nor our
grandchildren’s grandchildren will ever forget him.’28 Lenin’s memory
enables all emancipation. The inspirational act of remembering Lenin

92 D Z I G A V E R T O V

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