A Sixth Part of the World
BSSB.BE filmquarterly.org/ 19.01.2016
Soviet cinema is currently experiencing an unforgettable turning point,” wrote Dziga Vertov in 1926, in an April 12 letter collected in Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (University of California Press, 1984). Judging by the two short films, A Sixth Part of the World (1926) and The Eleventh Year (1928), Vertov was doing little more than stating the truth. Man with a Movie Camera would follow in 1929, with Enthusiasm and Three Songs about Lenin following in 1931 and 1934 respectively, before the creep of socialist realism put paid to much truly experimental cinema.
This vital and fascinating new Vienna Film Museum edition of two of Vertov’s most important middle-period films serves to remind us of just how astonishing cinema can be, and how inappropriate our usual cinematic categorizations—comedy, romance, documentary—are when it comes to directors (or “author leaders,” as these films have it) like Vertov—whose vision, it should not be forgotten, cannot be easily disentangled from the work of Elizaveta Svilova, his wife and editor, and of Michail Kaufman, his brother and cameraman.
A Sixth Part of the World, whose title refers to the immense landmass of the Soviet Union, is a celebration of the people and the industry of the USSR. If that sounds either dull or propagandistic, it should be noted that it is most definitely not the former nor straightforwardly the latter.
Vertov, whose ability to understand his own work far exceeds that of anyone else, described it in the following way during an August 17, 1926 interview for the Kino newspaper: “A Sixth Part of the World is more than a film, than what we have got used to understanding by the word ‘film.’ Whether it is a newsreel, a comedy, an artistic hit-film, A Sixth Part of the World is somewhere beyond the boundaries of these definitions; it is already the next stage after the concept of ‘cinema’ itself …
Our slogan is: All citizens of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics from 10 to 100 years old must see this work. By the tenth anniversary of October there must not be a single Tungus who has not seen A Sixth Part of the World” (quoted in Barbara Wurm’s essay in the DVD booklet).
It is no coincidence that Vertov mentions the Tungus, an older name for one group of indigenous people of the Russian north, as, unlike much of the fiercely metropolitan Man with a Movie Camera, A Sixth Part of the World is an attempt to capture the diversity of Soviet peoples, as well as the variety of the nation’s industry. The film is also a complicated critique of capitalism, and of the USSR’s involvement with the global market (the film was completed just before the first of the five-year plans was introduced).
By the time Vertov made A Sixth Part of the World, Lenin’s New Economic Policy had been in operation for five years, and export to capitalist countries formed a central part of the Soviet economy. The somewhat unwieldy subtitle of the film, A Kino-Eye Race around the USSR: Export and Import by the State Trading Organization of the USSR reveals something of the complex geopolitics of Vertov’s cinematic subject.
A Sixth Part of the World begins not with the USSR, however, but in the capitalist world. A German plane descends, eerily reminiscent of the opening shot of Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). Men and women dance the foxtrot, while fancy bows at the back of silk dresses swish and a gramophone record rotates (a wind-up gramophone playing a Lenin speech will return later on board a ship picking up furs for export to the Leipzig fair).
The scene cuts to a machine picking up metal with “Krupp,” the name of the German steel manufacturers and the largest corporation in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, written on the side. A woman and a man smoke and drink tea. “More machines … and more … and even more,” read the inter-titles, as if shaking their head at a system rapaciously committing itself both to limitless production and to such cultural decadence. “But for the worker,” we are told, “it is just as difficult.” Capitalism is structurally unfair.
One striking feature of A Sixth Part of the World’s inter-titles is that Vertov repeatedly uses “you” (both formal and familiar) in different ways throughout: the “you” of the member of the various ethnic groups of the USSR included in the footage, the “you” of the audience watching the film, but also the “you” of the Soviet Union as a political totality.
To complicate things further, the camera apparently possesses an agency of its own: the phrase “I see” is particularly prevalent at the beginning of the film, where Vertov’s kino-eye turns its critical gaze upon the negative dimensions of the capitalist world: “I see colonies,” “slaves,” it reports, as we see footage of black men and women picking crops under the stick-wielding direction of a colonial master. “Capital” (misleadingly subtitled as “the capital” throughout, one of the rare faults of this superb edition), the watcher slowly realizes, may involve fancy hats, stuffed animals, and dancing at one extreme, but at the other lies exploitation, racism, and cruelty.
One of the most important juxtapositions comes when a scene of a black workers grinding grain is followed by footage of a minstrel show with the interspersed titles: “black people … existing for amusement as … ‘chocolate kids’.” Vertov’s message is clear—although there are many smiles in the first few frames, none of them are true: the rich may smile because they’re better off than their neighbors, the slaves may smile because it’s better than crying, and the minstrels may smile, well, because they have to—but none of these expressions of happiness are remotely authentic.
“Convulsions” reads one intertitle, as faux-tribal dancers step up their pace, jazz bands play, and a woman smokes. The capitalism of the 1920s may well be frenetic, exciting, and dynamic but it is also, according to Vertov’s script, “on the brink of historical downfall.” History would bear him out on this point, at least.
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