The Edition Filmmuseum label was set up in late 2005, offering up Dziga Vertov’s 1930 early sound experiment Entuziazm (Simfonija Donbassa) as its inaugural release. The film was a welcome addition to many a DVD shelf given the scarcity of much of Vertov’s work. Only his 1929 masterpiece Man With a Movie Camera had been easily accessible - in the UK it had been released on VHS by the BFI and, subsequently, three DVD packages. Just over four years later, in December 2009, Edition Filmmuseum returned to Vertov for a new double-disc package, this time collecting some rarer still material: A Sixth Part of the World from 1926 and The Eleventh Year from 1928, both presented in new HD transfers from restored 35mm prints.
Having been made prior to Man With a Movie Camera, both A Sixth Part and The Eleventh Year serve as a valuable insight into how Vertov reached the heights of that 1929 effort. As this set’s sleeve notes profess, these two works “mark the beginning of [his] most creative period”. Indeed, footage from both would figure in Man With a Movie Camera and as such can clearly be viewed as stepping stones towards his masterpiece. Yet whereas the later work was a primarily a “city symphony” and a self-reflexive look at the art and function of filmmaking - in other words, essentially free of political subtexts - A Sixth Part and The Eleventh Year are both explicit examples of Soviet propaganda. The former serves as an epic extolling of collectivism, moving outside of the capital and European Russia to document its various far-flung corners. (The title, of course, making reference to its size in comparison to the rest of the world.) The latter, on the other hand, celebrates the decade since the October Revolution of 1917 and proclaims its ongoing strides.
Arguably, such propagandist concerns work in Vertov’s favour. It may seem an unlikely analogy, yet I was particularly reminded of such Humphrey Jennings WWII shorts as Listen to Britain and Words for Battle whilst watching these two films. As with Jennings’ paeans to British spirit, both A Sixth Part and The Eleventh Year allow their director a free reign when it comes to handling the material. Essentially, the remit is quite simple - as exemplified by the ability to sum up each in a single sentence - and as such the films are able present their ‘message’ without it either complicating or interfering with the more cinematic concerns. Just as Listen to Britain and Words for Battle act as superb examples of visual poetry, so too A Sixth Part and The Eleventh Year become filmic “symphonies” in the manner of Man With a Movie Camera.
It should perhaps go without saying, then, that Vertov’s visual eye is as keen as the one he so perfectly demonstrated in his later works. This set is full of wonderfully observed details, from reindeer races to sheep being washed in the sea. Moreover, the fact that A Sixth Part, especially, took its camera to lesser documented areas (Siberia, the Chinese-Russian border) allows for a wealth of rare glimpses into what seems like a completely different world. Indeed, A Sixth Part could almost serve as a straightforward travelogue, collating as it does so much ethnographic and anthropological detail. Yet such a description arguably undervalues the works. The various tricks and techniques that played such a prominent part in Man With a Movie Camera get an early outing here, prompting some staggering images. To mention just two examples of split-screens and superimpositions as found in The Eleventh Year we see wonderfully busy crowd scenes (multiple images occupying the same frame thus filling the screen with dozens of faces) or the moment which Edition Filmmuseum have chosen as this set’s cover image: the towering presence of a worker over an entire landmass as though his exertions alone are providing the required labour - a perfect encapsulation of the individual/collective dichotomy the film’s message is espousing.
To quote a comment Jean-Pierre Gorin made in Sight and Sound in 1973, one which I also used when reviewing Man With a Movie Camera quite a few years back: “[Sergei] Eisenstein thought of himself as the inventor of montage, but in fact he was inventing camera angles. At the same moment Vertov was inventing editing.” In other words, the actual visuals are only part of Vertov’s technique; it is what he does with them that makes his films what they are. Furthermore, A Sixth Part and The Eleventh Year once again prove that this didn’t simply arrive fully formed in 1929. (As an aside I would argue that it is the greater ambition - and fully achieved ambition, at that - which elevate Man With a Movie Camera above these two works.) Certainly, Vertov can do standard editing practices - the explosives sequence in The Eleventh Year is as good an example of early narrative suspense techniques as you are likely to see. But then he could also pull something extraordinary out of the bag. The beginning of A Sixth Part throws out images of machines, a couple doing the foxtrot, slaves and more besides, initially to perplexing effect. Then slowly Vertov teases out the connections, adding associative footage that ties one disparate element to the other, counter pointing one image with another, until the message becomes clear. The level of command is really quite breathtaking, demonstration of a filmmaker in complete control of his material.
In this respect the presence of the Michael Nyman Band on both soundtracks is quite fitting. Nyman and his band had previously provided a new score for Man With a Movie Camera in 2002 (available on the BFI disc) to great effect and the same is true here. Nyman’s compositional techniques are not that removed from Vertov’s. The emphasis on rhythms, the slow build from potentially disparate elements; there is a clear kinship between the two. The result is that Nyman never overpowers the visuals, rather he complements them. The drive behind the editing that makes A Sixth Part such a breathless viewing experience is merely accentuated but never altered. I am unsure as to whether Vertov made visual notes for either film as per Man With a Movie Camera which were then interpreted by the Alloy Orchestra for the BFI’s first DVD release. Yet I doubt few will struggle to find favour with the offerings here - the addition of Nyman makes for a welcome grace note to a pair of fascinating films.
A Sixth Part of the World and The Eleventh Year come as a two-disc release, encoded Region 0 PAL and with Edition Filmmuseum spine number of 53. Both are presented at a ratio of 1.33:1 and come with optional English and German subtitles for the Russian intertitles (which figure prominently in both films as they spell out their propagandist messages in an overt fashion). The soundtrack, meanwhile, is available in Dolby Digital 2.0 format. The latter, unsurprisingly, is excellent and demonstrates no discernible flaws. The discs also offer the option of watching their respective films completely silent. It should also be noted that A Sixth Part of the World, at 73 minutes, gets its own dual-layered disc, whilst The Eleventh Year, at 53 minutes in length, fits onto a second dual-layered disc alongside the two extras, Albrecht Victor Blum and Leo Lania’s 1928 compilation film In the Shadow of the Machine (22 minutes) and a brief but informative 14-minute featurette which investigates the similar footage found in The Eleventh Year and the Blum/Lania short.
As noted at the start of this review both A Sixth Part and The Eleventh Year have been transferred in HD from 35mm sources. However, it is also worth noting that both sources are somewhat variable. Clear damage - such as tram lining - is intermittently present in both, though no doubt their individual restorations were composed from the best material available. There is also some heavy ghosting on certain given sequences, though again this may very well have been inherent in the source. More importantly, we are getting the longest versions available (and the featurette on the second disc goes into some detail with regards to what may be missing and how certain sequences were re-configured). Plus the levels of detail and contrast are generally as good as could be expected. This really is a case of getting the best that is available, a situation that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
The extras, once again, demonstrate Edition Filmmuseum’s ability to find and/or produce the best contextualising materials. In the Shadow of the Machine was subject to some controversy when it prompted outcries of plagiarism - the accusation was that Vertov had used footage from this short in The Eleventh Year when in fact the very opposite was true. In the Shadow of the Machine was a compilation short (along the lines of, say, Ester Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty) made up of footage from such disparate places as the US and the Ukraine, and indeed Vertov’s 1928 feature. The disc allows us to see the film in full and also provides some context in the accompanying booklet and the featurette. The latter also notes how some footage, deemed to be Vertov’s after much investigation, figures in only In the Shadow and not The Eleventh Year and therefore posits how it could very well offer up the conclusion to the Vertov film. We therefore conclude with this footage shown unadorned. Rounding off the package we also have the 32-page bilingual booklet containing a number of articles, including brief discussing of ‘the Blum affair’, and DVD-ROM content on the second disc which extends on one of these articles as well as offering further material (some of which is interactive) on the films’ restoration. All told, an excellent package.
This set can purchased via the Edition Filmmuseum website. Click here to link.