Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is Dziga Vertov’s most well-known film. Film schools teach it as a classic example of montage, the city film, and early documentary. It gets screened by repertory cinemas and can easily be located on DVD or online. However, Man with a Movie Camera did not always enjoy top billing in Vertov’s filmography. During his lifetime, Three Songs of Lenin (1934) was his most popular, most acclaimed film.
Three Songs of Lenin is a non-narrative documentary celebrating Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, founding leader of the Soviet state, who had died 10 years earlier in 1924. It follows a tripartite structure, organized around folk songs written for Lenin. Part one focuses on the Soviet “liberation” of Muslim women in Uzbekistan. Part two eulogizes Lenin, featuring footage of his funeral, his public appearances, and even the only existing sound clip from one of his speeches. Finally, part three expands its scope to commend the breadth of achievement in Soviet society.
Unfortunately, the version we have available to us today is a posthumous revision completed in 1970 that mostly served to excise Stalin from the film. According to Russian scholar John MacKay, reviews and articles from the 1934 release of Three Songs of Lenin strongly suggest that Stalin was prominent in the original theatrical version (now lost), and he refers to the 1970 version as “a de-Stalinization.” In the 1970 version, Stalin only appears in a handful of shots.
Still, though the version we have available is not Vertov’s original intent, we can still find Vertov’s aesthetic point of view in it. Most notably, it continues his collage-like manner of structuring his films, choosing to organize footage around associative themes rather than a narrative arc. This inclination is obvious in Man with a Movie Camera, but can also be seen in his Kino-Pravda newsreels. In fact, Vertov characterizes his film career as a continued experiment in cinema truth. He writes in 1934, “The creative route from Kinonedelia (1918 and 1919) to Three Songs of Lenin has been long and complex, involving more than 150 experiments in filming and organizing newsreel footage.”
Within Three Songs of Lenin, the middle section on Lenin’s funeral stands out for its use of juxtaposition. It glides back and forth through time, from archival footage of Lenin’s body on display in Moscow, shots of the estate in Gorki where he died, archival footage of the train that transported his body from Gorki to Moscow, shots of mourning Russians (which appear to be both archival footage and footage shot specifically for the film), archival footage of the living Lenin giving speeches or interacting with colleagues, and archival footage of war, meant to evoke the revolution.
A shot of Lenin smiling, surrounded by children, is particularly effective, but the truly standout moment is when we hear Lenin speaking on the soundtrack. “Stand firm! Stand together!” he says.
Vertov contended in a 1934 essay, “Without Words,” that international audiences understood Three Songs of Lenin, even without a translation of the intertitles or closing interviews. He felt that the film spoke most strongly through the images, not the words. He wrote, “The point is that the exposition of Three Songs develops not through the channel of words, but through other channels, through the interaction of sound and image…” In other words, Three Songs of Lenin speaks loudest through its montage.
Watch Man with a Movie Camera and Three Songs of Lenin as part of the Dziga Vertov: Film Eye and Film Ear series:
- Man with a Movie Camera with live piano accompaniment, Friday, April 6, 7:00 pm, IU Cinema
- Enthusiasm (Symphony of the Donbas), Saturday, April 7, 3:00 pm, IU Cinema
- Three Songs of Lenin, Wednesday, April 11, 7:30 pm, IU Moving Image Archive Screening Room in the Wells Library (free but reservation required — click here to make your reservation)
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.