How ‘Three Songs about Lenin’ Finished Dziga Vertov
Today we celebrate the 90th anniversary of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s death. The famous communist leader, politician and political theorist died on the 21st of January 1924, aged 53, at his estate at the Gorki settlement (later renamed Gorki Leninskiye). He was one of the leading political figures and revolutionary thinkers of the 20th century. His input into Marxist theory, collectively known as Leninism, resulted in the idea of a socialist republic constructed through the leadership of a revolutionary vanguard derived from the working class. After the October Revolution of 1917, once the Bolsheviks officially came to power, Lenin became the first head of the Soviet Union.
In 1934, Dziga Vertov, a Russian director, screenwriter, and theoretician of documentary films, produced Three Songs about Lenin – a propaganda film commemorating the 10th anniversary of Lenin’s death. Like all Vertov’s films, Three Songs about Lenin is a peculiar combination of sound and vision, plotting gently the story of Lenin’s leadership, and its impact on the nation of Soviet Central Asia, with the required propaganda messages. And so, the film consists of three parts or, as suggested by the title, three songs: “My Face Was In a Dark Prison”, “We Loved Him”, and “In The Great Stone City”. The prelude to the songs is constructed of images of Lenin and the house he died in; “the sequence ends with a photograph of Lenin sitting on his bench, a shot which has become very famous and which gains in power by contrast with the shot of the empty bench that has preceded it” (Taylor). Then the real story begins; it is a story of life of Soviet Central Asia, of “the woman who has abandoned the veil; of the lamp that reaches into the village; of the water that attacks the desert; of the illiterate, who have become literate” (Taylor), or, in other words, it is a story of Lenin and the changes brought to the working masses by the Revolution: female emancipation, electrification and industrialisation of the countryside and access to education. The second song is much darker, as it goes back to the time of mourning for the great leader; there are shots from his funeral and metaphoric scenes of funeral cannons making the whole country stand still, only to be followed by the third song, which proclaims coming back to life and entering a hopeful and brighter future.
The movie has got a unique cinematic quality to it, which finds an explanation in the way Vertov perceived his own work: “I am a cinema writer. I write not on paper but on film.” (Richard Taylor, Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany). At the time of the film’s production Vertov wrote: “The image ‘Lenin is Springtime’ passes through the entire film and develops parallel to other themes. This theme, like the others, is not channelled through words, but takes other routes, through the interaction of sound and image, through the union of many channels… Three Songs of Lenin is a many-sided work. However, it draws its basic strength from its roots in images of popular creation, generated by the emancipated masses. Lenin the giant and the beloved Ilyich, close friend and great leader, and ‘Lenin has poured into each of us a drop of his blood’ – that is how Lenin’s image is seen by the emancipated Turkmen and Uzbek; that is how he appears to the doubly, the triply emancipated woman of the Soviet East.” (Taylor).
Despite the fact that the film can be seen as both an exemplary work of Socialist Realism in the documentary cinema and a significant development of the experimental tradition of the 1920s, Three Songs about Lenin was one of Vertov’s last experimental pieces of work. The film, which gained international acclaim and was described by Charlie Chaplin as “one of the most exhilarating symphonies” (Vlada Petrić, Constructivism in Film – A cinematic Analysis: The Man with the Movie Camera), was problematic at the time of its release for one major reason: Stalin’s discontent for ignoring his role in the October Revolution and ignoring him in the film overall.
In his diary of May 17, 1934, Vertov describes his growing frustration at the party’s indifference regarding the promotion of the film: “It is almost four months since Three Songs about Lenin was completed. …The agony of waiting. My entire being is tense – like a drawn bow. Anxiety – day and night. … They managed to exhaust me completely.” (Petrić). Three Songs about Lenin turned out to be just the beginning of the end for Vertov. By stepping on Stalin’s toes, he was successively rejected by the Soviet bureaucracy with his new proposals. In his diary from 1939, Vertov quoted Saakov (a functionary at the Ministry of Cinematography): “You must act as we tell you to do, or you will not be allowed to work in cinema anymore.” (Petrić). It was clear that from then on, he would not be allowed to experiment with his work as he used to. By paying tribute to Lenin, Vertov buried himself alive with the spirit of the Revolution that died together with the famous revolutionary.