By Tony Williams.
Nikolai Izvolov discusses his restoration of Dziga Vertov’s The History of the Civil War in 2021. In his recent review essay, Williams described the restoration as
an interesting re-discovery not only for its role as one of Vertov’s early works but also in depicting images of an historical past that echoed into a future period in many diverse ways.”
I know of your previous work on The Last Bolshevik and Vertov’s Anniversary of the Revolution. What inspired you to engage in this second reconstruction?
While doing the Anniversary of the Revolution (1918), I thought that if it was possible to restore the 1918 film, then why not try to restore the 1921 film as well? He was three years closer to our time and he had a little more chances to survive I was already deeply immersed in the material of Dziga Vertov’s life and work, and the transition to a new job was quite logical. Of course, I made a mistake and the work turned out to be much more difficult than I thought at first. Instead of a few months, as in the case of the “Anniversary of the Revolution”, it took about two years. But it was too late to retreat and in the end the film was finished.
In his Dziga Vertov: Life and Work Vol. 1: 1896-1921 (Academic Studies Press, 2019), John McKay mentions that History of the Russian Civil War was originally 13 reels. How much of this exists in the version you re constructed?
According to the description of the film left to us by Grigory Boltyansky, the film consisted of 13 clips. The exact length of the rollers is unknown to us, since there were no standards for the length of the roller at that time. However, according to the composition of the discovered plots, we can definitely say that the film has been restored almost completely. There are only a few plots missing inside several videos. And only one video about the defense of Tsaritsyn has not yet been discovered. It’s a pity, because Joseph Stalin was supposed to be filmed there, and his filming of the Civil War period is unknown to us. Apparently, this was an important event for the history of the Civil War, because later the city of Tsaritsyn received a new name Stalingrad.
The press release mentions some missing footage involving Stalin. Do you know what this was since Trotsky never mentions Stalin in connection with the Civil war period in his Stalin (revised edition, 2019).
Stalin, unlike Trotsky, did not like photography and filming. Therefore, his iconography of the Civil War period is extremely scarce. But there is a lot of Trotsky in the newsreels of that time, there is a feeling that he was almost the main figure. Subsequently, Trotsky lost to Stalin in the internal party struggle, was expelled from the USSR and subsequently killed by Stalin’s agents in Mexico. For the rest of his life, he tried in his books to present Stalin as an intriguer and an unintelligent person. Probably, the resentment of a loser spoke in him. In any case, his memoirs are difficult to consider objective.
McKay also mentions that cinematographer Boltyansky (1885-1953) also claimed authorship of the film. Can you comment on this?
This is not quite true. Grigory Boltyansky emphasized his role in the selection of chronicle material for Vertov’s film, but did not claim authorship. In the surviving description of the film we read: “The material was selected by G. Boltyansky. Installation dir. D.Vertova”. He also participated in the selection of chronicle material for Vertov’s previous film “Anniversary of the Revolution”.
How much did this film borrow from Kino-Nedelia footage? Vertov must have used a lot of found footage since I assume he did not shoot Admiral Kolchak who does a Napoleonic gesture before the camera.
The magazine “Cinema Week” was published in 1918-1919. Of course, some shots from it got into a film about the Civil War, if the events concerned the years 1918-1919. For example, one frame with a story about sending Red Army soldiers to the front near Kazan could only be found in the “Cinema Week” preserved in the Danish film archive. But most of the material for the film was in large films dedicated to certain events of the Civil War. Since the cameramen went to the front for quite a long time, it was difficult for them to send material to Moscow for weekly releases. And some films, for example, “The Disarmament of Anarchists” (April 1918) were shot even before the “Cinema Week” (May 1918) appeared. Therefore, in the “Cinema Weeks” the material was already heavily fragmented. Here is the reason that the “Movie Weeks” for this film were not the main source. As for Kolchak, it was the old footage shot in 1915.
Even in this early film, we see Vertov’s sense of humor. for example, he follows a shot of someone using binoculars and telescope with binocular and telescope framing of the person’s point of view.
Vertov used films of other directors and cameramen for his film. In particular, the episode you mentioned was taken from a film by another Soviet classic, Lev Kuleshov. It was a big movie “Ural” (1919), which is also considered to be missing today. I managed to identify this piece using photographs of the famous photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky and the diaries of Lev Kuleshov. At first it was possible to determine the location of the shooting (the city of Zlatoust), and then from Kuleshov’s diaries to understand that this sequence of frames belongs to his film. Kuleshov even included techniques from feature films in chronicle films, so it is not surprising that here we see the frame of binoculars. But this technique appears in the film only in this episode.
Among the many features of this remarkable film are glimpses of people we know from the period such as Makhno. Kirov, and Chapayev, the last being the subject of a 1930s Socialist Realist Film.
Yes, in the film we see a whole gallery of people who were later permanently excluded from the official historiography. Many of them either died in 1937 (Ivar Smilga, Konstantin Mekhonoshin, Mikhail Tukhachevsky), committed suicide (Sergo Ordzhonikidze), died under mysterious circumstances (Fyodor Raskolnikov), died in prison (Philip Mironov, Innokenty Kozhevnikov), spent half their lives in prison (Nikolai Kazadanov), emigrated (Nestor Makhno). Sergei Kirov (killed in 1934) and Vasily Chapaev (killed at the front in 1919) became cult figures of Soviet cinema (films “The Great Citizen” by Friedrich Ermler (1938) and “Chapaev” by the Vasiliev brothers (1934).
Despite what Konstantin Grinberg-Vertogradsky says in the Euro-Examiner review of the film, Trotsky is recognizable across the globe (I don’t know if he is still a taboo figure in Russia) but he is the center of the film as Commander of the Red Army. Do you think, one reason, the film became lost was due to the struggles in the Society Communist Party prior to and following the death of Lenin? I notice that many of the people we see in this film become victims of Stalin’s purchges in the 1930s
Of course, Trotsky is one of the most famous and recognizable political figures of the twentieth century. The fate of the film and the fate of Trotsky are not connected in any way. The film was lost even before Trotsky was expelled from the USSR. Documentaries are rarely in demand within a few years of their creation and usually become a donor for other films. There is nothing unusual here. In any case, the chronicle material with the participation of these people has been preserved and served as the basis for the restoration of the film.
In the beginning of the film, we see Kronstadt sailors actively supporting the Revolution then their mutiny is crushed towards the end of the film. Philip Miranov (1872-1921) was pardoned after his death sentence by the military tribunal as seen in the film. But he was later re-arrested and shot. Was this ever mentioned in the full version of the film sicne it would have complemented the Kronstadt treatment.
From the height of our historical experience, we know a lot of things that were unknown to contemporaries of those events. History in general is a very complicated structure. For example, we know from the film that Philip Mironov was arrested by the detachment of Semyon Budyonny, the commander of the First Cavalry Army. Then he was put on trial, sentenced to death and pardoned. Then he became the commander of the Second Cavalry Army and in the film we see how Budyonny, Voroshilov and Kalinin pass the banner of the Central Executive Committee of the Second Cavalry Army, that is, to their comrades. However, at that moment Mironov had not yet become the commander of this army. Later, he was arrested again and died in Butyrskaya prison under unclear circumstances in March 1921. That is, at the time of the production of Vertov’s film (June 1921), he was already dead. But we don’t know if Vertov knew this at that moment? The Mironov trial was an important event, and besides, it was one of Vertov’s first original films. We can assume that this was more important for Vertov than the fate of Mironov, and therefore he included this film almost entirely in the “History of the Civil War”.
I will move towards the end by congratulating you and your colleagues for your fine work in restoring this film and hope that both it and The Anniversary of the Revolution will soon be available on DVD since they are essential works in understanding Vertov’s development. Have you any other restoration projects planned for the future?
Since I have been studying material related to the work of Dziga Vertov in recent years, it seems logical to me to continue working with his films. I hope that my next work will be A Man with a Movie Camera (1929), the most famous film by Dziga Vertov. It seems to me necessary to restore the film exactly in the form in which Vertov created it in 1929. There are several versions of the restoration of this movie, but none of them suits me. It is necessary to restore the original introductory inscriptions, which were changed in the 1950s. You need to play the movie at the original speed so that the audience feels the original rhythm of the movie. It is necessary to recreate the original plan of musical accompaniment. Finally, it is necessary to restore small lost fragments. I would like to complete this work next year.
I review many DVDs for Film International and agree with many of the poits you and your co-authors make in the May 2008 article “Critical editions of films in digital formats” but I also know you’ve written a book that does not seem to have an English version at present. For our reasers could you briefly summarize some of your key arguments in The Phenomenon of Cinema, History, and Theory?
It is difficult to retell an entire book in the form of an aphorism. It contains a large amount of material that serves as the basis for logical conclusions. Many chapters are the result of archival searches that fill the gaps in our knowledge. The title of the book, History and Theory, answers many questions. It seems to me that one cannot create a theory of cinema without studying history. The difficulty is that the history of cinema arose a little over a hundred years ago, and the theory of cinema is not much younger than it. Unlike the theory of literature, the theory of drama, and the theory of music, the theory of cinema does not have such a huge historical space for systematizing conclusions. The theory of cinema, which is just being formed before our eyes, strongly depends on the history of cinema. And the “cinema phenomenon” itself consists of many components that influence each other. These are technology, economics, aesthetics and public interest. Depending on which component begins to dominate, the balance shifts and this “wheel” rolls on. Cinematography needs constant “crises” to exist. This is the complexity of film theory. It is not a simple continuation of the theories of other arts, it is a much more complex mechanism. And my book is constantly updated with new chapters based on the exploration of the developing components of both history and film theory. Archival research helps to fill in the empty cells of our knowledge, which is why archival work is so interesting to me.
Tony Williams is an independent critic and Contributing Editor to Film International.