JThe nervous, crazy and experimental brilliance of Dziga Vertov’s 1931 film, subtitled The Symphony of Donbass, still beats after almost a century, even if it must be said right away that the “enthusiasm” of the title is mainly due to two things: firstly, Soviet Russia’s control of Ukraine and, secondly, coal. None of these orders have quite the same excitement in 2022.
It was Vertov’s first sound film, celebrating the role played by the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine and its mineral and agricultural riches in Joseph Stalin’s five-year plan, and nothing could have been less conventional. “symphonic”: a piercing, resounding, strident-collage sound, mixing crowds, cries, boots and industrial machines as well as ordinary music and speech. Religion is swept away by the orthodoxy of the communist party. The pious and embracing elderly people of Donetsk icons are portrayed with a sharp, irreverent irony and Brechtian alienation: they are surrounded by tramps, drunkards and crowds of young people they do not understand; their streetscapes are slanted towards strange Dutch angles and confusion. The churches of Donetsk see their bell towers demolished and the buildings transformed into social clubs for the workers.
A vast burst of energy is released, and it is channeled into something extremely important: the Stakhanovite overproduction of coal (and wheat) to overtake the five-year plan. A strange proto-TV screen announces to a secular congregation of party worshipers that there is a “shortage” for which colossal overcompensation is needed.
Enthusiasm, with its daring cuts, shifts in perspective, and thunderous beeps, fetishizes and eroticizes the revolutionary upheaval that makes it all possible: the crushing of religious loyalties and the uprooting of the soil for coal. It is the most sensuous and hysterical industrial futurism: that initial burst of revolutionary fervor, scattering countless bursts of image and sound.
This is where Vertov’s enthusiasm is most vital, although it must also be said that once he begins to focus on the coal and steel business itself, the film becomes less experimental. It is similar to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia; there is an occult passion to it.