A few weeks ago, as I was learning to appreciate the sport of ice dancing, it could not have occurred to me that Russia would so shortly be invading one of its neighbors. Or rather, it could have, and it did, but I thought that the neighbor in question would be Georgia, as Russia had extended its border security checkpoints into Abkhazia for the duration of the Sochi Olympics. But instead Russia invaded Ukraine, and this evening I found myself watching Dziga Vertov’s 1931 Ukrainian film Enthusiasm: A Song of the Donbass.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Vertov and his cinematic project. On the one hand, he was a devout communist, both politically and artistically. For Vertov, art was politics by other means and it principle purpose was didactic. This is an ideology that I find absolutely abhorrent. However, even at his most propagandistic (which was pretty much always), Vertov’s artistry always shined through. His cinematic montages—and he was one of the pioneers of the montage technique—are consistently fascinating and often beautiful. One does not have to subscribe to his worldview to appreciate the aesthetics of his films, even if they’re films with titles like Stride, Soviet and Three Songs about Lenin. He can almost be forgiven for the pernicious influence he had on Jean-Luc Godard, who in the late 1960’s began making Maoist propaganda films with a collective called the Dziga Vertov Group. Almost.
Vertov, born in 1896 to Jewish parents in what was then the Russian Empire and is now Poland, and who worked for much of his career in Ukraine, is to a certain extent emblematic of the way that these countries, so often at odds with each other politically, are nonetheless deeply and inextricably linked to each other. We can all certainly hope for a future in which they regard each other with mutual respect and with a shared notion of the importance of human dignity and liberty, and I mean that not in the jingoistic American sense of the word, but in a universal sense.