A “symphony of the Donbass” (region of eastern Ukraine known for coal mining) which aims to celebrate sound recording in film, but still has almost no noticeably-synched sound. I assumed this would be a part-talkie follow-up to Man with the Movie Camera, and it has moments of MwtMC-style montage, but mostly it’s dreary and impersonal (compared to Earth, which I just watched, anyway) propaganda for “shock workers,” which are workers who aim to overachieve their quotas in exchange for glory and prizes.
Before it gets bogged with with shock workers, the first half of the film, cutting between a woman listening to headphones and the reorganization of Russia (churches are torn down, replaced by angular Stalin statues) during the “five-year plan”, is exciting.
Amidst a cacophony of toot-tooting, static, chug-chugging and ding-a-linging, we are told this: “The country needs coal.” Vertov, in a highly fragmented fashion, aims at an integrative view of the interdependency of elements of Soviet productivity. Coal-mining provides energy; factories, combining machine- and human labor, provide steel and manufactured farm equipment; the latter, fueled by coal and operated by farmers, thresh a harvest of wheat. The railroad is shown as connective tissue, transporting mined coal to the factories and, from the factories, whatever is needed in rural areas. Railroad tracks are the new order’s bloodstream. Captions and narration assist in portraying workers at whatever point in this joint process as aggressive warriors and heroic figures.
A tidbit from J. Jacques: “Vertov himself placed massive emphasis upon Enthusiasm’s sound. Western screenings were notorious for Vertov’s insistence on raising the soundtrack to intolerable levels, having blocked the exits to prevent escape.”
After returning from glory abroad with his Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov undertook a suicidal double challenge – to make a political film that would both show (with image and montage) and song (with sound taken from nature and machine) the heroic, dramatic struggles of the state to industrialize at any cost – while pioneering the use of untested sound recording in the field. The finished film, Enthusiasm, was received with derision and incomprehension.
CJ Chamberlin, author of the above, has an outstandingly long, detailed and thoughtful article which would take as long to read as the movie did to watch, so I skimmed and grabbed a few parts.
Vertov was both a genius and a willing creature and subject of a totalitarian ideology. Whatever he was, Vertov never was that ambivalent about the price to be paid in blood and skulls for world socialism. And the Ukraine bore more than its fair share of the price: factory slave labour, brutal collectivisation and the terror famine. By any rational standard, his Donbass Symphony (the alternate title of Enthusiasm) should be an infamous film. If I were Ukrainian, I would burn the negative and sprinkle the ashes with holy water.