Three Songs About Lenin

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Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs About Lenin (1934) is a documentary feature that was made to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s death. Vertov was commissioned to make Three Songs About Lenin by Mezhrabpomfilm, a studio that specialized in propoganda. Many of the techniques that Vertov developed in his earlier, better known films are on display in Three Songs About Lenin which, although the film is a work of propaganda, make it a very personal achievement for Vertov.

As the title suggests, Three Songs About Lenin is a triptych made of three different episodes whose content and form is dictated by a song that celebrates the life and accomplishments of Vladimir Lenin. Before the triptych formally begins there is a prologue. In this brief section of the film Vertov takes his camera into Gorki mansion to see the room where Lenin died as well as his view of the garden. The tone is somber and the images light and airy. The prologue evokes a sense of peace that, for Vertov, was hard earned by Lenin in his lifetime.

The first song, “My face was in a dark prison..” looks at how Lenin and the Bolsheviks liberated the people of Russia. Vertov emphasizes the liberation of women under Lenin’s regime in this section, stringing together images of women reading Lenin’s works with sequences of Muslim prayer, children dancing, and locomotives whose rails connect every corner of Soviet Russia. Throughout each episode or “song” Vertov employs his mastery of montage and unconventional camera placements to create highly illustrative visuals. The images Vertov weds to the lyrics that appear on title cards almost always include a vaguely literal inperpretation as well as a more abstract and metaphorical interpretation.

This is more evident in the section of the film relegated to the second song “We Loved Him”. Far more idolatrous in tone, this segment looks at the life of Lenin himself using archival footage that is intercut with Vertov’s own newer footage. Visually this section is built around cause and effect. For instance, because Lenin united the proletariate, Russia became a mighty agricultural force. Vertov gives us images of Lenin speaking to a cheering crowd and then cuts to a dozen tractors traversing a field with thrashers. With every instance of causality this section of the film becomes progressively more bombastic. Images of military legions seem too metamorphose into mods of cheering farmers in a single instant as they swarm the communist leader of the world.

The final episode in Three Songs About Lenin is “If Lenin could see us now”; a look at Soviet Russia’s successes in the wake of all of Lenin’s accomplishments. Title cards proclaim “We march the road paved by Lenin” and Vertov gives the viewer a montage of tanks rolling through the countryside and scores of bomber planes sailing over the spires of the Kremlin. Moments of diegetic sound have been, until now, few and far between and employed only to convey a sense of location. Now Vertov includes interviews and testimonials as to what makes one a good worker or noble Russian worthy of Lenin’s immeasurable legacy. Stalin can be glimpsed as well in the cavalcade of celebratory images as he is subtly equated with Lenin as the heir apparent.

Three Songs About Lenin is not Vertov’s most formally radical or influential film. It was his final feature and in many ways his most mature work. Elements of the city symphony film and the kino-eye experiments proliferate each section of Three Songs About Lenin. The celebration of Lenin unifies all of Vertov’s methods and aesthetic ideologies with one single, albeit propagandist purpose. The experimental style of Vertov has, in Three Songs About Lenin, been finely honed as a cinematographic catharsis for a nation that still mourns one of its greatest leaders.