The Revolution’s most revolutionary filmmaker, Dziga Vertov, celebrated the 10th anniversary of its founder’s death in “Three Songs About Lenin,” a lyrical documentary mixing new material with stock footage in an exciting dynamic montage. One of its claims to fame is the innovative use of sound, but the Locarno Soviet retro was the first to screen a silent version which Vertov made in 1935 so it could be shown in small town theaters not outfitted with sound equipment.
Eleven minutes shorter than the usual running time, this version may have some academic interest. However, Vertov’s images and montage are so dense they require major concentration (amply rewarded), which today is asking a lot even of film students.
Docu is structured around three folk songs from the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, giving it great cultural breadth. The first song, “My Face Was Locked in a Dark Prison,” shows Muslim women throwing off their tent-like veils and going to school.
“We Loved Him” illustrates the country’s grief at Lenin’s death and includes some striking war footage. “In the Great Stone City” gives more sense of the Soviet Union as a great multi-ethnic nation and its achievements under socialism.
Sans sound, the cinematic effects are extremely powerful and Lenin’s apparitions on historic newsreels almost dreamlike. Vertov’s glorification of the founding father as immortal god, the master of nature and culture, becomes all the more uncomfortable to confront.
Vertov is about the only director who personally re-edited the silent versions of his films, instead of handing the task over to an assistant. This refit has an added prologue showing the worker who caught Lenin’s assassin in 1918. In addition, some episodes have been switched around, some new shots been added, and the meticulously synchronized sound sequence with worker Mariya Belik has been axed.
Both this silent version and the familiar sound one are in fact later retouchings done in 1938 (again by Vertov), following Stalin’s demand that all images of his victims be removed. The originals of both have never been found.