‘The History of the Civil War’, a silent film by Dziga Vertov from 1921, has been screened for the first time in 100 years at the Tuschindzki Theatre in Amsterdam.
The screening was part of this year’s International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA), a hub for the world’s documentary lovers and professionals. The art-deco theatre really set the scene for the film from the same era.
Lost and found
The last and first time the documentary film was ever seen was by 600 members of the Communist International in 1921. After that, it disappeared and only paper accounts of the film could be found.
However, only a few years ago it was found and film historian, Nikolai Izvolov, reconstructed it using records. Almost the entire film was reconstructed except for some scenes with Stalin that for some reason were never found.
Another film by Vertov, ‘Anniversary of the Revolution’, suffered a similar fate, but was found and then remastered by Izvolov in 2018. It too was screened at the IDFA.
Izvolov says that about 90% of the films from the silent era have been lost. That is one of his motivations to work on the restoration of these films so that some can at least be presented to the public.
A pioneer in documentaries
Dziga Vertov was a Soviet avant-garde director known for films like ‘Man with a movie camera’. He is generally considered a groundbreaking director in the world of documentaries. He used techniques that are now common, like Dutch angles, freeze frames, extreme close-ups and slow motion, but they were revolutionary at the time.
Documenting a violent period
‘The History of the Civil War’ is a documentary about the war between the Bolsheviks and the white anti-revolutionary army. It is considered Bolshevik propaganda and portrays the years when the Bolsheviks struggled to defeat domestic opposition to the revolution. The scenes show street fights, military tribunals and trenches. As the IDFA says, it’s “an unvarnished record of a country in chaos, marked by unstable alliances and brutal violence.”
Konstantin Grinberg-Vertogradsky, producer of the remastered film, says that “In Russia and in all the world, nobody knows Philip Mironov, nobody knows Trotsky, or perhaps people have heard of him, but they don’t really know who he is.” To him, this is why the movie is very important because “this war was a very bloody war and a largely unknown war, but Russia lost many millions of people in this war.”
A modern-day performance
The projection was accompanied live by ‘The Anvil Orchestra’, who are world-renowned for their silent film music. The film was thus able to take on its full and true dimensions with the group’s two star musician-composers: Terry Donahue and Roger Clark Miller.
They wrote an original piece for Vertov’s film, creating a unique experience for them and the audience.
Miller says that he has done a lot of regular soundtrack work where there’s sound design and background music, but ‘The History of the Civil War’ was different. “We are the sound design and we are the talking too. So we have to be more “moment by moment” active to the film because there is no speech” he explains. Their music becomes the speech, the sound design, the explosions and “the music is part of the movie.”
The film will be presented in Moscow in Spring and also in Italy at the next Venice film festival.