Enthusiasm review – Dziga Vertov’s feverish, celebratory trip to communist-era Donbas

The jittery, crazed, experimental brilliance of Dziga Vertov’s 1931 película, subtitled The Symphony of the Donbas, still pulses after almost a century, although it should be said right away that the “enthusiasm” of the title is mainly for two things: primero, Soviet Russia’s control of Guardería golpeada por bombardeos después de que separatistas respaldados por Rusia abrieran fuego en el este de Ucrania – video y, second, carbón. Neither of these commands quite the same excitement in 2022.

This was Vertov’s first sound film, celebrating the role played by the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and its mineral and agricultural riches in Joseph Stalin’s five-year plan, and nothing could have been less conventionally “symphonic”: a piercing, clanging, screeching sound-collage, mixing crowds, shouts, boots and industrial machinery as well as ordinary music and speech. Religion is swept away by Communist party orthodoxy. The pious, icon-kissing elderly people of Donetsk are shown with trenchant, irreverent irony and Brechtian alienation: they are surrounded by tramps, drunks and crowds of younger people they don’t understand; their streetscapes are tipped into weird Dutch angles and confusion. The churches of Donetsk have their steeples torn down and the buildings turned into social clubs for the workers.

A vast explosion of energy is being released, and it is channelled into something overwhelmingly important: the Stakhanovite overproduction of coal (and wheat) to exceed the five-year plan. An eerie proto-TV screen announces to a secular congregation of party faithful that there is a “shortage” for which colossal overcompensation is necessary.

Enthusiasm, with its bold cuts and POV shifts and uproarious sound cues, fetishises and eroticises the revolutionary upheaval that makes it all possible: the smashing up of religious loyalties, and the tearing up of the ground to get the coal. This is industrial futurism of the most sensual and hysterical kind: that initial detonation of revolutionary fervour, scattering numberless shards of image and sound.

It is here that Vertov’s own enthusiasm is at its most vital, although it should also be said that once he begins to concentrate on the business of coal and steel itself, the film becomes less experimental. This is something to be compared with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis o Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia; there is an occult passion to it.

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