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The Optics of Orientation: Walter Benjamin and Mikhail Kaufman in Moscow

© 2017 Johns Hopkins University Press

How would a film look if Walter Benjamin had been behind the movie camera? Miriam Hansen entertains this possibility in Cinema and Experience (2012) when she speculates about an “imaginary city film” made according to Benjamin’s aesthetic principles. Such a film, Hansen writes, would include a variety of avant-garde techniques “from French Impressionism to Soviet experimental cinema, in particular montage (that is, discontinuous and rhythmic editing), nonconventional and expressive framing, and camera movement.”[1] Yet Hansen’s version of a Benjaminian film practice is inferred almost entirely from Benjamin’s film theory, while his descriptive essays on European cities—“Naples,” “Marseilles,” and the focus of this article, “Moscow” (1927)—are missing from her authoritative survey of Benjamin’s thought. That “Moscow” is absent from Hansen’s analysis follows a tendency in Benjamin scholarship to treat the essay as a minor work, as either a methodological precedent for his landmark study of Paris, the Arcades Project or, worse, a byproduct of an autobiographical curiosity, the Moscow Diary (1986).[2] This article brings “Moscow” to the fore and derives from this densely visual text a Benjaminian film practice grounded in his impressions of the Soviet capital. Rather than project Benjamin’s later film-theoretical claims onto his experience of the city, I argue that his depictions of daily life and cultural transformations underway in Moscow were decisive for his developing views on cinematic perception.

Benjamin spent two months in the Soviet capital during the winter of 1926–27, and in “Moscow” he blends luminous street scenes with probing judgments of the cultural and political atmosphere under party rule, reporting the tumultuous effects of the New Economic Program, along with the uncertain transition unfolding in the wake of Lenin’s death in 1924.[3] Unlike Berlin, where Benjamin was born and spent most of his life, and Paris, whose cultural world he reconstructs in the Arcades Project, Moscow remains distant, foreign, inscrutable to Benjamin, even as it threatens to overwhelm both him and his reader with the sheer volume of its concrete sensory stimuli.

The Revolution is the thread that binds the disparate elements of the essay into a coherent whole, and Benjamin organizes his experience of Moscow through formal techniques that are correspondingly dialectical. Graeme Gilloch remarks that Benjamin’s city essays “aspire to be textual equivalents of the cinematographic” because among all artistic media, “film captures the fleeting, fluid character of the modern metropolitan environment” (Myth and Metropolis, 45). While it is true that “Moscow” contains filmic elements, the essay does not find Benjamin subordinating textuality to cinematic verisimilitude (45–46).[4] Instead, he links cinema to an exploration of literary form, as in metaphors whose vehicles consist of the cinematic apparatus itself, rhetorical figures that foreground their literariness while underlining their connection to cinematic technology. Benjamin’s film practice thus comes closer to what Johannes von Moltke has recently dubbed “media promiscuity”—the fictional exploration of cinematic themes not reducible to filmic writing as such—which von Moltke claims was a response to the experience of exile on the part of classical film theorists.[5] Neither a work of fiction nor a product of exile, “Moscow” nevertheless registers a deep sense of cultural estrangement that renovates Benjamin's critical gaze: “what is true of the image of the city and its people applies also to the intellectual situation: a new optics is the most undoubted gain from a stay in Russia,” Benjamin testifies. “However little you may know Russia,” he continues, “what you learn is to observe and judge Europe with the conscious knowledge of what is going on in Russia.”[6] With his ability “to observe and judge” inflected by the real effects of revolutionary change, Benjamin channels a “new optics” through his descriptions of Moscow, a film practice that occurs amid a range of intermedial strategies used to document a city as it dismantles the oppositions between urban and rural, labor and capital, art and life (“Moscow,” 22).[7]

Benjamin’s engagement with visual media finds a serendipitous counterpart in a neglected city-film—a real, not imaginary one—by the Russian filmmaker Mikhail Kaufman, also titled simply Moskva (1926) and released in the same year as Benjamin’s visit. Often overshadowed by his older brother and sometime-collaborator Dziga Vertov (born David Abelevich Kaufman), Kaufman made Moskva independently of Vertov, with Ilya Kopalin, in 1926, before again teaming up with his brother as cameraman for The Eleventh Year (1928) and Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Scholars have often noted the resonances between Benjamin and Vertov.[8] Hansen claims that Man with a Movie Camera “provided a cinematic intertext” (Cinema and Experience, 87) for Benjamin’s most influential essay, “The Work of Art in its Age of Technological Reproducibility,” and James Donald refers to the film in order to draw out the political and aesthetic commitments that Vertov shared with Benjamin.[9] Kaufman, on the other hand, warrants comparison with Benjamin both because of the geographical and historical propinquity of the two Moscow texts, and because their aesthetic choices complement rather than merely reflect one another in key ways. Indeed, Benjamin’s effort to link image and text is set into relief by the ongoing project of the Kino-Eye movement—the collection of filmmakers and artists around Vertov known as kinoks—to unburden their films of any debt to literature. In 1926–27, two years before Vertov and Kaufman finally released film from the conventions of writing in Man with a Movie Camera, Benjamin and Kaufman were both grappling with the representational possibilities of literature and film, albeit in complementary ways, with Benjamin striving to reconcile literary and cinematic forms, and Kaufman and Vertov trying to pull them apart. In the end, though, their respective experiments titrate out a common product—a vision of Moscow itself.

The latter years of the 1920s were an especially important period for Benjamin’s emerging views on cinema. Hansen shows that “Reply to Oscar A. H. Schmitz,” a defense of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, was an early source text for one of the most discussed passages from the “Work of Art” essay regarding cinematic perception (Cinema and Experience, 159). Benjamin published the “Reply” in Die literarische Welt only a month after his return from the Soviet Union, and “Moscow” ran in the first issue of Martin Buber’s quarterly Die Kreatur the same year, 1927, an indication that he was working on both texts at the same time.[10] In the “Reply” Benjamin writes:

film is the prism in which the spaces of the immediate environment—the spaces in which people live, pursue their avocations, and enjoy their leisure—are laid open before their eyes in a comprehensible, meaningful, and passionate way. In themselves these offices, furnished rooms, saloons, big-city streets, stations, and factories are ugly, incomprehensible, and hopelessly sad. Or rather, they were and seemed to be, until the advent of film. The cinema then exploded this entire prison-world with the dynamite of its fractions of a second, so that now we can take extended journeys of adventure between their widely scattered ruins.[11]

Readings of this passage and its later iterations concentrate on the power of film to revolutionize the perception of urban life. Donald cites these lines from the later version to argue for “cinema’s epistemological power to explode and recompose the familiar fragments of modern urban experience,” while Hansen claims that film “denaturalizes the entire ‘prison-world,’” and Gertrud Koch reaches a similar conclusion, claiming that “the camera itself becomes the subject, the demiurge which builds a new world out of the rubble of the old one” (“The City, the Cinema,” 86; Cinema and Experience, 159).[12] These readings share a common thesis: film transforms the city. Film is the operation, the city the operand. Yet when placed alongside another film aesthetic from the same time and place, Kaufman’s Moskva, Benjamin’s “Moscow” suggests that the relationship may be read the other way around, that the local condition of the Soviet capital—“the spaces in which people live, pursue their avocations, and enjoy their leisure”—inspires Benjamin to see film anew (17).

Thus it should come as no surprise that a desire to come to grips with the foreign city generates Benjamin’s first reflection on cinema in “Moscow.” He imagines a film that would help travelers find their bearings in a transformed landscape:

the city turns into a labyrinth for the newcomer. Streets that he had located far apart are yoked together by a corner, like a pair of horses reined in a coachman’s fist. The whole exciting sequence of topographical deceptions to which he falls prey could be shown only by a film.[13]

Since only film can record the city’s “topographical deceptions,” film alone offers a way out of the maze. Benjamin therefore insists on film’s value as an instructional tool for the benefit of travelers.[14] He immediately adds, “this could be approached in a very practical way: during the tourist season in great cities, ‘orientation films’ would run for foreigners” (“Moscow,” 24). For Benjamin, film is a remedy for culture shock. In contrast to the vaunted capacity of film to defamiliarize everyday experience with its visual and temporal disjunctions—a position closely associated with both Benjamin and the kinoks—when beset by the strangeness of Moscow, the “exciting sequence” of its “topographical deceptions,” Benjamin wishes for a film to render the foreign city familiar. Here, Benjamin’s thoughts on cinema take the form of practical concern rather than theoretical speculation. The Benjaminian film practice on offer throughout “Moscow” takes the unfamiliar experience of the post-revolutionary metropolis and orients the viewer amid the city’s spatial tricks.

Schematic Cinema

Interest in the personal facts of Benjamin's journey and the dysfunctional romance he had with Asja Lacis, recorded in the diary published in 1980 as the Moskauer Tagebuch, has distracted readers from the artistic radiance of “Moscow” and effaced important differences between the essay and the diary.[15] A few critics have taken note of the aesthetic value of “Moscow,” however. In his review of the Moscow Diary, René Wellek measures the autobiographical text against the revised essay, stating that “the article ‘Moscow’ is stylistically, and as a coherent exposition, greatly superior to the diary.”[16] Gershom Scholem attests to the “unusually intense blend of observation and imagination” in Benjamin’s writing, correctly pointing out that “Moscow” is a “reworking, and often a considerable one at that, of the initial notations contained in the diary,” a remark consistent with Benjamin’s own view stated in a letter to Jula Radt:

Don’t imagine that it is easy to report on things here. I will have to work a great deal on what I am seeing and hearing if I am to give it some sort of shape [bis es sich mir irgendwie formt]. In the current state of affairs, the present —even though it be fleeting—is of extraordinary value. Everything is being built or rebuilt and every moment poses very critical questions. (Moscow Diary, 127)[17]

The raw material of the diary does not suffice for a depiction of the city. Benjamin must hone his sensory experience, what he is “seeing and hearing,” in order to “give it some sort of shape.” He must give his observations form so they may address the “very critical questions” posed by the foremost city of the Revolution.

In “Moscow,” physical velocity applies diegetic pressure on Benjamin's descriptions of the city. Whether on foot, in a sleigh or a streetcar, Benjamin repeatedly tells of being propelled through the urban environment. The figure of an observer, both of the crowd yet maintaining a distance from it, invites comparison to the flâneur, but Benjamin cultivates a different attitude through the perspective of the “newcomer [Neuling],” the same term used to describe the beneficiary of his imagined orientation film. He gets closer; he touches.[18] “Travel by streetcar in Moscow is more than anything else a tactical [taktische] experience,” Benjamin writes. “[H]ere the newcomer learns perhaps most quickly of all to adapt himself to the curious tempo of this city and to the rhythm of its peasant population” (“Moscow,” 32).[19] Also a prominent trope in the films of Vertov and Kaufman, the streetcar marks the pulse of the city, its urban rhythms unfolding in silence: “a tenacious shoving and barging during the boarding of a vehicle usually overloaded to the point of bursting takes place without a sound and with great cordiality.” The closely packed bodies become an obstacle for the traveler: “since you must board at the rear but alight at the front, you have to thread your way through this mass.” The palpable closeness of the streetcar scene is consistent with Benjamin’s other descriptions of the crowd in “Moscow” and illustrates what Hansen calls his “valorization of nearness and tactility as a key experiential parameter of collective urban life” (Cinema and Experience, 126).[20] In his description of a trip on a streetcar, Benjamin conveys how public life in Moscow is both a tactical and a tactile experience (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Streetcar in Kaufman’s Moskva

A link between vision and touch, so essential to Benjamin’s descriptions of the modern metropolis, receives an extended analysis in “Of the Image of Proust” (1929), a text tied to “Moscow” inasmuch as Benjamin was working on his translation of the third volume A la recherche du temps perdu during his stay and mentions Marcel Proust twice in the finished essay (Moscow Diary, 38).[21] In “Of the Image of Proust,” an atrophied sense of touch reveals a shortcoming of Proust’s otherwise formidable literary ability. “There has never been anyone else with Proust’s ability to show us things,” Benjamin comments, “Proust’s pointing finger is unequaled.”[22] Yet for all Proust’s ability to show, he comes up short where Benjamin excels: “But there is another gesture in friendly togetherness, in conversation: physical contact. To no one is this gesture more alien than to Proust. He cannot touch his reader, either; he couldn’t do this for anything in the world.” The aesthetic program of “Moscow” attempts to take the Proustian power of visual observation out of the salon and into the streetcar.[23] Benjamin augments the visual acuity of the alienated master with the tactile presence of Moscow’s crowds. Following the passage on Proust’s withered sense of touch, Benjamin generalizes, “If one wanted to group literature around these poles, dividing it into the deictic kind and the touching kind, the core of the former would be the work of Proust; the core of the latter, the work of Péguy,” the French poet, essayist, and contemporary of Proust. In “Moscow,” Benjamin strives to reconcile the antinomy between deictic and tactile aesthetics. His own literary production comes down on the side neither of Proust nor of Charles Pegúy. As he extends his pointing finger, he touches.

The haptic dimension of urban experience obtains distinct political valences in light of the Revolution. For Benjamin, Proust represented an especially heightened form of literary alienation; Proust was “the highest physiognomic expression which the irresistibly growing discrepancy between literature and life was able to assume” (“Image of Proust,” 237). In a brief text originally intended as an introduction to “Moscow,” Benjamin describes his intent to overcome this discrepancy, “to convey an image of proletarian Moscow . . . to render the physiognomy of its workday and the new rhythm that informs both the life of the worker and that of the intellectual” (Moscow Diary, 134).[24] As a counterpoint to Proust’s physiognomy of asthmatic suffocation and his extraordinarily refined pointing finger, forged through nights of solitary literary labor, Benjamin makes physical contact with the proletariat. “To capture the image” of new class relations, Benjamin again foregrounds the kinesis of urban life, describing a sleigh ride to represent the tactility of solidarity:

Everything is based on the assumption of the highest velocity; long journeys in the cold are hard to bear, and distances in this gigantic village immeasurable. The izvozshchik drives his vehicle close to the sidewalk. The passenger is not enthroned high up [thront nicht]; he looks out on the same level as everyone else and brushes the passers-by with his sleeve. Even this is an incomparable experience for the sense of touch. (“Moscow,” 33)[25]

The sleigh careers along the frozen streets, and the tactile and the temporal are nearly indistinguishable. The passenger races through a crowd but is still a part of the crowd—he feels it brush his sleeve. And Benjamin makes clear that this collective tactility is predicated on class leveling: “Whereas Europeans, on their rapid journeys, enjoy superiority, dominance over the masses, the Muscovite in the little sleigh is closely mingled with people and things.” In order to subvert the division between literature and life epitomized by Proust, Benjamin’s observer descends from the throne to street level: “No condescending gaze: a tender, swift brushing along stones, people, and horses” (33). The density of the Moscow street, compounded by a newfound proximity between classes, induces a particular mode of observation: Benjamin’s gaze renders the city so that it can be sensed on the skin.

Benjamin’s conjunction of optic and haptic observation, deictic and tactile aesthetics, reflects a more general effort in “Moscow” to synthesize media into a film practice that organizes his experience of the revolutionary city. At this point in his career, according to Hansen, Benjamin was interested in the visual potential of textual form. In line with Russian Constructivists like Alexander Rodchenko, Benjamin believed that “writing advances ever more deeply into the graphic regions.” “If poets are farsighted enough to collaborate in the development of this ‘picture writing’ (Bilderschrift),” Hansen writes, “which includes learning from statistical and technical diagrams, they will renew their cultural authority” (Cinema and Experience, 152).[26] In “Moscow,” Benjamin recalls a visit to a peasants club (Bauernclub) where the walls are plastered with posters, “visual aids,” and other Bilderschriften intended to document the progress of the revolution: “The village chronicle, agricultural development, production technique, cultural institutions are graphically recorded in lines of development” (40). In a peasants club, these aids present a practical solution for illiteracy. They narrate the progress of the Revolution without recourse to language itself. Through these examples of “picture writing,” diagrams impart the progress of Communism in a form that anyone can understand; and for Benjamin, the “lines of development” lend order to the chaotic and uncertain signs of revolutionary change he witnesses on the street. Not content merely to describe the diagrams he sees in Moscow, Benjamin incorporates picture writing as a representational technique, employing a graph as a metaphor that captures fundamental aspects of life in the worker’s city: “Even the most laborious Moscow weekday has two coordinates that sensuously define each of its moments as expectation and fulfillment. One is the vertical coordinate of mealtimes; the other, which intersects it, is the evening horizontal of the theatre” (44). Benjamin graphs life onto Cartesian coordinates, structuring the temporality of the Muscovite workday in spatial terms, with mealtimes mapped onto the vertical axis alongside the “evening horizontal of theatre.” In a letter to Martin Buber stating his plans for “Moscow,” Benjamin declares his intent to show the Soviet capital in a manner that “reveals a full range of possibilities in schematic form: above all, the possibility that the Revolution might fail or succeed” (Moscow Diary, 132). Unsure as to the course of the political moment, Benjamin uses graphic writing to schematize the course of daily life, turning a Moscow workday into an image that reconciles biological and cultural activity, life and art.

Diagrammatic representation serves as a sort of visual aid for both Benjamin and his reader; it renders meaningful a city in the midst of disjunctive transformation. But Benjamin is also keen to record the distortional effects of revolutionary change, which he achieves through metaphors no less visual than the graphic Bilderschriften. The vicissitudes of the subjective experience of time are a touchstone of Benjaminian aesthetics, and they take on a novel character in post-revolutionary Moscow: only in the Soviet Union are the political measures meant to counteract the psychic toxins of modern experience underway. Just as capitalist industrial development altered the human sensorium, so too do the Soviet countermeasures. Describing the temporal dynamic of the Revolution, Benjamin writes:

For Bolsheviks, mourning for Lenin means also mourning for heroic Communism. The few years since its passing are, for Russian consciousness, a long time. Lenin’s activity so accelerated the course of events in his era that he is receding swiftly into the past; his image is quickly growing remote. Nevertheless, in the optic of history—opposite in this to that of space—movement into the distance means enlargement. (“Moscow,” 45)

Time dilates in the wake of the Revolution, with history itself moving like a strip of celluloid. The objective record speeds up, the “course of events” accelerated by “Lenin’s activity,” and so the subjective perception of those events for the collective “Russian consciousness” slows down: the perception of history passes in slow motion. Benjamin then gives the optical trope one more turn, describing how in the “optic of history” Lenin’s image grows increasingly remote, but, counterintuitively, remoteness actually brings about greater importance. As though viewed through a lens, Lenin’s image retreats “in the optic of history” yet at the same time grows larger.

Lenin’s image growing in size as it recedes into the distant past provides one optical analogy for revolutionary temporality; elsewhere, the cinematic apparatus affords Benjamin a technical metaphor to record the geographical—that is, spatial—progress of the Revolution across the continent. At the Kremlin’s Red Army Club, Benjamin describes a remarkable scene of a “map of Europe” hanging next to a handle that, when turned, plays the following sequence:

one after the other, at all the places through which Lenin passed in the course of his life, little electric lights flash. At Simbirsk, where he was born, at Kazan, Petersburg, Geneva, Paris, Krakow, Zurich, Moscow, up to the place of his death, Gorki. Other towns are not marked. The contours of this wooden relief map are rectilinear, angular, schematic. On it Lenin’s life resembles a campaign of colonial conquest across Europe. (36)

Benjamin’s own transcontinental journey adds an autobiographical subtext to this episode, but it is Lenin’s European conquest, and by implication the conquest of Communism, that transpires in light upon the wall.[27] The image, an illuminated point, moves sequentially from place to place, moment to moment, in an ordered progression. A very different depiction of this map occurs in the January 4 entry of Benjamin’s diary: “all the places Lenin ever lived in Russia and in Europe light up one after another in chronological sequence” (Moscow Diary, 63–64). So far the account from the diary and the essay match. In the diary, though, Benjamin goes on to write that “the apparatus [der Apparat] works poorly, many places light up at the same time.” The apparatus malfunctions in the diary, but in “Moscow” Benjamin edits this out. As a result, “one after another . . . little electric lights flash,” and Lenin’s progressive “colonial conquest [kolonisatorische Eroberungszuge]” unfolds continuously, a journey that wipes other cities off the map: “Other towns are not marked.” On the map, the geographical order of Europe is reorganized, simplified to show Lenin’s life as a “rectilinear, angular” progression not unlike the diagrammatic picture writing of the peasants club. A handle is cranked, and the apparatus projects an image; instead of the diary’s clever but broken piece of propaganda, in “Moscow” the map becomes more sequential, more schematic: a more cinematic representation of Lenin’s—Communism’s—“colonial conquest.” Thus, if an “orientation film” could track the “topographical deceptions” of Moscow life, familiarizing the foreign city for the visitor, then the mechanical image projected by the map reproduces the spatial course of Lenin’s revolutionary trajectory (36).

Variations on Lenin’s likeness are a leitmotif in “Moscow,” serving as an index of the Revolution, an image that may, when analyzed, augur the direction of the political moment. Visiting a street vendor, Benjamin tells how religious icons “are always flanked by portraits of Lenin, like a prisoner between two policemen” (26). This static triptych of counterrevolutionary authority is one of the more ominous moments of the essay, yet Benjamin chooses to end with a very different image of Lenin that attempts to rekindle a spark of revolutionary optimism.[28] Benjamin concludes by writing that Lenin’s portrait “hangs in the vestibule of the armory in the Kremlin” and is “gradually establishing its canonical forms”:

The well-known picture of the orator is the most common, but another one speaks perhaps more intensely and directly: Lenin at a table, bent over a copy of Pravda. When he is thus immersed in an ephemeral newspaper, the dialectical tension of his nature appears: his gaze is turned, certainly, to the far horizon; but the tireless care of his heart, to the moment. (“Moscow,” 45–46)

This final image of Lenin parallels Benjamin’s own effort to depict Moscow in its contemporary moment while at the same time straining to discern the horizon of the revolutionary future. The “dialectical tension” of this image stands as an important corrective to the threat posed by the metaphor of Lenin-as-policeman; but whatever hope may lie on the political horizon, Benjamin is awake to the possibility that the Revolution may have passed from the life of the streets into its current form: an image on the wall. Early on, Benjamin writes that “kiosks, arc lamps, buildings crystallize into figures that will never return”; and the ephemeral luminescence of this early scene contrasts with his later account of the political evolution of visual form in Moscow: “the constructivists, suprematists, abstractionists who under War Communism placed their graphic propaganda at the service of the Revolution have long since been dismissed. Today, only banal clarity is demanded” (23, 39). As Lenin’s portrait hardens into canonical forms, what revolutionary tension there was is encoded as an image hanging in the armory vestibule.

Whether with the intermedial “visual aids” Benjamin describes in the peasants club, or his own metaphorical Bilderschrift—the graph whose coordinates “sensuously define” the weekday of a Muscovite worker—Benjamin represents Moscow by fusing visual and textual media, extrapolating at times from the city proper, as in the metaphors based on the cinematic apparatus, in order to orient himself amid the temporal and spatial disjunction of the Revolution at large. Taken together, these techniques show Benjamin responding to the disjunctive transformations underway in the city with synthetic forms, techniques that give “some sort of shape” to his impressions of revolutionary disruption. Yet do Benjamin’s observations constitute a full-fledged film practice? Without any examples of actual filmic observation, the moments described thus far may fall short. What of Hansen’s claim that “nonconventional and expressive framing, and camera movement” would be part of a film made according to Benjaminian principles? The remainder of this essay considers “Moscow” alongside Kaufman’s Moskva to argue that Benjamin does in fact incorporate techniques from contemporary filmmaking. By comparing Benjamin’s descriptions of Moscow with Kaufman's visual record of the same place and time, it becomes possible to infer filmic techniques based on Benjamin's actual record of the city.

The Synthetic Eye

By ending “Moscow” with an image of an ephemeral text, Lenin perched over an issue of Pravda, Benjamin foregrounds the same concerns about visual and textual media that gave birth to the Kino-Eye movement. As propagandists for the fledgling Soviet state, Vertov and Kaufman began their careers producing Kinopravda, a newsreel series that documented the post-revolutionary transformation. Jeremy Hicks has shown that these early efforts were heavily indebted to print media, “almost every issue of Cine-Pravda borrows something from journalism.”[29] At the same time, however, Vertov was beginning to discern a path forward for cinema that eschewed any reliance on textuality.[30] In “On Kinopravda” (1924), Vertov recalls the creative awakening of these years: “my first experiments in assembling chance film clippings into more or less ‘harmonious’ montage groups belong to this period.” As a result, Vertov testifies, “for the first time I began to doubt the necessity of a literary connection between individual visual elements spliced together.”[31] Later, during the winter of 1926–27, the effort to disentangle film from literature reached a crucial juncture. Disputes about the textual basis of Vertov’s films were generating serious tension with the studio hierarchy, which demanded that Vertov provide a script for his films. John MacKay has shown that Vertov’s scriptless methods also sewed discord within the Kino-Eye “Council of Three” (Vertov, Kaufman, and Elizaveta Svilova).[32] MacKay summarizes Osip Brik’s critical take on the lack of a textual substructure for The Eleventh Year (1928): “the most stinging of the reproaches offered . . . focused not on intertitles per se but on Vertov’s refusal ‘to place a precise, strictly worked out thematic script at the basis of the film’” (“Film Energy,” 64).[33] For Brik, MacKay relates, “the absence of a script accounts for ‘the excessive poverty of the thematic tasks given to the cameraman,’” and it was this charge “that most strained Vertov’s relations with Mikhail Kaufman” (64). Despite the close collaboration within this inner circle, the creation of an autonomous film language placed different demands on Vertov, director and visionary, than Kaufman and Svilova, who had to go about the concrete task of turning Vertov’s ideas into persuasive images for the screen.

Without a text to give the image meaning, whether implicitly by means of a script or through an explicit intertitle, Kaufman had to find expressive content in visual material alone. In an interview the year before his death, Kaufman explains how he went about addressing the “thematic tasks” of filmmaking, referring here to the filming of peasants and the transformation of the rural landscape:

Kaufman: I would observe separate phenomena and analyze the elements of the old—those from which it derives—looking for the manner in which the old expressed itself. It is clearly expressed in solitary labor with the scythe on vast stretches of land: the primitive labor of the countryside. And suddenly a tractor appears. I decided to include the two within one frame. In addition to the portrayal of the old agricultural labor, I created, as a kind of culmination, a synthesized frame in which, on the left, bulls are grazing; I then added a woman with a scythe bending down to cut grain, others sowing wheat, and from the center, against all of this, there advances . . .

October: A tractor.

Kaufman: Technology.[34]

Kaufman first observed “separate phenomena” and then proceeded to analyze them in order to detect their underlying message, “looking for the manner in which the old expressed itself” (“An Interview,” 57). Historical content is neither lost nor erased; it becomes an object for critical discernment, a symptom whose sources must be identified. Once this initial act of observation is complete, Kaufman then gives the images concrete expression, bringing them together “as a kind of culmination” into a single “synthesized frame” (58). First analysis, then a dialectical synthesis. This procedure aligns with Susan Buck-Morss’s account of Benjamin’s method for the city essays and, later, the Arcades Project: “images are not subjective impressions, but objective expressions,” Buck-Morss writes, and the content of these images coalesces so that “the city’s social formation becomes legible” (Dialectics of Seeing, 27). Like Kaufman, Benjamin analyzes phenomena to find the objective content of Soviet life, which he then combines into his own version of a “synthesized frame.” Kaufman states, “our work as journalists and organizers consists in observing life from the point of view of the social structure,” and he taps into the Benjaminian spirit when he declares his mission as a cameraman: “I catch the moment when reality becomes an image” (“An Interview,” 59).

Fig. 2.1. Trains arriving

Fig. 2.2. Passengers on the platform; the camera tracks backwards in this shot.

In the interview for October, Kaufman chooses a scene of rural labor to illustrate the dialectical tension of the “synthesized frame”—land on one side, labor on the other, and “technology” advancing down the center—and in Moskva, he deploys a similar technique to record urban life, often juxtaposing shots so that the total montage sequence achieves the relevant contrast. In the first reel of Moskva, for example, Kaufman records the arrival of trains at the beginning of the workday. The sequence begins with a high-angle shot filmed at the end of the station platform as the trains offload their passengers; then Kaufman cuts to a shot with the camera tracking backwards, moving as a part of the crowd (figs. 2.1–2.2). The juxtaposition between elevation and immersion is a prominent trope in Moskva, particularly when it comes to crowd scenes. In the fourth reel, Kaufman starts a sequence with a low-angle crowd shot while children walk above the camera; this is followed by a parade of children—presumably the same ones from the previous shot—passing diagonally from the top left of the frame to slightly below the camera on the bottom right. The sequence concludes by jumping back to the same low-angle shot it begins with: the viewer is raised out of the crowd, only to return to its midst. The counterpoint between elevation and immersion, high- and low-angle shots, organizes individual sections of the film, but it also serves as a structural frame for the film as a whole. After the opening credits, Moskva begins with an elevated panorama of Red Square and Lenin’s tomb. At the end of the film, Kaufman concludes with a series of images of the iconic Shukhov Radio Tower. For the final sequence, the camera is placed below the tower, filming first from inside the structure as the camera rotates. For the last shot, Kaufman films from below, with the tower rising up through the frame (figs. 3.1–3.4).

Fig. 3.1. First shot of Moskva, Lenin’s Tomb.

Fig. 3.2. Second shot of Red Square from a slightly lower but still elevated position

Fig. 3.3. Penultimate shot with the camera rotating on a vertical axis.

Fig. 3.4. Final shot of Radio Tower.

The most stunning elevated views in Moskva occur when Kaufman stages an airplane sequence that culminates in an aerial perspective on the city. As Kaufman relates in the same interview, his development as a director was closely tied to an interest in aviation: “I didn’t become a director then [with Spring (1929)]. I had made Moscow before that, and an aviation film called The Challenge of the Sky . . . and while working on that film, I learned how to fly;” Kaufman continues: “aviation had always been a dream of mine, and from childhood on I had always planned to go into aviation. . . . So I had made a whole series of films before this [Man with a Movie Camera]. Moscow was also extremely exciting in its time” (72). Yuri Tsivian points out the conspicuous absence of airplane shots in Man with a Movie Camera, a fact Tsivian calls “surprising given that this film is so keen on showing the cameraman making use of all possible camera angles and positions.”[35] In Moskva, however, Kaufman deploys this technique to great effect. After scenes of summertime recreation on the Moscow river—children swimming, rowers, divers—Kaufman films a seaplane floating on the river, preparing to take off (figs. 4.1–4.4). The plane is then shown gaining altitude before Kaufman cuts to a shot with the cameraman now onboard, filming the water as the aircraft accelerates. A wing frames the right edge of the shot, and the plane rises up over Moscow with the riverbank coming into view; as the plane ascends, the camera briefly catches the horizon and takes in a panorama of the city. Not only does the sudden elevated sweep create a sharp contrast of distance, Kaufman is also keen to capture the velocity of the aircraft. As the plane accelerates, the camera points downwards towards the water rushing past; as soon as it begins to lift off, the camera looks out over the quiet stillness of the city moving slowly below.

Fig. 4.1. Plane preparing for takeoff.

Fig. 4.2. Plane ascending.

Fig. 4.3. Another shot during takeoff; the plane’s wing frames the image.

Fig. 4.4. Aerial shot.

Like Kaufman, Benjamin employs airplane shots in “Moscow” with the same polarity of immersion and elevation that characterizes Moskva. However, Benjamin motivates the technique for specifically critical ends, using the airplane view to observe the structural forces that control life on the street. In the fifteenth section of “Moscow,” Benjamin unfurls one of the virtuoso set pieces that makes the essay such an arresting piece of modernist prose: “The shop signs point at right angles into the street, as otherwise only old inn signs do, or golden barber-basins, or a top hat before a hatter’s” (39). Benjamin then dwells on the link between visual images and commerce, “Here almost every ad also specifies the commodity in question. The grand, showy logo is alien to commerce. The city, so inventive in abbreviations of all kinds, does not yet possess the simplest—brand names” (39). Commenting on one of these advertisements, Benjamin moves through various modes of film-like seeing:

Often Moscow’s evening sky glows in frightening blue: one has unwittingly looked at it through one of the gigantic pairs of blue spectacles that project from opticians’ shops like signposts. From the gateways, on the frames of front doors, in black, blue, yellow, and red letters of varying sizes—as an arrow, a picture of boots or freshly ironed washing, a worn step or a solid staircase—a silently determined, contentious life accosts the passer-by. (39)

Benjamin projects his gaze through a “gigantic pairs of spectacles” that illuminate the sky, filtering the city’s dense optical field. The visual stimuli surround and press on the viewer not unlike the haptic proximity of the streetcar scene from earlier: “a tenacious shoving and barging during the boarding of a vehicle usually overloaded to the point of bursting” (32). So too at this moment, “a silently determined, contentious life accosts the passer-by.” What accosts Benjamin is not a crowd of people, though, but rather image-texts, “black, blue, yellow, and red letters.” Benjamin makes the link to the streetcar himself when he adds that “one must ride through the streets on a streetcar to perceive how this struggle is continued upward through the various stories, finally to reach its decisive phase on the roof” (39). Instead of remaining within the packed confines of the streetcar, the “struggle is continued upward” until it reaches a “decisive phase,” with the city’s energy driving the viewer towards the sky: “Only from an airplane does one have a view of the industrial elite of the city, the film and automobile industries [Kino- und Auto-Industrie, vor Augen]” (39). From above, Benjamin achieves a perspective that reveals an “industrial elite” that would otherwise have been invisible. Once again the contrast with the diary shows a notable revision. The first draft reads simply, “the industrial elite of the town (here a few names)”; for the published version Benjamin includes the film and automobile industries, twin pillars of modernization. The “industrial elite” have not been eliminated by the Revolution according to Benjamin; rather, they are hidden and can be exposed. Benjamin returns once more to the airplane view in “Moscow,” describing “Red Square from the west, its domes gradually rise into the sky like a pack of fiery suns.” (43). At one end of the square, Saint Basil’s Cathedral “always holds something back, and could be surprised only by a gaze coming from an airplane, against which the builders forgot to take precautions” (43). Saint Basil’s serves as a metonym for Benjamin’s experience of Moscow generally: it is a city that “always holds something back” (43). Only the airplane gaze can make Moscow divulge its secrets, orienting a viewer amid its “topographical deceptions.” As with Kaufman’s film practice, Benjamin rises up out of the immersive tumult of the city to take in a view from above, an antithetical viewpoint that reveals the otherwise unseen forces shaping the modern metropolis.

In the “Reply to Oscar A. H. Schmitz,” the text containing the famous statement about the explosive power of film—“the dynamite of its fractions of a second”—Benjamin depicts an incomprehensible city. Within this imaginary metropolis, “the spaces of the immediate environment” are rebarbative: “In themselves these offices, furnished rooms, saloons, big-city streets, stations, and factories are ugly, incomprehensible, and hopelessly sad.” Yet when those same spaces are viewed through the new optics of film, they become “comprehensible, meaningful, and passionate” (“Reply,” 17). Moscow is the most proximate referent for the metropolis that Benjamin describes. And the techniques of cinematic observation he relates in a theoretical register in the “Reply” and the “Work of Art” essay were forged in practical terms in “Moscow,” where the city itself generates the need for new modes of seeing. Indeed, the direct resemblances between the texts are hard to ignore. In the sixth section of “Moscow,” Benjamin tells how “employees in their factories, offices in buildings, pieces of furniture in apartments are rearranged, transferred, and shoved about” (“Moscow,” 28–29). Both workers and domestic objects have been shifted around, reflecting the novel spatial configuration of Moscow. This reconfiguration, Benjamin makes clear, is not always favorable. Writing about Moscow’s churches, he claims that “Moscow looks as tightly sealed as a fortress” (43) an analog of the “prison-world” from the “Reply.” Harkening back to the figure of Lenin-as-policeman, Benjamin writes that “life here is so tightly bound that anyone who abstains or cannot achieve it degenerates intellectually as if through years of solitary confinement” (30). In both his theoretical advocacy of film’s explosive power to reorganize urban experience, and in the synthetic techniques he deploys to give his observations of Moscow “some sort of shape,” Benjamin translates the effects of the Revolution into formal terms.

Filmic observation in “Moscow” goes beyond a means of recording the “fleeting, fluid character” of modern urban experience, as Gilloch claims, for Benjamin adopts perspectives that modify the city; he takes an urban prison and opens it up; he attends to the optic density of the street, but he also schematizes what he sees. When Gilloch likens Benjamin's description of the sleigh-ride to a city-film, he writes that cinema “permits immersion in, rather than an overview of, the hustle and bustle of the urban landscape” (Myth and Metropolis, 46). Yet even this neglects the airplane view that escapes from the crowd, the map that reproduces the spatial progress of the Revolution, the metaphorical diagram that reconciles art and life. The key feature of a Benjaminian film practice is the inclusion of both angles, the street-level and the schematic, which he combines into “synthetic frames,” to use Kaufman's language. And for the same reason, Benjamin does not fall victim to what Donald, in his comparison of Benjamin and Vertov, calls the perspective of the dieu voyeur (Visual Culture, 89). Benjamin does not submit to an analytic drive to render the city “transparent.” He wishes merely to make it meaningful. He takes the chaotic impressions of the post-revolutionary metropolis and gives them order, but not at the expense of the texture of lived experience. Hence Benjamin’s description of a passenger on a sleigh serves as a fitting statement of the vantage he himself seeks to cultivate: “No condescending gaze: a tender, swift brushing along stones, people, and horses” (“Moscow,” 33).

In the letter to Buber outlining his plan for “Moscow,” Benjamin summarizes his accomplishment, “I have succeeded in seizing and rendering this very new and disorienting language that echoes loudly through the resounding mask of an environment that has been totally transformed” (Moscow Diary, 132). The environment of the Soviet capital, its “very new and disorienting language,” elicits from Benjamin synthetic strategies that orient a reader/viewer, prefiguring in practical terms the theoretical claims he makes about the unique power of film to record the character of the modern metropolis. In “Moscow,” raw impressions are filtered through a new optics such that the city is “laid open before their eyes,” as Benjamin puts it in the “Reply.” Therefore the urban spaces that once imprisoned the viewer are now liberated so that “we can take extended journeys of adventure between their widely scattered ruins” (“Moscow,” 17).


[1] Miriam Hansen, Cinema and Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 200.

[2] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 27–34; Graeme Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1997), 38–39. Both Buck-Morss and Gilloch consider “Moscow” an antecedent of the Arcades Project. I address the essay’s relationship to the diary and its scholarship below.

[3] Maria Gough analyzes the cultural situation in Moscow at this time through Diego Rivera’s drawings of the festivities for the tenth-anniversary of the revolution, celebrated shortly after Benjamin’s departure (“Drawing Between Reportage and Memory: Diego Rivera’s Moscow Sketchbook,” October 145 [2013]: 67–84).

[4] Svetlana Boym briefly wonders about a connection between film and the Moscow Diary before invoking the medium-specificity thesis to dismiss the comparison (“The Obscenity of Theory: Roland Barthes’s ‘Soirées de Paris’ and Walter Benjamin’s Moscow Diary,” Yale Journal of Criticism 4, no. 2 [1991]: 105–28, 118). Benjamin actually downplays his interest in visuality in a letter to Hugo von Hofmannsthal, which is surprising given the visual richness of the text itself: “I have concentrated less on visual than on rhythmic experience, an experience in which an archaic Russian tempo blends into a whole with the new rhythms of the Revolution” (Walter Benjamin, Moscow Diary, trans. Richard Sieburth, ed. Gary Smith [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986], 134).

[5] Johannes von Moltke, “Theory of the Novel: The Literary Imagination of Classical Film Theory,” October 144 (2013): 49–72, 52, 54. Von Moltke analyzes the works of Benjamin’s contemporaries, Siegfried Kracauer, Béla Balász, and Rudolf Arnheim, but not Benjamin himself.

[6] Walter Benjamin, “Moscow,” in Selected Writings, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 2:22–46, 22. Translations of Benjamin are from the Selected Writings or the Moscow Diary cited above.

[7] While my approach is broadly consistent with Buck-Morss’s claim that Benjamin attempted to “‘see’ the presence of the Revolution” in his writing about the city, I attend to the formal responses elicited by the Revolution, specifically as they pertain to cinema (Dialectics of Seeing, 28). Hansen discusses Benjamin’s interest in writing that “hybridizes pictorial and scriptural qualities” at this period of his career (Cinema and Experience, 152). I return to this point below regarding Benjamin’s involvement with constructivism.

[8] The lack of scholarship on Moskva may also be due to difficulty accessing the film. The most reliable version of the film is available from Net-Film (, the source of images for this article. Annette Michelson addresses the film in her introduction to Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (trans. Kevin O’Brien, ed. Annette Michelson [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984], xv–lxi). Vlada Petrić takes issue with Michelson, who asserts the importance of Moskva for Man with a Movie Camera, by claiming that “Even a superficial comparison of the two films reveals that the structure of Vertov’s film [Man with a Movie Camera] is light-years ahead of the conventional manner in which Kaufman depicts the city” (Vlada Petrić, Constructivism in Film: The Man with the Movie Camera: A Cinematic Analysis [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012], 71). See also, John MacKay, “Film Energy: Process and Metanarrative in Dziga Vertov’s The Eleventh Year (1928),” October 121 (2007): 41–78, 44.

[9] James Donald, “The City, the Cinema: Modern Spaces,” in Visual Culture, ed. Chris Jenks (London: Routledge, 1995), 77–95, 88–90. See also Susan Buck-Morss, “Revolutionary Time: The Vanguard and the Avant-Garde,” in Perception and Experience in Modernity, ed. Helga Geyer-Ryan (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002), 209–25, 215. As Hansen notes, Benjamin refers positively to Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin in the “Work of Art Essay.” In “On the Present Situation of Russian Film,” though, Benjamin takes a critical stance towards Vertov’s Soviet Sixth of the World (1926) (Walter Benjamin, “On the Present Situation of Russian Film,” in Selected Writings, 2:12–16, 13–14). Oksana Sarkisova analyzes One Sixth of the World in the context of travel cinema of the period and notes Benjamin's diary entry entertaining the possibility of releasing the film in Germany (“Across One Sixth of the World: Dziga Vertov, Travel Cinema, and Soviet Patriotism,” October 121 (2007): 19–40, 28). Since Kaufman’s Moskva was released only after Benjamin’s departure, there is no chance Benjamin actually saw the film.

[10] See Die Kreatur, ed. Martin Buber (Berlin: L. Schneider, 1927), 1:71–102. The exact dates when Benjamin was working on “Moscow” are somewhat unclear. In a letter to Buber on February 23, Benjamin writes, “I’ve been back at work for a few days now, but I will not be able to send you the manuscript before the end of February” (Moscow Diary, 132). Then, in his letter to Hugo von Hofmannsthal from June 5, Benjamin states, “although the galleys of the essay have been ready, it has not yet been published” (134). Strictly speaking, Benjamin was working on “Moscow” throughout his stay in Russia as the first drafts contained in the Moscow Diary attest.

[11] Walter Benjamin, “Reply to Oscar A. H. Schmitz,” in Selected Writings, 2:16–21, 17.

[12] Gertrud Koch, “Cosmos in Film: On the Concept of Space in Walter Benjamin’s ‘Work of Art’ Essay,’” in Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy: Destruction and Experience, ed. Andrew Benjamin and Peter Osborne (London: Routledge, 1994), 205–15, 214.

[13] Walter Benjamin, “Moscow,” in Selected Writings, 2:22–46, 24. The German makes the alignment between city and film even clearer: “Wie vielen topographischen Attrappen er verfällt, ließe in seinem ganzen passionierenden Verlauf sich einzig und allein im Film entrollen” (Walter Benjamin, “Moskau,” in Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Theodor Adorno and Gershom Sholem [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972], 4:319). For a discussion of Benjamin and city films, see Donald, “The City, the Cinema,” 83–86.

[14] Cf. Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis, 44–45. In his introduction, Gilloch claims that “Benjamin’s concern with the depiction of the urban is interwoven with a conscious refusal of or resistance to the presentation of an overarching, integrated, coherent view of the city as a whole” (Myth and Metropolis, 18). Benjamin’s invocation of an “orientation film,” however, calls for precisely this “coherent” perspective on city life. I return to this theme below with a discussion of Benjamin’s interest in the “airplane view.”

[15] This article is an attempt to redress an imbalance in Benjamin scholarship that favors the Moscow Diary over “Moscow.” To my knowledge, there are no articles that concentrate primarily on “Moscow,” which is unfortunate given the revisions Benjamin undertook between the diary and essay. See Gerhard Richter, “The Monstrosity of the Body in Walter Benjamin’s ‘Moscow Diary,’” Modern Language Studies 25, no. 4 (1995): 85–126. The essay by Boym cited above considers the diary alongside Roland Barthes’s autobiographical Soirées de Paris. For an account of Benjamin and the Moscow Diary from Lacis’s perspective, see Susan Ingram, “The Writing of Asja Lacis,” New German Critique 86 (2002): 163–69. Justine McGill addresses Benjamin and Lacis’s relationship in the context of Lacis’s theater work (“The Porous Coupling of Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis,” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 13, no. 2 [2008]: 59–72). Willi Bolle provides an intricate reconstruction of the political valences of the Moscow Diary in the context of leftist debates in Weimar Germany (Physiognomik der modernen Metropole: Geschichtsdarstellung bei Walter Benjamin [Köln: Böhlau, 1994], 168– 98). See also, Evgenii Bershtein, “‘The Withering of Private Life’: Walter Benjamin in Moscow,” in Everyday Life in Early Soviet Russia: Taking the Revolution Inside, ed. Christina Kiaer and Eric Naiman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 217–29. Yuri Tsivian includes passages from the diary in Lines of Resistance as well as a section of “On the Present Situation of Russian Film” (Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties, trans. Julian Graffy et al., ed. Yuri Tsivian [Sacile/Pordenone: Giornate del Cinema Muto, 2004], 210).

[16] René Wellek, “Benjamin’s Moscow,” The New Criterion 5 (1986): 83. See also, Peter Szondi, “Walter Benjamin’s ‘City Portraits,’” in On Textual Understanding and Other Essays, trans. Harvey Mendelsohn, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 133–43, 139. Szondi stresses the importance of metaphor for the literariness of Benjamin’s city portraits.

[17] Gerhom Scholem, preface to Moscow Diary, 5–8, 6. For the original German, see Walter Benjamin, Briefe, ed. Gershom Scholem and Theodor Adorno (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1966), 1:439–41.

[18] Cf. Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis, 47. Gilloch remarks that the proximity resulting from cramped Moscow sidewalks precludes flânerie.

[19] “Beförderung in der Trambahn ist in Moskau vor allem eine taktische Erfahrung. Hier lernt der Neuling sich vielleicht am ersten ins sonderbare Tempo dieser Stadt und in den Rhythmus ihrer bäurischen Bevölkerung schicken” (Benjamin, “Moskau,” 330).

[20] See also Hansen, Cinema and Experience, 95–103.

[21] Benjamin cites Proust approvingly when discussing the aesthetic education of the Moscow proletariat (“Moscow,” 27). Keenly aware of Benjamin’s effort “to convey the experience of alienation and of being a foreigner,” Peter Szondi reads Benjamin’s city portraits as a Proustian struggle with memory and language (“Walter Benjamin’s ‘City Portraits,’” 139).

[22] Walter Benjamin, “On the Image of Proust,” in Selected Writings, 2:237–47, 245.

[23] Gerhard Richter argues that in the Moscow Diary, Benjamin’s frustrated relationship with Asja Lacis results in the body becoming a “monstrosity,” which Richter characterizes as “the incommensurate, the negatively destructive, the rupturing force which . . . must be held at bay” (“Monstrosity of the Body,” 98). A contrary position emerges in the revised “Moscow” as the individual body intermingles with the masses.

[24] In his introduction, Scholem discusses Benjamin’s interest in rendering the “‘physiognomy of Moscow” as a motivating factor behind the composition of “Moscow” (Moscow Diary, 5).

[25] Hansen discusses Benjamin’s effort to join touch and film through the concept of “innervation” (Cinema and Experience, 132–46).

[26] Hansen traces Benjamin's interest in intermedial writing to the influence of László Moholy-Nagy and El Lissitzky. Yuri Tsivian tries to loosen the link between constructivism and Vertov, attempting to correct the construal of Vertov as “a Constructivist filmmaker.” See Yuri Tsivian, “Turning Objects, Toppled Pictures: Give and Take between Vertov’s Films and Constructivist Art,” October 121 (2007): 92–110. For a book-length study of Man with a Movie Camera and constructivism, see Petrić, Constructivism in Film. John MacKay notes Vertov’s friendship with Lissitzky (“Film Energy,” 62n80).

[27] Cf. Benjamin’s criticism of Vertov’s Soviet Sixth of the World in “On the Present Situation of Russian Film”: “It must be admitted that Vertov, the director, has not succeeded in meeting his self-imposed challenge of showing through characteristic images how the vast Russian nation is being transformed by the new social order. The filmic colonization of Russia has misfired. What he has achieved, however, is the demarcation of Russia from Europe” (13). For an account of travel and colonialism in the context of Benjamin’s interest in Mexican culture, see John Kraniauskas, “Beware Mexican Ruins! ‘One-Way Street’ and the Colonial Unconscious,” in Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy: Destruction and Experience, ed. Andrew Benjamin and Peter Osborne (London: Routledge, 1994), 139–54.

[28] Szondi quotes these lines to show “Benjamin’s premonition of the threat to the living inherent in the new positivity of the dead image” of Lenin (“Walter Benjamin’s ‘City Portraits,’” 139). Buck-Morss writes that “icons of Lenin are sold as tourist replicas of the Revolution which, like religion before it, is in danger of becoming reified and dominating the people who created it” (Dialectics of Seeing, 28).

[29] Jeremy Hicks, Dziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 10. Hicks informs us that Kaufman joined Vertov as cameraman in 1922, “fresh from the Red Army” (6).

[30] For an account of Vertov’s development of Kinopravda, see Hicks, Defining Documentary, 5–21. John MacKay maintains that Vertov’s eschewal of literature, in addition to newsreel aesthetics, arises from his distaste for nineteenth-century literature, “particularly realist and naturalist prose (and in theories about that prose), but in poetry as well (Walt Whitman, for instance)” (“Film Energy,” 62).

[31] Dziga Vertov, “On Kinopravda,” in Kino-Eye, 42.

[32] Vertov was fired from Sovkino studios in January 1927 due to disputes about production costs and his resistance to submitting a script (MacKay, “Film Energy,” 42–43). Oksana Sarkisova discusses the critical backlash against One Sixth of the World because of “the absence of an approved written text” and “the absence of a strong narrative coordinating the verbal and visual” (“Across One Sixth of the World,” 38).

[33] MacKay also imparts the contents of a handwritten note by Vertov that illustrates this internal discord: “while the film was being edited,” MacKay writes, “Vertov fired off a half-page note entitled ‘Brief contents of the film in a translation from the language of film into the language of the word (written down specially in order to pacify Kaufman and Svilova)’” (“Film Energy,” 64).

[34] Mikhail Kaufman, “An Interview with Mikhail Kaufman,” October 11 (1979): 55–77, 57–58; ellipsis in original. Kaufman’s remarks about the methodology and programmatic tenets of the Kino-Eye movement came at the very end of his life, a half century after the movement’s peak. They should not, then, be taken as an authoritative statement of kinok principles, but rather as a heuristic device for comparing the views of Kaufman and Benjamin regarding cinematic observation and documentary techniques.

[35] Yuri Tsivian provides a brief history of Vertov’s interest in airplanes (Lines of Resistance, 211). Hansen shows that aircraft, in particular “the remote-controlled aircraft which needs no human crew,” as Benjamin writes, epitomizes Benjamin’s idea of “second technology” (Cinema and Experience, 139, 189–95). See also, Teresa Castro, “Mapping the City through Film: From ‘Topophilia’ to Urban Mapscapes,” in The City and the Moving Image, ed. Richard Koeck (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 145–55, 151–53; Devin Fore, “The Metabiotic State: Dziga Vertov’s The Eleventh Year,” October 145 (2013): 3–37, 5.