Осtober, 6 National Oleksandr Dovzhenko Centre presents restored NEBUVALYI POKHID [Una campagna senza precedenti/An Unprecedented Campaign] directed by Mikhail Kaufman (UkrSSR, 1931) on the world’s leading international silent-film festival, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, in Pordenone, Italy
In the course of their collaboration, relations between the brothers began to sour. Vertov seems to have resented a degree of independence in what Kaufman chose to film. He seems also to have been annoyed when Kaufman made use in his own films of material shot for Vertov but not used. Thus scenes of “cleaning” Uspensky Cathedral and Kyiv skyscrapers, which were filmed forMan with a Movie Camera but rejected, subsequently appeared in In Spring. In an article on The Eleventh in Novyi LEF (New Left Front of Arts) in Spring 1928, Osip Brik complained that Vertov’s neglect to provide a treatment meant that “Kaufman did not know for what scene he was shooting.” Kaufman pointedly ignored Vertov’s demand to repudiate Brik’s assertion.
VUFKU, exceptionally, published a brochure dedicated to The Eleventh – perhaps a gesture in a distribution trade conflict with Moscow. As well as an exposition of Vertov’s Kino-Eye theory, not yet well known or loved in Ukraine, the publication included Kaufman’s Expedition Notes, which clearly demonstrate that he had considerable independence in choosing what to shoot. He mentions Vertov in describing the filming of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station and the Kamianske metallurgical plant in the Dnipro region. He does not however refer at all to his brother when discussing scenes that were filmed in the Donbas mines (in Rutchenkove) and during military exercises in Odessa. Two years later, An Unprecedented Campaign was to begin and end with scenes that Kaufman describes in detail in Expedition Notes, but were not included by Vertov in the final version of The Eleventh.
At its premiere, The Eleventh was still Vertov’s film for the Ukrainian critics, with Kaufman glimpsed only as his shadow, but after In Spring the brothers’ collaborative works were reconsidered, to perceive Kaufman as the equal co-author of The Eleventh and Man with a Movie Camera. Critics remarked how in their collaborations, Kaufman’s lyricism was evidently at odds with Vertov’s mechanistic fascination: in his 1922 manifesto Vertov had declared frankly, “We temporarily exclude a human being as a filming object…” In their contributions to Man with a Movie Camera Vertov was more interested in the camera, Kaufman in the human being.
Kaufman’s joy in people, his fascination with a live individual captured unawares in a particular psychological state, is the overwhelming characteristic of An Unprecedented Campaign. In principle, it is a dutiful celebration of the first Five Year Plan (1928-1932), chronicling the triumphs of industry, of agriculture, and of social care and literacy. What makes it distinctive from conventional agit-prop is Kaufman’s gift of capturing a personality in a single shot. The film is crowded with vividly real people, beaming (too optimistically, as we know too well) with enthusiasm and hope. Here too are Kaufman’s favourite portraits of children, animals (especially newly born), and frames of ripe watermelons and apples, duly borrowed from Dovzhenko. It is hardly surprising that In Spring and An Unprecedented Campaign exposed Kaufman, like Dovzhenko, to criticism for “biologism”.
Kaufman shot more than 14,000 metres of film, and 14 months went by before An Unprecedented Campaign was released, in June-July 1931. Kaufman had reasons not to hurry. In late 1929 the Soviet government adopted a decree urging production of agitational-propaganda films extolling industrialization, agricultural collectivization (dekulakization), and eradication of illiteracy. In November 1930 VUFKU fell under the control of the new USSR organization Soyuzkino and could no longer protect Ukraininan film artists from Moscow interference. Recent films that did not meet the new requirements, like Dovzhenko’s Earth (Zemlya, 1930) and Mykola Shpykovskyi’s Bread (Khlib, 1930), were withdrawn. The year 1931 saw a catastrophic decline in Ukrainian film production: ongoing productions were halted and films were banned. Kaufman’s caution was understandable.
He filmed the scenes of collectivization and the new rural social organization near Odesa, and probably included material originally shot for Nursery (1928). The daring mechanization scenes were filmed in “Gigant”, one of the biggest grain kolkhozes in the Kuban region, and a major attraction for foreign tourists. In the autumn of 1931 he was able to film the first Soviet tractor coming out of the factory in Stalingrad: hitherto the collectives had relied on American and British agricultural machinery, whose signs – Clayton & Shuttleworth, Caterpillar, Holt, Case, McCormick-Deering — are very visible in the film.
Yet this beautifully crafted and oddly persuasive image of a failed or false utopia ends with a moment of horror: a final title (is it Kaufman’s, or a Moscow interpolation?) calls quite simply for “The liquidation of the Kulaks as a class”. We know that to a considerable and horrible extent this persecution of the class of small farmers who tried to resist collectivization was soon to be accomplished – “an unprecedented campaign” indeed. This is just one of the aspects that make Kaufman’s images of rich harvests, happy villagers, dedicated workers, and silent children now seem so tragic, when we remember that the generous summer of 1931 was the last before the great catastrophe of the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 artificially engineered as punishment by the Bolsheviks, and which resulted in still uncalculated millions of deaths and reduced thousands to cannibalism. Kaufman was not without foresight. Even while filming the striking and lofty pictures of social transformation he was shrewd enough to record in his diary the other side of collectivization: jerry-built urban apartments without water, life in tents in the middle of the fields in rural areas. It all feels like a presentiment of catastrophe.
It is the Holodomor, as it might have been predicted by Kaufman in An Unprecedented Campaign, that has provided the key for the Ukrainian composer Anton Baibakov’s musical accompaniment, created in 2016.
Forgotten for eight decades, An Unprecedented Campaign was first shown by the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Film Centre in Kyiv in December 2015. The 35mm negative of the film had been transferred to Gosfilmofond of Russia in 1950, but in 1981 a positive print from this was given to the Pshenychnyi Central State CinePhotoPhono Archive of Ukraine in Kyiv, where it remains, to provide the source of the material screened at the Giornate.