The Watchlist: Documentaries of the Soviet Avant-garde

The Watchlist is Klassiki’s series of themed viewing recommendations drawing from the cinema of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In this edition, we suggest seven films that came to define the energy and ambition of Soviet Avant-garde documentary making. 

Enthusiasm (dir. Dziga Vertov, 1931)

In the 1920s, a generation of filmmakers emerged in the nascent Soviet state who matched political radicalism with formal experimentation. This cinematic avant-garde, which extended far beyond the confines of Russia, produced some of the most influential films and film theory of all time and is still pored over today by scholars and filmmakers alike. While the Soviet avant-garde is most famous for its fictional and historical films – think Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, or Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother – its formal innovations also helped to birth the documentary as we know it today. These non-fiction experiments remain fascinating for their unabashed ideological commitment and the ever-relevant questions they pose about the distortions and contrivances inherent to all filmmaking. Here are seven titles to kickstart your exploration of this pivotal moment in cinema history.


The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (dir. Esfir Shub, 1927)

Esfir Shub was a pioneer twice over: as one of the founders of modern documentary, and as one of the first female filmmakers to achieve international acclaim. She honed her talents as an editor, re-cutting foreign films for Soviet audiences. When she finally received a directorial commission, to produce a film marking the tenth anniversary of the 1917 revolution, she put these skills to work, scouring archives for footage and splicing it together into a portrait of a society on the edge of cataclysmic change. The brutal lives of the poor are juxtaposed with the lavish cocoon occupied by the Nicholas II and his retinue – made possible thanks to Shub’s discovery of the tsar’s private film chronicles, “piled up in a wet basement in Leningrad.” Shub is often credited as one of the originators of the compilation or montage documentary, able to make her eclectic mish-mash of footage sing from her Bolshevik hymnbook.


In Spring (dir. Mikhail Kaufman, 1929)

Mikhail Kaufman is one of the most celebrated figures in film history, although relatively few know him by name. That’s because Kaufman is the titular Man with a Movie Camera in his brother Dziga Vertov’s epochal documentary. Since Vertov’s film continues to grace all-times lists, some love can be spared for Kaufman’s solo debut feature, In Spring. The film was made in Kyiv after Kaufman quit as the go-to cameraman for his famously fractious brother over creative and political differences. It charts everyday life in the city as the dead of winter gives way to new life – a metaphor for the transfiguring effects of Soviet power. Where Man with a Movie Camera is mechanistic and frenetic, In Spring is lyrical and attuned to natural cycles of rebirth and decay, proving that the avant-garde was capable of poetry as well as formal bravado. The film was a particular hit in France, critic Georges Sadoul writing that “it made us discover a completely new form of documentary cinema, a cine-poem, where the lyrical theme of thaw and swelling buds conveyed the pathos of the advancement of the USSR towards building socialism without concealing the still existing remnants of the past.”

Salt for Svanetia (dir. Mikhail Kalatozov, 1930)

Salt for Svanetia (dir. Mikhail Kalatozov, 1930)

The Soviet state’s inheritance of the far-flung territories of the former Russian Empire, combined with its modernising drive, produced a flurry of ethnographic theory and practice. Ideologues and artists alike reckoned with the sheer diversity of the peoples who now had to be converted to socialism – and while much of their thinking would now be disregarded as misguided, even outright colonial, their cultural experiments remain fascinating. Mikhail Kalatozov’s ground-breaking ethnographic portrait of the Svan, an isolated ethnic group in the high Georgian mountains, is perhaps the greatest example. The young director – who would go on to electrify Soviet cinema with his Palme d’Or-winning melodrama The Cranes are Flying (1957) – worked with avant-garde luminaries Sergei Tretyakov and Viktor Shklovsky on this unsettling but empathetic film. Its dizzying range of camerawork and editing tricks push Salt for Svanetia beyond the limits of propaganda.

Watch Salt for Svanetia on Klassiki now.


Turksib (dir. Viktor Turin, 1929)

Of a piece with Salt for Svanetia, Viktor Turin’s classic account of the construction of the Turkestan-Siberia railroad has proven enduringly influential. Like Kalatozov’s film, Turksib decries the underdevelopment that is “holding back” the people and industry of the Soviet periphery – here the stretch of Central Asia from Tashkent up to Siberia. Brisk and unsentimental as the locomotive itself, Turin’s hymn to technology juxtaposes the stillness and aridity of the pre-industrial plains with the dynamism and human ingenuity of the railroad. There are echoes of the American Western in Turin’s vision of the frontier tamed and the uneasy encounter between tradition and “civilisation” (whatever that might mean). The film made a profound impression on John Grierson, the godfather of British documentary, who drew on Turksib while producing classics such as Night Mail (Basil Wright and Harry Watt, 1936) and Coalface (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1935).

Turksib (dir. Viktor Turin, 1929)

Yerkir Nairi (dir. Amo Bek-Nazaryan, 1930)

Hailed as the father of Armenian cinema, Amo Bek-Nazaryan made his name directing revolutionary dramas drawing on the nation’s distant and recent past: Namus (1925), Zare (1927), The House on the Volcano (1928). His most ambitious documentary effort was this 1930 feature commissioned to celebrate ten years of Soviet rule in Armenia; the title means “Land of Nairi”, an ancient term for the tribes of the region adopted by Armenians as a poetic sobriquet. Yerkir Nairi is also amongst Bek-Nazaryan’s most experimental titles, blending archival and new documentary footage, scripted scenes, and scenes from earlier Armenian fiction films to create an intoxicating historical narrative that aims to conjoin Armenian nationalism with pride in the Soviet project.


Enthusiasm (dir. Dziga Vertov, 1931)

No list of Soviet avant-garde documentaries would be complete without reference to Dziga Vertov, by any reckoning one of the most influential film thinkers and filmmakers the Soviet Union produced. Vertov’s silent films are well known; unlike some avant-gardists, however, he was an early and passionate advocate for sound film. Enthusiasm was his first attempt at this new cinematic standard: a portrait of Ukraine’s Donbas in the throes of revolutionary transformation. Vertov’s vision of industrialisation in motion verges on abstract reverie, taking the viewer into the depths of mines, across electric wires, and up close with smelting furnaces. The soundtrack is equally experimental, eschewing synchronicity and the human voice in favour of an ensemble of industrial clangs and crashes recorded on location. The number of truly “avant-garde” Soviet sound films is small: the arrival of sound technology coincided with the shift from experimental culture to the straight-jacketing of Stalinist diktats. But Enthusiasm stands the test of time, a tantalising glimpse of what might have been had the energy of the avant-garde been allowed to continue into the sound age.

Watch Enthusiasm on Klassiki now.

Still from one of Aleksandr Medvedkin’s “film-train” documentaries.

Aleksandr Medvedkin’s Film-Train

Not a single title, but rather a phenomenon, a whole new way of shooting and screening films that captures the political commitment of the Soviet avant-garde like nothing else. Aleksandr Medvedkin, a maverick within the Soviet system, spent years honing his craft on short propaganda newsreels before receiving permission to pursue his true ambition: the so-called “film-train”. Medvedkin kitted out a train carriage with a miniature film studio, hired a skeleton crew, and traversed the Soviet Union. The train would stop for a few days at a time, shoot footage of local communities, and then process and screen the results on location. In their first year on the rails, Medvedkin’s “young romantics” spent 294 days in transit and produced 72 films (some of which can be found on YouTube). The crude results represented a new type of interventionist documentary meant to motivate citizens to fulfil the demands of the Five-Year Plan by reflecting their lives back on themselves. “To see on screen one’s own friends, one’s factory floor – that’s interesting for anyone,” the director wrote. When the cult French director Chris Marker met and befriended Medvedkin in the 1960s, the story of the film-train inspired his own radical documentaries – so much so that he called his filmmaking collective the Medvedkin Group. As he later wrote: “The film-train is something of a myth for us – the train of revolution, the train of history – but the biggest mistake would be to believe that it had come to a halt.”

Explore more classics of the Soviet avant-garde on Klassiki here.