Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm, one of those remarkable Soviet silents, thinks it’s a documentary almost until the end.
Like Man With the Movie Camera from two years previous in 1929, it shows the workers working, building up the glorious Soviet state, with a pulsating, innovative soundtrack attached. It hovers right between sync sound and “silence,” though silent films never were. Chaplin for one hoped films would stay poised between the two.
Near the end, in a bravura sequence recalling Man‘s finale, Vertov’s camera fixes on some workers in a steel mill. The molten metal burns white-hot, moreso on the film stock. The workers stretch it out to make rods, even as the tension in the material fights with them. It becomes like a dance on the screen, as light starts whipping around.
It anticipates Norman MacLaren, Brakhage and all those experimentalists, likely inspiring a few. It also points to the mechanics of the medium, strips of film (memories of light) pulled taut and thrown through a projector. Now that the mechanics are increasingly lost– light’s not thrown, but washes through a CRT or LCD or another acronym, at home, not a palace– the process seems not antique (though it could) but otherworldly.