It is September the first, so spring has officially sprung! (In the southern hemisphere, at least). Therefore, it’s the perfect time to take a look at the Ukrainian film Навесні (Navesni); known in English as In Spring, and also known by its Russian title Весной (Vesnoy).
I’d been intrigued by this film for a while, especially loving the poster, which I bought a copy of in Pordenone a couple of years ago (it was used as the main image for the GCM’s 2004 edition). However, it wasn’t until more recently that I had the chance to watch In Spring.
Filmed in Kyiv in 1929, it is the work of Mikhail (né Мойсей, Moisei) Kaufman. He was the brother of Dziga Vertov (né David Kaufman), whose reputation has overshadowed that of his younger sibling. Vertov’s achievements are legendary, but before reading the text of the Ukrainian Re-Vision book, I was not aware just how interlinked the two filmmakers’ careers were. Kaufman, of course, filmed Человек с киноаппаратом | Man with a Movie Camera (1929; Ukrainian: Людина з кіноапаратом), as well as appearing in the film as “the man with the movie camera” himself, and this reflects his real-life vocation and technical ability. Kaufman was something of a mechanical whiz, modifying and even building cameras, as well as constructing lenses, inventing filters, etc; in this sense, he can be considered a pioneer of cinematographic technology. It was Kaufman who made the famous shot of the eye in the camera lens that became an emblem of Man with a Movie Camera and the kino-glaz in general.
The two brothers worked together extensively. According to Ukrainian Re-Vision (although the book does not clearly specify an author, all except the Vertov texts were written by Ivan Kozlenko), Vertov and Kaufman founded the кіноки (kinoki) group of cinema avant-gardists together. Bound by the kino-eye theory, the brothers collaborated on several films throughout the 1920s, culminating in Man with a Movie Camera. This film led to a rupture between the two, however; the brothers disagreed about directorial approaches. Kozlenko writes,
Mikhail Kaufman did not accept the edit of the film proposed by Vertov and Svilova: Man with a Movie Camera seemed to him a chaotic, meaningless and senseless work. He believed that, instead of a film-manifesto, Vertov had edited an empty set of frames, where episodes could be rearranged without loss of meaning, too amorphous as they were.
This was a serious falling-out; the two brothers did not reconcile until the 1950s.
In Spring is best described as a ciné-poem; an expressive non-narrative film concerned with depicting places and people. Although not quite a ‘city symphony’ in the classical sense, it has much in common with that genre, although ultimately it of course falls within the kino-glaz tradition. It is undoubtedly an incredibly accomplished work of lyrical beauty. Consider how simple yet striking are shots like these:
Although it was in some ways a reaction to Man With a Movie Camera, In Spring has far more in common with that film than it diverges from it. Many of the shots used would not look out of place in Vertov’s work.
However, the overall mood is different. Although it features many shots of the urban environment and items of technology, the focus tends more towards natural phenomena. At times reminiscent of Joris Ivens’ Regen (1929; not known to Kaufman at this time, I would assume), some of the most beautiful shots of the film concern the movement of water.
That is not to say the film is necessarily ideologically neutral; in the view of Kozlenko, “vernal awakening of nature at the same time became a metaphor of birth of the young proletarian state, full of potency of development”. In other words, the idea of seasonal change and reawakening is linked to the potential of the Soviet state. However, I didn’t find the film to be propagandist in this respect. If one perceives this metaphor, it is rather subtle, and the film works as an artistic/aesthetic work first and foremost.
That said, it is impossible to watch a film like this without thinking of the current political situation in Ukraine. I don’t feel like I can discuss that without being banal; but an eloquent statement of place and environment like In Spring evokes the character of Kyiv very poetically.
Without wanting to perceive the ghost of Man with a Movie Camera in this film, I have to say that I really liked the shots where Kaufman appeared with his tripod and camera.
I don’t recall a shot where Kaufman and his apparatus are shown directly; it’s interesting that they are always shown in reflection, mediated by the environment. If we are to read In Spring as Kaufman’s manifesto, it is an implementation of kino-glaz that is more lyrical; I would still call it self-reflexive, however. For example, Kaufman draws attention to the constructed nature of the film in shots like this:
And of his own approach to filmmaking, Kaufman said:
Cinema is an illusion. Therefore, it is important to always to remember that we do not copy life, we create an image of reality, and all the techniques, nuances, effects in shooting serve to create that image. I used telephotography emphasizing a big role of medium and long shots, made tracking shots which were allowed to ‘track’, observe people in the frame not letting them out of sight of the lens.
In a film such as this without a storyline per se, rhythm is everything. It’s not something that can be adequately described in words (or indeed GIFs), but the tempo of In Spring flows perfectly, supported well by the excellent score by Oleksandr Kokhanovsky.
There are light-hearted moments, too; I found the gradually melting snowman, repeatedly shown in the beginning section of the film, both poignant and humorous.
In Spring was not appreciated on its release, and lingered in obscurity for many years. Vertov privately said rather snidely that Kaufman had not done anything in In Spring that he, Vertov, had not already achieved in Man with a Movie Camera. I think he was missing the point; more than just a brilliant technician, Kaufman’s creative vision was fully realized here. I loved In Spring, and it stands with the best of the avant-garde filmmaking of its era.
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Навесні [In Spring]. Dir. Mikhail Kaufman. Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic: VUFKU, 1930. Available on DVD from the Oleksandr Dovzhenko Centre for Film.