A film editor, director, writer, and archivist, Elizaveta Svilova was an intellectual and creative force in early Soviet montage. She is best known for her extensive collaborations with her husband, Dziga Vertov, on seminal early documentary films, and especially for instances when she appeared on camera demonstrating the act of editing itself. The fact that Vertov’s filmic theory and practice focused on montage as the fundamental guiding force of cinema confirms the crucial role Svilova’s groundbreaking experimentation played in early Soviet film and global film history. Her career, which spanned far beyond her collaborations with her husband, significantly advanced the early principles of cinematic montage.
Svilova was born Elizaveta Schnitt in Moscow on September 5, 1900, to a railway worker and a housewife. She began working in the cinema industry at age twelve, apprenticing in a film laboratory where she cleaned, sorted, and selected film and negatives (Kaganovsky 2018). This sort of work, seen as akin to domestic chores like sewing, weaving, and other “feminine” activities, was often the domain of women in film industries worldwide. At age fourteen, Svilova was hired as an assistant editor at Pathé’s Moscow studio, where she cut and photo-printed film until 1918. She worked as an editor for Vladimir Gardin while at Pathé, and edited iconic early films such as Vsevolod Meyerhold’s 1915 adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. In 1918, like many of her colleagues, she joined the film department of Narkompros, the People’s Commissariat of Education, where she worked as an editor for four years. She then joined Goskino, the centralized, state-run production and distribution company, in 1922 (Kaganovsky). There, she managed the editing workshop populated by women editors and laboratory workers known as montazhnitsy (Gadassik 2018). These rooms, full of boisterous activity at places like Narkompros and Goskino, are important to study further; while scholarship has illuminated the work of figures like Svilova and director/editor Esfir Shub, there is more to learn about lesser-known women editors, including Klaudia Ivanovna Kulagina, Katerina Nikolaevna Kozina, and Vera Kimitrovna Plotnikova (Shub 1927), as well as the many unknown female workers from this period.
Elizaveta Svilova with cinema colleagues, date unknown. Private Collection.
In 1919, Svilova met Vertov, a documentary filmmaker who was working on newsreels at Narkompros and later Goskino, whom she would marry in 1923 and with whom she would collaborate throughout their marriage. Vertov was an eccentric figure and a militant documentarian. The pair famously became involved after Vertov left a basket of one-frame shots in the editing room, only to become dejected when the editors discarded the shots in the garbage thinking they were scraps. Svilova reportedly took pity on Vertov’s disappointment and edited a short film together with the segments (Pearlman, MacKay, and Sutton 2018). While the veracity of the interaction is uncertain, it reflects Svilova’s innovative understanding of editing and her willingness to engage with Vertov’s antics. Artistic montage was reserved for feature-length films in the late teens and early twenties, but through Vertov and Svilova’s collaborations, the newsreel became a significant element of early avant-garde montage theory and practice.
Svilova took a leading role in Vertov’s Kinoki group, which argued for documentary film that would capture the reality of everyday life in the nascent Soviet Union. The Kinoki collective centered around the Council of Three: Vertov, the director of the group’s projects; Svilova, the chief editor; and Vertov’s brother Mikhail Kaufman, the principal cameraman. Svilova’s role as the group’s editor has, in general scholarly memory, cemented her place at the post-production montage table. However, she consistently worked on site at the group’s film shoots, as Vertov relied on her editorial eye to choose locations and subjects to be filmed (Kaganovsky). The Kinoki considered every portion of the filming process to be part of montage, and Svilova’s work and decisions went far beyond the cutting together of film fragments.
In the early 1920s, the group published significant articles that established their working theories of film in Lef and Kino-fot, the critical Soviet journals that featured debates surrounding early Soviet cinema. These articles ardently called for a cinema without scripts, stage sets, actors, or costumes, and linked the cinematic apparatus to the factory machine and the filmmaker to the Soviet laborer. In “We: Variant of a Manifesto,” from 1922, the group announced:
WE proclaim the old films, based on the romance, theatrical films and the like, to be leprous.
—Keep away from them!
—Keep your eyes off them!
—They’re mortally dangerous!
(…) Openly recognizing the rhythm of machines, the delight of mechanical labor, the perception of the beauty of chemical processes, WE sing of earthquakes, we compose film epics of electric power plants and flame, we delight in the movements of comets and meteors and the gestures of searchlights that dazzle the stars. (qtd. in Michelson 1984, 7-8)
The language of these manifestos signaled the marriage between documentary cinema and the Communist Revolution. In “To the Council of Three: An Application,” an article likely written to bring visibility to the group (Kaganovsky), Svilova explained: “I understand that doing fascinating things without actors is difficult…nevertheless I will go hand in hand with you. It could lead to a distant but sure victory” (Svilova 1923, 221).
The group’s Kino-Pravda newsreel series, which ran from 1922 to 1924, presented documentary fragments of the everyday experiences of Soviet workers, and introduced the notion that the camera could produce a deeper understanding of the truth than the human eye. Svilova appears in Kino Pravda No. 19 (1924), seated at the editing table, sorting through negatives of images the audience has just seen. The intertitle captions the scene with “selection of negatives for Kino-Pravda N. 19” as Svilova appears in quickening succession alongside the fragments she cuts, which appear again in negative black (Kaganovsky). The groundbreaking sequence presents a self-referential explanation of the task of editing, as Svilova literally highlights her own activity as a force and producer of filmic vision.
Screenshot, Elizaveta Svilova in Man with a Movie Camera (1929).
With each new project, the Kinoki established increasingly radical montage techniques, thanks to Svilova’s experimental editing practices. With Kino-Glaz/Film Eye (1924), the group’s first major feature-length film, Svilova intensified the complexity of her editing, with superimposition and repeated frames, proving the Kinoki tenet that film could present reality more accurately than what was possible within the scope of human perception. Using reverse playback of a cow’s death at a slaughterhouse, Svilova’s editing reanimates the animal, securing its position at the public cooperative rather than at a private vendor, allowing for film itself to save Soviet consumers from capitalism. Another sequence in the film presents divers jumping in slow and reverse motion, highlighting that Soviet audiences could learn to perform impressive physical feats—a crucial concept in the Soviet propagandistic conceptualization of the human body—through film itself (Tsivian 2011). Svilova reappeared on camera in the group’s 1929 silent cinematic masterpiece Man with a Movie Camera, seated again at her editing table, splicing images together immediately following the images themselves. In this now highly-celebrated reflexive sequence, she demonstrates the act of editing and showcases her own contribution to early cinema.
Using reworked footage from her and Vertov’s One Sixth of the World (1926), Svilova directed and edited Bukhara, her first solo project, in 1927. A travelogue film capturing daily urban life, Bukhara presents the ethnographic and cultural diversity of the far reaches of the Soviet Union. Following Svilova and Vertov’s Enthusiasm (1930), the Soviet Union’s first documentary sound film, Vertov’s career began to decline, and Svilova took on independent projects in addition to her continued collaborations with her husband. In 1930, like many of her avant-garde colleagues who faced increased suspicion and difficulty securing work, she began teaching montage at the Lenin Institute while simultaneously researching her and Vertov’s films at night. She progressed to co-director on their projects of the late 1930s, with films like Glory to Soviet Heroines (1938) and Three Heroines (1939). Although Vertov avoided the purges of the 1930s, he struggled to obtain work, and Svilova supported them both for the remainder of his life, teaching as well as editing and directing over one hundred films and newsreel episodes between 1939 and 1956.
Svilova’s work during the 1940s is often overlooked despite its crucial role in twentieth-century history. She completed For You at the Front (1942)from Alma Ata (now Almaty, in present day Kazakhstan), where the Soviet film industry had been displaced during World War II. Fall of Berlin (1945), co-directed with Yuli Raizman, won Svilova the Stalin Prize the following year. Her documentary Auschwitz (1946) presented the opening of the death camp by the Red Army alongside reenactments directed by Svilova, and premiered at the “Filming the War: Soviets and the Holocaust 1941-1946” exhibit at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris. For Fascist Atrocities (1946), Svilova edited together documentary material of Auschwitz and Majdanek, including images of mass graves, piles of human remains, and camp barracks, alongside intimate footage of individual victims, such as stolen belongings, survivors’ tattoo numbers, and women weeping. Significantly, the film was included as documentary evidence in the Nuremberg Trials, which were themselves the subject of Svilova’s eponymous 1946 documentary (Penfold 2013, 10).
Following Vertov’s death in 1954, Svilova changed her name to Elizaveta Vertova-Svilova, tying their legacies together and their identities to film. She also left the film industry, and, until her death in 1975, she promoted the Kinoki’s early work and championed her husband’s legacy within and outside of the Soviet Union. She traveled across Western Europe showcasing their feature-length films and preserving Vertov’s archives in Austria, which cemented his fame in the West, as most Soviet archives would remain trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Svilova’s groundbreaking and controlled command of the editing table established the heyday of the Soviet avant-garde. As more film scholars begin to examine her rich career, Svilova’s legacy will be that of a committed filmmaker and documentarian, whose intellectual and creative approach to film editing continues to reach audiences today.
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Attwood, Lynne. Red Women on the Silver Screen: Soviet Women and Cinema from the Beginning to the End of the Communist Era. London: Pandora, 1993.
Christie, Ian, and Richard Taylor, eds. The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.
------, eds. Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema. London: Routledge, 1991.
Drubek-Meyer, Natascha, John MacKay, et al. “Fragments of Vertov.” In Dziga Vertov: The Vertov Collection at the Austrian Film Museum. Eds. Thomas Tode and Barbara Wurm. Vienna: SYNEMA, 2006. 7-32.
Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Women Film Directors: An International Bio-critical Dictionary. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1995.
Gadassik, Alla. “Esfir Shub on Women in the Editing Room: ‘The Work of Montazhnitsy’ (1927).” Apparatus: Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 6 (2018): n.p. http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2018.0006.125.
Hutchings, Stephen. “Introduction.” In Russia and its Other(s) on Film: Screening Intercultural Dialogue. Ed. Stephen Hutchings. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 1-24.
Kaganovsky, Lilya. “Film Editing as Women’s Work: Esfir Shub, Elizaveta Svilova, and the Culture of Soviet Montage.” Apparatus: Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 6 (2018): n.p. http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2018.0006.114.
Lambert, Anthony, and Karen Pearlman. “Editing (for) Elizaveta: Talking Svilova, Vertov and ‘Responsive Creativity’ with Karen Pearlman.” Studies in Australasian Cinema (2017): 157-160. https://doi.org/10.1080/17503175.2017.1407063.
Lawton, Anna. “Rhythmic Montage in the Films of Dziga Vertov: A Poetic Use of the Language of Cinema.” Pacific Coast Philology 13 (1978): 44-50.
Michelson, Annette, ed. Kino-eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. Trans. Kevin O'Brien. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Michelson, Annette, and Malcolm Turvey, eds. “New Vertov Studies.” Special Issue of October vol. 121 (Summer 2007).
Pearlman, Karen, John MacKay, and John Sutton. “Creative Editing: Svilova and Vertov’s Distributed Cognition.” Apparatus: Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 6 (2018): n.p. http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2018.0006.122.
The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) (the film is also available via Amazon Prime, Vudu, and other platforms)
Most of the archives do not explicitly say who edited the films that Svilova directed. It is fairly safe to assume that she edited most of these films herself, and, similarly, while we do not know for certain, it is likely that she edited most of the films in which she was involved as co-director or assistant director.
This filmography reflects Svilova's known and confirmed credits, yet it is possible that she was involved in further episodes of Vertov's various newsreel series—both extant and lost—such as Kino-Pravda and Kinonedelia.
Molcard, Eva. "Elizaveta Svilova." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020. <https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-y8we-0736>