The War Will Be Livestreamed
The Kino-Pravda of the war in Ukraine and the mutiny in Russia have shown just how unreal conflict has become.
In 1852, Roger Fenton stood on the banks of the Dniper River and began setting up.
Photography, at that point, was a time-consuming process. And Fenton was still an amateur: A painter by training, he probably only began experimenting the relatively-new artform a year earlier. But, given that photographers were in short supply, he was asked by a colleague to travel to (what was then) Russia to take photos of a suspension bridge over the winding river. It was, at that point, to be the longest such bridge in the world.
When war broke out in Crimea a few years later, his familiarity with Russia and the novel art of photography made him a prime candidate to become arguably the world’s first-ever war photographer.
Fenton did not capture any action during his months in Crimea. Most of his photographs were portraits of British generals sent to the conflict, styled after the lionized portraits that had defined the public’s view of war for centuries.1 But his true-to-life portraits could never match the grandiose portraits the public had become accustomed too. And, occasionally, Fenton snapped a scene that removed the romanticism and imagined heroism altogether: Like "The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” a deserted road strewn with cannonballs.
Fenton’s photography foretold the impact that actually seeing war would have on war itself. It began to demystify the gentlemanly art of fighting. It also portended how warring parties would see photography — and, later, videography — as a useful tool for their campaign.
As the technology progressed, it became increasingly the norm to commit your battle to film. If film could not reliably shot on the battlefield2, as was the case until the end of the 19th century, no matter: States just faked it. Some produced scale-model re-enactments, including explosions, smoke, hand-to-hand combat, and stage deaths. In some cases, sets in Paris or London stood in for battlefields in China. “But realistic or not, such fakes were a way of offering news-hungry cinema audiences a dramatic representation of the current war, which, unlike the actualities, included some visible conflict,” writes Stephen Bottomore in Filming, Faking and Propaganda.
It didn’t take long for the misinformation to come. There was Attack on Mission Station, which claimed to show Chinese citizens attacking Christians during the Boxer Rebellion. There was film of “Boer artillery in action,” firing on the British during the Boer Wars. And there was film, claiming to show “Mohammedean inhabitants of Crete massacring Christian Greeks” during the Greco-Turkish War. In fact, all three of these films were likely shot in Europe. It’s always easier to make your opponents look like villains if you hire actors.
At the turn of the 20th century, as the novelty wore off and eyes became more discerning, the artform had to mature. The early war films had show how moving images could galvanize a nation and whip them up into jingoistic fervor. But could film help fight a civil war?
In Russia, Dziga Vertov was using film to advance the Bolshevik revolution. He had painstakingly spliced together footage of the revolution and ensuing civil war, producing The October Revolution in 1919 and Battle Against Czarism in 1920, just as the Bolsheviks were gaining the upper hand in the conflict.
Cinema had been a significant cultural pillar of pre-revolution society, and it would go on to be a critical way in which the Soviets revised the details of the war — Sergei Einstein’s Battleship Potemkin would later help the Soviets romanticize the mutiny aboard the imperial Russian ship as an act of proletariat heroism. But in those early years, Vladimir Lenin demanded that Soviet film ought to portray the real life of the workers. And Vertov supplied it with Kino-Pravda, or “film truth,” a series of newsreels that eschewed staging and fakery for truth. His network of cameras on the frontlines showed the urban centers and Red progress in the enduring civil war.
“We cannot make our eyes better than they have been made, but the movie camera we can perfect forever,” Vertov wrote.3 Indeed, many Russian cinematographers of the time adopted a style of montage: Interspersing different film, poetry, graphics, and art. (The Simple Minds backing track would come later.)
Before there was cinéma vérité, there was Kino-Pravda. Vertov and his compatriots embedded with Red Army units, visited markets with concealed cameras, and rode to accidents in the back of ambulances.
His 1929 film The Man with the Movie Camera began by telling viewers that there would be no titles, no sets, no plot, no actors: Only the reality of life. His 1931 Enthusiasm: The Symphony of Donbas used the sounds of a coal mine as a sort of musical score: When he premiered it in London, Vertov turned the sound up so high that “the building seemed to tremble,” fighting off anyone who would lower the volume. His 1934 musical-documentary Three Songs of Lenin interspersed film of the revolutionary dictator, living and dead, with the march of soldiers’ boots. (Featuring English subtitles by W.H. Auden, strangely enough.)
Under Joseph Stalin, the Kremlin would mandate and manage this realism — making it, paradoxically, unreal. The Soviets had made good on Vertov’s idea of making film more true than reality.
Some were still students of the old school. Formalists, in other words. Filmmaker Vsevolod Meyerhold pursued a kind of very deliberate acting he called biomechanics: Actors would learn their movements, gestures, and poses and let their performance flow from there. It was as scripted and unreal as you can image. Such a break with Soviet orthodoxy was a massive risk. But he also knew that Kino-Pravda was no longer truth, it was information. Art, however, still had an unparalleled power to speak truth.
Knowing the stakes were high, he mounted a defense:
In my heart, I consider what is now taking place in our theaters frightful and pitiful. And I do not know what it is—antiformalism, realism, naturalism, or any other “ism.” But I do know that it is untalented and bad. The pitiful and wretched thing that pretends to the title of the theater of socialist realism has nothing in common with art.4
This week, on Bug-eyed and Shameless, we take up Meyerhold’s tirade against realism and look at how the Kino-Pravda of the Ukraine war — and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s march on Moscow — is fundamentally distorting reality of things in Eastern Europe. (For the sake of space and time, there will be no additional lengthy historical asides. Apologies to those hoping for a retelling of the first Gulf War via CNN.)
In the story of Vertov’s useful realism and Meyerhold’s appeal to art, both men were losers. Vertov’s realistic portrayal of Lenin through the eyes of the worker faced rounds of censorship and additions amid waves of Stalinist purges, and his later work was tightly managed by Soviet authorities: Ensuring that only reality to reach the masses was one approved by the Kremlin. Meyerhold, meanwhile, was arrested the day after his tirade against realism, and spirited away inside the secret police headquarters: He would be tried, found guilty, and executed by firing squad in 1940. Zinaida Raikh, his wife and an avant-garde actress in her own right, was found murdered in their apartment not long after his arrest.
Her eyes had been gouged out.