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Economics of Shortage and the Archival Impulse in Revolutionary Socialist Cinema


The image shows the aged Dragoljub Aleksić doing head stand in the film Nevinost bez zaštite/Innocence Unprotected (1968, Dušan Makavejev)

(Image Credit:

Dragan Batančev

The Soviet Union and postwar Yugoslavia were the first two states created in the wake of effective socialist revolutions. Both political entities underwent periods of severe destruction, extreme material shortages, and international isolation to protect their revolutionary visions, as the 1917 October Revolution was followed by the Russian Civil War (1917–1923), while the Yugoslav Revolution, forged during the Axis occupation in World War II, had to resist the pressure of the Eastern Bloc after the 1948 Tito–Stalin split. The latter, caused primarily by the Soviet condemnation of Yugoslav independent foreign policy, marked the first fracture in the international communist movement and put Yugoslavia on the path towards its pursuit of the doctrine of self-management[1] and non-alignment during the Cold War. Notably, both the Soviet Union and socialist Yugoslavia made use of market practices more readily associated with capitalism—1920s New Economic Policy and post-1965 economic reform, respectively—to deal with material shortages and accelerate economic advancement. These periods corresponded with dynamic cultural developments, particularly remarkable in cinema, which the two states adopted as the main vehicle of socialist modernization. Whereas Soviet avant-garde filmmakers sought to expand the sensory potentials of the cinematic medium in addition to presenting idiosyncratic revolutionary ideas prior to the ascent of Stalinism, a new generation of Yugoslav filmmakers emerged in the 1960s to join the tide of the New Wave cinematic movements and offer a searing reminder of the unkept promises of the Yugoslav Revolution. What remains understudied is how the experience of material shortage, specifically the lack of film stock, shaped a more frugal, archive-oriented approach to filmmaking in both the USSR and Yugoslavia, thereby tacitly challenging the immoderation and profusion of dominant media cultures.


 This essay examines the interplay of cultural economics and production/editing practices in the cinematic and discursive output of Dziga Vertov and Dušan Makavejev as proponents of archive-oriented filmmaking in the interwar USSR and postwar Yugoslavia. Vertov is globally recognized as one of the greatest innovators of documentary cinema, with his masterwork Man with a Movie Camera (1929) standing out for its revolutionary use of editing, cinematography, and other expressive capacities of the cinematic medium. Makavejev rose to international prominence in the late 1960s due to his imaginative mixing of scripted and documentary cinema and collapsing of multiple boundaries, between highbrow and lowbrow art and media, cultural and ideological production on both sides of the Iron Curtain, political and visual pornography, and so on. While not avoiding the contrast between Vertov’s enthusiastic support of the socialist state-building project (typical of the many Old Leftists) and Makavejev’s New Left piercing criticism of both socialism and capitalism, I am more interested in the overlaps in their concepts of archival filmmaking. My investigation considers how material resourcefulness in Soviet and Yugoslav cinema brought about both Vertov’s utilization of the film archive and the patchwork structure of Serbian cutting, Makavejev’s montage technique born from scarcity as an offspring of Vertov’s often (financially) poor cinema. In this study, I focus on the closeness of Vertov’s and Makavejev’s frugal filmmaking as epitomizing materialist concerns in socialist cinema, thus welcoming further investigation of, and comparisons with, similar models of non-socialist economical media production.    


  By bringing to the fore the material component of Vertov’s and Makavejev’s productions, that is, the ways in which the lack of film stock inspired Vertov and Makavejev to reframe appropriated and found footage, this essay contemplates the potentiality of the socialist mode of production in opposition to the dominant capitalist production system. In the first part of the essay, I begin with a definition of a socialist economics of shortage and a historical contextualization of Vertov’s concept of editing base. Moving onto Lenin’s theory of the de-alienation of labor and the consequent introduction of film stock into the realm of raw materials in Soviet Union, I discuss the implications of “recycling” old footage in Vertov’s films. The second part begins by setting Makavejev’s early works against the backdrop of Yugoslav state film production, followed by a theorization of Serbian cutting and a comparison of Makavejev’s cinema to that of his role models, Vertov and Eisenstein. The final section of the article indicates the ways in which Vertov’s and Makavejev’s archive-based filmmaking could point to a more sustainable model of media production.     


 A few notes on the terminological application of the archive in this essay. As Joshua Malitsky states in his perceptive analysis of the archival aspect of 1920s Soviet documentary cinema, until 1936, “Soviet film studios were known as ‘film factories’ (kinofabriki),” which symbolically equated Soviet filmmakers (and other cultural producers) with factory workers in general (2004). In the mid-1920s, the Soviet regime started looking for a means of subduing the chaos, improvisational tactics, and material shortages of the Revolutionary era—including the shortage of film stock experienced by Vertov and other Soviet filmmakers—in favor of establishing a better-organized and more efficient (and controlled) production system. In the realm of film production, this push effected a transformation of the “film factory” into the “film factory-archive,” as Malitsky, inspired by contemporaneous Soviet filmmakers’ debates, dubbed it (2004). A turning point in this process was Esfir Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), based on archival and found footage from (pre-)Revolutionary times and widely considered the first compilation documentary in film history. Shub’s film was embraced by Soviet critics as a viable alternative to Vertov’s documentary One Sixth of the World (1926), which was deemed too expensive due to Vertov’s improvisational filming method that resulted in wasted film stock,[2] as well as too hermetic for the mass audience unaccustomed to Vertov’s fast-paced editing and experimental cinematography. As Malitsky explains, “While Vertov wanted to continue to shoot film and sought to use the archive for flexibility in editing and in aiding overall production efficiency, Shub’s almost total reliance on archival material prompted calls” for “a centralized multi-purpose factory-archive for film production and storage” (2004). Shub’s archive-based working method led to Soviet filmmakers’ fascination with the “raw” and “second-hand” material that was already filmed and watched by others and, as such, considered “more interesting than the finished film” (Yampolsky and Spring 1991, 166). Editing and re-editing the “raw” and “second-hand” material into multiple new films became congruent with the Soviet impetus towards constant restructuring and alteration of reality, with the filmmaker turned into an archivist progressively dependent on the “themes that grew out of the material” (Yampolsky and Spring 1991, 166). According to Malitsky, the new emphasis on the “raw” archival footage matched the wider Soviet industrial deployment of Taylorism that sought to “eliminate inefficiency and waste of both materials and labour power” (2004). In parallel, Soviet filmmakers were urged to shift away from Vertov’s objective to “transform viewers’ base perceptions through a cinema challenging laws of space and time” to a new role as the “engineer of human souls” in the rising socialist realism, “now concerned with transforming the psychology, the ‘superstructural’ aspect of the audience” (Malitsky 2004). Vertov was expected to limit his excessive use of the film stock and apply the experience of the stock shortage in his Revolutionary-era newsreel series Kinonedelia (1918–1919) and Kinopravda (1922–1925) for the more economical, Shubian use of the archive.


For Makavejev and his collaborators, the archive was, first and foremost, the Yugoslav Cinematheque (Jugoslovenska kinoteka), also known as the Yugoslav Film Archive. Thanks to the nonaligned position of their country, Yugoslav filmmakers and cinephiles were able to watch and discuss films from all over the world. Furthermore, it is in the vaults of the Yugoslav Film Archive that Makavejev found the first Serbian talkie Innocence Unprotected (Dragoljub Aleksić, 1943), a film that was shelved by the postwar Yugoslav government because it was produced during the German occupation—but imaginatively incorporated into Makavejev’s 1968 eponomyous readymade film. 


Interwar avant-garde art and thought, ranging from Marcel Duchamp’s readymade art to Walter Benjamin’s essays to DaDa manifestos to Dziga Vertov’s films, presented an abundant archival repository for Makavejev and his collaborators who were “not concerned with documenting life but rather [with] that documentation which is performed by others” (DeCuir Jr. 2011). Global media production provided a nonhierarchical archive from which Makavejev could borrow to overcome material constraints and produce exuberant revolutionary films that differed from the mainstream Yugoslav film production reliant on classical narration and enthusiastic endorsement of the country’s revolutionary mythology. In so doing, Makavejev capitalized on the experience of material shortage that he shared with one of his favorite filmmakers and mentors, Dziga Vertov.


Less is More: Vertov’s Film-Thing


Contrary to capitalist economy that is based on the rule of surplus, socialist economy is defined by the rule of shortage (Kornai 1992, 228–301). Within socialist “centralized planning,” company managers were supposed to meet targets, namely, the quantities of everything that the Party wanted produced. Central planners would provide the agenda to be executed along with the estimation of how much money and raw materials were needed for the successful execution of the plan. In practice, however, materials would not arrive on time or in the right amounts. This meant that managers had to demand more materials than actually necessary so as to keep production going even if something went wrong:

Every manager, and every level of the bureaucracy, padded budgets and requests in hopes of having enough,
in the actual moment of production. (A result of the bargaining process, of course, was that central planners
always had faulty information about what was really required for production, and this impeded their ability to
plan.) Then, if managers somehow ended up with more of some material than they needed, they hoarded it.
Hoarded material had two uses: it could be kept for the next production cycle, or it could be exchanged with
some other firm for something one’s own firm lacked. These exchanges or barters of material were a crucial
component of behavior within centralized planning. (Verdery 1996, 21)

To illustrate, let us imagine the manager of a socialist shoe factory getting a certain number of shoes to be delivered to the shops. Having calculated how much he would need under ideal conditions, “[h]e adds some for wastage, knowing the workers are lazy and the machines cut badly; some for theft, since workers are always stealing nails and glue; some to trade with other firms in case he comes up short on a crucial material at a crucial moment; and some more for the fact that the tannery always delivers less than requested” (Verdery 1996, 21). More than expected, centralized production was dependent on bargaining between the center of economic planning and the management of the socialist enterprise.


It is important to note, however, that the economics of shortage as described above was more characteristic of developed socialism than of the years immediately after the first socialist revolution. One factor that played a significant role in Dziga Vertov’s early filmmaking, alongside DIY handiwork and resourcefulness,[3] was the endemic shortage of film stock that could not have been produced in revolutionary Russia or easily imported from the then-hostile Western democracies (MacKay 2018, 196, 213). The lack of film stock, that basic ingredient of every film production, haunted in one way or another both Vertov and his much younger colleague in socialist Yugoslavia, Dušan Makavejev. As we will see, this came to be one of the crucial distinctions between economics of shortage in socialist cinema and economics of profit in Hollywood where the stock deficit was hardly ever a problem.


Vertov’s difficulties with securing a stable material foundation for film production in the Revolutionary era coincided with his effort to challenge the capitalist mode of production in general and the dominance of Hollywood narrative cinema in particular. While “taking a fundamental position against all fiction film” in 1922, Vertov could still admire “the dramatizations of American Pinkertonism for their rapid shot changes and close-ups” (Roberts 2007, 40, italics in original). With time, Vertov grew critical of

“bourgeois photo-plays” and “sentimental melodramas” that had to be replaced by documentary films, i.e., films
without actors, sets and scripted stories. ... Vertov was [therefore] labelled “extremist,” even “eccentric,” while
working outside the mainstream of common film production which, by and large, complied with the same concept
of dramatic feature cinema that characterized production before the Revolution. (Petric 1982, 7)

Moreover, as Maurizio Lazzarato argues in his cogent analysis of Vertov’s cinematic output and writings about cinema,

Vertov interpreted the Soviet revolution not only as the general collapse of power and of capitalist institutions in
Russia but also as a collapse of the human and its world. Cinema was immediately understood as a machinic
expression of forces—assembled in different ways with human forces such as seeing, feeling, perceiving, and
thinking—capable of opening up new forms of subjectivation. (2019, 20–21)

Lazzarato concludes,

All the polemics between Vertov and Hollywood, as well as his more nuanced controversy with Sergei Eisenstein,
were organized around the need for the revolution to subtract cinema from its images and representation. Vertov
wanted to explode the technological assemblage and the division of labor in cinema, because both fold the forces
of time with the forces within the human back into mere representation and image. (2019, 24)


Vertov’s revolutionary instincts were clearly at play even during the rise of socialist realism when he built upon Esfir Shub’s archival filmmaking with the aim of protecting his creative autonomy. In a 1936 programmatic text, Vertov put forward his vision of a well-organized production system—the Soviet “creative laboratory” as opposed to the United States “dream factory,” though Vertov’s employment of the word “laboratory” may also imply his striving towards a more artisanal and independent mode of production, free of the factory routine. Having complained about the impossibility of recording sound and doing synchronized shooting in locations without a source of alternating current, Vertov emphasized the time wasted on “promises and resolutions” coming from the studio executives, much like the Soviet factory managers had to deal with the frequently unsound directives of central planners ([1936] 1984, 138).

In what looks like an attempt to avoid bureaucratic control in the Stalinized Soviet cinema, Vertov offered a list of objectives to be pursued by the creative laboratory. The third objective concerned the qualities of the new editing base and is of particular interest here: “Not temporary, but permanent. Not random, but carefully adapted. Not anonymous, but bearing the author’s signature. Not immobile, but constantly engaged. A film archive of a director’s documents on file” ([1936] 1984, 141). Vertov frames the new editing base as a pillar of the film archive that would contribute to the “elimination of the director’s wastage of film stock thanks to a continuous production process involving a series of themes and to the possibility of using footage not being employed in a particular theme” ([1936] 1984, 142). In Vertov’s ambition to establish a dynamic film archive that was to be employed in developing several interconnected films, we can hear a last-gasp cry of the filmmaker who once had a big enough budget to travel across the entire Soviet Union to shoot One Sixth of the World and then adopted the criticism of his expensive experimentation to regain his creative independence. Vertov’s notion of the “constantly engaged” editing base shows how, after all, he came to utilize the dialectics of scarcity as best as possible under the given circumstances: if he could not have filmed new images, at least he was able to recontextualize the archival footage. 

In this regard, Vertov drew on his experience from the October Revolution, particularly his newsreel series Kinonedelia (1918–1919), which involved so much reappropriation of archival footage that because of “the variety of uses to which it was put, we must speak of the newsreel as a set of processes—involving restoration, reuse, archiving, and so on—rather than as a set of finished film-artifacts” (MacKay 2018, 211). Footage from older Kinonedelia issues was used by Vertov and his colleagues for new issues of the same newsreel series and was combined with “material from other sources like [the Provisional Government’s newsreel series] Svobodnaia Rossiia” (MacKay 2018, 223). After “the exigencies of war” and “severe shortage of film stock” discontinued Kinonedelia in 1919 (MacKay 2018, 233), “a number of Vertov’s post-1922 works—several of the Kino-Pravdas, Stride, Soviet, and Three Songs of Lenin—ma[d]e use of footage from the series” (MacKay 2018, 197), mostly from the Russian Civil War and of Lenin. We have reason to believe that Vertov recycled footage from Kinonedelia even in his lost film History of the Civil War (MacKay 2018, 228). The pervasiveness of Vertov’s Revolutionary-era recycling practices thus prepared the filmmaker to demonstrate in the post-Revolutionary period (that is, after Esfir Shub’s resounding success with the archival appropriation in The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty) that no one shot is condemned to exist only within one film sequence.


For it was the Revolutionary era that endowed Vertov’s filmmaking with a profound sense of the materiality of the film stock: one could easily see how the very physical and habitual acts of holding the filmed footage, as well as cutting the frames and editing the same footage into multiple films, must have made the Soviet filmmaker perceive the celluloid as cognate to other materials that Soviet workers used in their everyday industrial production. It is not by chance, then, that Vertov considered himself a shoemaker rather than a filmmaker. Vertov’s idea of kino-veshch’ (“film-thing”) advances the materiality of cinema as following Lenin’s idea of the de-alienation of labor:

In a 1919 discussion of “the revolutionary mode of labor” (работа по-революционному), Lenin defined communism
as a politics of everyday matter: “Communism begins when among simple workers there emerges a selfless
concern [забота – the same word used by Erenburg’s LeBon to describe revolutionary affect] about protecting every
pood of grain, coal, iron and other products that belong neither to the worker personally nor to those who are ‘close
to him’ [ближным], but those ‘at a distance’ [дальным], i.e. the entire society in its totality.” (Fore 2010, 376, parentheses
and italics in original)

Devin Fore proposes that Lenin conceived of communism as “a new affective organization” based on responsibility for the product of labor as well as an activity of establishing links between people separated by vast spaces—hence Vertov’s fascination with highlighting objects rather than primarily humans as in traditional narrative cinema,[4] and connecting dispersed Soviet nations and working collectives. Lenin’s statement has two more implications for Vertov’s cinema. First, if the products of labor belong to all people, that leaves room for abolishing the bourgeois concept of copyright, which in turn means that no artwork is to be deemed untouchable and unalterable.[5] Second, film was no different than grain, coal, or iron, in that it could change its form and purpose: “Itself neither matter nor substance, cinema was instead a constructive means for connecting and binding substances, a means for catalyzing interactions between diverse and seemingly incommensurate objects” (Fore 2013, 3). In the 1920s Soviet Union, film essentially became yet another object of manual labor, just as a piece of iron could become a sword in the hands of a skilled blacksmith. Because the Soviet state strove towards accelerated modernization, new media forms were “denuded of the aura of naturalness that they enjoyed in the West” (Fore 2010, 379). Common to all Soviet avant-garde artists was the urge to deconstruct media and study their components. It should then come as no surprise that Vertov ultimately acknowledged the playfulness entailed in his reappropriation of old film footage.

Here we need to pause and briefly reflect on the propensity for reuse not only in Vertov’s work, but also more widely in socialist economy. One of the main differences between capitalist and socialist economies is that capitalism’s aims are compatible with the planned obsolescence of its products, while socialist economies place more emphasis on repairing products and/or making long-lasting products. Capitalism, though, has not always exploited planned obsolescence: for example, in the past, the label “made in USA” was asserted as the guarantee of high-quality, long-lasting merchandise, whereas in the recent decades, global neoliberal capitalism has opted for less quality and more goods bought every year. In state socialism, on the other hand, it was not always possible to buy a new pair of shoes and so the old one had to be repaired. It was, then, the appeal of the collage and two or three old things becoming one new thing that helped Vertov and his contemporaries overcome the restraints of the stock shortage. Another feature of 1920s Soviet artists that assisted them in employing collage as a fruitful modus operandi was their firm rejection of a division between the grandeur of art and the banality of everyday objects: for example, Russian Futurists preferred cars and street lights to museums. In capitalism, the past is often commodified as an indication of snobbish aloofness. In Vertov’s socialist cinema, by contrast, the past becomes an integral part of the present, thereby reflecting the Soviet understanding of materiality as presupposing the equality of people and objects, nature and technology. If, under capitalism, a human being can look stylishly retro wearing a shabby jacket full of deliberately incorporated and designed patches, a socialist film can benefit from the economic consolidation of diverse archival footage.


As a result of recurrent material reconfigurations, the meaning of archival footage in Vertov’s documentaries is never fixed. For example, the pathos of the funeral procession after Lenin’s death in Kinopravda No. 21 (1925) is juxtaposed with Vertov’s short animation about Lenin’s legacy (Feldman 1973, 37). Rather than invoking end times, the Soviet leader’s death is presented as a moment of recollection and contemplation, but even more so as the starting point for the realization of Lenin’s ideas. Ten years after Kinopravda No. 21, Vertov was commissioned to make Three Songs of Lenin (1934), only this time around, the aesthetic constraints of socialist realism prevented him from using the same mixture of heterogeneous cinematic forms. But Vertov refused to succumb. The sequence of Lenin’s funeral, which could have easily become yet another confirmation of the vulgar cult of personality, is framed by more poetic images of the Soviet people celebrating Lenin. One could argue that Vertov did not have any other choice for Three Songs of Lenin as there was limited footage of Lenin’s funeral. However, the same cannot be said for his earlier films: 

The snarling, taxidermied dog from One Sixth of the World, for example, reappears at the beginning of Man
with a Movie Camera
, where, situated now among an array of dormant commodities that will soon spring to
life, it assumes a different, more volatile countenance. … [T]he Eleventh Year, a film about the reanimation of
cultural vestiges, was itself assembled out of the material remains of the two larger projects that flanked it
chronologically, One Sixth of the World (1926) and Man with a Movie Camera (1929). (Fore 2013, 13)

For Vertov, filmmaking was a lifelong “continuous editing process” and a “continuous production process” that treated each and every frame with great respect (Fore 2013, 13). This view derived from Vertov’s universalist faith in the power of collectivism and multitude instead of individualism and singularity. The essence of Vertov’s universalism was succinctly captured by Vertov’s brother, Mikhail Kaufman, who stated that “the point of editing, in the full sense of the word, was not only to have an image in every frame, but to produce … an interpretation of images,” stemming from the belief that “all the facts and phenomena which in life are torn apart both temporally and physically can also conjoin” (Kaufman 1979, 62, italics in original). Because Kaufman referred to the shots of people raising their hands in America and others responding in Moscow, it becomes clear that Vertov’s cinema wanted to unite both people around the world and all their film images, that is, to achieve the full harmony of humankind, nature, and artifacts. Vertov’s interest in the materiality of the film stock inspired numerous international filmmakers to appropriate and re-signify existing audiovisual content.[6]. Among these filmmakers was Dušan Makavejev, whose unique interest in cutting and collage as a means of mastering budgetary constraints helped him not only produce a vibrant critique of the unfulfilled potential of Yugoslav revolutionary socialism, but also posit the film viewer as the ultimate film editor.  

Film as a Holiday Tree: Makavejev’s Viewer-Editor

Dušan Makavejev was a champion of the 1960s Yugoslav movement novi film (New Film), rebranded the Black Wave in the early 1970s due to its dark portrayal of Yugoslav socialism. After studying psychology and theatre directing, Makavejev made four short films under the auspices of the Belgrade amateur film club Kino Klub Beograd. Then, “[f]rom 1958 to 1964 Makavejev completed thirteen documentary films in which he continued to experiment with expressive-realist montage structures and surrealist-inspired film collages” (Goulding 1994, 211). Soon after, Makavejev found himself working for the largest Yugoslav film studio, Avala Film, run by Ratko Dražević, a high-ranking officer in the notorious Yugoslav State Security Service (OZNA, later SDB), and Dražević’s advisor, Borislav “Mihiz” Mihailović, a literary critic and script doctor. According to Makavejev’s colleague, Aleksandar “Saša” Petrović, Dražević and Mihailović “pledged themselves to regenerate the cadre of film directors” (Sudar 2013, 62). However, that does not mean that the young debutants were showered with big budgets. Makavejev himself reported that Avala Film management was too busy with money-draining international co-productions, often involving Hollywood producers, and that all he got was a camera and the film laboratory service; but, most importantly, without any control from above (Mortimer 2009, 96–97).

Already in his second feature, Love Affair, or the Tragedy of the Switchboard Operator (1967), Makavejev makes a reference to Vertov when two protagonists watch Vertov’s Enthusiasm (1931) on TV before consummating their relationship. Nothing strange, one would think, as so many films on TV have been an integral part of sexual foreplay in other films. But Makavejev does two things differently: first, instead of screening Enthusiasm on TV, we actually get to watch a part of Vertov’s film in “unmediated” form and for much longer than expected; and second, by choosing the particularly violent sequence of the destruction of Orthodox churches in the USSR—which Vertov himself borrowed from Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Mortimer 2009, 102)—Makavejev departs from Vertov’s idealism and unequivocal faith in the bright future of socialism. On the one hand, Makavejev ironically turned Vertov’s, and by extension Shub’s, archival documentary cinema on its head, to question rather than celebrate revolutionary destruction. On the other hand, given the budgetary constraints that Makavejev had to grapple with, questions arise: Did Makavejev give thought to the economics of shortage and, if so, what was the difference between his and Vertov’s approach to the issue? The following segment of the essay will demonstrate that, by drawing from a heterogenous pool of film elements, Makavejev and his collaborators turned the economics of shortage into the core principle of their filmmaking, going so far as to transform the film viewer into a viewer-editor who was not bound by the already configured sequence of frames projected on the screen. The disparate film materials Makavejev incorporated into his films encouraged the viewer-editor to link and re-edit in their head various parts of the film regardless of the actual film editor’s cut (for example, the viewer-editor could choose to connect shots or parts of the film from its beginning with those from its ending).

Despite their collage structure, Makavejev’s first four feature films are rather short: 78, 68, 75, and 85 minutes, respectively. The Yugoslav auteur never had access to the big budgets that his colleague Veljko Bulajić, for instance, spent directing war spectacles (Goulding 2002, 58–59). Following his debut film, Man Is Not a Bird (1965), Makavejev realized that, to reach the length of a feature film in his next film Love Affair, he had to use materials as diverse as fictional melodrama; a quasi-documentary sexologist and criminologist’s lecture and voice-over; footage from Vertov’s Enthusiasm; a parodic pseudo-documentary on the problems of rat infestation and extermination; and a brief belle époque pornographic film. Makavejev’s next film, Innocence Unprotected (1968), incorporated Serbian collaborationist WWII newsreels; excerpts from the aforementioned 1943 Dragoljub Aleksić film; interviews with the aged Aleksić and his crew members; and a series of tableaux vivants featuring Aleksić. For his best-known film WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), Makavejev used pieces of a fictional quasi-didactic story; documentary footage of the late-1960s US counterculture; excerpts from Soviet socialist-realist film The Vow (Mikheil Chiaureli, 1946); shots from a Nazi propaganda film about mental health institutions; and images of political rallies in Mao Zedong’s China.

Makavejev studied the editing theories of Eisenstein, who saw dialectical montage as “a method aimed at engaging the viewer to respond to shot juxtapositions in an active but exact fashion, generating precise concepts and ideas” (Levi 2007, 33). Yet Makavejev departed from Eisenstein, seeing montage as “dialectical first and foremost insofar as it destabilizes the singularity and certainty of textual meaning and invites a number of possible responses from the viewer” (Levi 2007, 33, italics in original). Makavejev also envisioned editing in ways that contrasted with Vertov. If Vertov sought to destabilize the spectator’s perception by, among other things, drawing on the transformative capacity of archival footage, Makavejev set out to unsettle not only the spectator’s understanding of ideology, but also the normalized power relations of film production and consumption. Here is how Makavejev describes his vision of the film viewer as the ultimate film editor:

If you have a number of disparate things in the film, if one scene is connected not only with the preceding one
and the following one, but connected also with a dozen others, … then according to your own mood, according
to your own interest
in politics, or sex, … or humor, you will see different shapes. … Some people are strongly
moved by Stalin, other people are moved by sexual freedom. So you have … shapes that are overlapping,
overlapping shapes. … [T]his borderline experience with this double image is actually your emotional content
put into some shape that is really something else. (Lopate and Zavatsky 1972, 21–22, italics added)

Thus, the viewer of Makavejev’s film also becomes an editor of sorts, choosing which configuration of shots actually constitutes a film: “Link-ups accumulate in a kind of geometric progression as the film goes on, so that gradually the spectator’s analytical consciousness begins to connect everything, the parts constantly forming new significant patterns” (Wood according to Mortimer 2009, 97). It would not be an exaggeration to say that Makavejev’s conception of the viewer-turned-editor uninhibited by the power relations of the film apparatus echoes the broader Yugoslav vision of the self-managed worker unrestrained by capitalist exploitation or statist control.

Makavejev and his collaborators’ fascination with Vertov and Eisenstein resulted in a specific mode of editing that became commonly called Serbian cutting. The term appeared relatively late in the 1990s. In a sarcastic reference to the Western perception of Serb war atrocities during the dissolution of Yugoslavia, co-writer of Love Affair and Innocence Unprotected Branko Vučićević maintained: “If Serbs are fond of slaughtering people, there must be a method of film cutting that corresponds” (1998, 36). Vučićević retrospectively named and conceptualized Serbian cutting in a biting reaction to both war crimes perpetrated by Serb nationalists and Western media’s racialized representation of Serbian people as “Balkan butchers/cutthroats.” The method of Serbian cutting is informed by the correlation of displaced archival sources, the meaning of which “can be political only when it does not let itself be easily stabilized and when it does not rely on any single source of authority, but rather, empties it or decentralizes it” (Minh-ha according to DeCuir Jr. 2011). Makavejev’s films consequently fall into a category of “collective assemblage” (Deleuze and Guattari), which “rejects ‘the tyranny of meaning’ in favor of collectivizing content (and form)” (DeCuir Jr. 2011).

Like Vertov’s cinema, the spirit of collective labor in Makavejev’s films overshadows the perceived entrepreneurial individualism of mainstream capitalist film production.[7] Moreover, while Makavejev’s criticism of ideological dogmatism, embedded in his use of Serbian cutting, had earned him notoriety in his socialist homeland and eventually forced him to emigrate to the West, Makavejev never converted to capitalist values. On the contrary, after satirizing both sides of the Cold War in WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Sweet Movie (1974), Makavejev used his Australian-produced film, The Coca-Cola Kid (1985), to launch a fierce Marxist attack on US imperialism and the Hollywood mode of production, which left no room for experimental techniques like Serbian cutting (Sudar 2014).

One of the fathers of Serbian cutting, Vučićević, has defined it as “[u]sing existing material, as in archive footage, to substitute as original footage within a movie scene” (1998, 38). Serbian cutting was born by chance, specifically due to Makavejev’s discontent with a scene in his 1967 film, Love Affair, which prompted him to combine it with an old pornographic film found in the Yugoslav Cinematheque (Vučićević 2014, 85). Once they realized the benefits of a new cutting technique, Makavejev and Vučićević were quick to use it not only for aesthetic purposes, but also for financial gain: when the German buyers complained about Love Affair not being long enough for a feature, “a few minutes of footage from [Makavejev’s] documentary Parade (1962) were inserted as additional compensation” (Vučićević 2014, 86). Even the theoretical foundation of Serbian cutting was based on a misunderstanding of Eisenstein’s montage of attractions,[8] which the Yugoslav filmmakers came to wrongly perceive as “the joining together of two viewpoints in disparate frames” (Vučićević 2014, 86). 

In keeping with his humorous and outwardly easygoing attitude, Makavejev has reminisced about his approach to the editing of Innocence Unprotected: “So I used that old film, and I inserted interesting material into it, decorating it like a [holiday] fir tree. That was the theory behind the Serbian cutting. Basically, when you are making a film, and you feel something is missing, you simply insert something interesting. No one is going to ask why it is there. People simply just watch it” (Misterija Makavejev, Dragomir Zupanc, 2012). Makavejev describes his films as a holiday fir tree, the colorful symbol of Christmas in postwar capitalism and in New Year as its secular counterpart in numerous socialist countries, including Yugoslavia. At the same time, Makavejev wants his audience to believe that almost any combination of images, if only attractive enough, can end up in his films. In truth, this artistic freedom is based on long and careful consideration, for it is “a variation of Eisenstein’s and Vertov’s ‘associative montage,’ but with an ironic removal” (Stojanović 2014, 78).[9]


 Speaking of the two Soviet role models, although other researchers demonstrate that Eisenstein could be implicitly critical of the Party line and its revolutionary legacy (see, for example, Neuberger 2019), it is worth noting that Makavejev used the knowledge or misreading of Eisenstein’s montage techniques “to subvert the ideology they were designed to impose” (Hoberman according to Daković 2014, 81). Another distinction between Makavejev and Eisenstein is that Makavejev never had the substantial financial support that Eisenstein had enjoyed, despite all his problems with Stalin’s regime. Because the director of Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928) did not have to recycle bits and pieces of his own or others’ films, it can be argued that Eisenstein’s production model was much closer to that of the mainstream US filmmakers as he basically created his own Hollywood, while Vertov and Makavejev had to inventively circumvent budgetary limitations. In that sense, Vertov and Makavejev are more emblematic socialist filmmakers because they operated within the system of economics of shortage.


The Final Cut?


Further investigation of the economics of shortage in socialist cinema could have implications for analyzing a contemporary media economy that is increasingly reliant on various kinds of content and intellectual property. Vertov and Makavejev’s work reinforces the need to question the impact of media on the environment, from the environmental damage done by film productions (Vaughan 2019) to the “climate extraction” and potential infrastructural abandonment as a built-in feature of data centers (Brodie 2020; Brodie and Velkova 2021). Although this essay does not advocate for a moratorium on new media production, it does point to the blind spots of the technophilic celebration of digital technologies, specifically their affordability in comparison to older media such as the film stock. The perceived affordability of new media tools generates ever-growing IP traffic and various forms of digital data in the Zettabyte Era, as well as the dizzying proliferation of audiovisual content produced by various streaming platforms, even if most of that content struggles to garner significant viewership.  


The contemporary media landscape is further complicated by limited access to media content: for example, streaming services such as YouTube, Netflix, and Disney+ prefer to control the conditions under which an extremely limited selection of films and TV shows is made available to their patrons. The seemingly limitless proliferation of audiovisual content coupled with the corporate limitations on access to IP point to the need to go back to Vertov and Makavejev’s archival impulse and recycling practices in order to reimagine the idea of media frugality as a response to the costly oversaturation of the new media content. Put differently, Vertov and Makavejev’s approaches to filmmaking show that cutting down often lavish budgets for new productions and bypassing copyright could still leave ample space for creating media content based on re-editing already existing content. An alternative model of media dissemination and consumption can be seen on the Russian social network VK (, probably the largest online archive of mostly pirated audiovisual content from all over the world. Setting aside problematic aspects of piracy, the sheer abundance of moving images available on the VK invites inquiry into the rationale behind wasting resources on producing new moving images when there is already so much content waiting to be seen and/or productively and imaginatively recycled and re-edited. While the obsession with novelty in the dominant media industry does not seem likely to lose its allure anytime soon, one cannot but imagine the likes of Vertov and Makavejev in the rabbit holes of the VK, looking for creative and economical models of employing its practically boundless archive.


In the end, it is worth pointing out that it was profound materialism with which both Vertov and Makavejev imbued film stock as the basic element of every film production. Both were socialist film workers rather than capitalist filmmakers, in that they never hesitated to borrow and recycle the footage from their previous work or their colleagues’ films.[10]  Vertov and Makavejev treated film as no different than coal, wood, or textile—in other words, as a substance from which a better socialism could be built and maintained by the reuse of already existing “raw” and “second-hand” film material instead of insisting on the production of new, never-before-seen films based on the never-before-used footage. Most importantly, both Vertov’s notion of filmmaking as the “continuous editing process” and Makavejev’s vision of the viewer as the ultimate editor empower an economics of shortage and its accompanying allies—imagination and humor—in the perennial struggle against excessive media production and consumerism. In the end, by subverting the capitalist ideology of always producing new products, Vertov and Makavejev have pointed to the strategy of resistance in frequently recycling old but nevertheless compelling film elements.      



[1] Introduced in 1950, self-management opposed Stalinist statism and was aimed at realizing the Marxist idea of the “withering state” via “debureaucratization through workers’ councils; decentralization of management, politics, and culture; and democratization of all aspects of life” (Calic 2019, 179). In practice, though, the Yugoslav communist regime and its leader Josip Broz Tito reigned supreme, if occasionally challenged as in the case of the 1968 student protests.

[2] In 1927, Vertov was fired from Sovkino because of “[w]hat was thought to be the excessive cost of the One Sixth production to the studio” (MacKay 2007, 42).

[3] Writing about the ability of Vertov’s brother and collaborator, Mikhail Kaufman, to overcome the lack of film equipment through constructing makeshift devices, John MacKay observes that “[b]etter evidence of backwardness vis-á-vis the capitalist opponent, about whose endless supply of new and improved cinema technology the Soviets knew a great deal, is hardly required. Yet in another sense, this kustarnichestvo, or artisanship, expressed a persistent, never entirely devalued democracy of talent and skill, a tacit extolling of the capacity of human beings … to produce new and useful things with their hands and minds out of the materials and even the detritus fluxing and refluxing out of the capitalist world” (2017, 807–808, italics in original).

[4] Fore contends that Vertov renounced the “superficial anthropomorphism of bourgeois humanism, with its strict epistemological division between person and thing, subject and object,” superseded by “Vertov’s intense cathexis of objects, which seem to beckon him with the arms of a lover.” Vertov’s fascination with the symbolic objects of the Soviet industrial modernization is “not fetishism at all, for it is an erotic attachment to the very aspect of the object—its human and social complexion—that fetishism seeks to disavow. Indeed, for Vertov, it is precisely because objects are the products of human labor and because they are media of social intercourse that he loves them with such devotion and intensity” (2013, 30–31).

[5] In the early Soviet Union, translation of any literary work could be done without the author’s consent, and the translator was granted a separate copyright on the translation. This provision was, already before Soviet times, motivated by the desire to ensure an economically viable way to translate works between the many national languages of the country (Newcity 1978, 22).

[6] The long list of filmmakers influenced by Vertov in this regard includes Chris Marker (see Howe 2012), the Dziga Vertov Film Group involving Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin (Goodwin et al. 1970), Ken Jacobs (Turvey 2011), and Perry Bard (Feldman 2009).

[7] In Makavejev’s Innocence Unprotected, the acrobat-turned-filmmaker Dragoljub Aleksić and his actors, accordingly supported by the archive film journal, talk about Aleksić manufacturing sandals with plywood soles during WWII, which, in turn, enabled him to produce his 1943 movie. Aleksić himself stressed that women wearing those sandals never imagined that by doing so they basically co-produced the first Serbian talkie. Not only was this a curious example of indirect crowdfunding in cinema production, but it was yet another nod (if unconscious) towards Vertov and his followers as “cinematic shoemakers.” Particularly interesting is the fact that Aleksić’s film was produced by a seemingly apolitical rope walker in a country occupied by Hitler’s Germany. 

[8] An attraction, a term Eisenstein initially related to theatre, is “any demonstrable fact (an action, an object, a phenomenon, a conscious combination, and so on) that is known and proven to exercise a definite effect on the attention and emotions of the audience and that, combined with others, possesses the characteristic of concentrating the audience’s emotions in any direction dictated by the production’s purpose” (Eisenstein 1924, 34–35).

[9] Associative/associational montage is also known as overtonal montage: “Eisenstein views emotional combinations constructed from the psychological associations of different shots, or an ‘associational montage,’ as a means of sharpening or heightening a situation emotionally. He suggests, in a 1929 Marxist dialectical analysis, that if two successive shots show different subjects (i.e., workers being shot down and the slaughter of a cow) with identical associations (slaughtering), then what he calls ‘emotional intensification’ is produced” (Raz et al. 2013, 288).


[10] In contrast to the seemingly cognate practices, such as sampling in the music industry, Vertov and Makavejev’s cinema forgoes the concept of copyright and allows the reuse and re-editing of larger segments of individual films. Instead of using samples of already successful music to increase the profits, Vertov and Makavejev’s reliance on the archive seeks, above all, to reduce the production costs. 


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