115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Kaufman-Brothers and the Establishment of Film as an Independent Art Form

Elisabeth-Christine Muelsch, Angelo State University

This paper focuses on the important role the Kaufman brothers played in the development of avant-garde film. In particular, I will focus on Dziga Vertov's (David Kaufman) film theory of Kino-glaz (Kino-eye), and Boris Kaufman's implementation of this theory in his own cinematography,all the while using French avant-garde lighting techniques.



Neither Dziga Vertov (David Kaufman) nor his brothers Mikhail and Boris Kaufman used film to narrate the story of a particular family or clan; yet, it is their own family story, I would like to argue-- itself closely intertwined with the history of avant-garde film--that contributed to the establishment of film as an independent art form.

 Dizga Vertov, Mikhail Kaufman, and Boris Kaufman are generally seen as the inventors of the urban documentary; a documentary film that begins at daybreak and ends at night, evoking a day in the life of the modern city (e.g., Mikhail Kaufman, Moscow (1927) or Boris Kaufman Aujourd’hui/24 h en 30 minutes (1929)).

Dziga Vertov protested against the mixing of the arts rejecting all forms of traditional narrative cinema, such as Russian melodramas and German or American comedies that film producers & distributors had brought to the new Soviet Russia. Instead, he understood the camera as an accurate recorder of reality, more accurate than the human eye, allowing the cameraman “the conquest of space, the visual linkage of people throughout the entire world based on the continuous exchange of visible fact.” Together with other kinoks (“cinema-eye-men”) he took to the streets; his brother Mikhail filmed with a lightweight camera people and their work, using experimental filming techniques; Elizaveta Svilova, Dziga’s wife, edited the filmed material.

Even though Mikhail and Dziga remained in the Soviet Union, while Boris went to France, the two older brothers shared not only their views on cinematography with their younger sibling, but also their camera, which allowed the latter to work as the inconspicuous observer of city life, using innovative techniques that could successfully illustrate the social criticism of film directors such as Jean Vigo.

In 1940, when fascist Germany invaded France, Boris Kaufman fled to the United States and became one of the most prominent cameramen of the post-war era. Here, film was primarily understood as a multi-billion dollar industry geared toward mass consumption. Boris, fully aware of the constraints put on cinematographers in capitalist America “you are less free to express yourself in an art form that is also an industry” (Boris Kaufman Interview, 1959), succeeded nevertheless in adhering to the Kaufman brothers’ understanding of film as an independent art form. For Boris, film remained an art form that allowed the artist to translate his/her ideas like any other medium. Although in the 1950s, Boris worked for American directors who engaged in the production of narrative cinema, the creation of an accurate reality remained a prerogative for the cinematographer, who valued on location over studio filming, as much as his brother Dziga did back in the Soviet Union.

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