1. Breakthrough film? It is not a breakthrough. The breakthrough film was one called Manhatta made in 1921 in the USA. It was followed by Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt 1927, Moskva by Mikhail Kaufman 1927, and Joris Ivens's Rain 1929. Then came "Man with a Movie Camera" 1929. In making Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov used Mikhail Kaufman the director of "Moskva."
Here is a short review of Moskva from a website that offers it.
Wonderful, silent documentary, portraying life in Moscow and its suburbs during the 10th year since the 1917 Revolution in the former Czarist Russia. Unlike some of the propaganda films commemorating the anniversary (some of which we have for sale), some of the scenes of daily life shown in this film show aspects of life in Bolshevik Moscow, which would have created a far different, negative effect on some audiences than the director (Mikhail Kaufman) and the censors intended. Unfortunately, no English subtitles and quite a bit of the film is not in the sharpest quality; but for documentary interest and a look at life as it REALLY was in 1920s USSR, you can't beat this film.
2. Documentary?: There is a difference between documentary and propaganda. Documentary attempts to show life as it is. Propaganda attempts to show life as the filmmaker would like it to be seen in an effort to convince others of some (usually political or economic)idea. The Vertov film is propaganda.
3. Social responsibility: The social responsibility of artists is fairly new concept in the history of art criticism, It mainly started with the Nazi's and those who worked with Hitler to glorify his regime. Leni Riefenstahl is someone who did jail time for her association with Hitler. Yet these same standards have not been applied to the Russians who supported the brutal regime of Stalin. Vertov was one of these. 1929 Stalin had consolidated his power in Russia and was about to embark on what is probably the most brutal and bloody regime in the history of the world (worse than Hitler). You could say that Vertov did not really know at that time where the regime would lead, and in my opinion that would probably be true. However, he continued to make films that gave praise to the regime and to Stalin in later years (Kolybelnaya is an example). If Stalin approved of Vertov's films is beside the point. The fact is that the films supported and praised both Stalin and his regime. The effect on audiences is to put this regime and Stalin in a favorable light, thus supporting and possibly prolonging the regime.
I am not so sure how much I want to condemn an artist for working for someone like Stalin or Hitler. I enjoy Leni's films and Vertov's, and I am glad they exist. But it is interesting to look at all the criticism Leni draws and how nothing attaches to Vertov. It's a double standard if there ever was one. So if you are of the mind to hold a strong standard of social responsibility to artists, you should not overlook Vertov.
All in all, the film is well worth watching, but it should be watched with perspective. It one in a line of avant-garde films, that started with the breakthrough film Manhatta. It is a skilled, and at time moving, representative of the genre. It pretends to be a documentary, and it does show an idealized Moscow of the time, but it should be understood that the film had a propaganda purpose as well as an artistic one, and you should not be seduced by its art into thinking that life in Moscow was truly this wonderful.
I will leave it up to you if you want to hold Vertov responsible for the crimes of Stalin by giving his regime support and praise, but I only ask you to be consistent.