Dziga Vertov’s silent Soviet classic remains a visionary masterpiece.
Made in 1929, Man with a Movie Camera was unlike any film made before (or since). It was directed by the cinematic visionary Dziga Vertov – a pseudonym that seems to translate as ‘whirling spinning-top’ and sounds more Soviet than David Kaufman. As he declares at the beginning of the film, Vertov’s aim was to find a new art form, a truly cinematic cinema free from the influence of the theatre and literature. And with Man with a Movie Camera he was wholly successful – creating an essay on the language of cinema written with the movie camera itself. Arguably one of the greatest films ever made, it is wildly entertaining, technically breathtaking and intellectually and theoretically fascinating. And yet this brave new direction was to lead to a dead end.
Lenin had declared cinema to be the most important of the arts and thus nationalised film production in 1917. He saw its great potential to educate and inspire Russia’s mass of illiterate workers. Dziga Vertov cut his teeth making agitprop movies on the famous propaganda trains that spread news of the revolution around the enormous Russian hinterland. Like many Soviet directors he rejected the language of bourgeois cinema and sought to create something new – a cinema fit for their great new society. Vertov thus passed a ‘death sentence’ on contemporary cinema, and with typical communist zeal, set about writing his manifesto – Kinoks: A Revolution. Writing in the style of a revolutionary poet he claims: ‘The innards, the guts of strong sensations are tumbling out of cinema’s belly, ripped open on the reef of revolution.’
Vertov and his collaborators, including his brother Mikhail Kaufman and his wife Elizaveta Svilova, shot news reels and documentary footage often shown on a train called ‘The October Revolution’. With his two documentary series Kino-Glaz (Kino-Eye) (1924) and Kino-Pravda (Kino-Truth) (1925) Vertov set out ‘to see and show reality in the name of the proletarian revolution’. The films show positive depictions of communal farming, village fetes and other slices of revolutionary and/or communal life. They were shot without a film studio, actors, sets or even a script, in candid camera style, filming participants unawares.
Vertov would continue to use these techniques in Man with a Movie Camera. Like Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), the film depicts a day in the life of a city – although actually shot over three years in four cities (Kharkiv, Kiev, Moscow and Odessa). All of life is contained in these 68 minutes – sleeping and waking, commuting, working, relaxing, drinking and more. We see two weddings, one divorce and a funeral. We see a baby as it is born and a dead body surrounded by flowers. There is the dramatic – fire engines and ambulances rushing – and the mundane – packing cigarettes, shining shoes and dying eyebrows. All of this is shown without the context of a story.
Man with a Movie Camera is as much about the process of making the film and watching the film as it is about the daily life depicted. The film crew are characters too. It is their everyday work we are seeing. We see the car coming to pick up the cameraman to start his day. We see shots directly into the camera lens, we see the cameraman carrying his tripod. This is more than a simple Brechtian distancing device or a post-modern gimmick – it is showing the reality. After the low-angle shot of the miners dragging the carts over the camera, the film cuts to the cameraman lying on the floor under the carts, employed in his own labour – the making of a film. There is no attempt to disguise the fact that what we are watching is something created. The film opens with a movie theatre and an audience arriving. We are even shown a film of a film being projected.
For Vertov it is a cinema free from exploitation – nobody is being fooled. He saw himself as a ‘positive illusionist’: there are camera tricks aplenty but Vertov is never trying to trick the audience. We see how the camera works – window blinds closed then opened to let in light; a vase of flowers is blurred and then focused. And yet Vertov does all this playfully and for entertainment. Double exposures show the cameraman in a beer glass, an edit shows a foot on the railway line as a train approaches. Fellow Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein called the film a ‘compendium of formalist jackstraws and unmotivated camera mischief’. Without Eisenstein’s didactic montage Vertov’s message is more subtle. He is showing reality on both sides of the camera, and he is making audiences think rather than telling them what to think. He is teaching his audience to read a film. And with no or minimal intertitles, he is creating an international language to match the Esperanto the Soviet leaders were learning – a cinematic language that could become a tool of international labour solidarity.
The film celebrates the process of rapid industrialisation that the USSR was going through at the time. And cinema, the exciting new art form, is perfectly suited to show this. Cogs and gears of industry are edited to match the movements of the camera apparatus. Cinema is the art of the mechanical age.
However, the times were conspiring against Vertov. The late 1920s were perhaps the greatest turning point in cinema history. With the coming of sound the newest art form began to develop new modes of production. The freedom of movement that the silent pioneers were allowed disappeared as cumbersome sound equipment restricted camera movements. The camera that Vertov’s cameraman seems to take anywhere and everywhere was stuck inside a sound studio. And the language of the theatre (script, sets, dialogue, acting) began to reassert itself.
Similarly the USSR was approaching its own turning point after a difficult first decade of civil war, the death of Lenin and compromise in order to feed the country. The next phase saw the internal struggle that would determine where the great social experiment would go next, and who would control it.
Both Vertov and Eisenstein were to find themselves out in the cold (though, unlike some, not literally) as Stalin consolidated power and the new doctrine of ‘socialist realism’ came to the fore. The regime famous for its doctored photographs – as disgraced former leaders were air-brushed from history – had no interest in depictions of reality. Art would be used to obscure the truth and create myths. Great heroes (often proletarian heroes) doing great deeds were needed. Dyed eyebrows and shiny shoes were surplus to requirements. And although Vertov’s influence was eventually to be felt – in the direct cinema, cinéma vérité and other such trends in the West in the 50s and 60s – his career in the USSR was over.
Vertov’s films were criticised for artiness, intellectualism and lack of popular appeal, and yet he had always imagined Man with a Movie Camera as mass entertainment. And it is an entertaining movie, fast-paced, funny, visually accomplished and full of fascinating details. The new Alloy Orchestra soundtrack adds to these delights. The drum kit and repetitive riffs enhance the pace. The metallic percussion punctuate the mechanical themes. We even get synced voices of crowds and synced bell chimes. Man with a Movie Camera now looks and sounds amazing – it is what cinema could have become had it been allowed to break free of the chains of literature.
Watch the trailer: