If your interest in film extends beyond the multiplex, you have no doubt heard of, and probably seen at least a clip from, Dziga Vertov’s 1929 documentary The Man With the Movie Camera.. If you are a student of film, you’ve probably pored over it in the context of other early Soviet films, perhaps comparing and contrasting Vertov’s approach with that of Sergei Eisenstein. According to Sight & Sound it’s not only the best documentary of all time, but also the eighth best film in any genre. That’s a lot for a film to live up to, and yet The Man With the Movie Camera never disappoints, even after repeated viewings.
It’s not easy to describe what makes this film so captivating. In fact, it’s not easy to describe it at all, because the director had a lot more to say about what this film is not than what it is. Vertov, a Ukranian Jew working in the Soviet system (his birth name was David Abelevich Kaufman; cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman was his brother), wanted to create a distinct form of cinema that would not echo the conventions of the theatre but would use the technical means unique to film to create a new art form. Vertov, who joined the Communist movement in 1918, also wanted to avoid what he believed to be the bourgeois form and content of commercial Western films and instead to focus on the everyday lives of workers and other ordinary people.
Vertov also believed that the camera could function as an extension of the human eye, and that the “technical eye” of the camera lens could see and record a truth that the ordinary human eye would miss. He posited this “Kino-Eye” approach in distinct opposition to conventional narrative films of the time, which he called “Kino-Drama”, and believed the latter hid the truth rather than revealing it.
Normally, I look for the door when anyone starts talking about revealing truth through a constructed art form, but fortunately, you don’t have to believe in any of Vertov’s theories, or even be aware of them, to appreciate The Man With the Movie Camera. It chronicles daily life in several Ukranian cities (Odessa, Kiev, and Kharkiv) over the course of a day, from people waking up in the morning to going to bed at night. While Vertov’s sympathies were clearly with the working class, all strata of society get their time in front of the camera, including some people who had clearly spent the previous night without a roof over their heads.
The progression throughout a single day gives The Man With the Movie Camera a feeling of forward movement, and some individual segments are clearly organized around a theme, whether it’s contrasting the routines of the rich and the poor or simply focusing on different round objects. The only constant is the regular appearance of the titular cameraman, although he’s more a presence than a developed character and, like the other people who appear on screen, remains anonymous and reveals nothing about himself beyond what we can observe. Because it lacks a narrative in the conventional sense, and because the segments do add up to a collective portrait of life in the cities featured, The Man With the Movie Camera bears more resemblance to contemporary “city symphonies” like the 1927 Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt than to any conventional Hollywood film of the period.
The Man With the Movie Camera was edited by Vertov’s wife, Elizaveta Svilova, and her excellent work is crucial to the film’s success. One specific editing technique the film uses over and over again is that of montage in the Soviet sense, meaning the juxtaposition of images so they appear to comment on each other. Sometimes this juxtaposition carries a political meaning—for example, shots of rich women riding in carriages are juxtaposed with shots of women working in factories—while in others the effect is more of a verbal rhyme, like a shot of a woman washing her face juxtaposed with that of a window being cleaned.
My bottom line for a film is that the experience of watching it must be sufficiently rewarding to justify the time spent, and The Man With the Movie Camera more than passes that test. Setting all theories aside, it’s just fun to watch. Vertov had a fantastic visual imagination, and there’s never a dull moment on screen, due in part to a relatively short average shot length of 2.3 seconds (the average for film released in 1929 was 11.2 seconds). Vertov was also the master of special effects, and used techniques like double exposures, altered film speeds, and unusual camera angles and positions to add visual interest to this film. He also had an eye for framing interesting shots, and a sense of humor revealed in, for instance, shots of theatre seats apparently flipping down as if by magic.
The Flicker Alley release of The Man With the Movie Camera features a restored version of the film, based on a print from the archives of the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam. It looks beautiful, and the soundtrack, based on notes left by Vertov, greatly complements the film’s visuals. This release also comes with an informative booklet including several illustrated essays on Vertov and his films, and four other Vertov works: the films Kino-Eye (1924), Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931), and Three Songs About Lenin (1931), and the 21st edition of Vertov’s Kino-Pravda newsreel series (1925), marking the first anniversary of Lenin’s death. None of these works are the equal of The Man With the Movie Camera, but they are all interesting as historical documents and for the light they shed on how Vertov’s cinematic style developed and changed over time.