Man with a Movie Camera is a 1929 experimental documentary film by Dziga Vertov which upon watching for the first time earlier this week, instantly entered into my top ten films of all time. The film contains no plot, characters or actors and its only discernible arc is the depiction of the passing of a day in Soviet Russia. It captures the essence of life in 1920s Russia thanks to over 1,700 shots and scenes of everyday life as well as the life of machines and industry. The film is famed now, as it was on its initial release, for its revolutionary and still bold editing and filming style. It’s difficult to put into words the wonders contained within this hour and seven minute avant-garde piece but I hope that my brief description will attract new people to it.
The film opens on one of the more surreal shots which pepper the film in amongst the more traditional fare. We see a cameraman setting up his tripod on top of a giant camera which forms the ground upon which he stands. This is the first of many examples of double exposure used in the film and the camera trickery extends to the boundaries of what was possible in the late 1920s over the next hour. I remember watching Buster Keaton’s 1924 movie Sherlock, Jr recently and being enamoured with his mastery of camera slight of hand but Keaton’s noble efforts look like potato prints to Vertov’s Mona Lisa.
From about three minutes in I realised that I was in for a treat. At first I was interested by the filming technique and as a keen historian the images of the dawn of a new day in Soviet Russia were fascinating to me too but after just a few moments it’s obvious that this film offers something more. The images build and contrast with great beauty and the choice of each image appears to fit perfectly along side its neighbours. The cutting is extremely fast, much faster than anything I’ve seen from the silent period and the film as a whole feels remarkably modern. It creates a strange juxtaposition in the head to see 1920s machinery, fashion and transport delivered in such an up to date way. The images rush past so quickly at times that they run into each other in a blur of texture and sound. Although the film is ‘silent’ you get a sense of being on the street, amongst the people and can almost hear the pistons, engines and footsteps.
Alongside the double exposure already mentioned, the movie features extreme close-ups, tracking shots, Dutch angles, split screens, jump cuts, freeze frames and altered motion. Sometimes two or more of these techniques are used in conjunction in single shots. The artistic merit of this film alone makes it one of the most important I’ve seen but Vertov doesn’t use tricks for the sake of it, there’s meaning behind each choice and each image. A great deal of praise needs to go to Vertov’s wife and editor Yelizaveta Svilova who put the film together from the seemingly random images her husband captured. To be fair to Svilova, she may even deserve more credit than her husband for it is the way the images are spliced that creates a film of such daring and beauty that we’re still talking about it enthusiastically over eighty years later. In some scenes we see Svilova in the cutting room and in one of my favourite sequences see what she is doing before her work is enlarged and placed into the movie. This forms another of the many surrealist scenes.
As well as being engaging and beautiful the film has for us, a second, perhaps even greater value. It captures a vast array of footage from a single moment in time which feels alien yet strangely familiar to us hover board owning future dwellers. It was shot over three years in Moscow, Kiev and Odessa at a time when Communism was flourishing, during the inter-war period before the cities were partially destroyed by The Second World War. It captures them in a moment and provides us with a vital historical document. I was fascinated to see how people were living sixty years before my birth and can only imagine the impact the film will have on those watching it in another sixty years.
The movie is also an early example of motion picture propaganda. It took me a while to realise but the film, although seemingly honest in its depiction of everyday life, is little critical of its environment. During the 1,700 or so images and scenes, I can only think of a couple which came close to showing Russia in a bad light. For the most part the people shown were healthy, happy and prosperous. The entire movie is like an advert for The Soviet Union, displaying its wealth and industry. It appears to investigate every facet of life in the city from work in factories, shops and offices to leisure activities in parks, fields and the beach. This too adds to its value as a historical document. Adding to the propaganda is a very brief mention disparaging of fascism during a sequence at a fun fair.
As with the majority of silent films, this movie was played in theatres around the world with live accompaniment. It was rare for a film to have a specific score to which it was played and as a result you risk watching silent classics with ill fitting, movie destroying scores in the modern era. Thankfully the print I saw was accompanied by a fantastic score by The Cinematic Orchestra. The music, a fusion of electronic and jazz fits perfectly with the images. It really enhanced my viewing experience unlike so many occasions when any old score is plonked on top of a film.
I could probably talk for hours about individual shots and sequences from this movie (I haven't even touched on the danger involved in capturing some footage) but it’s better that you stop reading this and seek it out. Its beauty, complexity and importance are astonishing and we’re so lucky that films such as this one exist, awaiting discovery by new generations. The film is unlike anything I’ve seen and both remarkably modern yet of its time. Throughout I was imagining watching it with a live audience or projected behind a live band as it’s the sort of movie that must be better when watched with a crowd. I can’t recommend it highly enough and anyone with a passion for film, history or sociology must watch it as soon as possible. You won’t be disappointed. Masterpiece is a word that it thrown about often in art but Man with a Movie Camera is as masterful as any film I’ve ever seen.