on 25 October 2000
I first saw this on the big-screen and it stands up as one of the few films I could have watched again immediately. For an experimental film from 1920's Russia (an experimental and exciting time for the arts all round in the early years of the Soviet state) it's stood the test of time remarkably well. Yes it's 'arty', yes, it could be accused of self-indulgence, but it works! It has trick shots, odd camera-angles, multiple images and serves as a fascinating insight into a day in the life of a Soviet city. The the man with the movie camera himself makes regular intrusions into frame.
And the new soundtrack by In the Nursery works well too - it's not exactly cutting-edge, but its pleasant, electronic soundwashes sit well with the film and never try to overpower it. It's been criticised somewhat unfairly, but after all,Dziga was using the most up-to-the-minute technology he could get, so I'm sure he wouldn't mind.
on 1 March 2016
What follows is a review of BFI's DVD version of Man With a Movie Camera. I thought I'd post it here as well because I want to give all the help I can to this Masters of Cinema release. Their track record for releasing classic films is second to none and this release is probably the best available version of a film which I love with a passion. Please note it does NOT come with the Michael Nyman soundtrack that I refer to in my review, but it DOES come with a commentary track alongside a host of extra Vertov works which must be very interesting. I happen to love the Nyman recording and will be buying this in addition to that one. It can't be stressed enough how wonderful this film is and what cause for celebration that Eureka are releasing it - the print promises to be the cleanest yet.
If you think cinema can and should do more than simply tell stories in traditional character-driven narratives, then Dziga Vertov’s sublime 1929 avant-garde debut silent feature Man with a Movie Camera is manna from Heaven. Voted No.8 in Sight & Sound’s 2012 list of 10 greatest ever films and misleadingly pronounced in 2014 by the same source, “the best documentary” (though firmly refuting fictional narrative cinema it certainly isn’t a documentary in the strictest sense), the film packs a huge reputation which this splendid BFI release firmly justifies. To be clear, I am reviewing the 2008 DVD which comes with no extras aside from useful biographies of the personnel involved. It does come with a wonderful score by the second generation minimalist composer Michael Nyman. Potential buyers should note that BFI have re-released this remastered and restored print (original aspect ratio: 1.33:1) on Blu-ray with 3 other Vertov films as well as a commentary track on the main feature. But before rushing off to buy that we should note Masters of Cinema have announced yet another version due to be released later this year. That will also contain the extra films and is said to come from an original negative superior to the one BFI offer here. As marvelous as this DVD is I should point out that there are numerous scratches resulting from obvious wear and tear. With their superb reputation for restoring silent features (look at the splendid job they have done on F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang!) the MoC version looks certain to supersede BFI as No.1 choice, but whether or not it comes with the Nyman score is for the moment uncertain. If it doesn’t then it looks like we’ll have to make room on our shelves for two versions! Laying my cards on the table, for me Nyman’s score is the best silent film soundtrack I have ever heard. It matches the film quite brilliantly from start to finish and is good enough to stand on its own without the images. I am reminded of Philip Glass’ soundtracks for Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy, but the quality of those films cannot compare with the magnificence of Man with a Movie Camera. Where Reggio piddles around on the surface making very obvious statements on what sadness humanity is inflicting on the planet, Vertov crafts a highly sophisticated text which amounts to quite simply the best film about film-making ever made.
To understand this film we should pay attention to the artistic movement its creators were caught up in and their aims as clearly stated as an epitaph before the film begins. Dziga Vertov (real name Denis Arkadievitch Kaufman and whose pseudonym means ‘spinning top’), Mikhail Kaufman (Vertov’s brother and cameraman/main protagonist of the film) and Elizaveta Svilova (Vertov’s wife and editor who also appears during the film) were all members of the avant-garde Kino-Oki group which between 1922 and 1925 made 23 issues of Kino-Pravda (Cinema-Truth) in which Vertov attempted to push documentary towards Expressionism. They circulated poisonous manifestoes labeling traditional narrative cinema “impotent” and “technically retrograde”, their makers “junk dealers.” Making narrative cinema is dismissed as “studying your own arse” as the Kino-Oks set about capturing everyday life in so called “fragments of actuality.” Vertov joined Mayakovsky’s LEF (Left Front) group of intellectuals which also included Rodchenko, Pasternak, Meyerhold and Eisenstein. In their 1923 Kin-Oks-Revolution manifesto appears the following statement: “I am a mechanical eye. I am a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I see…I co-ordinate any and all points of the universe wherever I may plot them.” In films like Kino-Eye (1924), Stride Forward Soviet! (1926) and Eleventh Hour (1928) the camera aggressively asserts its God-like dominance to establish a dialectic between objectivity and subjectivity which assumes center stage in Man with a Movie Camera.
The film announces itself as “A fragment from the life of a cameraman” in which its key creator is the “conductor of an experiment” which aims to abolish all non-documentary styles of film-making. The opening epitaph reads: “The film Man with a Movie Camera represents an experimentation in the cinematic communication of visual phenomena without the use of intertitles (a film without intertitles), without the help of a scenario (a film without a scenario), without the help of theatre (a film without actors, without sets, etc). This new experimentation work of Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically absolute language of cinema – Absolute kinography – on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.” As we shall see this epitaph proves disingenuous for fictional representation (the staging of many scenes) and theatrical presentation (the film begins with its audience taking their seats in the movie theatre) remain important parts of the final result. Impossible to categorize, the film certainly avoids traditional fictional construction, but the final result is more visual poem than documentary.
The subject of the experiment is a day in the life of urban Russia c.1926-28. Shot over 3 years in 4 different cities (Moscow, Kiev, Odessa and Karkhov) it assumes the form of a dawn to dusk ‘city symphony’. This wasn’t a new phenomenon, part inspired as it was by films such as Rien que les heures (Alberto Cavalcanti), Berlin - Der Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927, Walter Ruttmann) and Mikhail Kaufman’s own Moscow (1926). It does however invert the convention by setting the film in several cities and by organizing its montage of urban imagery along carefully arranged themes which operate on several layers of narrative perception. On one level it satisfies its official propaganda remit by working through the prevailing Marxist ideology. The film establishes a city of the future while commenting on existing ideals in the Soviet world. Watching it, the Soviet citizen is supposed to be awakened by truth to bring about action through the film’s portrayal of electrification, industrialization and the achievements of workers through hard labor. Those antipathetic to propaganda need not worry however for the film isn’t as jarringly simplistic as Battleship Potemkin (1924, Sergei Eisenstein) or other crasser examples of the genre. The film’s multi-layered narrative structure ensures a sophistication mere propaganda can never approach.
The film is centrally about perception, how we watch a film, how the film reflects or determines reality, and how reality reflects or determines the film. There are four main layers of perception – the first is the obvious one of us sitting in the audience watching a film. We sit aware of the reality that surrounds us and are confronted by another reality on a screen which we interact with. The second is that of the audience inside the film in turn watching the very film we are watching and which is also in the process of being made. In the superbly orchestrated opening the audience takes its seat to watch another ‘reality’ play out on the screen in front of them. The third layer of perception is that of the film being assembled in front of our/their eyes by its very creators. The first person we see is the cameraman climbing on top of a huge camera in a split screen image. He disappears behind a curtain to assume the double role of cameraman and projectionist as he starts the film. Throughout the film we see the cameraman assume the ‘hero’ role as he shoots what we see and captures himself in the process. Later we are shown the film’s editor putting the film together and as the film accelerates towards its dizzying conclusion we are made ever more aware of the fourth layer of perception – that “mechanical eye” directing everything with its auteur directorial voice determining everything we see and how it is presented. This perception inverts the usual idea of the camera capturing or reflecting reality towards the idea that without the camera there would be no reality at all. The camera determines the reality as much as reality determines what the camera captures. And how much do we or the audience in the film determine our/their own sense of ‘reality’? Repeatedly throughout the film the camera is shown (through double exposure) to be a giant eye which belongs to each individual perception. Everything is shown to be both objective and subjective at the same time to achieve a truly stunning synthesis of everything involved in watching a film and indeed the wider world which surrounds it.
This is a film that withstands (begs for?) repeated viewings and it’s amazing how one’s perception of it changes with each visit. When I first saw it at the NFT many years ago with a live piano accompaniment it seemed to be a simple (if chaotic) celebration of the possibilities of what a man with a movie camera (or an editor with a pair of scissors) can do as Vertov throws everything at us bar the kitchen sink. Double exposures, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played in reverse, even slow motion animation – all is thrown out with reckless abandon in 1,775 separate shots spliced together at X4 the speed of the average 1929 feature. On closer inspection we appreciate the material has been carefully arranged according to theme and bedded within an over-riding narrative structure which, in addition to taking on board multi-layered perceptions, has the musical symphony as its template. The film is not in 3 or 4 clearly defined classical movements à la Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) or Sunrise (1927). Rather, it is cast as a single movement symphony with fast-slow, funny-serious, tragic-comic gear changes in the texture which balances out miraculously to achieve a hugely satisfying whole. It is perhaps dangerous to ‘read’ the film through one musical score (after all, Wikipedia lists over 20 alternative soundtracks!), but Nyman succeeds in highlighting the various sections of this single movement with astonishing sensitivity. I’m not going to bore you with a shot-by-shot analysis – the fun surely lies in each viewer bringing their own perceptions to the table, but I will go through the film drawing attention to a few things that especially are brought out by the soundtrack.
Repeated viewings reveal 8 distinct sections in the film’s 68 minute city journey from dawn to dusk. I have already touched on the introduction with the cameraman appearing on a giant camera before slipping behind a curtain to start his/our film. This takes place in complete silence and highlights his central importance as main character and determinator of everything we will see. Nyman’s strident opening music starts as we are taken into the movie theatre and see the rows of empty seats which are quickly filled as the audience files in. The sense of theatre here is unmistakable with the anticipation heightened further by members of the orchestra assuming their positions in the pit (unnaturally it seems as if every instrument is poised to play at the same time!) as the cameraman/projectionist sets his camera/projector in motion. Nyman’s energetic and grandiose opening segues into a gentle rocking lullaby as we move into the second section as the ‘film within a film’ settles on a series of languid images of a city asleep at dawn. At first we are shown empty spaces – streets and squares, buildings, shuttered shops, restaurants and cafés intercut with a woman sleeping in her bed. These are all locations we will revisit later when the city is in full motion. This section grows in poignancy the more times you see the film, a feeling fully reflected in Nyman’s simple scoring. Gradually people are introduced, shown sleeping and then awakening. There are people sleeping rough on the ground and on benches. Especially there’s the woman in her room depicted at first in extreme close-up sleeping, and then in the third section, getting up, washing and dressing. This is intercut with other tranquil images, among them a poster advertising a film called “The Awakening Woman” (the name of the feature the audience in the film are watching? An ironic comment? Mother Russia awakening?). This is perhaps the most obvious non-documentary scene of the film, the (uncredited) woman obviously posing at length for Vertov. The artificiality is heightened further with a series of rapid cuts from the woman blinking herself awake to the venetian blinds which eventually let in light from her window. The idea of the camera as an eye and the objective (we see the woman) and the subjective (we see her view of the blind) is firmly established right here.
In this third section the entrance of the cameraman in the main text of the film he is making is underlined by another change in Nyman’s score. From sleepy lullaby we move to a slightly upbeat tempo as a note of theatrical anticipation reappears. It is clear that the film only really begins when the cameraman begins to shoot, waking everyone up and literally turning the city on. Positioning his camera on a tripod in a car he journeys around the city making preparations for future shots and while doing so Vertov introduces the machines that run the city from the cameraman’s car to trains (a hole is dug under a rail track in preparation for a shot from under a passing train), to planes and buses and most of all to the trolley cars which will dominate the film from here right through to the conclusion. The feeling is that these different modes of transportation are set in motion by the cameraman. Without him there to capture them it is as if they don’t exist. As a row of trolley cars appear from their shed Nyman’s music breaks into full pelt as suddenly the city lurches into full motion as people commute to work. Rapid and extremely humorous cross-cutting is the hallmark of this teeming fourth section showing not only modes of transportation but also machines in various factories in full motion. Vertov distinguishes between the cold mechanization of the machines that run the city and the warmth and humanity of the people operating them. Nyman recognizes this and in the fifth section the rhythmic pulse of the music mellows (and is capped by a beautiful soprano vocalise) as we are shown images of people swarming the streets in crowds, pushing through dock gates to board a ship and going about their everyday business in the city. City services are stressed with a couple registering their marriage at City Hall immediately followed by another couple registering their divorce as two trolley cars go in opposite directions to witty effect. A woman shielding her face from identity with her handbag is juxtaposed with a woman shielding her face in grief mourning the loss of a loved one. An image of childbirth is matched with the image of a corpse in a funeral cortége, the tragedy of an accident in a coal mine is countered with an image of resilient stoicism as the emergency services (an ambulance and a fire engine driving in tandem) rush to the rescue. It is in this section that Vertov inserts a lesson in editing as he shoots a troika moving down the street with freeze frames juxtaposed with images of his wife at the editing table splicing frames together. Reaction shots of children and crowds on a street are all frozen and then re-started as we see the film literally being put together shot by shot. Throughout the busy and increasingly frenzied montage we see the cameraman and how he achieves many of his shots. Coal miners push their carts over the camera is followed by a high shot of the same miners walking over the cameraman lying prostrate on the ground cranking his machine. If the camera isn’t brazenly in the camera frame we sense the presence of the cameraman through reflections, shadows and reactions of people. One woman wakes up, realizes she is being filmed and huffs off angrily while a man wakes up, smiles and bathes in his sudden celebrity. During this long central fifth section Nyman plays with tempi and mood. Mechanical activity is rendered fast and upbeat while people are depicted slowly and tenderly. The gear changes in the soundtrack perfectly match those in Vertov’s text. The meta-cinematic subtext continues in tandem throughout. Towards the end of this section Vertov inserts a short sequence whose title could be “the dangers of film-making.” The cameraman takes center stage in front of the camera as he is placed in various precarious positions – perilously close to the furnace of a steelworks, dangling from a wire high above an awesome weir of a hydro-electric dam and squished between two trolley cars passing in opposite directions. The tone is jokey and Nyman deliberately allows the music to distort exactly at the moment people begin to tire and the day begins to wind down. The machines are turned off and the film (and the music) makes an abrupt transition to images of the people of the city at play which makes up the film’s sixth section. The film is only loosely presented as ‘a day in the life of a city’ as this break is hardly realistic. We are in effect given a working day spliced together with a holiday as we stop work and go to the beach. The cameraman still carrying his tripod and camera is in shorts now as he too lolls in the water and bathes. Swimming is matched with a long montage of many other sports (much of it in slow motion) as the camera celebrates the Soviet citizen enjoying life in their wonderful mechanized world. The most obviously propagandistic we get is a woman on a shooting range shooting the target of a man bearing a swastika with the title “the origin of fascism” proclaimed below. This is interesting being still 5 years before the rise of Hitler in Germany.
The seventh section acts as a transition from play back to the workings of the city as Vertov at first takes us to various theatres and the very movie theatre and audience we saw at the beginning. The tone is comic here as the camera sans cameraman is animated onto its tripod to take a bow for its efforts. The audience laughs before watching abstract electronic noise fizz on their screen in one particularly surreal image. From the theatre it is a natural step into the film’s concluding eighth section as the workers finish their day. Workers returning home are juxtaposed with images of nightlife – drinking, dancing, clubbing, piano playing – all spliced together with dazzling pace and skill. A typewriter is transposed over a piano keyboard and a telephone exchange in a treble exposure, the cameraman appears as a midget standing in a tall glass of beer, the same dancer dances in 3 different places of a single shot with a piano bottom right of frame. Dutch angles splice streets and buildings in converging halves as a clock pendulum swings frantically and motion is fast-forwarded to achieve a dizzying dazzling riot of activity. The meanings and innuendo are numerous as Vertov playfully revels in a frenetic montage of everything we have seen, the cameraman and the editor taking their places as arch creators and behind them Vertov, the “mechanical eye” playing God in his disciplined critique of the objective/subjective viewing experience. A dazzling display, the film is a celebration of Soviet Russia in the late 20s, a celebration of Man and what he can do, a celebration of image making and what a man with a movie camera can achieve, and an avant-garde challenge to the status quo which no other film maker since has ever quite risen to. Astonishing and absolutely essential cinema.
Like C. Th. Dreyer's `La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc' (1928), Dziga Vertov's silent movie (1929) had a major impact on cinematographic techniques. While C. Th. Dreyer's movie excels through its camera movements and focal changes of lenses, D. Vertov's film shines through its shooting angles and, most importantly, through its editing with one image shots, split screens and a beautifully flowing movement throughout the whole film, based on inside screen motions, the transitions and the links between the scenes and a splendid timing.
If its techniques didn't influence directly major filmmakers, D. Vertov was at least their predecessor. One thinks immediately of Alain Resnais and Leni Riefenstahl.
Dziga Vertov was perhaps himself inspired by Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
Regarding the content, Dziga Vertov's movie is also groundbreaking. It is not only a movie in a movie, for there is a third level: D. Vertov adds the projection of his own movie in his movie! It is also the first movie which records the birth of a human being.
Moreover, D. Vertov edited his shots with juxtapositions, like wedding/divorce scenes or the change of left/right directions inside the screen.
Michael Nyman's music underlines admirably the image flow in this astonishing movie.
This eternal masterpiece of world cinema is a must see for all movie buffs.