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Man With a Movie Camera
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Man With a Movie Camera

A brilliant experiment into the possibilities of the camera, Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera (1929) is a vital document of a time and place - a day in the life of Moscow. Running for six reels without a single intertitle, the film visualizes the ordinary, from passengers racing through the streets in horse drawn carriages and factory workers, to the extraordinary, like a dramatic representation of childbirth and a visible corpse in a funeral procession.

In order to use the cinematic apparatus to full advantage, Vertov experimented wildly with his camera, strapping it to motorcycles and to trains, using multiple exposure, time lapse photography, still imagery, dissolves, superimposition, and making the camera an obvious participant in what is being filmed. The film's attention to form angered Vertov's Soviet contemporaries like Eisenstein, who called it "purposeless camera hooliganism" and complained that his film work alienated a mass audience. But international audiences, and directors including Chaplin, Grierson, Godard and Vigo, were astounded and influenced by his radical vision.

But the continued disapproval of the Soviets affected Vertov's future in the industry. Vertov continued to make great films including the highly regarded Three Songs of Lenin (1934), which was nevertheless delayed in its release because Stalin was overlooked. Vertov's stature within the Soviet film industry slipped in the mid-1930s, as Lenin and the Soviet ideal crumbled under the influence of Stalin and bureaucracy.

Born Denis Arkadievitch Kaufman, the director and film theoretician adopted the name Dziga Vertov, meaning spinning top. Though he initially studied medicine, wrote poetry, and experimented with sound recording, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Vertov became involved in film. As a member of the Russian avant-garde Vertov was a contemporary of Alexandr Rodchenko and Vladimir Mayakovsky and also linked to the futurist philosophy which celebrated machinery and dynamic movement. He became an editor and writer for first the Soviet newsreel group the Moscow Cinema Committee, and later worked under Lev Kuleshov on Kino-Nedelia (Cinema Weekly) a screen periodical, before moving into filmmaking.

Experimentation was always foremost for Vertov, who subtitled an early film (now lost) of fighting between the Red and White armies around the city of Tsaritsyn - Battle of Tsaritsyn (1920), "an experimental study." That film was also Vertov's first project with editor Elizaveta Ignat'evna Svilova, who would later become his wife.

Vertov's creation of the Kinopravda newsreels made him an early advocate of the power of documentary, 40 years before cinema verite came into existence. What he called "Life Caught Unawares," demanded an end to actors, sets, studios, scripts and other manifestations of the "bourgeois imagination." Of interest to Vertov and his disciples instead were "the ordinary people, filmed in everyday life and work."

Both of Vertov's brothers - Mikhail and Boris Kaufman - also worked in the film industry, with Mikhail going on to become a well-known cameraman on Vertov's films. Boris won an Oscar for his cinematography on Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954) and earned critical praise for his work on other Hollywood films (The Fugitive Kind, 1959, The Pawnbroker, 1964).

Director: Dziga Vertov
Screenplay: Dziga Vertov
Cinematography: Mikhail Kaufman
Film Editing: Yelizaveta Svilova
Music: Pierre Henry, Nigel Humberstone, Konstantin Listov, Michael Nyman, Caleb Sampson.
BW-61m.

by Felicia Feaster

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