Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera captures a day in the life of the Russian proletariat in 1920’s Soviet Union. The quick sequences and endless jump cuts depict several soviet union cities, including: Odessa, Kharkov and Kiev.1 The structure is experimental for its time by incorporating a wide range of shots and avant-garde film techniques as well as veering from the standard ‘stage’ plot. Man With a Movie Camera simultaneously shows a broad day in the life of the proletariat while providing a glimpse behind the scenes of the making of the film. At times the film even stops to show the editor, his wife Elizaveta Svilova, and begins again once she has completed her edit. This film was aimed to expand and challenge the contemporary structure of film that was driven by staging, plot, and intertitles. Man With a Movie Camera is the culmination of Vertov’s kinok movement to expand the artistic bounds of film.2 This legendary film stands the test of time with its creativity, juxtaposition, and challenge to the contemporary norm.
Man With a Movie Camera shows that it is possible to tell a story without the use of intertitles or main characters. Vertov depicts the world around him by filming people living their lives. He captures the full gambit of human emotion and experience by taking the viewer through a day in the life in The Soviet Union. Through a collection of juxtapositions, like a birth inter cut with a funeral procession, Vertov illustrates the multitude of differing experiences occurring simultaneously in life. This is also achieved by including several diverse locations, from factories and mines to the city streets and landscape. The balance of work and play is one stable factor in an otherwise chaotic rendition of city life.
Vertov made a point to exclude intertitles, story or theater. To include intertitles and a structured story would only disrupt the film and take away the “voyeur” aspect. Even though cameras of the time were large and loud, and capturing a moment secretly would have been impossible, there is still a feeling of spontaneity that seems raw and honest.
The diverse collection of camera techniques used in this film is astonishing. I have yet to come across as film from this era that incorporates so many different angles, speeds, editing techniques, and even multiple stop motion sequences. The most prevalent technique is the superimposing shot. This is not a new technique, however, it is used for everything from transitions to showing sounds come out of a speaker. These sequences help the film add metaphor and energy in the absence of intertitles and a story line.
Another technique used throughout the film is the dutch tilt, or canter angle. “A shot composed with the horizon not parallel with the bottom of the frame.”3 The unbalanced and unsettling nature of the dutch angle adds to the already chaotic tone of the film. This shot appears throughout the film and is even combined with the superimposing shot.
In addition to the exuberant shots, Man With a Movie Camera is complimented by creative editing. Elizaveta Svilova pulled out all the stops and incorporated a variety of techniques throughout the entire film. This film touches on countless variations of sequencing techniques, including: stop motion, fast motion, slow motion, jump cuts, panorama, even depicting the filming and editing of the movie within the movie. At times the film stops to show the editing process, only to start again once the editing is complete.
There are also shots of Mikhail Kaufman as he films and sets up shots. This gives the viewer insight into how the shots were captured and helps incorporate the presence of the cameraman into the documentary narrative. Since the camera is still a lumbering machine at this time, there is no way for a cameraman to go unnoticed. If someone knows they are being filmed then they are more likely to act unnaturally. The inclusion of Mikhail Kaufman helps add their presence while filming into the fabric of society they are capturing.
There are sequences that explain the lengths that Vertov went to capture some of the footage used in the film, whether it be a shot of a train passing over a camera or a shot over a waterfall. The experimental nature of the film was a novel and chaotic concept and perhaps including these behind the scenes footage helped add some order and rationality to the film.
I love a film that doesn’t hit you over the head with exposition and shows you what is important instead of telling you. Man With a Movie Camera gives the viewer everything they need to craft their own narrative and extrapolate what they wish from the material presented.
Directed by: Dziga Vertov
Starring: Mikhail Kaufman
Runtime: 1h 8m
Genre: Silent, Documentary, Avant-garde
1 – HALL, MORDAUNT. “THE SCREEN”. The New York Times 17 Sep. 1929. Online.
2 – Michelson, Annette. Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. 1984.
3 – https://www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/glossary/