Mikhail Kaufman, younger brother of filmmaker Dzyga Vertov, looking through the eye of the camera’s eye in Man with a Movie Camera. Screenshot.
Released in Kyiv in 1929, the silent film depicts daily life in a Soviet city in the late twenties — mostly in Odesa on the Ukrainian coast of the Black Sea. The film introduced many innovations as well as experimental techniques and has gained much-deserved attention and value with time.
Dzyga Vertov and his collaborators, his brother Mikhail Kaufman and wife Yelizaveta Svilova, believed that film should not only show reality as it was but delve deeper into the art form to reveal the varied dimensions of life. Man with a Movie Camera brings together, in random sequence, the mundane and the meaningful, at times with irony at others with pathos.
The film opens with a woman getting out of bed and dressing, cutting to a bedraggled homeless man waking up in the street; fast-paced scenes are laid one on top of the other … trams, buses, horse carriages, streets, sidewalks, people going this way and that … a couple registering for marriage, a couple registering for divorce … the minutia and mayhem of life moving frenetically without respite, without end.
At times, the work is a film within a film, layering onto the moving screen real-time shots of the artists creating the film while the film is being created … operating the camera … splicing the filmstrips … taping them to a light screen…
As one of the first documentary films, Man with a Movie Camera tops the British Film Industry (BFI) list of the Greatest Documentaries Ever Made, selected by 103 renowned directors. To say the film is improvised would be a misnomer. There are no formal sets or scenes or actors — it can be considered as an early precursor to cinema verite of the 1960s.
The controversial story of Dzyga Vertov
The story of Dzyga Vertov and his work says a lot about the Soviet political and cultural reality of the 1920s. His biography perfectly reflects the artificial triple reality that was imposed on Ukraine in the 1920s: the victory of the “international” communist revolution; the short-lived Ukrainization policy by the government of the Ukrainian SSR; and the de facto Russian military and political occupation of Ukraine, as well as of other east Europian countries.
Growing up in the Jewish traditions, Vertov’s birth name was David Kaufman, but he Russified his name to Denis Arkadievich after the so-called Victory of Bolshevism in 1917. Later, he adopted a pseudonym Dzyga Vertov, which can be loosely translated from Ukrainian as a “spinning whirligig” or “one who twists a whirligig.”
Vertov was hired several times by Soviet propagandist studios, such as Mezhrabpomfilm, to depict soviet ideological reality. Three Songs about Lenin (1934) examined the revolution through the eyes of the Russian peasantry. Enthusiasm: The Symphony of Donbas (1930) was dedicated to the first five-year plan, with the Donbas region as the focus. The latter was his first sound film. Although a documentary, it celebrates industrialization, collectivization, and the fight against illiteracy and religion.
Together with his future wife and editor Elizaveta Svilova, and his brother cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman, Vertov was active in the so-called Council of Three, a group issuing manifestoes in Left Front of the Arts (LEF), a radical magazine established in 1922. However, Vertov was criticized because of his attempts at innovation and experimentation in his work which didn’t comply with the official dictates of the time.
Vertov had to leave the Soviet state film company Sovkino, where his filmmaking style was too controversial. He was then hired by the VUFKU (All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration, active throughout 1922-1930) where he created Man with a Movie Camera.
Up until 1930, Soviet Ukraine was much more accepting of experimental genres of artistic expression, than was the Russian SSR. Vertov, like many of his peers, chose to work in Ukraine where they had more freedom to create their art.
Innovations in the 1920s that were not appreciated until the 1960s
Vertov was a staunch opponent of fiction films. He felt that the cinema of the future should focus on true reality, “without actors and scenery.” Pursuing these ideals, he gathered a group of like-minded filmmakers, kinoks, who were filming everyday life as it unfolded around them.
At times, Vertov was overly radical in his approach — at one point he assailed all fiction films, labeling them as the new “opiate for the masses.”
Through his work, Vertov tried to demonstrate that film can go anywhere. In one instance, he superimposed a shot of a camera operator setting up a camera atop a camera — a giant camera. In another, he superimposed a camera operator inside a beer glass.
Some of Vertov’s work was virtually unprecedented — shooting the undercarriage of a moving train while lying underneath, on the actual track. He pioneered filming with a hidden camera, without asking the subject’s permission. He was one of the first to introduce the practice of “filming life suddenly.”
Although groundbreaking artistically, the technical requirements to produce this form of spontaneous filming were hugely complex, basically splicing hundreds of random shots into a single film strip.
Since Vertov and Kaufman [director and cinematographer] filmed everything themselves, the hardest work was done at the stage of assembling and editing. Records were labelled, numbered, sorted. Then Vertov and his wife mounted draft fragments — “bazaar,” “factory,” “city traffic,” and so on — and then analyzed the different fragments to see how they came together logically and emotionally. “It’s funny that this process was also filmed and included in the movie,” writes Serhiy Keyn.
The team worked on Man with a Movie Camera for almost three years. They filmed mainly in Odesa, but also in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Moscow. Vertov wrote that while shooting, he was striving “for a new interpretation of an international film language … for its complete separation from the language of theater and literature.”
Contemporaries criticized Vertov and his team on many occasions, as in these comments from mainstream Russian writers lya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov: “…but all this was minor compared to the cinematic excesses that he had made on the railroad. He considered his specialty shooting under the wheels of a train. By this he stopped the work of the railway junction for several hours. Seeing the skinny figure of the cameraman lying between the rails in his favorite pose – on his back, the train drivers faded with fear and were clutching their brake levers. But [the camera operator] encouraged them with cries, insisting to ride over him.”
Vertov proclaimed the primacy of the camera itself (the ‘Kino-Eye’) over the human eye. He saw it as a device without bias that could record — objectively — life exactly as it is. This notion may seem naive from the contemporary perspective, but it was decisive for the development of the genre of documentary.
Not accidentally, the camera in Vertov’s films performs as one of the central protagonists, it’s hard to decide who is more important — the camera or the operator.
Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people created the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena — they invented the telescope … now they have developed the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into the visible world, to explore and record so that what is happening now and will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten – Dzyga Vertov recorded in his “Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups,” 1926, exactly in the techno-optimistic manner of modernism.
The premiere of Man with a Movie Camera took place on 6 January 1929 in Kyiv, on 9 April in Moscow, and 12 May in the United States. Upon the official release, Vertov issued a statement:
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 by Kino-Eye is directed toward the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.
Today, the film is considered primarily as a documentary. It belongs to the unusual genre of “city symphony,” contemporary to the 1920s and 1930s. Among the first such films was Paul Strand’s Manhattan (1921), depicting early 20th century Manhattan. Many such films were made about Paris, including Paris Nothing but the Hours (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1926) and Études sur Paris (André Sauvage, 1928). Also notable in the city symphony genre was Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (Walter Ruttman, 1927). All these works bring us to a level of reality we could otherwise never see.
Dzyga Vertov was among the first filmmakers in documentary film to depict daily life in the early Soviet period — just two years before the onset of Stalin’s terror — when many still believed in the Soviet Utopia and couldn’t imagine what was soon to follow.
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