With the exception of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, which is often reserved for the film students to endlessly moan about, Russian cinema seems like a wonderfully well-kept secret that defies trends and builds new ones of its own. Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film Man With a Movie Camera is the perfect example of this and though it may not perhaps be the most famous film ever made, its influence is vast and the quality for its time is breathtaking.
The idea of the film-maker just filming the life zipping by around him has been endlessly copied, mainly in music videos, where every director considers it to be extremely metaphorical and deep to have band members simply stand there amongst moving crowds and then speed up the footage to show time passing. Most of the tricks used in videos of the like can be found here but what’s staggering is that this was made in 1929 i.e. before there was even a notion of popular music, never mind music videos.
The film itself is not just random footage of life under the Soviet Union. Through the use of just about every filmmaking technique under the sun (at least for the time), Vertov has created a beautiful visual poem; almost a love letter to the town he lives in. The sequences, which also act as accurate and thought provoking documentation, are strung together in fluid motion with natural progressions between home, work, transport and industry as well as visual jokes and puns. The journey here can seem to make the viewer feel very small but at the same time take them for a look through a time capsule from 1920’s Russia. Those put off by the idea of documentary film should leave their prejudices at the door as this film transcends its so-called documentary status and the film becomes a piece of stunning video art. We often see the cameraman setting up his camera at the different places before the real shots of the film are shown but it is here in these third person shots that the best visual illusions take place with fades and dissolves coming and going so quickly, it can be difficult to spot the joins.
The DVD itself has fine print transfer and the cover artwork is a sublime mixture 1920s Art Deco glamour and Soviet propaganda summing up the visuals of the film nicely. Two soundtracks are available to accompany the film and though the Alloy Orchestra’s score wins on points for accuracy (having used Vertov’s original notes for the film), the best choice of viewing is undoubtedly with In The Nursery’s electronic score which adds some melancholy nuances to the visuals as well as making it rather an emotional experience, especially in the films final segments of life starting a fresh with a new day. A commentary by leading expert in Russian Silent film Yuri Tsivian is also on option and is insightful though commentaries are an odd experience in the case of silent films. Also contained is a miniature essay on the film by Philip Kemp, which is included in the sleeve notes and makes for a nice companion piece to the film itself.
This masterpiece of socially real avant-garde was met with resistance on its initial release. Even the filmmakers of the day who were so often supportive of Dziga Vertov (including Eisenstein himself) could not comprehend the work. Though it may be over 80 years old, its inventiveness, wit and utter charm are something that can come as a refreshing to surprise in our, sometimes cold and hollow, digital age of filmmaking.