MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, THE (Chelovek s kino-apparatom)

(director/writer: Dziga Vertov; cinematographer: Mikhail Kaufman; editor: Yelizaveta Svilova; music: The Alloy Orchestra, added in 1995; Runtime: 60; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Vufku; Kino Video; 1929-silent-USSR)
“An odd curio that remains quaint.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Polish-born Soviet director Dziga Vertov’s experimental documentary was most controversial and ground-breaking when made but now seems to be mostly an odd curio that remains quaint. It’s a film that was ahead of its time, as it explored the relations between cinema and history that paved the way for such avant-garde filmmakers as France’s Godard and the American Maya Deren. The filmmaker, whose name literally means Spinning Top, was accepted internationally but never at home, where he was eventually sent to the Ukraine to do dull newsreels by his Soviet bosses. Vertov believed that cinema should present everyday life as it actually is lived, and vowed that fiction wasn’t his bag. Therefore this documentary has no plot, no action, no setting and no dialogue (or intertitles). The filmmaker’s cinematic philosophy was shared by his editor, Elizaveta Svilova, who was also his wife, and his cinematographer, Mikhail Kaufman, who was also his brother. Kaufman’s camera is always moving and plays a part in the film, even taking a bow at the end. There’s also the following cinematic innovations introduced such as variable camera speeds, dissolves, superimposed montages and split-screen effects.

In a 1923 manifesto, Vertov wrote “I am kino-eye, I am mechanical eye, I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it. My path leads to the creation of a fresh perception of the world I decipher in a new way a world unknown to you.”

The film plays out as a travelog on a typical summer’s work day for Muscovites (it used locations in Moscow, Kiev and Odessa, and took over four years to shoot). It tracks without rhyme or reason both street and interior shots (mostly machines) ranging from a man shaving to a woman giving birth, from riding a trolley to workers doing exercises on the factory grounds, and from a vodka store to a concert hall.

I mostly took away from it the radical ideas it had about cinema as a new way to see history. The film remains vital as a seminal work that raises questions about the unrealized potential of the camera, something modern filmmakers are still wrestling with.

The film is like “Koyaanisqatsi,” but came fifty years earlier.

Man with a Movie Camera Poster