Voted the eighth best film ever made in the Sight & Sound 2012 poll, and the best documentary ever in a subsequent poll in 2014, Dzigia Vertov’s experimental 1929 silent documentary film is as powerful and captivating as it was almost 90 years ago.
Vertov began his career by creating newsreels for the Red Army during the Russian Civil War (1918-21). This helped the filmmaker develop his ideas about cinema, ideas shared by a faction of like-minded young Russian directors who named themselves ‘Kino-glaz’ (Cine-Eye). The general principle of this group was that the “perfection” of the cinematic eye or camera, can be comparable to the human eye, and this is the principle that informs Vertov’s most extraordinary picture, the mesmerising The Man With a Movie Camera.
The film is a dazzling exploration of the near infinite possibilities of image making in relation to the everyday world around us. It’s a tour-de-force, a textbook of cinematic techniques as Vertov uses slow-motion, animation, split-screen, zooms and reverse zooms, and freeze-frames to record a day in the life of the modern city. The camera begins by rolling over the city gradually awakening, its public transport emerging from their overnight hangars and its currently empty streets slowly beginning to fill, and continues by tracking denizens of the city (the city in question is mostly Moscow but with some footage shot in Kiev, Yalta, and Odessa).
The film’s non-linear narrative manages to capture the joy of life and marriage and the sorrow of death in a matter of moments; Vertov compresses an entire lifetime into one day. His camera is like the Godly all-seeing eye, omnisciently towering over the metropolis, or mounted on the side of a tram, or placed firmly on the ground, right at the heart of everyday life, simply watching and observing.
Vertov’s documentary has echoes of the Lumière brothers’ groundbreaking early films such as The Arrival of a Train (1896) and Baby’s Dinner (1895), in the sense that they all explore the everyday life of ordinary people, and also in the sense that they all use the camera as a tool to fascinate, shock and excite their audiences (bearing in mind that this was a period so early in cinema’s history that audiences were fascinated by any moving images on a screen).
The Man With a Movie Camera is a well-oiled machine of a film, efficient and astounding in equal measure. It is cinema at its purest form, stripped down to the bones like an acoustic cover – no actors, no script, just a cameraman and his editor, it is a glorious tribute to everything that filmmaking can be.
Eureka’s limited-edition restored version of this film also includes four other works by Vertov. His 1924 documentary Kino-Eye playfully explores the joys of juvenile life in a Soviet village, but also carries clear political undertones as the children are constantly promoting Marxism. Also included is his 1931 film, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, another politically focused documentary that examines the efforts in which miners go to fulfil their five-year plan. Kino-Pravda #21 (1925) and Three Songs About Lenin (1934) are also both included, the latter being a joyous celebration of Lenin’s achievement in power.
However, it is The Man With a Movie Camera that remains Vertov’s longstanding masterpiece, an essential early document of film history. The film can be purchased thanks to Eureka Entertainment’s limited-edition 4-Disc Dual-Format edition as part of the Masters of Cinema series from the 18th April 2016 onwards.
Documentary| Russia, 1929 | NC | Eureka Entertainment | 18th April 2016 (UK) |Dir. Dziga Vertov | Buy:Blu-ray