Man with a Movie Camera

(Chelovek s kino-apparatom, Dziga Vertov, USSR, 1929)


The shots of a cameraman (Mikhail Kaufman) as a tiny silhouette atop magnificent bridges or buildings give a surprisingly twenty-first century touch to Dziga Vertov's stirring Soviet masterpiece, Man with a Movie Camera.

This is a classic that never gets old – an inexhaustibly rich compendium of photographic tricks and editing devices. Every first-year film student should be made to memorise it. Man with a Movie Camera neither began nor ended the genre with which it is associated – the city symphony gathering up the rhythms and cycles of everyday urban life – but it still stands as the supreme model of imaginative, essayistic cinema.

As Yuri Tsivian's recent, invaluable book Lines of Resistances: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties shows, Vertov's film, in its day, sparked enormous debate.

In the Russian context, Vertov's frankly experimental effort laid him open to two charges: that he had abandoned the documentary movement of which he was a pioneer ("there are lots of trams, but scarcely any sign of people," complained one reviewer); and that he was a dangerously ingrown Formalist, extolling the marvel of cinematic technique over any substantive content.

Yet there is a rich "slice of life" in this film, rigorously transformed into poetry by Vertov's brilliant editing. Konstantin Feldman called it, at the time, "an epic poem about contemporary life" and enumerated its central motifs:

Here above all is the theme of work, easy work and difficult work, above the earth and below the earth, the theme of rest and enjoyment, of physical exercise and radio broadcasts, of the club and the beer hall (...), the theme of the viewers and of production elements in the cinema, the theme of relationships in daily life, of religious and civic relationships. (1)

If there is one particular aspect of the '20s Soviet ideology preached by Vertov which seems disquieting today, it is the equation between the human being and the machine: over and over, bodily parts and movements are juxtaposed with the mechanical perfection of the New Industrial Order, and the camera itself appears to be extolled as a superior, evolutionary form of consciousness.

However, the film's propaganda element is relatively slight, while its artistic charge remains undiminished. Those who see the film on DVD have an advantage over those who see this latest, rejigged version in a theatre: they can shut off the singularly inappropriate, aesthetically useless, relentlessly monotonous musical score provided by Michael Nyman.

It is preferable to let the film conjure its own richly varied, polyphonic rhythms in pristine silence.

© Adrian Martin November 2005


1. Yuri Tsivian ed., Lines of Resistances: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), p. 324.

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search