Dzigo Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera was boldly declared the greatest documentary of all time by esteemed cine-mag Sight and Sound recently, but it’s a term that suggests a comfortable, predictable format not to be found here.
Shot in 1929, Man with a Movie Camera is undoubtedly Vertov’s crowning achievement, a ‘city symphony’ that built on his years of formal and technical experimentation in producing Soviet newsreels. The film’s opening titles declare that it was made without script or inter-titles, relying on its images alone to convey information, free of language or narrative.
Across an hour and change, Vertov chronicles a day in the life of an unnamed Soviet city (it was actually filmed across three cities, spliced together), filming both public life on the streets and factories, and private life inside people’s homes. As fascinating a snapshot as this is into Soviet life more than 80 years ago, it’s also artistically fascinating, as Vertov uses every tool available to superimpose images, split the screen, slow down or speed up movement, or even create animation.
The artifice of the documentary is front and centre, Vertov never allowing the audience to forget that they are watching a cinematic vision of the world. A prologue shows an audience filing into a theatre to watch the film, placing the viewer among their number. The filmmaking process itself is also laid bare: Vertov’s wife and editor, Yelizaveta Svilova, appears on screen cutting and splicing prints; the camera frequently pulls back to reveal cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman (also Vertov’s brother) at work, Vertov filming him as he films the city.
This Masters of Cinema dual-format release includes not only Man with a Movie Camera, but also a selection of some of his other key works. These are more clear-cut propaganda, espousing Soviet values and the virtue of the regime. Kino-Eye documents life in a village through the eyes of the ‘Young Pioneers’, the local children promoting collectivism; Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass reaches its peak in riveting footage of the inner workings of a ‘30s coal and steel plant, creating a soundtrack out of the sounds of industry in one of the earliest uses of sound in film.
The other films offer a vision of Vertov’s evolving style, as well as a glimpse into day-to-day life in a culture long since lost, but Man with a Movie Camera remains the real draw here. Almost a century on, it’s driven by a visual rhythm that’s perhaps never been matched since.
Words by Dominic Preston