Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film, The Man with the Movie Camera, documents life in a Russian city while also telling a story about filmmaking. The film is a dazzling mix of imagery and technique, inviting the viewer to see the city through the eyes of the cameraman, and to share his perception of the events and visions that he encounters through the filmmaking process. This review will examine the film’s narrative line and its underlying themes, its use of genre and generic traditions, the cinematic techniques employed and the effectiveness of its approach to the material.
At the beginning of the film, The Man with the Movie Camera defines itself as something out of the ordinary. In the opening credits, the title cards refer to the film as “an experiment in the cinematic communication of visible events, executed without the aid of intertitles, without the aid of a scenario, without the aid of a theater” (Vertov). From the outset, the film distinguishes itself by aiming to explore the pure essence of film-to document and record human life and activity in the form of moving pictures. The Man with the Movie Camera is split into four sections, and is book-ended by imagery relating to film and filmmaking. It opens in a cinema and closes with the lens of a camera shutting its “eye”.
From a narrative perspective, the film is different from the norm in that it has no typical protagonist or antagonist. If a main character had to be defined, he would be the cameraman, with his main supporting character being the editor. The city and its inhabitants as a unified entity also become a major character in the film, showing how they interact with each other in the daily routine of work, rest and leisure through the perspective of the filmmaker. The movie is predominantly concerned with depicting reality, rather than dramatized fiction or re-creations of historic events.
The film’s story is constructed in an unconventional narrative style, but is brought together through the recurring theme of the camera and the filmmaker. The events in the film take place over the course of a day, and although Vertov experiments with geographical and temporal continuity, the audience is given enough information to piece together the “plot”. Upon first viewing, this “plot” may not be entirely clear, but as Roberts confirms, “The Man with the Movie Camera does have a plot” (1). Each section of the film covers the different parts of the day (work, rest and leisure), and through this, Vertov establishes images which provide the visual language which is brought into play throughout the length of the film. By layering this imagery through editing and montage, and combining them with the underlying story of the filmmaker and his camera, the overarching narrative is tied together. Roberts explains that “all human life is here from birth to death via childhood, marriage, divorce, work, rest and play” (2).
This avant-garde style of filmic storytelling became popular in the form of the “city symphony” genre. Dimendberg explains that the genre encompasses “around twenty titles and relies heavily upon montage to represent a cross-section of life in the modern metropolis” (109). In adhering to this genre, The Man with the Movie Camera does away with the traditional trappings of the documentary and becomes something different. There is no narration, no conventional narrative or plot elements, but rather a succession of rhythmic imagery detailing the inner workings of a city. Graf describes the genre’s structure as having a “dawn to dusk strategy in the search for a pure film form” (79).
Vertov employed many cinematic techniques to achieve the incredible momentum of imagery found in the film. These techniques included split-screen, slow motion, freeze-frame, fast motion, and stop-motion animation. The stop-motion animation sequence where the camera seems to come alive and walk around on its tripod remains startling even today. When juxtaposed with the everyday motions of human life which the film presents, it becomes clear that the camera itself has a life of its own. It has its own perception of events separate from that of the filmmaker, and separate from that of the audience. The diversity of techniques used makes the film a showcase of the power of cinema and its ability to transform everyday life into something completely different, with its own rhythm and sense of unpredictability.
The editing in The Man with the Movie Camera is one of the film’s strongest points. There is a segment which contrasts challenging footage of a birth with that of a funeral. As one life ends, another begins. Similarly, there is a scene of marriage, with joyous atmosphere and smiling faces. In contrast, Vertov inserts a somber scene of a couple signing their divorce papers. These binary oppositions are ubiquitous throughout the film, with juxtapositions between work and play, play and rest, man and machine, and many others.
The musical score also brings much life and energy to the film. The repeated themes complement the visual language that Vertov established. According to Feldman, “Vertov carefully planned the musical score and may well have intended the work to be made as the first Soviet sound film” (qtd in Barsam 74). The synchronicity between sound effects and onscreen action creates an impressive and exciting mosaic of audio and imagery.
While the film is certainly a product of its time, it holds up surprisingly well in modern day. Barsam states that the film “was well-received in the domestic and international press” (74). The inventive narrative construction and the multitude of cinematic techniques placed the film genuinely ahead of its time. Vertov was successful in his attempt at documenting Russian life in a city without many of the normal elements typically found in documentaries. He managed to show an impressive cross-section of Russian society, by following the daily lives of different classes of people. The Man with the Movie Camera remains a wonderful piece of experimental cinema, and offers a fascinating view of life as it was in the Soviet 1920s