Dziga Vertov Was Wrong about Film, but Man with a Movie Camera Is a Masterwork Anyways
Note: This is the hundred-and-fifty-fourth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1929 film, MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, directed by Dziga Vertov.
Cinéma vérité is a term now in vogue when it comes to describing down-and-dirty documentary filmmaking, invented by French filmmaker and theorist Jean Rouch. But Rouch based his own ideas on an older, perhaps more radical movement, a “movement” spurred and carried by just one man (OK, and a few cohorts): Kino-Pravda, as created by Russian director Dziga Vertov.
Vertov was born David Abelevich Kaufman in 1896, a Polish Jew who Russified his name to Denis Arkadievich after anti-Jewish sentiments were spun up in the Soviet Union. By the time he was a free-wheeling “Renaissance” college student, David/Denis took on the name Dziga Vertov, which loosely translated from Ukrainian means “spinning top.”
It was an apt name for someone with so many diverse interests, including poetry, satire, medicine and sound. Vertov developed an interest in the camera, though, with early writings purported to have addressed the concept of a “second eye,” something he would refine into a genre-shaking idea in short order. In 1917, after the Revolution, Vertov began editing the KINO-NEDELYA newsreel series, where he met fellow editor and future wife Elizaveta Svilova. Together with Vertov’s brother Mikhail Kaufman, Svilova would be a primary artistic influence behind the more famous director’s ideas. Vertov’s other brother Boris, by the way, would leave the Soviet Union in 1917, become a cinematographer in France for directors like Jean Vigo, fight for the French during World War II, and end up in Hollywood shooting for big names such as Elia Kazan (on ON THE WATERFRONT ), Sidney Lumet (on 12 ANGRY MEN ), and Otto Preminger (on TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON ).
Anyways, Vertov’s focus was always “non-fiction,” developing “news” films and agitprop during the Russian Civil War. He, together with his wife and brother, launched their own newsreel series in 1922. It was called KINO-PRAVDA, taken from the official Russian government newspaper Pravda, literally meaning “film truth. It eventually lent its name to the umbrella of Vertov’s cinematic theories. From this point on, the critical consensus on Vertov would center on how insane he was. He had declared theatrical and literary influences on film as harmful, and found cinematic drama to be “the opiate of the masses.” Vertov was harsh and wrong in this statement, although there is some merit to be given to the idea, but it didn’t prevent him from making the true, lasting masterpiece that is MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA.
In between the conclusion of KINO-PRAVDA in 1925 and MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, however, Vertov did make two interesting features, A SIXTH PART OF THE WORLD (1926) and THE ELEVENTH YEAR (1928). They were interesting practice runs at presenting an “absolute truth;” an absolute truth, one that Vertov and his collaborators, try as they might, could never make the absolute truth. Because that is where Vertov’s ideas fall flat. No film could ever provide an objective truth, because film is a reality filtered by its creators. Oh sure, there are important facts and experiences and human moments in film. They should just could not be construed as the unerring presentation of the truth, even coming from one so dedicated to “the” truth as Vertov.
But there is something to Vertov’s decrying of narrative film as the opiate of the masses. However, in all forms, film and media have been used to placate and mislead those masses, and fiction often has a way of illuminating universal ideals in a more appealing and attractive way. Such a method can certainly make the effective transmission of certain ideas dangerous, as the case was made by D.W. Griffith with THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), but I think as I’ve established with the 153 previous essays in this series, people come away from “fake” stories with newfound appreciation for the real.
MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, for all the intentions of its author(s), does the same. It is an incredible transmission of a Soviet experience in the late 1920s, ostensibly influenced by the city symphony films of the period like MANHATTA (1921) and BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY (1927). Vertov would deny the connection to BERLIN, at least, because he had developed the techniques he would apply in greater force for MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA since his newsreel years. Production for his film had also begun in 1926. But influence is a tricky thing, and Vertov could very well have been aware of Ruttmann’s film.
In any event, contrary to what could have been implied by the search for cinematic truth, MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA warps reality to tremendous effect. The ever-present, fourth-wall-breaking, titular “character” constantly reminds you that the film is a presentation, if the beginning sequence in a movie theater didn’t already hammer that home. And fast, slow and stop motion, split screens, double exposure, split screens, and many more techniques weave a dreamlike experience of an unidentified Soviet city; unidentified because it was in fact a composite of Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow, and Odessa. And so of course, even if it was in fact filmed in just one city, its presentation of a full day in the life of a Soviet metropolis is not inherently true.
That doesn’t stop Vertov and MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA from providing intimacy and complexity, though. Its production realities are not barriers to believing in the course of a day in a Soviet city. They don’t hinder the presentation of human experiences, simple in isolation and grandly poetic all together. MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA’s rhythm is impeccable, barreling forward and sliding sideways because of Vertov’s avant-garde techniques, keeping one totally engrossed in minutiae. It’s no wonder, then, that it influenced an entire generation of filmmakers.
But that would have to come later, because Vertov wasn’t entirely recognized as a genius in his own time. His reputation in the Soviet Union was worse than it was abroad, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that he and MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA especially were heralded as one of the best of all time (filmmakers and film, respectively). Like Sergei Eisenstein, his artistic command weakened in the sound era, and by the late ’30s, his vision was confined to editorial skills, and he died in 1954.
MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA was Vertov’s greatest work. For all his posturing about the importance of truth on camera, the film is not entirely realistic. With its special effects, it enters almost into a dream world at times, pulling in and out of reality so as to make those real moments all the more affecting. Enter into its world, separate from ours, and find truth, or truths, for your reality regardless.