From Failed Propaganda to Timeless Masterpiece: Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
In 1927 while Soviet cinema was celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, one of its most fervent directors was sidelined. Dziga Vertov’s latest film, Shestaia chast’ mira (A Sixth Part of the World, 1926) had disappointed in multiple ways, having neither earned back its investment nor shown any economy in its making (a 20:1 shooting ratio!). It also failed to fulfil its function as a tool to promote badly need trade with the fledging country, even as it reflected the State’s new focus away from worldwide communism to socialism in one country.
A mêlée over the film’s value played out in the trade papers of the day and got quite ugly. The axe fell in the form of an accusation that Vertov had plagiarised from others. Dismissed from Sovkino, Vertov took refuge – received a warm welcome, in fact – at Ukraine’s Odessa Film Factory, which enjoyed autonomy, however fleeting, from sniping critics and bureaucrats in Russia trying to limn the party line.
At this relatively safe distance, he discarded his plans for Ten Years of October to make Odinnadtsatyi (The Eleventh Year, 1928), looking ahead rather than back, and, soon after, Chelovek s kinoapparatom (Man with a Movie Camera, 1929), long ranked among the best documentaries ever made. While contemporaries took a rather dim view of what has come down to us as a masterpiece, Man with a Movie Camera’s esteem across time seems to have grown exponentially. In a 2012 British Film Institute poll of critics, it transcended genre to attain an exalted position among the top ten feature films of all time.1 Vertov’s opus, however, did little to help his situation back then.
Since his days aboard the agit-trains moving through the provinces during the Civil War Vertov touted truth as his only muse. Organising exhibitions for what he deemed “unspoiled audiences,”2 unable, he determined, to comprehend the fiction films of his colleagues, solidified his notion that nonfiction is not only superior to fiction but also the only way to reach the people. Using his experience editing official newsreels for the Moscow Central Committee, culling a compilation film from newsreel footage, and shooting on location for a documentary of the Battle for Tsaritsyn, he began his campaign to convince everyone else. The Council of Three – Vertov, his cameraman (and brother) Mikhail Kaufman, and editor (and wife) Elizaveta Svilova – began issuing Kino-Pravda, or cinema-truth.3
He penned bold manifestos in staccato declaratives and intertitles in decisive all-caps, tirelessly bashing the fiction feature to anyone within reading distance – “The film drama is the Opium of the people […] Down with Bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios […] Long live life as it is!”4 He threw colourful, if cruel, sticks and stones at his detractors, calling one who dared judge his work “a specialist in the study of the lace on Mary Pickford’s pantaloons.”5 Nothing could shake his faith that cinema had to be permanently divorced – “DISEMBOWELLED,” he screeched6 – from literature and theatre and acting, and that his own doctrine of “life caught unaware” was the way, the truth, and the life for communicating in their unique revolutionary times.
Crafted from his earlier newsreels and images freshly shot in the Ukraine, Man with a Movie Camera has been classified as a documentary and a symphony film, but Vertov had a more specific idea of it. To him, it was targeted propaganda, designed to educate, impel, and occasionally scold the Soviet population to pull together and do the hard work necessary to become good post-Lenin Communists, to toss off any remnants of capitalism and band together to smash old forms, turn on the electric lights, build the new buildings, sing the new cooperative song. What else is revolution but a total upheaval of absolutely everything? He made a solid, if impractical, point. Man was also a message to his detractors, brilliantly decoded, this is the true gospel of motion pictures, let me show you how it’s done.
He had laid out his new vision in 1923’s “The Cine Eyes: A Revolution”:
“I am the Cine-Eye. I am the mechanical eye. I the machine show you the world as only I can see it. I emancipate myself henceforth and forever from human immobility. I am in constant motion. I approach objects and move away from them, I creep up to them, I clamber over them, I move alongside a muzzle of a running horse, I tear into a crowd at full tilt, I flee before fleeing soldiers. I turn over on my back, I rise up with aeroplanes, I fall and rise with falling and rising bodies.” 7
Besides the vertiginous photography of Man with a Movie Camera’s loosed cameraman, creeping and clambering, rising and falling, the editing sets the engaging pace with skilful superimpositions, in-camera effects, stop-motion, slow-motion, abrupt stillness – a breathless catalogue of every trick known to 35mm woman, with (the title credits excluded), nary an intertitle of interruption.
Unschooled in its subtext, we are free to revel in its kinetics, another astonishing composition, transition, or trick to gasp at along the way, political meaning long displaced by its delights. British film critic David Thomson recommends it as a way to introduce children to the feature-length film: “You will find that the child’s lack of context or narrative guilt accepts easily Vertov’s conceit of the cameraman as everyman […] I have never found a child who was not sad when the film ended.” 8 He goes on to call it “perfect”, which might as well be him saying that, before it, we all marvel, child-like. It is a spectacular piece of avant-garde art and a time-capsule of Soviet urban life in the 1920s, no matter that we can not immediately comprehend that women getting manicures are an unnecessary evil and that the poster for Prodannyi appetit (The Sold Appetite, 1928) begins a critique of urban decadence.9
The metaphors we immediately grasp are about modernisation: the dynamic parade of trams, trains, cars, mining, dams, factories, typewriters, sewing machines, the hand-cranked camera itself. That it is also about filmmaking can be lost on no one. The cameraman positions his tripod, changes lenses, speeds about town. An audience at the film’s beginning waits before a blank movie screen, a projectionist threading the film strip, igniting the arc of light that sparks the show. At about minute 22, a lesson in editing begins, with still shots, a lineup of film reels, and the film’s actual editor, Svilova, clipping images and showing us how an image is made to move, then cut into a sequence.
With multiple viewings and a knowledgeable guide, Man conveys its maker’s intent in more detail. That cameraman starting out early in the morning for the daylong location shoot is not just leaving the studio after, presumably, picking up his gear, but he is also leaving behind the artificial trappings of fiction filmmaking for the streets. The morning ritual of the waking woman and the washing down of the streets are clear metaphors for shaking off sleep and stirring into action. But, as Graham Roberts tells us, the Russian chistit (cleaning) is akin to chistka (purge) and Vertov’s water references (the later gushing of the dam, for instance) are a visual clarion call for a “cleansing of old bourgeois narratives.”10 (It sends a chill down the spine when we know what kinds of purges are headed down history’s pike.) The folding in of the Bolshoi Theatre, in the climax of the film, is not just a dazzling trick but a demand that the old order be toppled now. Another layer of Vertov’s disdain for the old forms is added if you had noticed, as Roberts tells us, that the theater appeared early in the film partially obscured by a kiosk advertising mineral water. 11
Its delights did not charm many critics, its lessons did not immediately edify, and it was dismissed in a parenthetical as “devoid of context” by the Party’s 1929 Resolution on Cinema. 12 Defenders came forth, one calling Vertov the “Walt Whitman” of Soviet cinema 13 but a new doctrine had already been put in place that cinema was to be “intelligible to the masses”, which further propelled Vertov’s reputation on its downhill skid. Even brother Mikhail, the cameraman of the title, was appalled at the result and it turned out to be their final collaboration 14. Surely audiences of the day could have used some wonderment in those overwhelmingly brutal times and might have been invigorated enough by Man’s celebration of movement and modernism to get up the next morning to (wo)man the machines with a little extra pep. Unfortunately, we have no record of their response, the ones he was supposed to be reaching. Roberts tells us the film “was quickly shelved” after its Moscow preview in April 1929. 15
Taken up by Jay Leyda, who saw it in New York in 1930 and decided to travel to Russia to study Soviet filmmaking methods, and French critic Georges Sadoul, who translated Vertov’s kino-pravda into the term that stuck, even in English, (cinema-vérité), the film’s status abroad began to rise. Decades later, Jean Rouch and Jean-Luc Godard made Vertov’s rallying cry their own and deployed the camera once again to creep and clamber over real faces and places. But Vertov’s lessons in filmmaking stuck in ways he probably would not have approved of, making it possible to cut from Tverskaia Street to the Odessa coast without anyone blinking an eye yet never properly divorcing itself from fiction.
Ninety years later, it finds itself among a prestigious top ten alongside Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), Tôkyô monogatari (Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu, 1953), Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans, (F.W. Murnau, 1927), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). One can imagine Vertov less than thrilled to be in this heap, with the enemy, elite as it is, and inclined instead to issue one of his all-cap fatwas: “WE declare the old films, the romantic, the theatricalised etc., to be leprous. Don’t come near! Don’t look! Mortally dangerous! Contagious.”16 About that last part, he was absolutely right.
- “Critics’ Top 100,” Sight and Sound, 2012, http://www.bfi.org.uk/films-tv-people/sightandsoundpoll2012/critics ↩
- Dziga Vertov, “Kino-eye: A Film Showing in the Country” (1920), in Annette Michelson (ed.) Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 61. ↩
- Vertov named his Kino-Pravda after the Bolshevik’s newspaper Pravda, which became an official organ of the State in 1918 and is still published today by the Russian Federation Communist Party. ↩
- Dziga Vertov, “Provisional Instructions to Kino Eye Groups” (1926), in Michelson (ed.), Kino-Eye, op. cit., p. 71. ↩
- Dziga Vertov, letter to the editor, Kino-front 4 (1927): 31–32. Quoted in Denise Youngblood, Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era 1918–1935 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991), p. 141. ↩
- Dziga Vertov, “The Cine Eyes. A Revolution,” Lef 3 (June/July 1923): 135–143. Quoted in Richard Taylor and Ian Christie (eds.), The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents 1896–1939, (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 90. ↩
- Ibid, p. 93. ↩
- David Thomson, “Man with a Movie Camera,” Have You Seen…? (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), p. 522. ↩
- Graham Roberts, The Man with a Movie Camera, Kinofiles Film Companion 2 (London and New York: I.B. Taurus, 2000), p. 61. ↩
- Ibid, p. 59–60. ↩
- Ibid, p. 53. ↩
- “RAPP Resolution on Cinema,” September 1929. Quoted in Taylor, p. 278. ↩
- N. Kaufman, “Chelovek s kinoapparatom,” Kino, no. 6, (1929). Quoted in Youngblood, p. 208. ↩
- Roberts, p. 94: Cameraman Kaufman did not approve of how Vertov and Svilova edited together the footage. According to Roberts, when Kaufman went to make his Springtime, which he saw as a continuation of Man, Vertov refused to participate. The two never worked together again. ↩
- Ibid, op. cit., p. viii. ↩
- Dziga Vertov, “We. A Version of a Manifesto,” Kino-fot 1 (August 1922): 11–12. Quoted in Taylor, p. 69. ↩