Dziga Vertov (1896-1954) – born “David Abelevich Kaufman”- was, along with figures like Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov and Vsevolod Pudovkin – an indisputable film pioneer of the early years of the Soviet Union. Vertov is most famous for his 1929 experimental silent film Man with a Movie Camera which was edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova and starred his brother Mikhal Kaufman.
Exhibiting a decidedly Marxist aesthetic, the film contains neither lead actors nor plot structure. It is merely an account of the crazy adventures of an artist (man/filmmaker) who is hell-bent on exploring the possibilities that come with a newly discovered medium of art (camera/film). Shot over a period of three years across Moscow, Kiev, Kharkov and Odessa, the film chronicles the mundane events of a Soviet city that is at once realistic and idealistic. It employs a range of cinematic techniques, among them, slow and fast motion, double exposure, Dutch (“tilted”) angle, jump cuts and split screens.
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian writes that the film is “dense with ideas, packed with energy”, “it upends reality in ways that are still dizzying, thrilling and strangely sexy.” The film critic Roger Ebert (Review, rogerebert.com, July 1, 2009) pointed out that in the year 1929, when the average shot length (ASL) of films was 11.2 seconds, Man with a Movie Camera was functioning with a ASL of 2.3 seconds – same as that of the 1998 science fiction disaster film Armageddon.
In 2012, in a poll conducted by the British film magazine Sight and Sound, Man with a Movie Camera was voted “the 8th best film ever made” and in 2014, it became “the greatest documentary of all time”.
Vertov belonged to a radical group of filmmakers called Kinoks (“cinema-eyes”) that aimed to abolish non-documentary or “staged” styles of filmmaking and insisted upon “catching life unawares”. Here is a sample piece from his writings on film theory:
I am kino-eye, I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it. Now and forever, I free myself from human immobility, I am in constant motion, I draw near, then away from objects, I crawl under, I climb onto them. I move apace with the muzzle of a galloping horse, I plunge full speed into a crowd, I outstrip running soldiers, I fall on my back, I ascend with an airplane, I plunge and soar together with plunging and soaring bodies. Now I, a camera, fling myself along their resultant, maneuvering in the chaos of movement, recording movement, starting with movements composed of the most complex combinations. Freed from the rule of sixteen-seventeen frames per second, free of the limits of time and space, I put together any given points in the universe, no matter where I’ve recorded them. My path leads to the creation of a fresh perception of the world. I decipher in a new way a world unknown to you.
~ From Kino-eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (1984)
Watch the trailer of the 2014 restoration from the British Film Institute:
Early Soviet Cinema: Innovation, Ideology and Propaganda (2000) by David Gillespie
Cinema and Soviet Society: From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin (2001) by Peter Kenez
A History of Russian Cinema (2008) by Birgit Beumers