Cinema’s formative years may have been manipulated by two of the 20th Century’s greatest ideological upheavals – communism in the Soviet Union and German fascism – but it didn’t always end up as a complicit mouthpiece for these states.
Mark Fraser looks back at a seminal work by an early Russian filmmaker who, despite his obvious nationalist proclivities, ultimately managed to distance part of his art from the political discourse of the day.
It’s a crying shame Man With A Movie Camera – Dziga Vertov’s truly ground-breaking six reel “documentary” about urban life in the early Soviet era – will always be associated with a Marxist revolution because, in the overall cinematic scheme of things, it is so much more.
With this movie Vertov (1896-1954), whose original name was Denis Abramovich (it was later changed to Arkadievich), didn’t just portray a day in the life of an unnamed Russian city (it was filmed in four locations – Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa). Rather, and unlike many before him, he closely examined the language of cinema itself, establishing a cracking pace for just about every avant-garde filmmaker around the world who followed in his footsteps.*
While there can be little doubt Vertov (whose nom de guerre translates as Spinning or Humming Top) set out to create some kind of artistic treatise regarding the mechanical and aesthetic nature of celluloid when he made Man With a Movie Camera, it’s important to note the director – who once stated that the camera was being used by the bourgeoisie to amuse the masses or “more specifically, to divert the attention of the working classes from their primary goal, the struggle against their masters” (Petley, 1982) – was a Leninist, an ideology which championed “the idea that professional revolutionaries would form an avant-garde or vanguard party and rule in the name of the proletariat” (Gellately, page 9).
As anyone with a vague knowledge of history would know, Leninism originated from Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov (1870-1924), aka Comrade Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution of 1917-1921 who went on to help create one of the most repressive socialist regimes known to humankind.
Although Lenin’s reputation as a mass murderer has been more or less usurped by the brutal reign of his successor Joseph Stalin (1879-1953), it’s undeniable he was a particularly vicious bastard in his own right, using his powers to create the now infamous Cheka (the Soviet Union’s secret police), the Peoples’ Commissariat for Internal Affairs (the dreaded NKVD) as well as the network of labour camps which were later employed to such extraordinary effect during Stalin’s despotic regime.
During his life Vertov never hid the fact he was a loyal subject of the Leninist state, with film titles like Stride, Soviet (1926) and Three Songs of Lenin (1934) making his adoration for the man pretty clear. As a filmmaker, however, he managed – at least with Man With a Movie Camera – to avoid fully subjugating his art to the whims of the political apparatus which no doubt dominated his working life. As a result his career was somewhat stymied when the state, under Stalin, moved away from making experimental works, instead concentrating on so-called socialist realist films in which the chief characteristic was “to help (the people) achieve wealth and love and life and turn the Earth in its entirety into the magnificent dwelling-place of mankind united in one big family” (Taylor, 1982).
In the overall scheme of things, Man With a Movie Camera doesn’t find this kind of narrative goal complete anathema given it is, in part, an unashamed celebration of both the Soviet Union’s new-found urban sophistication and the country’s successful joining of the industrial revolution. (And, it must be said, Vertov did adopt a genuinely social realist position in films like Three Songs of Lenin, in which he stated the dictator, was “the friend and liberator of all the oppressed … who gave us everything he had – his spirit, his blood, his heart”.)
But – as an “implacable enemy” of traditional realist cinema (Petley, 1982) – the director was also mindful that “drama is the opium of the people” and had called for the fall of “bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios” before he made this documentary. Bearing all this in mind, it’s understandable he couldn’t – in this instance at least – quite bring himself to portray Russian society as being part of a completely content and functional collective family unit.
Rather, he created the film as a “complex experiment which brutally contrasts ‘life as it is’ seen by the eye armed with a camera (cine-eye) with ‘life as it is’ seen by the imperfect look of the human eye” (Petley, 1982).
By doing so, Vertov achieved something that perhaps the social realists wanted to avoid – he (using the words of pioneering French film critic and writer Andre Bazin) employed the aesthetic qualities of photography to lay bare the realities of life.
Moreover, with the help of montage (editing), he was also able to impose his interpretation of an event on its audience (Bazin, 1945). Or, as the English academic Richard Taylor put it in the early 1980s: “Through … montage, the filmmaker could organise ‘life as it really is’, improve upon it and see and show the world in the name of the world proletarian revolution”. This ran counter to the social realists, who did not want to describe reality as it was, but “what it will be” (Taylor, 1982).
In this regard Man With a Movie Camera – as crazily avant-garde and poetically subjective as it is – manages to fall within the classical definition of the documentary as established by the acknowledged father of the form, Scotsman John Grierson (1898–1972)**, who said documentaries were “the creative interpretation of actuality” (Anstey, 1982).
Certainly Vertov’s film doesn’t lack creativity. But perhaps more importantly (especially to movie buffs) it remains one of the most self-reflective pieces in the history of motion pictures, as noted by English writer Julian Petley in 1982: “It is a film whose subject is cinema itself and in which cameraman (the director’s brother Mikhail Kaufman), editor (his wife Elisaveta Svilova, who co-edited this work) and the audience are the main characters.”
As a treatise on the mechanical language and production of film, Man With a Movie Camera has few peers.
Name any kind of camera angle or cinematic technique and it can be found in the movie’s rich visual narrative, be it extended dolly shots, slow zooms, super impositions, split screens, Dutch angles, jump cuts, freeze frames, shutter speed manipulation and (some absolutely marvelous) stop-start animation – including a truly funny scene involving a “dancing” tripod.
The film also provides some rather revealing insights into what life would have been like for a working cameraman in the Soviet Union during the late 1920s, with Kaufman going to a number of foolhardy extremes to obtain his shots.
For instance, he precariously balances himself – unharnessed – on the door of a moving open roof motor vehicle to capture some footage of a passenger-filled horse-drawn buggy travelling down a busy street (obviously no-one was taking occupational health and safety considerations into account – such an act today would be considered both illegal and uninsurable).
He is also seen making his way on foot through thoroughfares littered with pedestrians, standing between passing trams, walking along bridges, hanging from the side of a moving rail carriage as well as shooting from an ore bucket suspended above a hydro-electric dam.
Although Vertov’s overall outlook is predominantly vibrant and cheery (thanks in no small part to the hectic movement constantly underpinning the film’s mise-en-scene), by looking at some of the grittier aspects of urban Soviet life – exposing in the process an undeniable class structure in which not all Russian citizens were prospering – it’s obvious he did not necessarily set out to make a movie about Utopia.
Very early in the film, for instance, the audience is introduced to some of the homeless (or possibly drunkards) who have just spent the night sleeping in the street. The director is also quick to juxtapose – again through montage – the comfortable lives of the affluent with those who are slaving away in the factories and foundries, at one point comparing a woman getting her fingernails manicured in a beauty parlour to another slinging clay into the fired-up furnace of a brickworks.
Later in the narrative Vertov shows, via shots of different couples filing for marriage and divorce certificates in a registrar’s office, that while marital bliss existed in Soviet life it was matched in equal part by domestic despair.
Even the arrival of a newborn baby is fraught with some difficulty as a mother-in-labour endures the painful rigours of childbirth. And of course there is death, which comes with its fair share of sorrow and mourning.
Although Vertov was obviously a Leninist intellectual revolutionary, it would be misleading to write him off as a clever propagandist, particularly when comparing his work with that of Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), one of cinema’s best known female filmmakers who directed two of the most famous documentaries associated with pre-World War II Nazi Germany – 1934’s Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) and Olympia (1936).
Riefenstahl, whose lens in these landmark works embraced the spectacle of the massive 1934 Nuremberg Rally and the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games respectively, was obviously something of a fan of both German leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and the Aryan ideals of his National Socialist German Workers’ Party, producing – in the former at least – “the suggestion of unity of leader, army, Hitler Youth, SA, SS and the people” (Norr, 1980).
Vertov, however, was not so laudatory of the contemporary Russian leadership in Man With a Movie Camera – possibly because he was never as enamoured with Stalin as he had been with Lenin. Rather, the power in his storytelling comes as much from his portrayal of the Russian people (both the proletariat and the petite bourgeoisie) as they go about their daily lives as it does from his coverage of the ever-present wheels of urban industry that exists at every level of Soviet society.
In effect, his big picture vision – which as part of “an experiment in the cinematic transmission of visible phenomena” aimed to create “a truly international absolute language” – ultimately worked because of the day-to-day minutiae he chose to depict. Furthermore, unlike Hitler in the Riefenstahl films, Stalin is conspicuous by his absence, possibly providing another reason why Vertov’s filmmaking career came to a grinding halt post-1934.
During the first half of the 1950s, Bazin made quite an interesting observation regarding the fundamental difference between Russian and German documentaries made pre-World War II: “On the one side the Soviet cinema carried to its ultimate consequences the theory and practice of montage while the German school did every kind of violence to the plastics (read framed composition) of the image by way of sets and lighting” (Bazin, circa 1950-1955).
Or, to put it another way, it seems Russian directors like Vertov were steadfast in their belief that what they were providing was, in fact, a legitimate commentary on their art’s form and methodology.
The Germans, on the other hand, were firmly stuck in Expressionism.
Words by Mark Fraser
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*Including Frenchman Jean-Luc Godard who, along with Jean-Pierre Gorin and a number of other film makers, formed the Dziga Vertov Group (1968-72).
**Interestingly, Grierson was no Vertov fan, accusing the Russian of pushing “the argument to a point at which it becomes ridiculous” and calling Man With a Movie Camera “not a film at all; it is a snapshot album”. Typical bloody Scotsman!
Julian Petley – “Man With a Movie Camera” The Movie, Orbis Publishing Ltd, Issue 121, 1982, p.2408-09
Robert Gellately – Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe, Random House, 2008, p.8
Jay Lader – Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film, Princeton University Press, 1983
Richard Taylor – “On the Red Front” The Movie, Orbis Publishing Ltd, Issue 122, 1982, p.2421-25
Andre Bazin – “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (1945) and “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” (1950-1955) What Is Cinema Volume 1, University of California Press, 1967, p.15 and 26
Edgar Antsey – “John Grierson: Founder of the Documentary” The Movie, Orbis Publishing Ltd, Issue 7, 1980, p.135
Forsyth Hardy – John Grierson: A Documentary Biography, Faber and Faber, 1979
Gunter Knorr – “Leni Riefenstahl” The Movie, Orbis Publishing Ltd, Issue 9, 1980, p. 175-77
Jonathon Dawson – “Dziga Vertov” Senses of Cinema, March 2003, Issue 25
Top 10 Films reviewed Man With a Movie Camera on Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka Entertainment Ltd. The print, which looks stunning, was restored in 2014 by Lobster Films. Meanwhile, the original music was composed and performed by The Alloy Orchestra based on instructions provided by the director. The Eureka release also features a second disc that includes four shorter Vertov pieces – Kino Eye/The Life Unexpected, Kino Pravda #21, Enthusiasm: The Symphony of Donbass and Three Songs About Lenin.
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