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The Man With a Movie Camera (1929) - Dziga Vertov - Crowded city of workers and superimposition of a movie cameras and operator

The man with a movie camera (Человек с киноаппаратом) (1929) – Dziga Vertov

Russia, 1929, 68 Mins., Black and White, 1:08, Silent + music.

First impression of this hectic so fast-paced movie is being out of breath. So much so that I had to take a break, even two, and this is merely a 68 minutes movie, as I wasn’t able to absorb this all abundance of concurrent eventuations, on top of the not so few things running through my mind already, in this turbulent times, or so my subjective-self had it perceived. I was burst into being flooded. It seems that the movie creators must have felt the same, as they freeze the frame here and there or maybe for them it was just a play with this new toy, we now call cinema.

There was great fascination back then, it seems, with Speed, with the new machinery that enables fast production and introduced new modes of transportation not only communal forms as the good old trains but also private new machines accessible to everyone, the mass produced cars. People appeared to be thrilled by this newfound ability to move around quickly, not just aided by the machines, but also, for women especially, with clothing better suited for this fast-tempo life. We witness a radical change in women status and way of living. They are working in factories, as telephone operators, as film editors. In a matter of fact, the woman editor showcased in this film, shares an equal and interchangeable gaze with the man carrying and operating the camera and with the unseen director, presenting them as a team of equal collaborators. Too bad, that this film also features women in the nude (although for a fraction of a second), and chooses to follow a woman (rather than a man) dressing up, as part of her morning routine. It is all about routines here. Repetitions. That has to do with speed, with rhythm. With suppressed way of life, when individuals become human machines and believe it is an improvement.

Seeking an escape of our now FOMO-driven hectic-will-not-be-enough lives, looking for consolation, solace, the redemption by speed our ancestors was craving for seems to be the root of all evil. Not that it was that fast-faced of a living back then. Vertov and his colleagues accelerated it many times over. It was probably quite exciting for them to do so. “The film Man with a Movie Camera represents AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC COMMUNICATION, Of visual phenomena” declares the manifest at the beginning of the movie, “WITHOUT THE USE OF INTERTITLES (a film without intertitles) WITHOUT THE HELP OF A SCENARIO (a film without a scenario) WITHOUT THE HELP OF THEATRE (a film without actors, without sets, etc.). This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.”  They are not theatre, they are not literature, they are fast! The audience gathers in the theatre, not for a live show, but to watch a flat white screen with a representation of real life projected over it, but instead are being presented with a fantasy, inhuman. Inhumane. This pace is beyond worldly. The problem is, that nowadays we are expected to really live at this impossible tempo.

This is an experimentation, declares the movie of its creator’s intentions, to play with this new toy, to learn to speak in this new language, without having to utilize any existing languages, such as that of theatre (which many creator of early cinema still used). It seems to over-do it, over-use-it. Just a few months later Vertov’s brothers, Boris Kaufman, who would become an Academy Award winner (Best Cinematography Black and White, On The Waterfront, 1954), and Michail Kaufman, the sole actor (so to speak) in this movie – the person who poses with the tripod-mounted camera – created A Propos Du Nice with Jean Vigo, a shorter but seemingly fast-paced creation. But unlike this movie, who declares it didn’t need the services of A Story, and indeed it just through the Reality as it is, sequence after sequence and next to each other and on top of each other, up to 5 or even more layers of superimposition, In Yer Face, A Propos Du Nice indeed attempts to kind of create a story through editing, or at least a sense of curated pace and exhibition of finds. And it seems to have a message about the different classes of society. It also plays more efficiently with accelerating and decelerating the pace, not turning the volume to be that high all the time. But still, it was likewise quite condense and irritating, even if to a lesser degree.

I find this movie celebrating modern life’s speed or aspired speed, as if epitomizing the futurists’ ideas of speed as declared by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in the first Futurist manifest from 1909: “We affirm that the beauty of the world has been enriched by a new form of beauty: the beauty of speed.”[1] I even read that “Under the influence of Futurist art theories and Futurism’s confidence in the machine, he changed his name from Denis Kaufman to Dziga Vertov (meaning ‘spinning top’).”[2]

As Futurism flourished not only in its native Italy, but to a great extent in Russia as well, echoing the rapid changes infused by socialists ideas in all aspect of life in this land – once considered the most backward country in Europe and the last one to emancipate of the serfs – it’s no wonder that the Futurist characteristics and the communist ideas this movie embraces coincide:

Vertov believed that life-fulfillment does not happen in the present or the past.  It is the future that holds the desired outcome of life-fulfillment.  Since technological advancements were starting to become more prominent in the industrial era, Vertov depicted the machine as a beneficial and glorious installment to the workplace.  He films close-ups of shiny metal bolts, gears and rods in perpetual motion.  These are machines functioning to improve the productivity of workers and increasing the productivity of industries, resulting in the ideological view that an optimistic future is what Russia has in store for its people.


The notion of communism can be described as the organization of labour among the people in a society.  The citizens will then share the fruits of their labour equally.  Throughout the film, Vertov acknowledges the different roles of the people within the societal structure.  He demonstrates that there are people who work in factories, brew halls and play professional sports.  It is also interesting that Vertov uses his own experience as a filmmaker to depict his societal role.  The film is a reflexive documentary, documenting life in Russia as well as documenting the work being done on the film itself.  There are several shots where we see the cameraman shooting urban life.  We also see the film being edited in a studio.  Vertov creates a discourse in which he himself is a product of his own ideology.[3]

Being made in another capitalist context, A Propos du Nice shows the two classes in either sides of the machine or let’s say physical labour – the workers are on the darker densely packed dirtiest polluted side of the machine and town. While the bourgeoisie puppet and human alike are aboard the bright idle celebration of the ship high deck. In Vertov movie machine workers or telephone operators (shown from all angles possible) and pub attendants or fancy ladies riding an open car are presents as equals. Kind of. I still do feel we are observing several different classes with not so much mobility between them.

It is interesting to learn that the fast pace of this movie, four times faster than usual, irritated viewers and critics alike upon its release. I read in the Wikipedia entry of the film that Sergei Eisenstein even derided the film as “pointless camera hooliganism,” and documentary filmmaker Paul Rotha stated that in Britain, Vertov was “regarded really as rather a joke, you know. All this cutting, and one camera photographing another camera – it was all trickery, and we didn’t take it seriously.”

Formalistically this movie also anticipated Leni Riefenstahl’s controversial Olympia (1938), especially when it becomes clear that the man with the camera on the track is not attempting to commit suicide, cutting to a train shot from underneath, but rather it was actually shot from a ditch in the middle of track.

All in all, this demonstrates that even when attempting to include all possible points of view in your piece, even those left hidden by the conventions of the time, for better or for worse, this piece is still only one POV that shines (or not) in each yellow brick road of history, differently.

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[1] F. T. Marinetti, “Fondazione e Manifesto del Futurismo (Pubblicato da Le Figaro di Parigi il 20 febbraio 1909),” (Milan: Via Senato 2, [1909]), trans. in Futurism: An Anthology, ed. Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 51–52.

[2] https://www.moma.org/collection/works/303131

[3] Derek P. Rucas, “Futurism, Formalism and Communism in Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera,” Film Articles and Critiques, 29 Sept. 2003 <https://www.angelfire.com/film/articles/vertov.htm>

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