Director: Dziga Vertov
Distributor: Madman Directors Suite
A miniature man climbs on top of a massive movie camera and sets up his trusty tripod. Morphing into a giant, he straddles the horizon and pans his lens across the city below. Life size again, he rides through the streets on the back of a jalopy, furiously winding the handle on his primitive camera and capturing every detail through his lens; the pedestrians, the horse drawn carriages, the electric trams. Up smoke stacks he goes and into the bowels of a blast furnace, all in pursuit of a new language of cinema – an experimental documentary language in which scripts, sets and actors are all banished.
Instead, he brings us real people, Soviet workers in a composite city that could be Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, or all three. As the workers oil the wheels of industry, a film editor works diligently compiling their collective efforts into a visual poem or song. It’s a tribute to Lenin’s Soviet Union made by one of his biggest fans. Denis Kaufman started his career making newsreels but later changed his name to Dziga Vertov (or ‘Spinning Top’) and helped found a group of like minded filmmakers known as Kino-glaz or Cine-eye. Through their lenses, the world was deciphered in a brand new way. “I am mechanical eye” Vertov famously declared and in his masterpiece Man With a Movie Camera, that concept is given its head.
Vertov cast his brother, Mikhail Kaufman, as the eponymous Man and his wife, Elizaveta Svilova, as the editor, a job she also executed in real life, painstakingly splicing together all the disparate black and white shots (as Professor Arthur Cantrill points out in his DVD commentary, the film might just as well have been called The Woman with the Editing Shears). Techniques which were totally radical in the late 20s, like superimposition, split screens, dissolves, animation, slow motion and freeze frames, were all used to liberate cinema from its role as a recording device for the performing arts and literature. But as with many revolutionary experiments, the finished product was deemed too obscure for general release and suppressed by the cultural bureaucracy. Now, with a new soundtrack by Michael Nyman that echoes the work of Philip Glass on more modern films like Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka, this classic is open for reappraisal.