Man with a Movie Camera review: power to The People

Dziga Vertov’s 1929 documentary is rightly considered one of the best films ever made

Dziga Vertov’s breakneck tour of Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa is made compelling by its unbridled optimism

Film Title: Man with a Movie Camera

Director: Dziga Vertov

Starring:

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 68 min

Thu, Jul 30, 2015, 21:00

   

In the most recent Sight & Sound poll – that gold standard of film polls – Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film was named the eighth best film of all time. If anything, that placing seems a little low. No other film – not even by Georges Méliès at his most fantastic – trumpets early cinema’s status as a magical science and scientific magic, quite so loudly or melodically.

The sheer jouissance of Vertov’s experimentation in a film defined by odd angles, jump cuts, split screens, tracking shots, double exposure and (that Soviet favourite) playful montage, might alone propel Man with a Movie Camera onto greatest film ever lists. This is everything cinema can and will be.

But Vertov’s breakneck tour of the Soviet cities of Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa is made equally compelling by its unbridled optimism. Working with his cinematographer (and brother) Mikhail Kaufman and editor (and wife) Elizaveta Svilova, Vertov fashions a film for the masses, starring the masses.

The people ride buggies and trains and trams, they are married and buried, they give birth, they rescue others, they mourn, they talk, they blink, they jump, they dust, they run, in an endless symphony of movement. Moving pictures have never moved as fast or as mesmerisingly before or since.

Tellingly, the sheer pace scared the wits out of the contemporaneous New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall, who simply could not keep up with the picture’s 1,775 separate shots.

The People – the star of this film – whirl and thrill to the endless hum of machines: even without sound we can hear them. Tick-tock. Faster, faster. There are no ghosts in Vertov’s machines, only poetry. The People’s future is brightened by the promise of technological advances and the dawn of a new Soviet equality.

The film’s oft-noted self-reflexivity – Vertov briskly marching the streets with his camera under his arm, Svilova piecing the film together in the cutting room – predates any number of similarly minded “daring” experiments from the 1960s. But for all its invention this is not an inaccessible and avant-garde work. It’s a gift of the world and a promise of all that might be.

This new print features the Alloy Orchestra’s 1995 score which draws on Vertov’s own notes. It’s very fine although not, perhaps, my favourite.