Man With A Movie Camera: Welcome To The Future, Comrade

Students of history will know that about 100 years ago, various events occurred in Russia. More specifically, between 1917 and 1924, the Russian Empire collapsed, the Bolsheviks won the Russian Civil War, the Soviet Union was formed, Lenin died, and Stalin took charge. And five years after that, in 1929, a guy made a movie.

Admittedly, I am not a particularly keen student of Russian history. But I think I am correct in surmising that the cataclysmic nature of the Russian Revolution fundamentally changed the Russian people's perception of modernity. When everything old is overthrown, it seems like the future has suddenly arrived. Certainly, part of the appeal of Soviet socialism was that it was new and modern — it was the future.

That is my long-winded explanation of why Man With a Movie Camera is so modern-looking. In its 68-minute run time, it probably uses (or invents) every cinematic visual device that we see in today's movies. But I'm getting ahead of the story.

Man With a Movie Camera is an experimental silent film made in 1929. It was directed by Dziga Vertov, filmed by his brother, Mikhail Kaufman, and edited by Vertov and wife, Elizaveta Svilova. It is a documentary, showing the everyday lives of “modern” Soviet citizens in Moscow, Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odessa. While not overtly political, the film can probably be classified as soft propaganda as it glorifies mechanization and technology in the emerging Soviet state. Leisurely, rural peasant life is out. Fast-paced, urban life is in.

The film is avant-garde personified. There is a story (kind of) but it is mainly a showcase of cinematic techniques. You'll see slow motion, fast motion, freeze frames, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, backward footage, animation, multiple exposures, stop motion, jump cuts, match cuts, split screen, Dutch angles, and more. It is not surprising that contemporary critics were, well, very critical. More recently, various polls have placed it among the best movies ever made and possibly the best documentary movie, period.

You can watch the movie here. It is a silent film, of course, and it is my understanding that it was not released with a composed score. Rather, Vertov supplied instructions on what type of live music should be performed as accompaniment. Over the years, many different scores have been created. If you are a budding young film composer, you might test your mettle by attempting to compose an original score for this remarkable film.

So, why is Man With a Movie Camera so modern looking? I think it's because it was a product of its time, an era of extreme (and extremely violent) upheaval. The future (at least the Soviet version of it) was being created in real time and Vertov was anxious to capture this zeitgeist, and frankly to promote it. To do this effectively, clearly, he deployed cinematic means that seemed futuristic; the images themselves are often mundane, but the way they are presented is wholly modern. In the same way that the Soviet Union tried to create a society that was a clean break from the past, Vertov tried to create a futuristic form a cinema that was independent of theater and literature.

The Soviet Union called it quits in 1991. But every time you watch any contemporary film, you'll see that Vertov's cinematic virtuosity lives on.

trynberg's picture

Ken, thanks for bringing this movie to your readers!

ashurbanipal's picture

Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will up next?

sanjoseca's picture
alexisrodger's picture

Ken C. Pohlmann, your readers are truly grateful for your recommendation and for introducing them to this captivating movie. Your thoughtful gesture enhances their cinematic experience. For the Culture Crystal Hoodie