The Man with a Movie Camera

Film Criticism, Movies

The Man with a Movie Camera, the next film in my GFOAT project, is a Russian avant-garde film from 1929. This movie is based on the premise that film should represent real life without the artifice of actors, sets or fabricated story. It presents a kind of day-in-the-life in the cities of Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. The film relies solely on images and does not use any intertitles. It was directed by Dziga Vertov and edited by his wife, Yelizaveta Svilova. Vertov’s brother, Mikhail Kaufman, served as cinematographer. Much of the credit should go to Svilova who assembled this film from Vertov and Kaufman’s footage.

One of the reasons I want to watch the BFI’s Greatest Films of All Time in chronological order is because seeing films with other contemporary titles can be enlightening. That’s certainly the case here. Watching The Man with a Movie Camera after films such as Battleship Potemkin, The General, Sunrise, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Metropolis, really puts the experimental nature of the film in context. Those previous films all relied heavily on narrative, on creating a fictional world. The Man with a Movie Camera actively rejects many of the conventions of these previous films.

The Man with a Movie Camera employs a wealth of cinematic techniques, such as montage, double exposure, fast editing, split screens, still images, running the film backwards and stop motion animation. As interesting and daring as some of the previous films have been in terms of their cinematic experiments, they pale in comparison to the techniques used here. That’s not a criticism against the prior films. An excess of techniques would probably have been detrimental in those contexts. But the comparisons certainly provide an understanding of how unique The Man with the Movie Camera is.

This film is also unusual in that, as the title suggests, the filmmaker is present in the film. We see him setting up shots and filming events so that we see them from the filmmaker’s perspective and the camera’s. Some of the shots are particularly daring, such as setting up the camera to film underneath a passing train, having the cameraman trying to film from a moving car, having him standing amid bustling traffic. Watching the cameraman, of course, begs the question of who is filming the cameraman and forces the viewer to question how they perceive what they see on the screen. The film also has scenes of Svilova editing the film also forcing the audience to acknowledge the process.

Filming scenes of everyday life and drawing awareness to the process almost seem contradictory. The film tries to strip the artifice away by focusing on the “real” but also draws attention to the artificiality of film. It acknowledges the staging and selection of the scenes. The use of many of the effects gives some sequences an unreal quality. But these contradictions are what make this such a rich and interesting viewing experience. This energetic and optimistic film is quite compelling, both in terms of the pure visuals and for seeing a glimpse into the lives of people in this other time and other place.

I’ll rank it fourth on my list so far. I’ll be curious to see where it ends up in the long run. I was pretty dazzled by it and can really appreciate what it was for its time, but I can see it slipping father down the list as future films employ techniques learned here in new and inventive ways.

  1. Metropolis (1927)
  2. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
  3. The General (1926)
  4. The Man with the Movie Camera (1929)
  5. Battleship Potemkin (1925)
  6. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Next up: City Lights