Director: Dziga Vertov
Cast: Mikhail Kaufman
Length: 279 min
Label: Flicker Alley
Release Date: June 02, 2015
Video codec: TBA
Aspect Ratio: 1.2:1
Subtitles: English and French
- New digital restoration by EYE Film Institute, with digital treatment by Lobster Films
- Kino Eye (1924)
- Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931
- Three Songs About Lenin (1934)
- The Man with the Movie Camera and Kino-Eye feature musical accompaniments by Alloy Orchestra and Robert Israel respectively, while original soundtracks have been restored for Enthusiasm and Three Songs About Lenin.
- Kino-Pravda #21
Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is without a doubt one of the most-watched and analyzed avant-garde works of all time. Its place in the cinematic canon has been reinforced by Sight & Sound’s once-a-decade poll, the most recent of which named Vertov’s masterpiece the 8th greatest film ever made. So what is it about this piece of experimental Soviet propaganda that commands such respect after so many years? A new restoration and blu-ray release from Flicker Alley allows the chance to revisit this enigmatic film school favorite.
Dziga Vertov was a man in constant motion. His films are frenzied assemblies of images, barrages of ideas that dare viewers to keep up. His writings as a film theorist—particularly the impassioned manifestoes that first appeared in the revolutionary Soviet journal LEF—practically danced across the page. Even the name he took on as an artist (Vertov was born David Kaufman) translates to “spinning top.”It’s perhaps surprising then that the most arresting moment of Man with a Movie Camera (1929), which is the director’s most accomplished and celebrated work, involves a moment of complete stillness. Roughly halfway through the film, the bustling, chaotic city that is Vertov’s subject unexpectedly slows, stutters, and stops. The camera cuts leisurely from one still frame to another with bystanders and vehicles frozen in place, waiting for the command to move forward again. And eventually that moment comes: the film’s own editor appears on screen sorting through the very same frames we have just seen. She is arranging, rearranging, and splicing together strips of film to create a complete reel. Just like that, the still frames return to life. The whole movie-making process (or at least, the process as it was for cinema’s first century) has been revealed right before our eyes.
This is why Man with a Movie Camera remains one of the greatest documentaries of all time. Though Vertov’s method was about as far from traditional point-and-shoot realism as you can get, his fundamental goal was to inform and educate. He wanted his audiences—who were still adjusting to this whole thing we call the movies—to know where the strings were, and who exactly was pulling them. Ten years before Dorothy ever stepped foot in Oz, Vertov dared to show the man behind the curtain.In actuality, however, there was a woman behind the curtain. The editor we see was Vertov’s real-life collaborator (and wife), Elizaveta Svilova, who has never quite received her rightful place in the public eye as a co-author of most of Vertov’s work and an accomplished filmmaker in her own right (The Fall of Berlin (1945), Nuremberg Trials (1947)). She would often be credited as the “second-unit director” or “assistant editor” on Vertov’s films, but her role was far more pivotal than that would suggest. Svilova was an intellectual sparring partner who helped drive and shape Vertov’s highly abstract, conceptual work. Along with Vertov’s brother, cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman, they developed the theory of the “cine-eye” that formed the basis for most of the director’s films, especially Man with a Movie Camera. “Cine-eye” is the idea that, through proper photography and montage editing, the camera could capture truths that the mere human eye could never perceive. If that sounds like an intolerable film school exercise, well…that’s actually not an easy charge to dismiss. Without a lot of philosophical, academic context, it can be challenging (downright annoying even) to make out what Vertov and Svilova’s dense jumble of a movie is driving at. Of course, stripping away that context was part of Vertov’s perverse point—unlike most silent films, Man with a Movie Camera intentionally features no intertitles or captioning, the better (so Vertov thought) to move away from literary roots and establish a new language of pure film.
This impenetrable ambiguity is both a misstep and what remains so utterly captivating about the movie. Even without any narrative, certain patterns emerge: men surrounded and swallowed by machinery, women giving birth, great construction projects raising factories, railways, and dams. Some shots are startling for their sheer beauty and invention, symbolism be damned: the indelible eye superimposed over a camera lens, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater collapsing in on itself, a propaganda poster seemingly ordering a whole city to hush in the presence of a sleeping baby.
Will viewers see these images and immediately convert to communism, as Vertov hoped? Unlikely. But there remains a mysterious appeal in the director’s fragmented, ecstatic vision of modern society. The pure energy behind Vertov and Svilova’’s spinning, whirring cinema-machine is simply infectious. Movies are built on motion, and no filmmakers have ever understood that better.
The restoration of Man with the Movie Camera—available for the first time on Blu-ray thanks to a 2K scan originally performed by Haghefilm in Amsterdam—combined an intense effort from multiple European film archives and labs to present Vertov’s film cleaner and more complete than it’s been since its original release in 1929. It’s worth checking out Flicker Alley’s liner notes, which include fascinating details explaining how all previous versions of Man with a Movie Camera, for various technical reasons, shaved off about 10% of the image from Vertov’s original frames. The grayscale range is remarkably broad, though there’s some unavoidable variation in image quality considering Vertov pulled footage from many different sources. In any case, the digital cleaning performed by European distributor Lobster Films in 2014 removes much of the dirt and scratches that plague the low-res versions pervading the Internet.
Flicker Alley recycles the Alloy Orchestra score that was used on Image Entertainment’s 1998 DVD. It’s mildly disappointing that no one took the opportunity to record a new soundtrack, but the Alloy Orchestra track is considered as being fairly definitive since it was based on Vertov’s personal notes for accompaniment. It’s certainly well-done and appropriate, mixing in sound effects like clattering trains and barking dogs to bring Vertov’s imagined city to life.
Man with the Movie Camera on Blu-ray alone might have been good enough to make this release worth buying, but Flicker Alley has also packed in three more of Vertov’s feature documentaries—Kino-Eye (1924), Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931), and Three Songs About Lenin (1934)—along with an excerpt from Vertov’s newsreel series, Kino-Pravda, allowing a broad and revealing look at how the director’s style evolved over his relatively brief career. All of these “bonus” films have been digitally cleaned as well—although not as meticulously as Man with a Movie Camera.
It’s redundant to even say it, but Man with a Movie Camera is essential cinema. For those who are already fans, this is a definitive home release, a true restoration that respects and contextualizes Vertov’s life and work like never before. If you’ve somehow missed the boat until now, then the release is an opportunity to see what all the fuss is about. It might be too obscure to adore, but it certainly intrigues.