No documentary film in history is as revered as MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1929). Routinely cited as an influential masterpiece, it topped Sight & Sound’s 2014 poll for Best Documentary film and was declared the 8th greatest film of all time in their 2012 survey of almost 1,000 critics. Nobody disputes its acclaim and importance. This was a film filled with innovative techniques, like overlaid images, film running backwards, slow motion, freeze frames, and stop-motion animation. Yet MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA is more than just one piece of flowing, silent beauty. It is a film with ideological intent, and an insight into speculation as to what the future held. Now seen as a curio, MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA was released in 1929, and director Dziga Vertov hoped to change both cinema and history. Yet he didn’t, his plan for the future near arrived. Which makes MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA all the more fascinating.
MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA was made in the Soviet Union in late 1920s. At this point in history, the world was uncertain of the Marxist experiment being carried out in the USSR. No other country had adopted their ideology and as a nation they were shunned on the world stage. The revolutionary founder of the USSR, Vladimir Lenin, was dead. In his place was a political void, gradually being filled by Joseph Stalin. Despite a Russian Civil War and ideological compromises, the USSR had already transformed the feudal Russia of the 1910s into a more modern economy. When MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA was made, there existed no knowledge of the genocides and purges Stalin would enact, nor of the eventual collapse of communism in Europe. Instead, there existed some form of hope, especially for those in support of Marxist ideals. In just over a decade, a country had been entirely transformed. By many metrics, standards of living had improved. The Marxist-Leninists had won a revolution and a war, and now they ran a country making economic gains year on year. When Dziga Vertov made MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, believing things would only continue to get better made sense.
Dziga Vertov worked in film, initially as an editor, after the Revolution in 1917. Like many of the great Russian directors of the era, he was academic and theoretical in his approach to cinema. He believed in the power of montage as a fundamental component of film. However he was also a radical. He believed the highest purpose of cinema was to show truth and capture reality. Documentaries were more pure than fiction. In many ways, fiction to him served a bourgeois purpose. Escapism and dreams are designed to keep the proletariat hopeful and never pursue change. You don’t need fiction if you live in a utopia. However, fiction films still served a purpose in the Soviet Union, even as propaganda pieces like the influential 1925 film BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN. Vertov considered fiction to be a gateway to corrupting the proletariat. Cinema could and should be more than just stories. So, in MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, he set out to forge a new future for what he thought cinema would be.
MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA opens with a message saying the film is “an experiment in cinematic communication”. What follows is a film with no intertitles and no story. It is a film which breaks apart cinema to become one smooth, hour-long montage. In 1929, sound cinema had only just been invented and was mostly confined to Hollywood. So cinema was not fully formed in a sense. Like a child, it could grow up to be anything. Perhaps MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA could have become the future.
MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA is montage as ideology. It is very implicit, but it is designed to evoke a sense of wonder for the world the Soviet Union wanted to create. Vertov made a film that documents the lives of workers, presenting nothing but admiration for the proletariat so crucial for the Marxist dream. Shot across Ukraine and Russia, the film shows us loads of happy, smiling workers. Nothing bourgeois is in sight, just the humble culture of the masses. The film opens with a city awakening and people proudly cleaning their streets. They are happy to be a part of the presented Soviet utopia. Across a cross-section of workers, from those in factory and mills, to firemen, nurses, and miners, we get a giant showcase of a society pulling together for the common good.
MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA is about the harmonious society the Soviet Union was trying to argue could exist. Throughout the film, men and women are presented as both being vital to the workforce. The roads are shown as futuristic, filled with trams and cars, leaving horses and carts to the side. Shots focus heavily on machinery and factories, showing the future that could be built with knowledge. Men and women are shown getting married and divorced, their social liberties now expanded. The argument being made is that prosperity is now here, and feudalism, scarcity, and inequality are in the past. You no longer need escapism, because a modern society is here. Vertov’s film is a manifesto in favour of the documentary form, rooted in the Marxist-Leninist view of utopia. Certainly the film has many lies by omission, for any struggles present in the Soviet Union are not shown, but Vertov’s attempts to purify cinema and retain reality make sense if you believe life is so good that you don’t need to dream.
In fact, life is presented as being pretty good in MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA. Everybody works, rests, and plays. The film’s latter half is mostly taken up with recreational activities. Citizens spend time at the beach or participating in sport. There are extended montages of men and women taking part in athletics, competing in the discus, high jump, pole vault, hurdles races, and the hammer throw, all intercut together as one of the film’s most impressive sections. There is also a lot of football, volleyball, and swimming, sports of the common man. These people work all day and then exercise in the evening. They are living a healthy and happy lifestyle. To cap it off, they have some drinks in a bar, enjoying themselves as the day ends. Vertov’s entire showcase of montage in MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA is designed to show a full day in the modern world of 1920s Russia and Ukraine. It depicts a joyful workforce, all serving the nation and being rewarded for it. One banner reads “defend the security of the Soviet state” and no doubt MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA was working to inspire that sense of national pride in its viewers.
Vertov expected the form of MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA to be the future of cinema. He had made a film that remains a proof of concept for his view on the power of the moving image. It is truly unique. However things did not come to pass. Following 1929, sound cinema and fiction features began to dominate. Documentary montages never became more than curiosity art-house pieces. Furthermore, the Soviet dream never fulfilled the futuristic hopes that MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA presented. Stalin’s regime and the Second World War destroyed a lot of lives and hope. Then decades of bad decisions, international rivalries, and the growth of globalized capitalism led to the Soviet Union collapsing. Whatever future those early years of rapid growth promised, they were derailed in the subsequent decades. MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA is therefore stuck on the precipice of two turning points in history. In a political sense, it presents the Soviet Union at the peak of idealism and before decades of self-destruction. In a cinematic sense, it represents the last efforts of the silent era to define cinema, before narrative and sound became the totally dominant features of film. So, if you want to see a future that never came to be, cinematically and politically, MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA stands alone and remains unprecedented.