Man With a Movie Camera blu-rayMan With a Movie Camera, the silent Soviet documentary from director Dziga Vertov, has an incredible reputation. Not only did the prestigious British publication Sight and Sound proclaim it the greatest documentary ever made in a poll of filmmakers and critics, but in the last of their once-a-decade polls to select the out and out greatest films of all time, it appeared at number 8. I've seen it before and have it on DVD, but when Eureka announced it as the latest addition to their Masters of Cinema series on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD, packaged with four other films by Vertov, I felt it was time to revisit it.

The films included with the set alongside Man With a Movie Camera are Kino-Eye (1924), Kino-Pravda #21 (1925), Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931) and Three Songs About Lenin (1934). Below are my thoughts on the individual films.

Man With a Movie Camera

Director: Dziga Vertov
Screenplay: Dziga Vertov
Starring: Mikhail Kaufman
Country: Soviet Union
Running Time: 68 min
Year: 1929

I actually watched the films in the set in chronological order, but thought I'd start my review by looking at the tentpole title. After busily producing at least 45 short and feature length documentaries from 1918 (according to the IMDB), Vertov's final silent film, Man With a Movie Camera, took many of the techniques and ideas he'd been developing for over ten years and put them into a boldly experimental look at a 'day-in-the-life' of four cities in the Soviet Union. Also looking at the role of the camera at the time, the film is a showcase of cinematic techniques as well as a celebration of city life.

Well, I imagine some of you are thinking, 'an experimental silent Soviet documentary from the 20's? No thanks, I'll stick with the latest Marvel release. I'll maybe whack it on if I fancy a nap on the sofa'. I can appreciate this opinion. On paper, Man With a Movie Camera sounds incredibly dull. However, it's one of the most thrilling films you'll ever see. Vertov pulls out all the stops to bombard us with a multitude of camera and post-production tricks, from super-imposing a man setting up a camera on top of a seemingly huge second camera in the film's opening shot, to the wildly fast-cutting crescendo of visuals that draws it all to a close. Most of the effects haven't dated much either. Yes, the superimposition is obvious compared to modern standards, but it's not that bad and effects such as some slow motion footage of sportsmen are as smooth as any modern techniques. There's even some stop motion animation used to great effect.

Man With a Movie Camera 3

All of this playing around with techniques isn't enough to engage on its own though. The film also has a clear, strong structure and unifying themes that keep proceedings cohesive and never boring. The film opens with the cities waking up, takes us through people at work, then at play and finally enjoying the nightlife. In between this we look at many facets of life and death, from a baby being born to wedding, divorce and funeral arrangements (all of which are rushed through in one short section).

It's the extraordinary rhythm that holds things together too. After a surprisingly tense build up of people arriving at a cinema to seemingly watch the film itself as the projectionist sets up and the orchestra waits poised, the film bursts into life with the titular cameraman (who appears frequently throughout), daringly capturing a shot of a train hurtling towards the camera. This furious pace barely lets up, other than for a breather after work has finished and we watch people relax on the beach.

The aforementioned train sequence isn't the only scene of 'extreme camerawork' either. Another exciting aspect of the film is watching the cameraman shoot some death defying footage. We see him hanging from the side of a train, set up in an open topped moving car and climbing a huge tower with the camera but no safety ropes. It's the best thing a documentary will get to the stunt work of Jackie Chan or the film's contemporaries Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Remember, this is long before the days of shock-proof mini GoPro cameras too. Vertov's operators were using big clunky hand-cranked machines. The most bonkers example of their use comes in a shot where we see the cameraman operate a camera on the handlebars of a motorbike that he's simultaneously driving in the busy city streets.

I've not even mentioned how influential Man With a Movie Camera clearly is to experimental cinema, art films, documentaries, adverts and even music videos. That's often what you need to bear in mind when watching silent films to appreciate them, but this is so vibrant, thrilling and frankly jaw-dropping that its importance is more of a side note than a necessity to enjoy the experience.

Kino-Eye

Director: Dziga Vertov
Screenplay: Dziga Vertov
Country: Soviet Union
Running Time: 78 min
Year: 1924

Kino-Eye is the earliest film in the set, although it's still well into Vertov's career, who had made dozens of short and a couple of feature documentaries before this. When watched now, it plays out like a sort of dry run for Man With a Movie Camera, giving a slice of life whilst playing with film techniques. Rather than chronicle a day-in-the-life of Soviet cities though, it's set in a Soviet town/village, most closely following the activities of the Young Pioneers. These were sort of Scouts, who, on top of learning the usual valuable life skills, promoted the work and teachings of Lenin. Because of this, the film has more of a feel of a propaganda film, as do all the rest of the films included in the set. This tainted the film (and the others) a little for me, but I still found much to appreciate.

As mentioned, Kino-Eye again plays with the possibilities of cinema. There are a number of reversed sequences that trace back where things came from. For instance, we see beef on the market, then watch the film reverse as it travels from the slaughter house (or back to it when in reverse), see the bull being un-butchered, then see it back in the field with the others. There are some great slow motion shots of divers too and a brief animated sequence.

However, there isn't as much experimentation here as in Man With a Movie Camera, so it's not as eye-popping as that film. The pace is much slower too, other than in a sequence or two. Due to this, it's not as engaging as the more famous film, but it works as an interesting slice of life documentary in which you can see a director hone his skills, ready for his later masterpiece.

Man With a Movie Camera 1

Kino-Pravda #21

Director: Dziga Vertov
Country: Soviet Union
Running Time: 29 min
Year: 1925

One of a series of newsreels Vertov produced in the mid-twenties, Kino-Pravda #21 commemorates the first anniversary of Lenin's death. Its half the length of the other films here, but skims through the development of Lenin, his ill health in his final months and the response from the public to his death. As such, it's another bit of Soviet propaganda, praising Lenin to almost God-like levels.

It does contain some interesting effects here and there though. Most notably, it's got some fairly advanced animated graphics showing Lenin's health in his final months, detailing his temperature, pulse and breathing. There's a fast pace to proceedings too, but the film isn't as playful as Kino-Eye or Man With a Movie Camera.

It's probably the most historically interesting film of the set although it's too short to be all that illuminating, and isn't particularly thrilling to watch.

Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass

Director: Dziga Vertov
Country: Soviet Union
Running Time: 67 min
Year: 1931

After Man With a Movie Camera, Vertov had only one avenue left unexplored in his experimentation with the cinematic medium, sound. 'Talkies' had been around for a couple of years before Man With a Movie Camera's release, but many were dubious about using synced sound at first. With Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, Vertov embraced it wholeheartedly though.

After documenting an anti-religion demonstration in Donbass, the film looks at how the miners of the Don coal basin (one of the industrial regions of Ukraine) strived to fulfil their part of the Five Year Plan in only four years. So, once again we have a film extolling the virtues of the socialist way of life in the Soviet Union, which turned me off a bit, but I was used to this by the fourth film.

The first half of the film is where Vertov really plays with sound and visuals to great effect. He uses abstract music and sound design on top of image layering and speed changes to shake the audience to its core. Because of this, it's a tough watch though. I admire the experimentation and it has moments of beauty and power, but the intense style really pummels you.

Luckily, the second half where we watch the miners at work and hear the praise for them afterwards is less disturbingly experimental. However, this proves to be a double edged sword as the second half feels very slow and repetitive. The parade and dance for the workers at the end are particularly drawn out and tedious.

So it's an odd film to give my opinion on. The use of sound and montage is impressive but brutally tough to sit through and when the film calms down it feels less impressive and quite dull. There's always something to appreciate though so it's worth watching, if only once.

Man With a Movie Camera 2

Three Songs About Lenin

Director: Dziga Vertov
Screenplay: Dziga Vertov
Starring: Dolores Ibárruri, Nadezhda Krupskaya, V.I. Lenin
Country: Soviet Union
Running Time: 59 min
Year: 1934

And so we come to the final film in the set, Three Songs About Lenin. Once more providing great praise for the leader, a few years after his death, the film is split into three sections exploring different changes Lenin's work has made to life in the Soviet Union, largely in the outer regions of the state. We see the development of women's rights in the far Eastern realms, electricity reaching a rural village and water flowing through the desert.

From the offset, this feels like a different film from the rest included here, with some of the opening shots being quite pastoral, looking at nature rather than industrial machinery or swarms of people. The film in general has more of a beauty to its imagery than its predecessors.

What it lacks however is the experimentation and pace of the other films in the set. It's much more of a straightforward documentary. Working with synced sound again, there is some interesting sound design and a powerful sequence where time actually stops (using freeze frames) as the world commemorates Lenin's death during his funeral, but ultimately Vertov breaks less new ground than he had done before.

Like Enthusiasm's second half, the pace is quite slow in parts and Lenin's funeral sequence is drawn out to a fidget-inducing degree. It's heavy on the propaganda again too which can grate. The film is finely produced though and it contains moments of beauty. It's more obviously coherent than some of the others too, so is an easier watch.

The Blu-Ray

Man With a Movie Camera (and other works by Dziga Vertov) is out on 18th April in a 4-disc Blu-Ray & DVD set in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. I watched the Blu-Ray version and the transfers are a little mixed. Man With a Movie Camera looks amazingly clean and fresh, but the two earliest films are a little worn and burnt out in places. The later two films look good for their age, although not quite as polished as the set's centrepiece.

On top of all five films, you get a small handful of special features. There's a new audio commentary on Man With A Movie Camera by film scholar Adrian Martin, The Life and Times of Dziga Vertov, an exclusive, lengthy video interview with film scholar Ian Christie on Vertov's career and the films in this set, and a new exclusive visual essay by filmmaker David Cairns. All three features are detailed and rich with background information on the films. Ian Christie's interview is particularly fascinating and refreshingly frank as it makes Vertov out to be, to put it bluntly, a bit of a dick.

You also get one of Eureka's excellent booklets in with the package, which this time around is a hefty near 100 pages long, so contains plenty of info on the director and films included.

Man With a Movie Camera (and other works by Dziga Vertov)
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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