Home > films and reviews > The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), directed by Dziga Vertov, is a fascinating example of the Soviet silent cinema. Committed to practice the principle of “film truth” by documenting life as it is, Vertov filmed shots of the changing Russian cityscape against the contemporary urban lifestyle. His opposition to staged theatrics in film is evident on his self-declared choice to not use any actors, planned plots, or artistically created backdrops common in the German Expressionist film movement.  Instead, what Vertov creates is a film experience that manages to share its themes through a series of random shots that when juxtaposed together in certain sequences, relays many poetic ideologies prevalent during his time. A good example is the studies in social class that are seen throughout the length of this film, with their differences emphasized through various forms of transition editing. I would like to think that these tools were creatively chosen to highlight the social realism that was evident during this era.

The industrial scenes are presented such that the workers are filmed with the machines of their craft, sharing equal screen time and glorified in the same way as if they are one. The parallel-editing of the fast movements of machines and the automatous body mechanics of the workers conveys their oneness and how one compliments the others. These were evident in the scenes of operators fixing and oiling turning gears, women sited in rows sewing in unison, and trolley carts operated by drivers that seem to follow a choreographed dance that has been rehearsed to perfection. The workers are filmed smiling and enjoying the work that they do, while emphasizing the industrial growth the fuels the city through various wipe transitions between the changing cityscape and the labor force in action which are scattered throughout the film.

The carefree lifestyles of the bourgeoisie are narrated through transition shots of beach scenes with people carelessly spending the hours of their days enjoying the sand and sun. In contrast to the mechanistic human motions of the workers, the movements exemplified by the upper class is shown through series editing of men and women performing hurdle jumps, javelin throws, synchronized swimming, exercising, and dancing. The beauty of the human body performing these movements are emphasized through freeze frames; such as a row of men jumping hurdles in unison and a jockey and horse frozen in a mid-air jump.

Another interesting way on how Vertov juxtaposed individuals from these two social classes is through a series of series editing and superimposed shots. In the film we see a female coal worker focused on her work, without regard to how she looks like as she tries to continue what she was doing despite the distraction she faces with the presence of the camera. This was juxtaposed to shots of a woman sitting on an inclined couch, positioned to get her eye make-up and nail polish done by an unseen worker. Another series shows an unseen worker washing a clean and pretty lady’s hair and a laborers washing and drying dirty clothes by hand. We also see a gentleman getting a shave and women enjoying a day in the salon followed by sewers smiling as they work with their sewing machines.  There were scenes of women merrily dancing with a picture of a piano superimposed to this shot. This was soon followed by a female worker typing with her typewriter superimposed on the same shot.

Interestingly enough, despite the obvious connections discussed, it does not appear that Vertov was trying to evoke a call for revolution or a plea to change the existing social norms. True to his philosophy of “life caught unawares”, he seems to be simply presenting what is there. Any interpretation of intent to provoke emotions cannot be attributed to what the filmmaker showed, allowing the audience freedom to decide what to think or feel about what they saw. With this in mind, I see the genius of his ambition and Vertov has just gained another fan of his work.

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