Labeled the best documentary of all time by Sight & Sound in 2014, Dziga Vertov‘s Человек с киноаппаратом [Chelovek s kinoapparatom] [Man with a Movie Camera] lives up to its pedigree thanks in no small part to the level of cinematic innovation somehow utilized as far back as 1929. Besides the obvious period clothing and aesthetic, that release year seems a lie with an estimated 1,775 shots in just 68-minutes. So when most movies of the era drag with melodramatic performances mugging for the camera as intertitles cut in to deliver context, Vertov moves sequence to sequence (sometimes simultaneously courtesy of superimposition) so the visual language of the medium can speak for itself. He ostensibly delivers six reels of Soviet life and cinematic process without blinking.
I found myself missing moments I wished I could rewind and pause through to ensure my brain caught every detail onscreen. Transitions occur instantaneously—sometimes moving back and forth between two set pieces and others simply forgetting what came first so the latest footage can replace it as paramount in our minds. Sometimes there’s rhyme and reason to the juxtapositions and others come seemingly at random outside of the over-arching theme of Vertov immortalizing real people as they exist and thrive in a working class communist regime with smiles devoid of even a shred of hardship beyond that which life delivers to everyone. We witness mud-covered beachside cavorting, smiling commuters out for leisure drives, and even the birth of a child to cement the Soviet peoples’ vitality.
Some moments are obviously staged to give Vertov and his cinematographer (brother Mikhail Kaufman) exactly what they desire, but that doesn’t necessarily belittle the goal of filming an unfettered life or transform the piece into pure propaganda. A lot of these instances are pretty much just examples of cool visual effects that enhance the finished product rather than ruin the sense of veracity. After all, the movie begins with a small cameraman literally climbing another giant camera through post-production techniques—authenticity of image isn’t as important to the director as authenticity of message. His use of manipulation is what allows the audience to decipher the “story” so to speak. Vertov explains everything his movie provides with the movie itself and lets this inception draw us in.
For much of the piece we see a cameraman and then the footage he’s filming. We become the voyeur of the voyeur, shifting from wide shot to close-up with contextual relevance. Vertov even goes so far as to film his wife Elizaveta Svilova as she cuts this very film so that Man with a Movie Camera becomes a documentary of its own creation as well as the world from which it came (Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow, and Odessa of the USSR are all featured). After focusing solely on the moving image, Vertov eventually halts the action without warning to flip through still images. These images are then seen as the negatives that birthed them—sprocket-holed stock rendered motionless on Svilova’s lightbox until the film puts them back in motion.
I found myself wanting to project a linear story above the bits and pieces despite these technological interludes, but I’m not sure I wasn’t manufacturing meaning where it didn’t exist solely because I wanted there to be more than just random events without a discernable relationship between them. It almost follows the trajectory of a week with work and transportation filling the majority of chapters one through four while a playtime/nightlife regimen comes in for chapters five and six as though a depiction of the weekend. The subjects aren’t consistent enough to prove this and the ability to say each reel contains specifically complementary material is tenuous at best. Ultimately Vertov’s documentary is less about the USSR than it is cinema anyway—the medium’s magic and breadth.
The title describing the one constant throughout is therefore the true subject. Besides movie theater bookends turning the film we’re watching into a film inside a film, there’s always a man hauling around his massive tripod to steal details of what the lens behind him sees. The camera allows us to watch public and private events, burns willing participants and unsuspecting ones onto celluloid without prejudice, and goes places we cannot to bring the speed of trains and automobiles into a safe haven wherein the experience arrives from a comfortable chair inside a darkened room. Vertov brings the bustle of urban life into the cinema, orchestrating a symphony of everyday life in a way that makes it look like the extraordinary miracle it truly is.