Man with a Movie Camera


In 1929, when Dziga Vertov completes his work on Man with a Movie Camera", the All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration, the main producer of the film, is going through tough times. The conflict with Sovkino, numerous economic and ideological reorganizations undermine the considerable successes that have been achieved by VUFKU in just seven years of its existence. The following year, 1930, one of the most powerful European film institutions will be permanently destroyed, and its remnants will be buried under the newly created Soyuzkino. But so far, in 1929,  a non-fiction cinematic experiment by Vertov diversifies Ukrainian film production that already produces more than 30 features a year.

It was not the first film that Vertov shot in Ukraine. In 1927, the "way too avant-garde" obscure experimenter was fired from Sovkino. Officially because he had not submitted the script for Man with a Movie Camera in time.

Informally, because the deployment of Stalin totalitarianism pushed everything that did not serve to support propaganda away. Vertov, at this time, is criticized for "formalism" that ignores the need to convey a certain and quite unambiguous ideological message to the audience. That seems ironic, given the repeated Vertov's recognition of his loyalty to the regime, and his devotion to "implement the ideas of Leninism into film".

Stills from HD copy, restored by the EYE Film Instituut Nederland. At the mid-2019 it is the only known non-cropped version of the film in the original 1:1,33 ratio.

At that time, the 32-year-old director has managed to shoot Kino-Eye, released 23 series of Kinopravda magazine, published a number of manifestos – in particular, the legendary Kinoki. Revolution in 1923 in LEF magazine, in the same issue with Eisenstein's article The Montage of Film Attractions.  Named David at birth, he really was a peg-top (dzyga in Ukrainian) given his activity. However,  he did not have any direct successors, only for the creative association of "kinoki", which was headed by Vertov himself and included, in particular, his wife Elisaveta Svilova and his brother Mikhail Kaufman. For instance, if Vertov was interested in capturing "life by surprise", depicting life as it is with his camera, without additional dramatizations, Esfir Shub, referred to editing and tried to find "the history by surprise" by creating her own works (Russia of Nicholas II And Leo Tolstoy, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, etc.) with the recovered pre-revolutionary and revolutionary chronicles.

Thus, the Odesa film Studio in 1927 invites Vertov to Ukraine. VUFKU supports his 50-minute experiment film The Eleventh; the production of this film also involved the people from YugoLEF collective, according to some testimonies. The film was dedicated to the 11th anniversary of the October revolution and the plot referred to the Chronicles of the construction of the Dnieper hydroelectric power station and the General industrialization of the country. As a continuation of avant-garde film research in The Morphology of Cinema", The Eleventh was filmed with a video camera as if a letter created by a pen,  as Vertov himself will say in 1928,. Testing the ability of the camera, the director is mainly interested in the opportunity to grab "the world without a mask, the world of naked thoughts, the world of naked truth (...) to make the invisible visible", to discover "the world under the film-eye as a drop of water under the eye of a microscope". For example, already in The Eleventh,  Dzyga Vertov reduces the role of the titles for they inevitably distort the "naked life" on screen. Later on, in Man with a Movie Camera he uses the same idea. The fabric of life, with all of its many complex and not always obvious links and connections, in its entirety, unseen to the human eye is something that Vertov seeks to achieve in his films, and something that will most fully appear in his next piece.

Having started shooting in Moscow, the director continues to work on the Man with a Movie Camera on the basis of VUFKU. Formally being a diary of one day in the life of the cameraman, which was made by his brother and long-time creative partner Mikhail Kaufman, the film is a depiction of life in the big city. In Ukraine, filming took place in Odesa, Kharkiv and Kyiv. Subsequently, Vertov wrote: "Working on a Man with a Movie Camera required more effort than the previous works of Kino-eye. This is due to both a large number of locations under observation and the complex organizational and technical operations during the filming. Exceptional efforts were required for the editing experiments. The editing experiments were carried out continuously." Indeed, the film is striking, in particular, with its operator's ingenuity. Hidden filming in the cemetery and on the beach, shooting on the tracks in front of a locomotive that is about to run you over, or under the moving cars, on the tower of the boiler room or standing on the door of the car that rushes, obviously, past the former Odesa New Exchange, which is now the Philharmonic. By a sad coincidence, the cinematographic talent of Mikhail Kaufman will pretty soon become one of (conditional) reasons for the conflict between the filmproducing brothers. But for now, both of the "filmars" (a definition which, incidentally, pops up on the screen at a certain moment of the film and stands for a film-maker) were immersed in "capturing the unaware life".

By a sad coincidence, the cinematographic talent of Mikhail Kaufman will pretty soon become one of (conditional) reasons for the conflict between the filmproducing brothers.

Mikhail Kaufman on the motorcycle with the camera

The film begins with a famous statement: "This film is an experience of film transmission of visible phenomena. Without the help of intertitles (a film without titles). Without the aid of a scenario (a film without script). Without the help of theatre (a film without sets, actors, etc.). This experimental work is aimed at creating a truly international absolute language of cinema on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theater and literature." To see the beauty of the movements of athletes in the slowmotion, to step back and understand the whole crowd on the city avenues, to see the vulnerability of a person in their private life and, most importantly, to identify the pattern of things and phenomena, the internal order of the surrounding life – this is what the film language is capable of, which, according to Dzyga Vertov's logic, tends to be non-verbal.  Editing, traditionally "assisted" by his wife Elizaveta Svilova, helps to open the world, so to speak, to decompose the phenomena into their elementary schemes: in this chaotic (at first glance) urban space, everything has an explanation. From the somewhat chaotic alternation of frames at the beginning of the film, it gradually creates parallels and connections. In the morning, the woman washes herself up – the city is getting prepared too, whisking the dust from its posts by water; the geometry of the streets becomes linear with the intersected tramways and electric wires; death is being wept at the cemetery or in the funeral procession, but it gives a way to a new life, just the way the woman in labor brings a new life to this world in front of the camera. Everything makes sense in this world.

The structural pattern consists of several conventional main lines: the cameraman (Kaufman), who films the surrounding life in the city during the day; the editor (Svilova), who spends all the time at work, manifesting in the internal order of things in the footage; the very street everyday that unfolds from morning to evening entertainments; and the moviegoers – because the films opens up with a scene of a cinema where, in fact, Man with a Movie Camera is shown.  Almost a century later, even today, the Man with a Movie Camera feels like not just a fresh film, but also very witty, resourceful, brave – just as much "alive" and young film as it used to be, it never lost its fuse. But then, in 1929, Vertov was again underestimated. Some accused the director of excessive interest in technology or – again – in formalism. Eisenstein, by the way, considered this work pampering. Later, Dzyga's friend, writer Ilya Ehrenburg will point out: "He will not be understood for a long time. But he will be robbed for an even longer time." And that, eventually, had happened.

Later writer Ilya Ehrenburg will point out: "He will not be understood for a long time. But he will be robbed for an even longer time."

Then there was Vertov's third film, shot on the basis of VUFKU – Enthusiasm: The Symphony of Donbas, the first Soviet sound film. At the same time, Dzyga's relations with his brother will get worse, until when he accused Mikhail of plagiarism for he had used some shots taken by him and not used in Vertov's film for his own film Spring. The creative tandem broke up. In the 30ies in Moscow, the director-experimenter will also create a series of films that will be increasingly censored or even rejected. Vertov died in 1954 completely confounded. However, 14 years later, Jean-Luc Godard founds the Dzyga Vertov Creative group, and the films of the inventor of "Kinoeye" are being rethought and imitated until now.


Yuliya Kovalenko, 2019