In Dziga Vertov’s experimental silent film Man With A Movie Camera (1929), we follow a cameraman as he films everyday scenes in Soviet life – busy streets, beaches, haircuts, birth, marriage, divorce, a funeral, working with machinery. We also see ‘behind the scenes’ as the film itself is being edited. The film shows both 24 hours in the Soviet Union, and the construction of those 24 hours into a film, in a very experimental and avant-garde way.
It seems like with this blog, I’m revisiting all of the early cinema that people watch at the very beginning of a film studies degree at university. Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to study film at university, so I’m okay with that! Tonight, I decided to re-watch Man With A Movie Camera. I hadn’t watched this one for a long time, and it’s always a classic. From the very first scene, where we see a little man with a little camera climb on top of a larger camera in order to start filming, I was hooked.
As with many early silent films, Man With A Movie Camera uses experimental techniques and effects to tell its ‘story’, such as dissolves, split screens, slow motion sequences, stop motion animation, and freeze frames. Some intriguing scenes of the film involves playing with the dimensions of objects – for example, using some of the aforementioned effects, in one scene the cameraman is a large, superhuman figure towering over the subjects he films. The use of freeze frames in conjunction with quick cutting can be seen in an emotionally moving scene where we are shown the circle of life – a baby being born (watch out for the graphic umbilical cord moment), a wedding, a funeral. Life, love, and death, all in 24 hours. Another scene contrasts the fit bodies of athletes with people utilising some strange weight loss instruments of the ’20s. The film’s construction is very clever in this way.
With the level of experimenting going on in Man With A Movie Camera, never once does it feel crowded or overpacked with special effects. This must have been a really difficult balance to maintain, between wanting to experiment with the newest techniques available to use at the time, and also using them sparingly enough that the viewer doesn’t feel bombarded by them. Despite having no dialogue, not even intertitle cards, and no clearly defined story, this film is compelling throughout its runtime. There’s an element of, “What will they do next?”, but the film is also interesting on a mundane level. Whilst watching, I was interested to see ordinary people in their ordinary lives in the Soviet Union of 1929. If anything, this film is an interesting historical document (and it is indeed described as a documentary by some). If you haven’t seen this one, you definitely should!
Watch the (unofficial) trailer here.
Watch this film at Amazon!