Documentary

The Man with the Movie Camera

lkj dflkasj hwt aeklrj alskfj Image:
Trying to get the perfect shot. Image: First Order Historians

There is a surprisingly moving sequence in the vintage Soviet documentary, The Man with the Movie Camera (1929).

The film, about life in a Soviet city, features a scene where a bride climbs out of a carriage; she dressed in modest white and clutches a bouquet of flowers. Then we are shown a funeral procession; a man’s corpse lies on a stretcher that is practically buried in blossoms.

Here are two of the most significant occasions of a person’s life, each adorned with flowers.

The Man with the Movie Camera is a documentary that specializes in the duality in life. The premise of the film is simple: a man with a movie camera goes about the city and films stuff. Yet, he can’t help but poke a bit of fun at life’s binary qualities. For example, as one woman thrusts her hands into a basin of water to wash her face, another woman thrusts her hand into a pail of water to wash a window.

Throughout the film, images are either contrasted or compared. We are watching the construction of visual poetry.

But we’re also watching the deconstruction of filmmaking. This trippy film shows us how this very movie is being made while we’re watching it: We see the shooting, the editing, and the premiere at a movie theatre. We’re inside, and outside, of the movie-making process at the same time.

We’re warned about this going in. Before the craziness starts, we are given an explanation:

FOR VIEWERS’ ATTENTION: This movie presents an experiment in the cinematic communication… This experimental work aims at creating…a language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature.

Now, we hope we haven’t given you the impression that this film is difficult to follow, because it isn’t. It’s smart, funny, touching, and feels much shorter than the 67-minute run time.

For example, a magician on the street entertains children who are enthralled by his tricks. You can tell this guy is the best thing they’ve ever seen. In another scene, young women are similarly enthralled with male athletes at a track and field competition.

It feels familiar – this magician, this sporting event, this busy city. We are told it’s Odessa, although film historians say some scenes were filmed in other Soviet cities. Regardless, it is a day in a city that is both old and new, where horse-drawn carriages share cobblestone streets with crowded trams.

But this isn’t just the story of a city.

It is the story of us.

A woman weeps at a grave site. Image: lsdkjf alksdfj sdjkf
A woman weeps at a grave site. Image: youtube.com

It’s the story of being human, and of the things that delight us and make us miserable. For example, one sequence takes place in a licensing office. Here, a nervous man and woman fill out a marriage license. The next customers are a surly couple applying for divorce.

Throughout all of this business, we see the cameraman, in his rolled-up shirtsleeves, angling his camera on a roof or filming from the back of a moving vehicle. The fact that this cameraman appears to be everywhere, all at once – much like the Soviet government – is not lost on us.

The Man with the Movie Camera is probably the most unusual film we’ve ever seen. (Like the street magician, the cameraman uses tricks in his act, such as superimposed imagery and split-screen photography.) It must have been a thrill to see it on the big screen when it was released in 1929.

If you’re in the mood for a completely different approach to filmmaking, we urge you to see The Man with the Movie Camera.

Note: Flicker Alley provided us with a screening copy of The Man with the Movie Camera. You can visit their shop by clicking HERE.

The Man with the Movie Camera (An Excerpt from the Diary of a Cameraman): starring Mikhail Kaufman. Written and directed by Dziga Vertov. VUFKU (The Ukrainian Photo and Cinema Administration), 1929, B&W, 67 mins.

This post is part of the RUSSIA IN CLASSIC FILM Blogathon, hosted by citizen-of-the-world Movies, Silently.

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35 thoughts on “The Man with the Movie Camera

  1. I love documentaries and it sounds as if this one contributes different angles and filming aspect of your usual documentaries. and wow, it’s from 1929… I’ll check it out!

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  2. I was lucky enough to see this classic on the big screen at my local film society a few weeks back – and can confirm it was fantastic to see it in that format! Really enjoyed your piece, and I love your comment about it being “the story of us”.

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    1. Ah, Judy, I’m a bit envious that you were able to see this on the big screen. Some scenes were tense enough on the small screen, e.g. when the cameraman positions his camera on the railroad tracks – yikes! I’m sure I would have shrieked if I saw that on the big screen.

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  3. Love that it comes with a warning! I’ve been trying to watch more documentaries, this certainly sounds like one to add to the list, I’m quite intrigued by the ideas about why we are compelled to make films and document the everyday.

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  4. I got to see this 3 years ago at MOMA. What a wonderful film. I went in with the attitude of “boring” but it is far from boring. One of the best movies films I’ve ever seen.

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  5. I saw this one many years ago in film class and I still remember many of the scenes that you describe. I read somewhere about the number of movies that tried to imitate Man With a Movie Camera. Thanks for sharing with us.

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  6. This really does sound like a unique film with an interesting message about life. Visual poetry gives a great description. Just reading your post about this film was thought-provoking. I would like to see it. Thank you, Ruth!

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  7. It’s a wonderful film, I am lucky to have seen it on the big screen more than once. Amazingly skillful and stunning piece of work from Vertov and his team … I think that from its critical reputation, many assume that it’s a dry piece of experimentation, but it’s a film that truly lives and breathes.

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  8. This was the film that made me fall in love wth silents. I hold it near my heart and I hope to revisit it soon. I saw some dualities when I first watched the movie, but I’ll look for th ones that aren’t so obvious.
    Thanks for being always a supporting blogging friend!
    Kisses!

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