Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
Dziga Vertov | Man with a Movie Camera / Three Heroines
TWO VERTOV DOCUMENTARIES:
the mad cameraman
Vertov (writer and director) Человек
с киноаппаратом(Man with a Movie Camera) / 1929
by Douglas Messerli
Vertov's film begins with a written
The film Man with a Movie Camera represents
AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE
of visual phenomena
WITHOUT THE USE OF
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A
WITHOUT THE HELP OF THEATRE
(a film without actors,
without sets, etc.)
This new experimentation
work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the
creation - ABSOLUTE
KINOGRAPHY - on the basis of its complete separation from the
language of theatre and literature.
Vertov had randomly shot over 1,775 shots, employing
his wife Elizaveta Svilova to cut and piece them together as a representation
of a day in the life of a city (in this case, Odessa) in 1929.
Certainly Man with a Movie Camera is
intentionally experimental, using numerous techniques from double exposures,
slow motion, freeze frames, split screens, close-ups, and long tracking shots
to what is described as Dutch angles, a tilt of the camera to the side creating
vertical lines at an angle to the frame.
certainly cannot describe this documentary as being without narrative. It
begins, in fact, with the above manifesto as a kind prologue before showing,
from within, a movie house, as the crowd enters, the seats seeming to
automatically fall from upright position to the horizontal in long rows. The
crowd is seated, a curtain rises, and an orchestra is poised to begin as a
short stasis creates tension before the conductor brings down his baton on the
Alloy Orchestra, a group which creates not only a driving rhythmic music but
incorporates sounds such as sirens, crowd noise, the cries of babies and much
The narrative is made immediately apparent, as a woman is seen sleeping
upon a bed, an alarm clock blares, and another woman sits up to wash her face
and change into her dress. Although Vertov's work begins rather slowly, it
quickly picks up a speed that drives the numerous daily routines, from
traveling to work by bus, train, streetcar and other modes of transportation to
the masses' arrival into the heart of the city where they begin their numerous
daily routines that take us into the late afternoon when the host of figures
engage in multiple entertainments, including theater, sunbathing, and various
engagements in sport events.
At the center of this narrative is the central character, an almost
manic cameraman (Mikhail Kaufman) who with camera in hand hops upon various
forms of transportation, climbs bridges, and mounts machines, tracking scenes
from below and on high as he risks his life to capture energy of
But, of course, we know that despite the
cameraman's busy demeanor that there is yet another camera trained on him, and
that, in fact, the film is not just a movie about a "man with a movie
camera," but is a more self-referential film, a movie about a movie maker.
The stars of this narrative are the cinematographer, Vertov himself, and the
tool he uses to accomplish the task. At one point the camera seems to actually
come alive, taking itself apart and reassembling its own being. At another
moment we witness the mad camera man atop his own camera. And again and again,
while the masses go about their daily chores, the cameraman and his camera race
across the screen to track the actions of the Soviet folk it—again mostly in a
pretense—"secretly" shoots. This is not exactly candid camera,
however, for although Vertov is said to have distracted several of crowds from
the fact that they were being filmed, the very outsized version of his machine
surely encouraged some of his figures to pose for the camera, or, to put it
another way, to "act."
Except for the statement of no intertitles, accordingly, Vertov's
manifesto seems to ignore what it claims to have accomplished, creating instead
a kind of theatrical narrative whose actors are the cameraman and his camera
among a cast of thousands of extras. No matter, the film is still today one of
the most remarkable documentaries ever made, long ahead of its time using
techniques that influenced 20th and 21st-century filmmaking.
If at times Man with a Movie
Camera, particularly near the end, seems—as Vertov's critics had
argued—gimmicky and even manipulative, overall the work is a remarkable
achievement, representing as it does a vast landscape of pulsing city life.
Angeles, March 21, 2012
Vertov and Elizaveta Svilova (directors) Tri
geroinia (Three Heroines) / 1938,
the print I saw was at The Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater on March 24th,
If Vertov’s Man
with a Movie Camera is an exciting mélange of cinematic experimentations,
his and his wife’s Three Heroines is
a rather straight-forward, at time amateurish, propagandistic tribute, less to
the three heroines of its title, than to Stalin and the Soviet system.
is true that Vertov and Svilova, true to their beliefs, did not use voice-overs
or devise numerous acted out scenes for their documentary. Indeed Vertov’s more
radical methods were now devalued by the Soviet film heads. Accordingly, this
film was little seen in the Soviet Union and completely unknown to the rest of
The three heroines are
air pilots Raskova, Osipenko, and Grisodubova, who attempted to make a first
nonstop trans-Siberian flight. They failed, crashing into the Soviet taiga, and
for several days their whereabouts were unknown.
however, insisted upon detailed searches and, eventually the three were
discovered alive and still in good health. The irony is that this threesome
came to be better known having failed than they might have had they succeeded
in their mission. After mending, the women called home to their husbands and
children—their joyful communications caught by the documentarians camera in
some of the moving scenes of the film—before they were taken by train on the
long journey back to Moscow. Along the way, the three made numerous stops, the
woman laden with medals and flowers, presenting speeches proclaiming the
greatness of the Soviet system and the beloved protection of Stalin. Unlike the
West’s neglect of Amelia Earhart, they argue, the Soviet system cares about its
would-be heroes and all its citizens, of which their salvation is an example.
about the third or fourth such speech even the most ardent viewer grows weary,
and the constant repetition of a song of these tiaga-trotting women,
alternating with praises of the USSR—the major link between their picaresque
travels—rather than charming the viewer, drills the ditty into his head.
Certainly, there are lovely moments, and the imposing views of small
Soviet villages are often fascinating as Vertov’s and Svilova’s camera remains
in near-constant motion. But this time, without many cinematic tricks, the
document seems uneventful and flat. Long live the Soviet people and their great
protector Stalin and Soviet Commisars!