It’s a curious and depressing thing that the first film school in history was a product of the Soviet Union. The works of early Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein would eventually go on to revolutionize the art form of cinema through it’s use of “Montage” editing and through studying the psychological effects of creating emotion through intercut and conflicting shots of film.
The most famous example of this was the realization that you could communicate information through an edit of unrelated shots. In the most famous example of this, a shot of a man smiling and a shot of a bowl of soup were intercut together. By editing them in sequence, the audience perceived the joy of the man’s face as a reaction to seeing the food, even though the shots had nothing to do with one another. Thus is the magic of cinema: by transitioning between unrelated moments you create meaning in the minds of the audience.
There were more aesthetically radical approaches to filmmaking coming out of Soviet Russia though. While the great film theorist Sergei Eisenstein was pumping out pro-revolution propaganda films like Battleship Potempkin, October and Alexander Nevsky, his contemporary Dziga Vertov was beginning a more radical experiment.
As Kyle Kalgreen points out in his excellent essay on the subject, Vertov distrusted the nature of narrative and believed that cinema had a unique ability to depict reality in ways other representative forms of art couldn’t. His project to come out of these theories would become regarded as one of the most important films in history!
The film in question is fascinating. Man with a Movie Camera is an hour long proto-type of what we would consider a documentary. That concept didn’t exist at this point. The film was mostly picking up concepts that the famous Danish silent/essay film Haxan (1922) revolutionized half a decade before and carrying them further.
Man with a Movie Camera is strictly a collage. There is no dialog and no story. The film introduces itself to it’s audience with a note stating that the film is an experiment in producing a film without sets or actors. The film itself is just a long montage of cityscapes, bustling Eastern European urban sprawl and shots of average people living their lives intercut with moments of fourth wall breaking.
The additional aspect of the film that adds interest to Man with a Movie camera is the film’s quasi-autobiographical portion. The film is constantly cutting to images of the cameraman himself, his editor cutting the film and the prospective audience watching the film itself.
The movie isn’t just a montage of a city. The film is also asking the audience to think about the implications of what it means to be the eye of the camera looking down on this nameless city with an objective God’s eye view.
The film’s most prominent shot is the image of a human eye composited onto the lens of a film camera which is then inter cut with shots of the bustling city below. The image asks us to ponder the role of the camera and the accuracy of the images it captures. By acknowledging the existence of the audience, the editor and the camera man, the film is placing us in context with this question.
Again, it’s unfortunate that films like this existed as nationalist propaganda for the Soviet Union. The nation that would commit the holodomer just a few years later and committed millions of it’s citizens to brutal deaths was only allowed to finance nationalist/socialist propaganda films. Man With a Movie Camera is designed to lionize the hard work of the working man and the incredible effort necessary to run a bustling society. It casts the nameless Eastern Bloc city as a utopia of unity and collective achievement.
Vertov might’ve done something genuinely radical if he’d used his camera enough to record the victims of this “prosperity”.