Talking to a colleague this week about Russian cinema I realised that that other than the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, director of such films as Ivan's Childhood (1962) and Stalker (1979) I know very little about the subject. He did however recommend a silent 1929 black and white avant-garde documentary by Dziga Vertov entitled Man with a Movie Camera.
The director’s opening credits start with citizens filing into a cinema to watch the same film we are about to see and at its conclusion we view the same audience leaving the cinema spilling out on to the busy streets. The film records a day in the life of a ‘modern’ Soviet city, in fact it was filmed in several different places including Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. Beginning when the city is still, no traffic, no people, then as the city gradually awakens buses and trams appear, the empty streets fill with bustling people. We witness their lives and how they work, rest and play. Vertov packs all urban Russian life into his ‘day’, we see a baby born to an expectant mother, we observe children playing, and people shopping. We follow an accident victim as he is rushed to hospital for what appears to be life saving treatment. You become an observer as couples marry, separate and divorce in a government office’s, you’re a bystander as industry transforms from labour intensive practices to modern labour saving devices like sewing machines and cash registers. With peoples newly found leisure time we discover them socialising in state subsidised clubs and beer halls; and taking part in sporting activities.
This stunning montage with its non linear narrative works extremely well keeping your concentration for the its full 68 minute running time thanks to the director (real name Denis Kaufman), his brother the cameraman Mikhall Kaufman and Vertov’s wife Elizaveta Svilova who was responsible for the editing with all its imaginative cuts and splices, these three made up a group called Kino-Okis (Cinema–eyes). However the real star of the show is the camera, never hidden from its subjects, always prodding and prying to grand effect. The film forms a textbook of cinematic techniques using slow motion, animation, multiple images, split screen, zoom and reverse zoom, blurry focus and freeze frame and clever visual puns including a piano twined with a type writer’s keyboard. Obviously all-standard techniques today but this movie was made in 1929! This historical document is weirdly fascinating showing the Russian metropolis with its well-stocked shops and an active happy populace with ‘what could then be seen as a bright future’ unleashed by the Russian revolution.
The BFI DVD features a choice of three soundtracks; the Alloy Orchestra, who has closely followed Vertov’s notes on the music to accompany the film, composed the first. Secondly we have a new score from In the Nursery that deploys the latest music technology to create a soundtrack that deliberately reflects the director’s progressive filmmaking techniques. The final choice is a commentary by Yuri Tsivian, a leading historian of Russia’s silent cinema. This is an absolute must see for all lovers of world cinema.