Of all the cinematic trailblazers to emerge during the early years of the Soviet Union – Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Lev Kuleshov – Dziga Vertov (né Denis Arkadievitch Kaufman, 1896–1954) was the most radical.
Whereas Eisenstein – as seen in that film school standard Battleship Potemkin – used montage editing to create new ways of telling a story, Vertov dispensed with story altogether. He loathed fiction films. “The film drama is the Opium of the people,” he wrote. “Down with Bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios…long live life as it is!” He called for the creation of a new kind of cinema free of the counter-revolutionary baggage of Western movies. A cinema that captured real life.
At the beginning of his masterpiece, A Man with a Movie Camera (1929) – which was named in 2012 by Sight and Sound magazine as the 8th best movie ever made – Vertov announced exactly what that kind of cinema would look like:
This film is an experiment in cinematic communication of real events without the help of intertitles, without the help of a story, without the help of theatre. This experimental work aims at creating a truly international language of cinema based on its absolute separation from the language of theatre and literature.
Gleefully using jump cuts, superimpositions, split screens and every other trick in a filmmaker’s arsenal, Vertov, along with his editor (and wife) Elizaveta Svilova, crafts a dizzying, impressionistic, propulsive portrait of the newly industrializing Soviet Union. The lengths to which Vertov goes to capture this “cinematic communication of real events” is startling: His camera soars over cities and gazes up at streetcars; it films machines chugging away and even records a woman giving birth. “I am eye. I am a mechanical eye,” Vertov once famously wrote. “I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see.”
Yet Vertov’s stroke of genius was to expose the entire artifice of filmmaking within the movie itself. In A Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov shoots footage of his cameramen shooting footage. There’s a reoccurring shot of an eye staring through a lens. We see images from earlier in the movie getting edited into the film. This sort of cinematic self-reflexivity was decades ahead of its time, influencing such future experimental filmmakers as Chris Marker, Stan Brakhage and especially Jean-Luc Godard who in 1968 formed a radical filmmaking collective called The Dziga Vertov Group.
A Man with a Movie Camera, especially with Alloy Orchestra’s accompaniment, is nothing short of exhilarating. Check it out above. Also find the classic on our list of Great Silent Films, part of our larger collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.