Watch Dziga Vertov’s A Man with a Movie Camera: The 8th Best Film Ever Made

Of all the cin­e­mat­ic trail­blaz­ers to emerge dur­ing the ear­ly years of the Sovi­et Union – Sergei Eisen­stein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Lev KuleshovDzi­ga 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, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in Novem­ber 2014.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Eight Free Films by Dzi­ga Ver­tov, Cre­ator of Sovi­et Avant-Garde Doc­u­men­taries

101 Free Silent Films: The Great Clas­sics 

Hear Dzi­ga Vertov’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Exper­i­ments in Sound: From His Radio Broad­casts to His First Sound Film

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.

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