Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera begins with a note that very clearly announces the film’s intention to the audience:
"This film is an experiment in cinematic communication of real events, without the help of intertitles, a story, or theatre. This experimental work aims at creating a truly international language of cinema based on its absolute separation from the language of theatre or literature."
The opening sequence further affirms that this is a film about the cinema itself, a work of a filmmaker who simultaneously believes in the power of film and remains in awe of its endless possibilities. A cameraman, superimposed atop an oversized camera, gives the act of filming a voyeuristic, omnipresent dimension, as if its human subjects are being closely watched over by Big Brother. Yet, this intimidating prospect is quickly reversed after Vertov invites us to enter a theatre – a place where the act of watching is done by us, not the camera – before a film's projection begins. The reel is placed inside the projector; the seats are flipped down; the curtain is raised, and the doors are opened to the audience. The mere experience of watching a film in a theatre is lent such gravitas by the way Vertov stages the screening of this film within the film, the precision of the projectionist’s preparations and the presence of the accompanying live band.
This is far from the only instance where Vertov reminds us that we are watching a film. Though the purpose of the experiment is “the cinematic communication of real events,” the director’s emphasis remains on the 'cinematic' and the power of cinema to transform images and instil them with meaning. Vertov controls our emotional responses to each piece of his film by playing with the boundaries between the real and the imagined – or rather, the manipulated.
One of the most glaring examples of this occurs when a freeze frame of a beautiful young girl is juxtaposed immediately with an image of a much older woman whose face appears weathered by years of hard labour. The audience is taken aback by the stark contrast between their visages, until the film cuts to a scene showing the editor, Elizaveta Svilova, splicing together a reel that contains the frames we have just seen. Cut back to the freeze frames and this time the faces begin to move. The young girl smiles and the old lady speaks and no longer do they seem to have any difference. Intertwined with images of a rapidly industrializing Soviet Union, the film originally positioned these two faces far apart on a spectrum that represented hope on one end and melancholy on another, progression on one and regression on the other. By the end of the sequence, it is their authenticity, the portrayal, through cinematic communication, of their real selves as human beings that takes precedence over any meaning we may have inferred from those still images. They both offer a human touch amidst the turmoil of a morphing society.
The greatest strength of Man with a Movie Camera is that it exhibits the camera’s power not just to capture images, but to transform them, and it does so in equal measure for epic long shots of streets bustling with activity and for intimate extreme close-ups of a woman lying in her bed. Vertov and cinematographer Mikhal Kaufman are as adept at sculpting splendid portraits of athletes in romanticized slow motions as they are at showing a society’s crumbling traditional values in the wake of technological advancement in rapidly cut tilted pictures of social chaos. The techniques – both in cinematography and editing – that Vertov used in bringing his vision to life were considered revolutionary at the time but have since become definitive pillars of the aesthetics of cinema. Yet, eighty five years later, Man with a Movie Camera doesn’t fail to leave its audience awestruck because as a whole, the film transcends technique. Vertov depicts the human condition through his lens in a way that will resonate for as long as human beings interact with one another and with all the artifice of their creation.