Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 30, 2008

Man With the Movie Camera

Filed under: Film,ussr — louisproyect @ 9:35 pm

After watching a Netflix DVD of Dziga Vertov’s “Man with the movie camera”, I began doing some background research in order to prepare a review of this 1929 Soviet avant-garde masterpiece. Lo and behold! You can now watch it on the Internet. If you want to watch the silent version, then go to google/video. But if you want to watch it with an excellent film score (the same production as Netflix), go to the 9-part youtube version (part one immediately below).

Netflix’s capsule description should motivate you to watch this classic:

Cinema pioneer Dziga Vertov’s controversial 1929 film still pulses with energy, innovation and genius. This landmark silent masterpiece from the Soviet avant-garde director stylishly highlights the buzz of everyday city life (shops, traffic, children, coal miners, nature) as seen through the eyes of a roving cameraman. Many filmic devices are used to comment on vision, life, Marxism and modernity in the Soviet Union.

I became curious about Vertov after learning that he was a victim of Stalin’s ham-fisted interventions in the excellent documentary “The Last Bolshevik” that dealt with another great Soviet film-maker Alexander Medvedkin.

Like Medvedkin’s 1934 silent comedy “Happiness”, “Man with the movie camera” demonstrates a kind of peaceful coexistence between artistic innovation and the increasingly totalitarian government that supposedly ruled on behalf of the same principles that motivated the film director. By the end of the 1930s, those illusions could no longer be sustained.

Born to a Jewish family in Bialystok in 1896, David Abelevich Kaufman adopted the name Dziga Vertov (spinning top) during the Russian revolution. His brothers Boris Kaufman and Mikhail Kaufman were also important filmmakers and Mikhail serves as the cameraman for “Man with the movie camera”. Boris worked for directors such as Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet in the U.S.

The wiki on Vertov notes:

After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, at the age of 22, Vertov began editing for Kino-Nedelya, the Moscow Cinema Committee’s weekly film series, and the first newsreel series in Russia. While working for Kino-Nedelya he met Elizaveta Svilova, who at the time was employed in film preservation; she was later to become his wife. The first issue of the series came out in June 1918.

Vertov worked on the series for three years, helping establish and run a film-car on Mikhail Kalinin’s agit-train during the ongoing Russian Civil War between Communists and counterrevolutionaries. Some of the cars on the agit-trains were equipped with actors for live performances or printing presses; Vertov’s had equipment to shoot, develop, edit, and project film. The trains went to battlefronts on agitation-propaganda missions intended primarily to bolster the morale of the troops; they were also intended to stir up revolutionary fervor of the masses.

Although Vertov’s output declined radically after Stalin’s diktat on behalf of Socialist Realism was imposed, his early work inspired later generations so much so that French directors, including Jean-Luc Godard, formed the Dziga Vertov Group in 1968 in his honor.

Although it is a joy to behold, there is a sad poignancy to “Man with a movie camera”. It is a reminder of how much was lost when Stalin’s regime was consolidated. By 1929, the forces of backwardness were gathering speed but still had not achieved the power to affect Dziga Vertov. Considering how passionate Vertov was about socialism, technology and communications, in his instance symbolized by the peripatetic cameraman, he would be pleased no doubt by the fact that his work can be enjoyed for free on the Internet.

1 Comment »

  1. I made this happy discovery a while back, along with another one: Perry Bard’s collaborative “remake” of Vertov’s film. Bard had video enthusiasts from around the world reshoot shots from the film, which show on the right in the file available at the website (the original film runs on the left). Mass media, indeed.

    Comment by Jeff Rubard — January 4, 2009 @ 10:17 pm


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