The 2015 Radio Times Guide To Films, described by film critic Barry Norman as “This is really the only film guide you’ll need” lists 23,000 films. Only around 30 documentaries get the highest accolade of five stars, the oldest being “Berlin – Symphony of a Great City”, Walter Ruttman’s silent 77 minute black and white experimental released in Germany in 1927. Two years later, in 1929, a Russian silent 69 minute black and white experimental was released, Dziga Vertov’s “Man With a Movie Camera” and both films share the quality of looking as fresh and vibrant today as they did nearly 90 years ago, and with both repaying multiple viewings by those treasuring these two essential documents of cinematic possibilities for others to follow.
It was Vertov’s avant-garde masterwork however that won the accolade “The greatest documentary ever made” from the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound poll in 2014, and “the eighth best film ever made” in their 2012 poll. Shot in the Soviet cities of Moscow, Kiev, Odessa and Kharkov the film is a fast-moving montage of the urban every day, with people and machinery interacting. and Vertov packing in a masterclass of cinematic tricks and techniques – such as split screen, slow motion, fast motion, double exposure, jump cuts, freeze frames, tracking shots, footage played backwards, tilt shots (Dutch angles) and some memorably beautiful extreme close-ups – all soundtracked by some driving rhythmic beats culminating in the chaotic and thrilling climax.
Dziga Vertov – the name, which means “spinning top” was the adopted pseudonym of David Abelovich Kaufman – produced his inspirational films with his brother, Mikhail Kaufman as the cameraman who sometimes risked life and limb to get the desired shot, and his wife Elizaveta Svilova, a skilled editor and his co-producer. Vertov’s credo for his documentaries was “life as it is” and “life caught unawares”, these difficult in reality given the size of cameras then and the noise they made. Subsequently Vertov took some criticism for some of the sequences being obviously staged.
“Man with a Movie Camera” was released by Eureka Entertainment as part of their Masters of Cinema Series last month in a limited edition 4 Disk Dual-Format Blu-ray/DVD version with four seldom-seen Vertov films – “Kino-Eye” from 1924, “Kino-Pravda # 21” from 1925, “Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass” from 1931 (four stars from the RT Film Guide) and “Three Songs About Lenin” from 1934. The pack also includes a new audio-commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin, a video interview “The Life and Times of Dziga Vertov” by film scholar Ian Christie, a new visual essay by filmmaker David Cairns and a 100-page book.