Man With a Movie Camera: the greatest documentary of all time?

Two years ago, Dziga Vertov’s landmark art film Man With a Movie Camera crashlanded into the top 10 of the Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll. Today, I can jubilantly announce that this year Movie Camera tops another Sight & Sound poll – the hunt for the Greatest Documentary of all time. There’s another silent in the top 10 too – the wondrous, beautiful, and controversial Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922).

1. Man with a Movie Camera, dir. Dziga Vertov (USSR 1929)

2. Shoah, dir. Claude Lanzmann (France 1985)

3. Sans soleil, dir. Chris Marker (France 1982)

4. Night and Fog, dir. Alain Resnais (France 1955)

5. The Thin Blue Line, dir. Errol Morris (USA 1989)

6. Chronicle of a Summer, dir. Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin (France 1961)

7. Nanook of the North, dir. Robert Flaherty (USA 1922)

8. The Gleaners and I, dir. Agnès Varda (France 2000)

9. Dont Look Back, dir. D.A. Pennebaker (USA 1967)

10. Grey Gardens, dirs. Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer (USA 1975)

Both of these films deserve endless discussion and analysis, it’s true – as do the others in the list, from Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985) to Don’t Look Back (DA Pennebaker, 1967), but I want to linger on Vertov’s film for now. I think it’s rather special – but I am intrigued by its success in this poll. For me Man With a Movie Camera is really an art film, not a documentary, because it foregrounds technique and display above truth-telling and information-imparting. Not that it doesn’t do that too, but in the world of documentary film-making, City Symphonies have every right to push form over content, and Man With a Movie Camera is the most invigorating of all City Symphonies. This is a movie about the sheer joy and madness of film-making – stopmotion, superimposition, freeze-frame, split-screens, rewinds, acute angles and all. It exalts in the possibilities of photography and motion. From the opening scene in which the cinema seats slam down one by one, onwards, we are sure that this will be a movie about the movies, and all the more enjoyable for that. It’s as addictive as popcorn, as edifying as high art.

Is it worthy of comment that Man With a Movie Camera is in the ascendancy at a time when there is little good news coming out of Ukraine? I’m not sure – for most viewers, I suspect this film is lumped in with the less-specific categories labelled “Soviet”, “Silent” and “Arthouse”. But it always does us good to remember that far-away parts of the world are synonymous with more than the bad news that hits the headlines. This poll result reminds us that Ukrainian cinema, as showcased at last year’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival, shines in our global film heritage. There are, you’ll note, no British films in the top 10.

In fact, I consider Movie Camera to be a gateway silent. Many a film fan has drawn into the web of early cinema after sampling the moreish delights of this inventive, intertitle-free film. Live music is always a draw too, and Man With a Movie Camera seems to be irresistible to musicians; I have lost count of the people who have raved to me about seeing the film with jazzy accompaniment from the Cinematic Orchestra. Good for them – heck, if you can fill the Shepherd’s Bush Empire for a silent movie, I’m on your side all the way.

One of Man With a Movie Camera’s greatest strengths is that it continues to inspire film-makers to get out there and shoot, as much as it inspires critics to tap away at their keyboards and gush. Search Vimeo, say, and you will find this movie’s cinematic offspring busily shooting the streets of their own hometowns in homage to Vertov’s approach to Odessa, Kiev and Kharkiv.

I looked around for a few wiser heads than mine to describe the magic – or otherwise – of Man With a Movie Camera, and this is what I found. Some are baffled, or bewildered, or even frustrated by this strange piece of work. But their responses are all interesting in themselves, and that is why Movie Camera continues to have such an impact, I think. It’s hard to walk away from it unmoved. (Some of these are quoted from other sources, of course, so I have linked back – the rest are new. )

Around the clock in a Soviet city is depicted by camera flashes … a disjointed array of scenes in which the producer, Dziga Vertoff, does not take into consideration the fact that the human eye fixes for a certain space of time that which holds the attention … As a matter of fact it becomes quite tedious and the hour that it lasts seems at least an hour and a half. It is also somewhat confusing. The individual who pops up every now and then with his camera has really little if anything to do with the picture, for what he photographs is not shown. One sees him at work, it is true, but he is no more interesting than a number of other persons in this kaleidoscopic stream. There are undoubtedly clever stretches in this picture, which was photographed in Odessa, Kharkov and Kieff. The notion of having everything come to a sudden stop is ingenious, especially when one discovers that the reason is that a motion picture film joiner is pausing at her work. The slow-motion passages of athletes diving, throwing the shot and other physical exercises are well conceived. The wheels of business and industry being set in motion is another laudable phase of this feature. But often one would like to dwell upon some of the doings. – Mordaunt Hall, New York Times, 1929

Directed by the great Soviet theorist and polemicist Dziga Vertov, this classic movie, one of the most ambitious of the silent era, purports to document a day in Moscow. But using every known cinematic device, it wittily and imaginatively investigates the meaning of film, the relationship between image and reality, and the way cinema can transform society. The movie remains as astonishing as the day it first baffled Russian bureaucrats and audiences. – Philip French, the Observer, 2000

What’s remarkable about this Top 50 is that it feels so fresh. One in five of the films were made since the millennium, and to have a silent film from 1929 at the top is equally surprising. That essay films feature so strongly here shows that nonfiction cinema is not a narrow discipline but a wide open country full of explorers. – Nick James, editor of Sight & Sound, 2014

Everything film could do in 1929 was paraded in this dizzying technical manifesto — we’re still doing most of it, and the absence of sound, colour or 3D hardly get in Dziga Vertov’s way: a man conducting his maturing medium like an orchestra. – Tim Robey, the Telegraph, 2013

It is fabulous, but not really a good introduction to silent film as it is so unique and lacking emotion. The true test is whether you can enter the emotional world of the past, but Man With a Movie Camera doesn’t really require you to do that. – Lawrence Napper, King’s College London, 2014

“Man with a Movie Camera was created at the Odessa VUFKU Film Factory in Ukraine in 1929. It is full of an almost incomprehensible lyricism which offers a powerful sense of the city. Researchers often overlook the fact that the film was made mostly in Odessa, Ukraine but to ignore it makes a thorough interpretation of the film impossible. This is a very “Odessian” film: it has so much sun, sea, and space in it; its emotion is lively and vital likely inspired by “romantic vita-ism”, a popular theme in Ukrainian art in 1920s. It comes from a long line of brilliant propaganda films by Vertov but is in fact itself totally apolitical, although its “non-Russian” aesthetic was rejected by Sovkino in Moscow and it could only be made in the Ukraine, which had become a haven for artists fleeing from Russia where attacks on dissent had begun. – Ivan Kozlenko, deputy director, Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kyiv, 2014

To best understand this 1929 silent documentary, one ought to know that its director, the exotically named “Dziga Vertov”, was actually born David Abelevich Kaufman in 1896. Some say the name derives from the Russian word for spinning top, but the pseudonym is more likely an onomatopeic approximation of the sound made by the twin reels of film as the director ran them backwards and forwards through his flatbed editor. For Vertov, film was something physical, to be manipulated by man, and yet, paradoxically, he also saw it as a medium that revealed the truths of life … Seen now, its celebration of the burgeoning machine age is still resonant but not without humour – even if its constantly self-reflexive nature borders on exhausting. Indeed, you could draw a direct line from Vertov’s film to the deadpan electronic beats of Kraftwerk, whose 1978 album Man Machine the Polish-born director would surely have relished. Damon Wise, the Guardian, 2013

It works as a kaleidoscopic treatment of real lives, but it is a nightmare to discern any structure from (intentionally) and, for me, more than crosses the line into pretension. – Neil Brand, composer, on what it’s like to accompany Man With a Movie Camera, 2014

Most movies strive for what John Ford called “invisible editing” – edits that are at the service at the storytelling, and do not call attention to themselves. Even with a shock cut in a horror film, we are focused on the subject of the shot, not the shot itself. Considered as a visual object, “Man With a Movie Camera” deconstructs this process. It assembles itself in plain view. It is about itself, and folds into and out of itself like origami. It was in 1912 that Marcel Duchamp shocked the art world with his painting “Nude Descending a Staircase.” It wasn’t shocked by nudity–the painting was too abstract to show any. They were shocked that he depicted the descent in a series of steps taking place all at the same time. In a way, he had invented the freeze frame.

What Vertov did was elevate this avant-garde freedom to a level encompassing his entire film. That is why the film seems fresh today; 80 years later, it is fresh … It was about the act of seeing, being seen, preparing to see, processing what had been seen, and finally seeing it. It made explicit and poetic the astonishing gift the cinema made possible, of arranging what we see, ordering it, imposing a rhythm and language on it, and transcending it. Godard once said “The cinema is life at 24 frames per second.” Wrong. That’s what life is. The Cinema only starts with the 24 frames — and besides, in the silent era it was closer to 18 fps. It’s what you do after you have your frames that makes it Cinema. – Roger Ebert, 2009

The politics of this are a bit problematic, which is fine if we talk about it. But often we don’t, and we end up in the rather ironic position of treating what was intended to extol a brutal regime as “l’art pour l’art” aestheticism, or, as in a typical recent essay, ‘a vision of modernity racing into the future’, etc. In the countryside surrounding the Ukrainian cities where Man With a Movie Camera was filmed, that future was not exactly as rosy as the film seems to suggest to some of its latter-day champions. – Henry K Miller, editor, The Essential Raymond Durgnat (forthcoming), 2014

A series of glances at modern Russian life, edited together in a fascinating Möbius strip, with the action moving from filmed scenes, to scenes of people filming, to scenes of film being edited, to scenes of an audience reacting to the film and back again with amazing fluidity. The camera itself is alternately leering, detached, and the subject of the film. Man With A Movie Camera is something of an impenetrable masterpiece, and a stylistic dead end, but in the same sense as Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s a unique, unforgettable, enlightening experience. – Keith Phipps, The Onion AV Club, 2002

It’s a great ‘city’ film and I like it for that, although it’s not a film I can watch too often. It’s a film I appreciate rather than enjoy. – Jenny Stewart, Leicester University, 2014

‘What is an audience?’ we seem to be asked. But that’s not quite it. The real question is ‘what is a story?’ And the answer is ‘something we watch,’ because only by viewing Man With A Movie Camera can you make any message or narrative out of it at all. This would seem true of any film, except that most films have scripts, and if you read those scripts, you’d still get the film’s plot, if not its artistry. Man With A Movie Camera has no script, and if it did, it wouldn’t make sense … Vertov wasn’t just a filmmaker, he was a musician and poet. That makes sense, since in both music and poetry, the relationship between pieces—the notes or words—receives great attention. These arts make wholes, as all arts do, but we’re not meant to forget how. As for me, I found my own poetry in Man With A Movie Camera; from it, I composed this review. While I was still watching the film. Vertov might have been pleased by this, or not. I don’t know what went through that man’s mind. –Chris Edwards, Silent Volume, 2010

For me, the power of Man with a Movie Camera lies in its dual nature – it is a timeless piece but one which is nevertheless firmly rooted in the time it was made, resulting in a unique historical document. In content, the film is both a portrayal and a product of the late 1920s, but in form it remains fresh and invigorating. The opening titles speak of Vertov’s desire to create ‘a truly international absolute language of cinema’, and the film not only achieves this goal superbly, but in doing so it encapsulates all that is wonderful aboutthe rampant experimentation of the silent era. This sense of cinematic play is undoubtedly one of the reasons why I want to make London Symphony – to revel in the pure delight of the medium. But Vertov also created a lively, vivid depiction of life in early 20th century Russia, and I can but strive to do the same for 21st century London. – Alex Barrett, director of the forthcoming London Symphony, 2014

DISCLAIMER: I voted in this poll, and yes, I voted for both Man With a Movie Camera and Nanook of the North. In fact I submitted an entirely silent top 10. Well, what did you expect? My top10 should be posted online on 14 August 2014, but for now, you can find out much more about the poll and read some words from me on Nanook of the North here at this link.

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8 thoughts on “Man With a Movie Camera: the greatest documentary of all time?”

  1. Fabulously interesting , well written article. Your insights and the quotes gave me so many new perspectives on this film, which I only saw for the first time 3 months ago (on dvd). I was wondering if you would be able to add the dates of all the quotes? It would help to put them into context to know when each one was published.

  2. Excellent post–I especially appreciate the quote you added from Henry K. Miller. Films like The Man With A Movie Camera are so “fresh” and can fit in so well with any era’s aesthetics that we often forget how important historical context is for understanding the work. For instance, Dovzhenko’s Earth is in my personal list of the top 10 finest silents ever made, but knowing the context can make it uncomfortable to watch…and much more enlightening.

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