Top 50 Countdown – #46


The Man with a Movie Camera

Year: 1929

Director: Dziga Vertov


Technically speaking, The Man with a Movie Camera, which chronicles a dawn to dusk day-in-the-life of Moscow circa 1929, is a documentary. But Vertov takes the basic raw material of a straightforward “city symphonies” travelogue documentary and through a variety of cinematographic techniques/effects transforms it into something infinitely richer and more interesting: both an exhilarating demonstration of the filmmaker’s ability to manipulate reality into a personal vision and a profound exploration/celebration/deconstruction of the filmmaking process itself.

Anticipating the French New Wave by some 30 years, Vertov’s film asserts itself as an imaginatively self-reflexive work, ironically commenting on its own making by showing:

• The cameraman shooting it:     

• The editor cutting it:                 

• and an audience watching it:   


Throughout the film Vertov employs experimental editing and innovative special effects to express his vision of cinema as way of transforming reality, including:

Double-exposure effects – in the opening scene a tiny cameraman climbs to the top of a giant camera and takes a few shots with his own camera before climbing back down.

Stop-motion – in a playful exhibition a camera positions itself on its tripod and then walks away on its three legs.

Superimposition: in the final shot a human eye peers out from a camera lens, provocatively associating the two image-capturing apparatuses.

Montage sequences – among its many achievements, The Man with a Movie Camera represents nothing less than the apotheosis of the art of Russian montage, whose symphony of images culminates in a rhapsodic crescendo of quick cutting that anticipates MTV videos by half a century.

But the above commentary does not begin to do justice to this groundbreaking, gloriously cinematic masterpiece, so take 70 minutes and experience it for yourself on DVD or online here.


• The cameraman in the film is Vertov’s brother, Mikhail Kaufman.

• The editor in the film is Vertov’s wife.

• Born Denis Kaufman, he changed his name around 1915 to Dziga Vertov, which roughly translates as spinning top.

• Vertov’s other brother, Boris Kaufman, became an important cinematographer in Hollywood, winning an Academy Award for On the Waterfront.

• Some in the Soviet film industry criticized Vertov for emphasizing aesthetic form over ideological content, including Eisenstein, who perhaps in a fit of professional jealousy wrote disdainfully of The Man with a Movie Camera‘s “purposeless camera hooliganism.”

• Jean-Luc Godard named his late ‘60s production company the Dziga-Vertov Group.

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