Avant-garde Soviet documentary may not be the most enticing movie night idea, but anyone interested in film history should know the name Dziga Vertov. The key figure in the ‘cinema-eye’ collective of filmmakers, Vertov rejected ‘staged’ cinema – actors, scripts, all that rubbish – and developed a Marxist style inspired by newsreel footage, using the camera to capture real life then editing the footage into a coherent overview of society. Man With a Movie Camera (1929), his most famous work, was named the best documentary of all time in a 2014 BFI poll, and is collected in this new set along with four of his other films.
Man With A Movie Camera is about the people of Russia; the life of the city (it was filmed in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa) is shown in all its detail. People get up, go to work, and play sports. People get married, others get divorced. A child is born. Intricate editing places the factory machines and switchboard operators perfectly in time with the film’s music, turning the city into a symphony. Vertov’s use of film is very playful, showing us the eponymous cameraman as he sets up the shots we then see, and even making use of optical illusions, such as placing the cameraman inside a beer glass. It all comes together to create an innovative and remarkable piece of cinema that, even in 2016, is an engaging, energetic watch, as well as a fascinating historical document.
The other films are similarly intriguing, if not as consistently watchable. Kino-Eye (1924) has a similar style, portraying the lives of children in a small village. It also experiments with playing film backwards, reversing the entire production process of bread – from loaves being distributed to crops being harvested! It’s comparatively disjointed and slow going, but nonetheless lays the groundwork for what was to come. Kino-Pravda #21 (1925) is a memorial to the recently deceased Lenin, incorporating newsreel footage of his life before showing us his funeral and reactions to his death. Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931) goes down into the mines of the Don coal basin, focusing on the miners as they work hard to fulfil the Five Year Plan. Finally, Three Songs About Lenin (1934) celebrates the achievements of the Soviet Union’s founder; it’s unashamed propaganda to modern eyes, and not at all subtle, flashing the word ‘LENIN’ on screen in big letters more times than you ever wanted to see, but it is expertly edited propaganda.
Eureka Entertainment have done a stellar job with this release, presenting all four films in beautifully restored high-def and packing in a load of worthwhile extras – though the main film alone is essential viewing for any cinephile. You won’t regret adding this to your collection – and if you don’t love Lenin yet, you will by the end of it.
Extras: Film Scores / Audio Commentary / The Life and Times of Dziga Vertov – Exclusive Video Interview / Visual Essay by David Cairns / 100-Page Limited Edition Book
MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA AND OTHER WORKS BY DZIGA VERTOV / CERT: E / DIRECTOR: DZIGA VERTOV / STARRING: LENIN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW