The Man with the Movie Camera is a city symphony of four cities, grouping Moscow, Odessa, Kiev, and Kharkov together to emphasize socialist unification as much as individual character. The film lacks stars or even a scenario, deemphasizing the individual in favor of the collective, and thus the individual identity of a given city submits to the overall cooperation of the union as seen in the intermingling of location shots. The film is a documentary, albeit one that assembles surreal juxtapositions from its real footage, an interpretive approach that connects various images in an attempt to link all aspects of Soviet working life.
Vertov even places himself in the film, at once front and center in many of the frames, but deemphasized as just one piece of the social hive that is collective existence. Traveling to mines to document workers, Vertov’s cameraman appears in the foreground closer to the lens than the actual workers, yet their fires and lights backlight him, rendering the artist as a silhouette while illuminating the miners. Elsewhere, the circular motion of the camera’s movement and close-ups on rotating machinery act as a metaphor not only for the efficiency of collectivized industry, but the material nature of film itself. As much as the film celebrates the virtues of modern Soviet society, it also argues for cinema’s crucial role in spreading the word of socialism as the art form most inextricably tied to issues of production and shared labor.
Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray spotlights Vertov’s most famous and influential film, but the disc also comes with some of the director’s less visible, yet equally impressive, documentaries. Vertov’s interest in other art forms as a complement to cinema can be seen in the way he utilizes music in Enthusiasm and Three Songs About Lenin. Both films rely on Russian classical and folk music to prod at ostensibly obsolete custom (a parodic montage of meaningless piety opens Enthusiasm), but also to ease the transition into an industrialized collective of nations. Several prominent Soviet composers, including Dmitri Shostakovich, contribute to Enthusiasm to bridge the country’s classical history to the present, while Three Songs regularly uses its regional music to recapitulate the grandeur of the extended Lenin eulogy to the intimate character studies that punctuate the film. In both cases, the music blends with the sounds of socialist anthems and mechanical whistles and grinding, suggesting not that the old Russian and regional identities will be erased by the new age, but will achieve their fullest and truest expression.
Those films came after The Man with the Movie Camera, but two earlier documentaries show the director still honing his techniques. One of Vertov’s Kino-Pravda newsreels is included, taking Lenin’s death for its central topic. Instead of simply relating the figure’s death and funeral, however, Vertov places it as the climax of a rising and falling emotional action, scrutinizing it for how the Russian character absorbs this major event just as the rest of the short captures the national mood during daily rota. This borderline impressionistic aesthetic complicates otherwise direct political cinema, a contrast seen more clearly in Kino-Eye, particularly the segment where Vertov runs the film backward in a short reverie on the awesome capacity of cinema to set reality against itself in pursuit of a higher truth. These reversals can be moving, as in the restoration of a slaughtered bull to life, but they also epitomize a wry comedy, aided by anti-bourgeois and anti-clerical satire, that pervades the youth-centric film and casts Vertov as the Chaplin to Eisenstein’s Griffith.
Kino-Eye is above all interested in the possibilities of cinema, an ambition realized in Vertov’s subsequent masterpiece, but continuously displayed in all the films included in this set. Enthusiasm and Three Songs About Lenin find dialectical applications for sound that wouldn’t be fully studied again until Jean-Luc Godare entered his most radical phase of filmmaking. The blatant staging and rich emotional undercurrent of Vertov’s documentary footage presage Werner Herzog’s ecstatic truth mantra, and was a far cry from the utilitarian social-realist mandate that would soon drain Soviet cinema of this experimental edge. It claimed Vertov, too, but not before he lived up to his ideals by crafting a form of cinema that was truly revolutionary.
Most of the films come from inevitably degraded prints, themselves subjected to re-cuts and burial depending on the whims of whatever leader held sway in Moscow, but despite that, Flicker Alley put together an exceptional batch of transfers. Kino-Eye, for example, may be washed out, but many shots retain a surprising level of texture, especially Vertov’s many beatified close-ups of workers. The Man with the Movie Camera naturally gets the most thorough touch-up, and its restoration looks superb. The transfer boasts a near-total lack of visible print damage, rich black levels, strong contrast, and sharp definition. The audio tracks for the silent features all clearly showcase Alloy Orchestra scores, but if the hiss in the two sound pictures indicates a lack of committed restoration, that crackle actually adds to the self-referential, auto-critical nature of Vertov’s use of sound and image. Tinny recordings only enhance the squall of factory noise, further situating cinema as not merely a document of industrialization, but a key component of it.
An accompanying booklet offers brief but relevant information on each film on the disc, including notes on the ways that most of the films were subsequently butchered by censors.
Dziga Vertov was one of the foundational innovators of cinema, and Flicker Alley’s loving presentation of some of his best films easily stands as the home-video release of the year.