Dziga Vertov and the ‘City Symphony’

A Restored Avant-Garde Classic, 'The Man With A Movie Camera' Is ...

Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera is the quintessential ‘City Symphony.’ Naturally it was this film that coined the phrase but since it was made there has been nothing quite like it. One of the film’s signature elements is its fast pace. There truly is never a dull moment. Vertov set out to capture what life was like in “Industrial Russia.” In every frame he made sure to include plenty of movement and action. One recurring theme in the film is shots of masses of people in movement. One scene that shows a horde of people pushing through a wire fence gate is almost identical to a scene in Charlie Chaplin’s classic 1936 film Modern Times. It is no secret that Chaplin was heavily influenced by Russian filmmakers when he made his satire of modern industry.

Another innovation by Vertov was his own use of modern industry in his filmmaking. When the Lumiere Brothers first shot trains pulling into stations these films were comprised of short, static shots. With Vertov, we no longer stand on the platform and watch the train. The train becomes the filmmakers tool whether it is attached to the train as it speeds down the track or placed on the track bed, roaring over the audience’s head at an angle the Lumiere’s would never have dreamed possible. These images are still stunning almost a century later. The director even reveals his sources of camera assistance at moments during the film. In one scene, shortly after we see a tracking shot of a man riding a bicycle, there is a cut to Vertov himself, crouched with his camera, holding onto the side of a trolley car as he follows the bicycle. A subsequent scene shows Vertov, in the backseat of a moving car, tracking a moving horse carriage. The director was certainly not afraid to use any means of transportation to mobilize his movie camera.

Music was another enhancement to Vertov’s breakneck shooting technique. As I mentioned, this film is all about fast paced movement. In every frame we see objects and subjects moving. The music score matches this intensity with its fast paced rhythm.

Man With A Movie Camera was Dziga Vertov’s crowning achievement and most definitely the gold standard of ‘City Symphony’ documentary.

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