Film recommendation: Man with a Movie Camera

Catch this thrillingly beautiful documentary of 1920s Russian life, which is an exciting work of art as much as it informs – free until Tuesday.

This week’s recommendation is something totally different – a silent Russian documentary that is nearly 100 years old. But it is wonderful, and startling, funny, intriguing and totally worth 70 minutes of your time. It was, a few years ago, named the best ever documentary by Sight and Sound but that actually makes it sound slightly worthy and it isn’t – it’s a wondrous, humanist slice of life and an ode to the power of cinema.

Man with a Movie Camera was made by David Kaufman, using the perfect pseudonym Dsiga Vertov, which translates as ‘spinning top’, filmed in Moscow, Odessa, Kiev and Kharkov in the late 1920s. It includes numerous people, some in the streets or shopping, some performing, working, relaxing or flirting, old and young – it even includes a birth. The people move and inhabit their lives, at work and play, at home and enjoying sport, but the art of the film also captures them in static shots of great exhilaration or beauty.

Vertov directed, his brother was the cameraman and his wife was the editor. And between them they created a masterpiece. Way ahead of its time, the film includes split screens, fades and overlaying shots which produce some magical moments of great artifice. We watch the cameraman filming shots and see how he achieves some great angles and moments of high drama. There are delightful stop-motion sequences. And the editing juxtaposes moments that are quite breathtaking. Vertov was a pioneer of film that can still be relished today.

The score in this version is by Michael Nyman, best known for his work on Jane Campion’s The Piano. And it ably supports the film, though it is the images, and the film itself, that will capture your heart.

The film is available online until Tuesday 14 July, free, through Kino Klassika, which has been sharing a Russian film each week throughout lockdown.


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