Futurism, Formalism and Communism in Dziga Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera

by Derek P. Rucas


Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is known as one of the most influential and important documentaries of our time.  In Documenting the Documentary, Vertov describes the crux of the film as follows: “…we bring joy to mechanical labor.  We make peace between man and machine…” (Grant 42) This is an ideological stance that Vertov projects throughout the entirety of the film.  How can we clearly understand the ideological perspective Vertov exhibits in The Man with a Movie Camera while examining Bill Nichols’ notion of axiographics?


It is known that Vertov “…embrace[s]…Futurism, formalism, and communism…” (Grant 47) and that this particular belief system reinforces what the viewer sees in the film.  With reference to this, Nichols explains that, “Axiographics would address the question of how values, particularly an ethics of representation comes to be known and experienced in relation to space.” (Nichols 77) We can therefore acknowledge that Vertov’s ideological values are indeed represented in the film.


Let us start with the notion of futurism.  Vertov believed that life-fulfillment does not happen in the present or the past.  It is the future that holds the desired outcome of life-fulfillment.  Since technological advancements were starting to become more prominent in the industrial era, Vertov depicted the machine as a beneficial and glorious installment to the workplace.  He films close-ups of shiny metal bolts, gears and rods in perpetual motion.  These are machines functioning to improve the productivity of workers and increasing the productivity of industries, resulting in the ideological view that an optimistic future is what Russia has in store for its people.


Formalism centres the structural elements and artistic techniques in a film, while regarding content with secondary importance.  Vertov uses formalist elements to depict the man and machine working harmoniously within the context of space and time.  While watching the film, one notices that the editing style revolves around a rhythmic structure of visual/aural editing where cuts and actions are performed on the beat of the music.  One example in particular is when the woman is making cigarette boxes out of paper.  As the music speeds up, the woman’s work pace intensifies thus giving the illusion that she is keeping up with the tempo of the music.  Cuts are made between close-up shots of the woman’s face and close-ups of her hands putting together the boxes.  The rhythmic cutting and carefully structured composition suggests that the formalist component of Vertov’s belief system is revealing the notion of a standardized and systemic method of production that emphasizes the ideology of the man/machine relation.


Finally, the notion of communism can be described as the organization of labour among the people in a society.  The citizens will then share the fruits of their labour equally.  Throughout the film, Vertov acknowledges the different roles of the people within the societal structure.  He demonstrates that there are people who work in factories, brew halls and play professional sports.  It is also interesting that Vertov uses his own experience as a filmmaker to depict his societal role.  The film is a reflexive documentary, documenting life in Russia as well as documenting the work being done on the film itself.  There are several shots where we see the cameraman shooting urban life.  We also see the film being edited in a studio.  Vertov creates a discourse in which he himself is a product of his own ideology.


The Man with a Movie Camera projects the axiology of ethics, politics and ideology within the realm of Vertov’s belief system.  Vertov supports the notion of the man/machine relation by emphasizing futurism as a primary ideological viewpoint.  He stylistically and aesthetically enhances this ideology by using formalist structures to maintain his argument throughout the film.  The reflexivity of the film depicts Vertov’s belief in communism, while allowing the viewer to actually visualize the production of the film itself within the film that is being watched.  These constructive elements lend themselves to the ideology of The Man with a Movie Camera while exhibiting Vertov’s axiographic belief system.


Bibliographic Information


Rucas, Derek P. "Futurism, Formalism and Communism in Dziga Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera." Film Articles and Critiques. 29 Sept. 2003 <https://www.angelfire.com/film/articles/vertov.htm>.

transcribed by Derek P. Rucas