The Spinning Top and the Parvo: Man with a Movie Camera

DeBrie Parvo, 1927 (camera featured in "Man with a Camera").

DeBrie Parvo, 1927 (camera featured in “Man with a Movie Camera”).

Born David Kaufman, he changed it to Denis when his family moved to Russia during WWI, finally settling on the moniker by which cinema historians know him today: “Dziga Vertov.” There’s disagreement about the best translation from his native Ukrainian of this nom de cinéma, but it is often cited as “spinning top,” a reference to the unleashed momentum of the child’s toy, and to his own boundless energy. It’s also an accurate description for his 1929 documentary about the 24-hour life of a major Soviet Russia city: an industrial amalgam of Moscow, Odessa and Kiev.

The Parvo "over the city."

The Parvo “over the city.”

Dziga Vertov was the eldest of three cinema brothers born in such quick succession in Bialystok, Poland in the last years of the 19th century that, were it not for their Jewish and Polish origins, it would be fair to call them “Irish Triplets.” Denis quickly rose to prominence after the war as a theorist for the burgeoning Soviet film industry, and in the early 20s brought his theories of “Kino Pravda” (Movie Truth) into screen reality with a series of agitprop documentaries.

Denis Kaufman, aka Dziga Vertov.

Denis Kaufman, aka Dziga Vertov.

His work achieved full flowering in the “life in the city” documentary Man with a Movie Camera, a film in the tradition of other 20s examples of urban cinema sociology like Strand and Sheeler’s shorter Manhatta,

And Walther Ruttman’s hour-long   Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. Here’s a link to the film, silent without Edmund Meisel’s original score.

These three great visual poems began a tradition that continues into today with Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi trilogy.

A key player in the Vertov film is the relentlessly rhythmic movement of industrial machinery, juxtaposed in close-ups with human workers. But the real “stars” of Man with a Movie Camera are the fearless, intrepid cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman (the middle of the three brothers) and his sleek, silver-finished Parvo 35mm camera with its film loaded internally in the camera body.

Mikhail Kaufman and his Parvo-- POV shot on moving train.

Mikhail Kaufman and his Parvo– POV shot on moving train.

Mikhail not only photographed the film, but he’s often recorded by a second camera as he is shooting many death-defying episodes: riding atop a high-speed open car cranking the Parvo,

Kaufman atop an open car.

Kaufman atop an open car.

hoisted above a raging waterfall in a suspended basket, even a near miss by a speeding train as he lies along the tracks. There’s little wonder that, even though Mikhail continued to work on many Soviet era films, he never again consented to work with his obsessive older brother.

Kaufman setting up for a beach sequence.

Kaufman setting up for a beach sequence.

Kaufman double exposure in a beer mug.

Kaufman double exposure in a beer mug.

The youngest brother, Boris, left Russia for Paris to study at the Sorbonne. There, he met Jean Vigo and began a brilliant relationship with the young cinema poet, starting with the documentary short, A Propos de Nice. Like Welles in Citizen Kane, Vigo shared his credit with his émigré cinematographer.

Shared card Vigo and Kaufman, "A Propos de Nice."

Shared card Vigo and Kaufman, “A Propos de Nice.”

Paris fell to the Nazis in late June, 1940. Boris escaped to Canada and briefly worked at the NFB with the great John Grierson. He moved to New York in 1942 where he principally photographed documentaries, eventually catching the attention of Elia Kazan who hired Kaufman to be cinematographer for his first American feature, On the Waterfront. Kaufman was quickly accepted into the ASC, was nominated and won the Academy Award—an amazing sequence of events for a total Hollywood Outsider. Moreover, this was during the height of the McCarthy era, his award being even more remarkable as Boris’s two brothers were “Communist” filmmakers.

(Boris Kaufman’s remarkable career will be the subject of an upcoming essay here.)

Boris Kaufman at rackover Mitchell BNC, "On the Waterfront."

Boris Kaufman at rackover Mitchell BNC, “On the Waterfront.”

The late film critic Roger Ebert is one of the few of his profession who had a real working knowledge of film grammar, both in editing and cinematography. It is no surprise that his investigation of Man with a Movie Camera would dig into the actual structure of the film, as well as look beyond the “critical studies” perspective of academicians. Here’s an example of critical babble of the Vertov film that I will generously refrain from attribution:

Its principal contention is that the documentary cinema of Vertov intentionally functions as aprosthetic extension of man that allows him to reorganize his experience of the world to better respond to a dynamic of physical, conceptual, and experiential movement generalized in larger part by technological developments in the realm of communication. In this sense, this study is conversant with a line of inquiry that argues for the capacity of mass media and media in general to shape perception. As is made clear from the very title of this meditation, the principal matter that here concerns us is the overlap of Man with a Movie Camera and phenomenology, the one branch of modem philosophy that has been most concerned with elucidating what perception is and how it functions. 

Ebert, who writes in the real world of popular communication, begins his essay saying that the “average shot length” of movies made in 1929 was 11.2 seconds. Those of Man with a Camera had an average shot length of 2.3 seconds. Although some earlier Soviet films by Eisenstein had quick cut montage and action sequences—there was little precedent for the headlong pace of Dziga Vertov’s documentary. This hectic tempo is evident not only in the edited sequences, but also in the internal dynamics of many individual shots.

"Man with a Movie Camera" poster in the Constructivist style.

“Man with a Movie Camera” poster in the Constructivist style.

Vertov acknowledged that his film is an experiment, presenting its vision of the modernist, industrial ethos without intertitles, and without any debt to the conventions of literature or theater: in short, pure cinema, relying solely on the cumulative narrative and emotive power of the images themselves, and in their juxtaposition through editing. Beyond this artistic format is what today would be called a “meta-narrative,” a repeated reference back to the act of moviemaking itself. Vertov accomplishes this by using a second camera to show Mikhail Kaufmann cranking the DeBrie Parvo camera, making the very shots that we see before and after the cameraman’s cameos. Vertov further includes shots of these sequences as they are being edited by his wife, Elizaveta Svilova, as well as static shots of film frames unspooled on a workbench, a distinctly pre-Godardian gesture.

Shots on Elizaveta Svilova's editing editing table.

Shots on Elizaveta Svilova’s editing editing table.

This meta-style did not sit well with some of Vertov’s contemporaries including Eisenstein who called his film “formalist jackstraws and unmotivated camera mischief.” Just as ungenerous were many contemporary reviews that found the self-referential documentary to be a futile exercise:

Theorists mostly love their theories more than a father loves an only child. … Vertov also has waged fierce, vehement and desperate battles with his materials and his instruments (reality and the film camera) to give practical proofs of his ideas. In this he has failed. He had already failed in the era of the silent film by showing hundreds of examples of cunning artistry in turning: acrobatic masterpieces of poetic jigsaw, brilliantly conjuring of filmic association – but never a rounded work, never a clear, proceeding line. His great efforts of strength in relation to detail did not leave him breadth for the whole. His arabesques totally covered the ground plan, his fugues destroyed every melody.”

My only note here is that this is clearly the comment of a critic “conjuring” the pseudo poetry of his own diction rather than a clear-headed observation of the movie.

"Man with a Movie Camera" storyboard.

“Man with a Movie Camera” storyboard.

Whatever clout Vertov and his formalist style had in the late Lenin years, and which was also reflected in the near abstract work of the Constructivists El Lissitzky and Rodchenko in graphic art and photography, ran smack against the literal wall of Stalin’s mandate of “Socialist Realism.”

Isaak Brodsky portrait of Lenin, 1930.

Isaak Brodsky portrait of Lenin, 1930.

Vertov’s “formalist” cinema garnered even further disdain with a delayed release of his paean to Lenin, Three Songs of Lenin. Vertov has seldom received any way near the respect in the West that has been bestowed on Eisenstein who, like Shostakovich, was forced to tow the “Party Line” in order to survive.

But today a new perspective has been emerging for Man with a Movie Camera, and it is one for you to consider while watching it, whether it’s a first time viewing, or a reconsideration of a work you dimly recall from your student days.

It is no accident that with recent restorations of the film and with screenings at film festivals and special venues, more than a dozen new music scores have been composed and performed, several of which are available in DVD versions. Some employ insistent percussive sounds that support the mechanistic and industrial montages. But there is another way of viewing this film, one to which I think film historians have given lesser weight: the human narrative. It’s true that the dynamics of industrial machines and urban architecture are intensely hypnotic. But a fresh viewing of Man with a Camera affords the possibility of giving at least equal consideration to the human landscape, to the individual and intimate portraits (such as the young woman putting on stockings and securing her bra or the woman in a hair salon)

Young woman fastening her bra.

Young woman fastening her bra.

Young woman at the hairdresser.

Young woman at the hairdresser.

Or the intricate montages of workers’ faces in close-ups. There are also those shots of Mikhail Kaufman cranking his camera, an insistent reminder that however formalized the film presents itself, there is also an artist who is creating the images of the film’s mosaic, an artist whose commitment to the image capture renders him oblivious of the imminent dangers to his very body.

Kaufman setting up a shot.

Kaufman setting up a shot.

Man with a Camera runs slightly longer than one hour. The opening credits reveal Vertov’s dogmatic statement, the presentation of the film as “excerpts from a camera operator’s diary,” an interesting metaphor for a film being offered as free from attachment to the written word. The opening shot is a split screen image (the bottom half is flipped), a low, heroic angle of the Parvo camera, with the frame’s top half showing a miniaturized Kaufman with his camera and tripod as if surmounting a peak.

Split screen opening shot, flipped image.

Split screen opening shot, flipped image.

Kaufman next carries his camera (and magically developed and edited film) into an empty movie theater. The seats drop into place, the audience enters and the projectionist threads up the movie. The musicians in the pit await the cue of the conductor. This sequence almost forecasts the dialectic of the main film itself: man and machine in an intricate shared performance.

The titles and this opening sequence are silent. Only when the carbon arcs of the lamphouse are struck, emitting a strange note, does the music begin, continuing in many tempos until the movie ends an hour later. Movie and music begin quietly, lyrically, with man and the city awakening to life in the dawn. The entire film is a crescendo, with only a few such quiet interludes. The score in this version is performed by The Cinematic Orchestra, an ensemble that has released it as a stand alone CD. Another version, one more widely known, is by the Alloy Orchestra, a group of only three musicians from Cambridge, Mass. who have dedicated themselves to live performances of many restored silent films including Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Brilliant as is their score for the Vertov film, it is the more humanistic style of the Cinematic Orchestra that I prefer, though I have found only the Michael Nyman and Alloy Orchestra versions available on DVD.

(N.B.  The version described above has been disabled– so I have replaced it with the Alloy Orchestra score. The music begins right away– even over black which runs for a few seconds before picture begins at 1:30.) 

The movie’s final sequence is a stop motion bagatelle of the Parvo camera and tripod, alone in frame, ready for its close-up, and seemingly come to life: the ultimate visual metaphor for Vertov’s theories, while offering the audience an exit scene that is both satisfying and amusing.

Vertov referred to the “movie truth” he hoped to capture in his writings as early as 1919 by using the expression “Kino Eye.”

The Kino-Eye.

The Kino-Eye.—Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov link

So, it is all together appropriate that the final image of Man with a Movie Camera is a close up of a lens with a human eyeball superimposed as the iris closes.

The final image.

The final image.

This early 20th century cinema “document” is not only a record of one man’s labor at the camera, but an homage to the ground zero of filmmaking: creating and preserving memorable images that reveal the world around us.

Inside the Parvo.

Inside the Parvo.

About John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey’s cinematography career encompasses such mainstream Hollywood films as Ordinary People, The Big Chill, Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, Groundhog Day, In the Line of Fire, As Good as It Gets and A Walk in the Woods, and such offbeat fare as Tough Guys Don’t Dance, That Championship Season, Swimming to Cambodia, A Brief History of Time and The Kid Stays in the Picture. He lives in Los Angeles and New York.


  1. Belle Meline Mears

    Here is a link to the film New York City in a Blizzard, 1902. I meant to include in my comment John.

    The footage was shot by Edwin Porter.

    JOHN’S REPLY: Thanks for the link.

  2. Belle Melne Mears

    Thank you for this marvelous essay on the documentary “The Spinning Top and the Parvo: Man With a Camera”. I learned so much. I have watched it once and will be watching again. Lately I was looking at a 1922 documentary you probably know well John – on the Blizzard of 22′ and the roof collapse of the Knickerbocker Theatre in D.C. Also the Blizzard of 1902 in NYC- my grandmother Shelagh Leighton was 2. They both are amazing.

    One thing I took away from the Vertov film was that it was a surprise to see the extent to which the everyday hustle and bustle of a big Russian city was far removed from my uninformed impression of how “behind” things there would have been. In the films mentioned above there was a similar feel- and in other early footage of NY streets- the chaos of streetcars and horse and carriages, pedestrians all randomly bolting out into vertical axis of a traffic that makes NY look so orderly now.

    The Parvo camera is an art object of great beauty. I loved the segment of it self animating – tripods sliding open and then up and the camera lowering itself into place.

    This essay has left me curious and looking forward to watching the other films in the trio you cover here.

    As always John- a stunningly good time!

    JOHN’S REPLY: Belle, I don’t know the documentary you mention about the catastrophic weather. Please give me more information. BTW, there is a DVD version of the Dziga-Vertov documentary with a score by Michael Nyman.

    1. Belle Meline Mears

      I will love to seek out the Nichael Nyman music version of “Man With a Camera”. Music makes such a difference doesn’t it. Very personal I suppose – but I will love to find the version you mentioned.

      Here is the DC Blizzard one: If this doesn’t work let me know so I can send a better one. It’s a You Tube.

  3. Howard A Phillips

    Delightful article, thanks for both the creative and historical background! Plus the history of the Debrie camera itself is quite amazing, I had a chance to visit the factory as they were just closing their doors and moving in with another French company. What an influential equipment manufacturers-such as the co-axial magazine! The threading path, not so sure about that..! Thanks for this article.


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