In Dziga Vertov's dazzling 'city symphony' film, 'Man With a Movie Camera' ('Chelovek s kinoapparatom,' 1929), a cameraman appears everywhere—on rooftops, in a mug of beer—buoyantly affirming the camera's power. Vertov (his full name was a pseudonym that evokes whirring and turning) began as a poet and medical student who admired Walt Whitman and Vladimir Mayakovsky. He ended up forever changing documentary film, creating works that still fascinate with their radical ideas about how cinema can transform perception and effect social change.
Despite Vertov's wide-ranging influence, until now it has been difficult to grasp the full scope of his achievements. In the unprecedented series "Dziga Vertov," the Museum of Modern Art is exploring Vertov's cinematic experiments—ranging from inventive silent and early sound films to little-seen later works—and their connection to others by colleagues and rivals, and by artists he has inspired. The series was organized by MoMA associate curator Joshua Siegel and Yuri Tsivian of the University of Chicago, in collaboration with the Austrian Film Museum.
"We'd been working on the retrospective for several years," Mr. Siegel said by phone, "and a happy confluence of events made it possible for us to show Vertov's work in depth and trace the entirety of his career—including the restoration of 'Man With a Movie Camera' in its original full-frame version, but also the unprecedented availability of many rare Vertov films that will be new to virtually all Western audiences."
Born Denis Arkadievitch Kaufman in Bialystok (then part of the Russian empire) in 1896, Vertov began working on the newsreel "Kino-Week" for the new Soviet government in 1918. In 1922 he launched the onscreen magazine "Kino-Pravda," and by 1925 had filmed 23 episodes exploring a dramatic new form of reportage in which he used montage to defy time and space, sometimes incorporating dynamic intertitles by Aleksandr Rodchenko. In urgent manifestos, Vertov expressed his disdain for fiction films and called for a new cinema of facts. "I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see," he wrote.
His ideas about the potential of a perfectible, all-seeing "Kino-Eye" to unveil a new reality spring vividly to life in "Man With a Movie Camera," shot in Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. MoMA is screening a version restored by the EYE Film Institute Netherlands, in which the film's glorious Constructivist compositions can be seen as Vertov and his brother Mikhail Kaufman, the cinematographer, intended them to be seen. It also includes a scene of a woman giving birth that had been excised from some prints. Mr. Siegel said, "It's amazing, and it was really quite controversial in its time. This is really the effort to restore the film as it was shown in 1929."
Many of the prints in this series were lent by the Austrian Film Museum, holder of the world's largest Vertov collection. Mr. Siegel explained that the museum's co-founders, Peter Kubelka and Peter Konlechner, formed a relationship with Elizaveta Svilova, Vertov's editor and widow. "And it was through her—and sometimes bravery—that they were able to shepherd some of the material out of Russia for safekeeping." ...