Vertov's feature film, produced by the Ukrainian film studio VUFKU, presents urban life in Odessa and other Soviet cities. From dawn to dusk Soviet citizens are shown at work and at play, and interacting with the machinery of modern life. To the extent that it can be said to have "characters," they are the cameraman of the title and the modern Soviet Union he discovers and presents in the film.
This film is famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov invents, deploys or develops, such as double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played backwards, animations and a self-reflexive style (at one point it features a split screen tracking shot; the sides have opposite Dutch angles).
The film has an unabashedly art film bent and emphasizes that film can go anywhere, for instance superimposing a shot of a cameraman setting up his camera atop a second, mountainous camera; or superimposing a cameraman inside a beer glass; or filming a woman getting out of bed and getting dressed; or even filming a different woman giving birth, the baby being taken away to be bathed.
Vertov's message about the prevalence and unobtrusiveness of filming was not yet true—cameras might have been able to go anywhere, but not without being noticed; they were too large to be hidden easily, and too noisy to remain hidden anyway. To get footage using a hidden camera, Vertov and his brother Mikhail Kaufman had to distract the subject with something else even louder than the camera filming them.
The film also features a few obvious stagings such as the scene of the woman getting out of bed and getting dressed (cameras at the time were fairly bulky and loud, and not surreptitious) and the shot of the chess pieces being swept to the center of the board (a shot which was spliced in backwards, causing the pieces to expand outward and stand into position). The film was criticized for both the stagings and its stark experimentation, possibly as a result of its director's frequent assailing of fiction film as a new "opiate of the masses."
Dziga Vertov, or Denis Arkadevich Kaufman, was an early pioneer in documentary film-making during the late 1920s. He belonged to a movement of filmmakers known as the kinoks, or kinokis. Vertov, along with other kino artists declared it their mission to abolish all non-documentary styles of film-making. This radical approach to movie making led to a slight dismantling of film industry: the very field in which they were working. This being said, most of Vertov's films were highly controversial, and the kinoc movement was despised by many filmmakers of the time. Vertov's crowning achievement, Man with a Movie Camera was his response to the critics who rejected his previous film, One-Sixth Part of the World. Critics declared that Vertov's overuse of "intertitles" was inconsistent with the code of film-making that the 'kinos' subscribed to.
Working within that context, Vertov dealt with much fear in anticipation of the film's release. He requested a warning to be printed in Soviet central Communist newspaper, Pravda, which spoke directly of the film's experimental, controversial nature. Vertov was worried that the film would be either destroyed or ignored by the public eye. Upon the official release of Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov issued a statement at the beginning of the film, which read:
"The film Man with a Movie Camera represents
AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC TRANSMISSION
Of visual phenomena
WITHOUT THE USE OF INTERTITLES
(a film without intertitles)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A SCRIPT
(a film without script)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A THEATRE
(a film without actors, without sets, etc.)
This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY – on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature."
Many visual ideas, such as the quick editing, the close-ups of machinery, the store window displays, even the shots of a typewriter keyboard appear to have been borrowed from Walter Ruttman's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, which predates Man with a Movie Camera by two years.
Because of the doubts before screening, and the great anticipation which came from Vertov's pre-screening statements, the film had gained a colossal interest before it was even shown. Once the film was finally screened, the public either embraced or dismissed Vertov's stylistic choices. Working within a Marxist ideology, Vertov strove to create a futuristic city that would serve as a commentary on existing ideals in the Soviet world. This artificial city’s purpose was to awaken the Soviet citizen through truth and to ultimately bring about understanding and action. The kino’s aesthetic shined through in his portrayal of electrification, industrialization, and the achievements of workers through hard labour. This could also be viewed as early modernism in film.
On a more technical note, Man with a Movie Camera's usage of double exposure and seemingly 'hidden' cameras made the movie come across as a very surreal montage rather than a linear motion picture. Many of the scenes in the film contain characters, which change size or appear underneath other objects (double exposure). Because of these aspects, the movie’s overall speed is fast moving and enthralling. The sequences and close-ups capture emotional qualities, which could not be fully portrayed through the use of words. The film's lack of 'actors' and 'sets' makes for a unique view of the everyday world; one "directed toward the creation of a genuine, international, purely cinematic language, entirely distinct from the language of theatre and literature."
Vertov's use of stylistic symbolism was especially effective in creating a universal theme throughout the film. For example, one scene intercuts hidden camera shots of a couple getting marriage certificates and another couple at a divorce registry office. Soon after, two old women are shown attending a funeral procession and a woman is shown giving birth to a child. These shots are juxtaposed to possibly make a statement on the then current state of the Soviet world vs. a future one 'being born.' Regardless, these sharply cut shots create a jarring effect for the viewer.