Meandering through Vertov’s ‘kino-eye’ and City Symphonies of the 1920s
By Goirick Brahmachari
The flâneur and the Kino-eye
Dziga Vertov’s idea of kino-eye (also a 1924 film and a cinema movement) refers to a cinematic technique of capturing facts that are ‘inaccessible to the human eye’. The literal meaning of the phrase ‘kino-eye’, which may be defined as the cinematic eye that collects truths through montages of a city and its people (without any regard for a narrative or a temporal sequence), has some resemblance with Charles Baudelaire’s description of a 19th Century flâneur or a flâneur’s eye: “a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life” (Baudelaire, 1863; Gleber, 1999). The kino-eye, according to Vertov, is the conquest of time and space that captures the visual linkages of people separated by space, and phenomena separated by time, and is based on the continuous exchange of visible fact (Michelson, 1984). It is this eye that observes the society, documents its transitions, ironies, and peculiarities within the cosmos and the chaos of a modern city and archives its people, meanderers, and the homeless with all of their multiplicity.
In Vertov’s groundbreaking work, Man with a Movie Camera (1929) – shot in three different Ukrainian cities, Odessa, Kharkiv, and Kiev (Barrett, 2014) – the ‘Man’ or the flâneur figure is seen wandering in nonlinear space and time, collecting montages of a city from a morning onto a night. It celebrates the man and the city spaces in the Soviet Union under a Communist regime and the changing modernity of these cities. It questions the co-existence of overconsumption and scarcity and portrays a city’s duality of anonymity and intimacy, its pace and delays, its hidden moments and vastness, in all of their nuances. Through his approach of the kino-eye, Vertov creates a cinematic language written only with the cinematic techniques, without any assistance of words, speech or actors. Using both close-ups and wide angled shots, time lapses and slow motions, Dziga Vertov creates a unique collage of images in unsynchronized tempo that reveals multiple and complicated meanings/truths.
Man with a Movie Camera starts with shots inside a movie hall, where a movie is about to be screened. Viewers take their seats. The reel is about to be rolled. A live symphony orchestra gets ready to play. The projector and the screen are set ready.
The film captures the various stages in a film making process – shooting, reviewing shots, editing, and screening at different points in the film, often in a nonlinear and unexpected way. Brilliantly edited by Elizaveta Svilova (Vertov’s wife, who is seen reviewing and cutting reels in the movie), the film is a journey through continuous surprises and shocks through images and frames that appear and disappear in varied time and space. Vertov deploys and develops various cinematic techniques in this film such as double exposures, extreme close-ups, jump cuts, Dutch angles, rewinds and stop-motion animation that were rarely used in a film previously. These techniques, according to Vertov, help a viewer to see the inaccessible truths closely. Vertov tells us more than a story through the pace and pauses of a visual symphony. Pauses are as much an important aspect of Vertov’s aesthetic as they are in establishing the idea of a flâneur. They come at odd intervals to hit and break the tempo of the array of our observations.
Some shots and sequences from the movie particularly linger in the viewer’s mind. A shot of the man with movie camera standing over a giant camera in the beginning is quite noteworthy. A few other gripping shots and sequences include apartment shots in Dutch angles, shots of how a city wakes up is matched with those of a woman waking up from sleep, a shot where the camera lens that changes its focus is followed by a shot of blinking eyes, and a sequence where the filmmaker risks his life to shoot a train.
Just like a flâneur’s vision, the movie fills up its aspect ratio for the audience with unpredictable images, cut in unpredictable tempo, to take them through uninterrupted sequences of instances, moments, frames, portraits, and landscapes.
The flâneur as the eye
The genre of City Symphony is possibly the closest cinematic manifestation of the Baudelaire-ian description of a flâneur: “He is an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I’”. While Man with a Movie Camera is often clubbed into the City Symphony form (though Vertov never mentions the term himself), one essential distinction is that Vertov’s Man is seen travelling with a movie camera and we see glimpses of both the Man and the montages through his kino-eye. Here the “I” and the “eye” both remain essential parts of the film’s frames and narrative. On the contrary, the films that may fit more closely to the definition of a City Symphony, for example, Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926) and Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927) are those wherein we see the flâneur converge into the montages, seen through a travelling movie camera, or, where the “I” becomes the “eye” (Jilani, 2013).
The earliest exponents of the City Symphony film genre were the American duo, Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, who shot Manhatta in 1921, a 65 shot-10 minutes, non-narrative documentary film that documents 20th century Manhattan. The movie may be seen as a celebratory song composed for the great American flâneur, Walt Whitman.
Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (only the hours) (1926) is probably the first feature-length City Symphony that archives the montages of 20th century Paris. Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Symphony of a Metropolis) was shot in the following year. Both the films are unique in their own style and aesthetic, yet they reveal many similarities.
The camera in both Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures and Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis travels from the outskirts of these cities into the center of Paris and Berlin. Both the movies are deeply controlled by time and tempo, by music and its patterns, like the forms and structures of a western classical symphony. Stark shots of forlorn mannequins feature in both the movies. Alienation is equally depicted as much as city’s distractions, gatherings, and milieu. Lovers in the streets of Berlin and Paris; industrial progress and machines; and printing press and newspapers too are covered in both these movies. The newspaper shots in both these movies are dramatic and noteworthy. Workers and cleaners take up an important role in both the movies, so do the ironies of skyscrapers and the homeless, piles of food and wastage, hunger. The less apparent female flâneurs in the City Symphonies eventually appear in Ruttmann’s Berlin. Cavalcanti’s film too captures female flâneurs and meanderers. Abstract shots punctuate the non-narrative, often adding more than a meaning. It may be noted that Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures has a few sequences that seem scripted, especially the lovers who reappear in the movie a few times. Shots of the wandering old mad women and sleeping beggars also feature in both Berlin and Paris, as they do in Man with a Movie Camera. Ruttmann’s Berlin also documents the nightlife in Berlin.
Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures in particular documents the socio-political engagement within the city life in a powerful way. Few minutes into the film and the viewers are greeted with a caveat that reads, “This is not a depiction of the fashionable and elegant life…” (which probably was the case for many of the mainstream silent movies during the Roaring Twenties) “…but of the everyday life of the humble and the downtrodden.” A shot of a human eye, at the initial parts of the film reminds us of Vertov’s kino-eye, thus confirming our notion of how these City Symphonies celebrated the eye. The shot is followed later by a shot of multiple blinking eyes, across the frame, possibly implying the myriad nature of a city frame and the observatory traits of these films.
In Alexander Hammid’s 1930 film, Bezúčelná procházka or Aimless Walk, too, a protagonist is seen wandering aimlessly on the outskirts of Prague. The film captures visual patterns and reflections through a few brilliant frames, abstract and geometrical forms, and archives the city’s architectural designs with some amazing observations and minute details. Further, the film, like its counterparts, captures the people, city life, and ironies. Within a timeframe of 8 minutes, the flâneur takes us through the diverse images of the outskirts of Prague, moments of leisure, workers in the factory, city streets and building structures, following strictly the territories of a non-narrative aesthetic through some delightful and spontaneous editing.
Other notable city symphonies of the silent era that extended the idea of a flâneur and expressed it through the cinematic lens include André Sauvage’s Études sur Paris (1928), Adalberto Kemeny and Rudolf Rex Lustig’s São Paulo: Sinfonia da Metrópole (1929), Joris Ivens’ Rain (1929), Robert Florey’s Skyscraper Symphony (1929), and Jean Vigo’s À propos de Nice (1930).
The silent era flâneurs with camera
Many silent era City Symphonies used the form and structure of a musical symphony and were usually screened, accompanied with a symphony performed live by an orchestra. Most of them observed or documented a city, a metropolis, from day into the night. Many archived the varied spaces, localities, class divide, and their diverse citizens. Still others, celebrated, yet questioned, early 20th century modernity and capitalism. Many others did not follow a similar pattern. While the definitions may vary as to what exactly constitutes the form of a City Symphony film, these movies offer us charming insights into both the time and space from where these films were filmed.
Vertov and his immediate predecessors/contemporaries were making these films during an era, when both the scientific progress and aesthetic styles in the cinema were in transition. New cameras were being invented which were smaller and lighter compared to their earlier counterparts. The silent era fiction films by 1920s had attained some level of saturation. Cameras from studios were now rolled onto the streets. Along with the larger than life heroes and heroines, they now also captured the average human life on the street. Post First World War, reality, human life, and modernity were probably as interesting as fiction for the viewers. And perhaps that paved the way for the genre of documentary films to take its present shape through these pioneering experiments during the decade of the 1920s.
The idea of a flâneur in both cinema and photography during this decade became all the more relevant than ever. City Symphony filmmakers and street photographers returned the idea of a flâneur to their audience with renewed meanings. A flâneur, as one may note, while watching these films, may enter a city symphony through not only its form and frames but may also arrive through the very process of filming a City Symphony. Over the last 90 years, the genre survived, developing and adapting its own styles and technique relevant to its present. New meanings emerged. These films, until date, continue to share the facts and images of a city with their audience and they navigate them towards something that is rather very close to a flâneur’s vision.
Many of these filmmakers were not native to the cities they documented. Cavalcanti, for example, collaborated with Ruttmann when Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis was shot. Adalberto Kemeny and Rudolf Rex Lustig, who shot São Paulo: Sinfonia da Metrópole, were Hungarian immigrants to Brazil. Like a flâneur, these filmmakers had no specific relationship with the cities they documented. Yet, they established the idea of a city through a personal visual confession. With a few exceptions, most of them portrayed the cultural and societal evolution of European cities, through their eye and their lenses with an avant-garde aesthetic. These City Symphonies were possibly some of the earliest specimens of urban art.
City Symphonies and street photography from the silent era remain special till date. They only increase in importance with time, as these cities were documented through the lens of noteworthy filmmakers and photographers, and both, probably identified with the Baudelaire’s flâneur figure of the 19th century. The value of these images and shots becomes overpowering now, as, during the Second World War, many of these cities documented through these films and photos were destroyed. In many ways, it may be said, that much like the lost images and the time seen through these City Symphonies, the idea of a flâneur too gradually disappeared from literature and cinema, failing to match with the postmodern pace of 21st century. These City Symphony films though celebrate the flâneur and surely bring him or her back to us.
Barrett, Alex. 2014. The sound of silents: is it time to revive the ‘city symphony’ film genre? The Guardian. 2014.
Baudelaire, Charles. 1863. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. Jonathan Mayne. Phaidon Press. Page 9.
Cavalcanti, Alberto. 1926. Rien que les heures (Only the hours).
Gleber, Anke. 1999. The Art of Taking a Walk: Flanerie, Literature, and Film in Weimar Culture. Frinceton University Press. Page 156-157.
Hammid, Alexander. 1930. Bezúčelná procházka (Aimless Walk).
Jilani, Sarah. 2013. Urban Modernity and Fluctuating Time: “Catching the Tempo” of the 1920s City Symphony Films. Sense of Cinema. Issue 68.
Michelson, Annette. Ed. 1984. Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. Trans. Kevin O’Brien. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ruttmann, Walter. 1927. Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis.
Sheeler, Charles and Paul Strand. 1921. Manhattan.
Vertov, Dziga. 1924. Kino-eye.
Vertov, Dziga. 1929. Man with the Movie Camera.
Originally from Silchar, Assam, Goirick B lives in New Delhi. He has published three volumes of poetry. His latest collection of poems, Wet Radio and other poems (2017), was self-published via CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. He is co-directing a City Symphony titled, Dilli Dur Ast, which is set to release in 2018.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.