This film has been aptly compared to Berlin: Symphony of a City, but what has interested me most about it is its portrayal of cinema as a universally accessible art form. While there are propagandistic moments -- celebrating the efficiency and lifestyle of the Soviet working class -- it easily transcends whatever purpose the authorities (or Vertov himself) may have had in allowing Vertov to film it. You have to remember that this film was composed for an audience that may have seen films but were certainly not film literate -- not many of us are now -- which is to say they had not likely been aware of the process of making films, or reflected much on the nature of film. What is so exciting about this film is that it presents both a portrait of a city, and of the life of its inhabitants, as well as a documentary (and self-reflexive) study of the art of filmmaking. There is much to learn from this film about the different ways of thinking about film, and I often show it in my film classes for this purpose.
There is the idea of film as a recorder of objective fact, that is potentially present anywhere though always located somewhere, suggested by the images of the filmmaker as a kind of eye towering over the city, seeing both the whole and the parts. There is also the idea of film as highly subjective, suggested in images that show the personal reaction of the filmmaker, and in images that show the personal dangers faced by the "man with a movie camera" in his effort to capture difficult shots. We see, in these shots, that film is not simply a passive recorder of events that unfold independently of the filmmaker but is also involved in the creation of these events. We see the editor, editing the very footage that we had just seen the filmmaker recording. We see that the filmmaker can be a kind of poet, making use of visual metaphors to suggest ideas: a train relay that suggests the intercutting of various scenes by the editor, a window and an eye that suggest the camera. We also see the capacity of the filmmaker to manipulate and create a new reality, when we observe animation (of the camera itself, seemingly taking on a life of its own without the cameraman), but we also see how this animation is achieved. We are even shown the audience itself, and by implication are included in the very picture we are watching. Some of these metaphors and ideas may seem heavy handed today, but that is only in my description of them. When you actually watch them they fascinate. The editing also is superb in this film -- always appropriate to the scene it is sometimes slow, and sometimes more rapid and kinetic than anything MTV produces.
All in all, I consider this an essential piece of cinema, well worth purchasing on DVD while it is still available. I hope it remains in print forever, but have a hard time believing it will, which is why I just recently purchased a personal copy -- when it was already owned by my campus library. (The picture on the DVD is quite fine, better than the VHS copy I have seen; the music that was re-created from notes left behind by Vertov is superb and fits the film quite nicely.)