To modern eyes the sight of an old motorcycle with odd-looking front suspension and a large sprung seat looks rather quaint, especially with the hand-cranked cine camera mounted on the front handlebars. However, to a late 1920s Soviet cinema audience this was the ultimate in glamorous modern technology. The American Indian motorcycle was a large powerful and very expensive machine that would have been a rare sight indeed. The Debrie Parvo Model L was also the last word in movie cameras so the combination of the two would have made a great impression. The Constructivists shared with the Futurists an enthusiasm for technology and speed and no doubt the motorcycles around the race-track sequences were included for this as well as cinematic reasons. The artist obviously thought that similar imagery would persuade a German audience to see the film!
Julius Kupfer-Sachs’ 1929 poster for the film featuring an image of a stylised motorcycle and camera speeding through an ‘Expressionist’ city (Austrian Film Museum)
Mikhail Kaufman on the 1927 Indian Big Chief 74 ci (1206 cc) V-twin motorcycle used in the race track scenes, with a professional looking custom-made cradle supporting the Model L camera fixed to the wide handlebars (made by MK?). How effective this would have been for filming over the obviously bumpy track is debatable. Significantly there are no sequences taken by this motorcycle mounted camera in the film, so it was really just a demonstration of speed and technology, and the ‘go-anywhere’ capabilities of the ‘Cine-eye’.
Close-up of camera cradle fixed to handlebars on what look like rubber damped mounts
The photograph below shows MK astride a 1923 Big Chief for an earlier attempt at filming from a motorcycle. Unlike the one in the film this is fitted with a very crude camera support that looks like a piece of rough timber with a G-clamp! This would have undoubtedly fallen off at the first bump, and doesn’t look like the work of an expert engineer like Kaufman. The camera is a Parvo Model JK, which was not used in Man with a Movie Camera (there is no evidence for this and no reference to any film attached to the image). The circular fitting on the tank is a klaxon (see colour photographs below).
The Big Chief, made in the USA from 1923-1928 by the Indian Motocycle Company (no ‘r’), was one of the most powerful and glamorous motorcycles of this era. Whether or not the ‘bike was Kaufman’s it was the only suitable choice. Having a ten kilo weight balanced on top of the handlebars of most motorcycles wouldn’t have done much for the steering, particularly while cranking the camera! The Big Chief, like all Indians, has very wide bars and is a big heavy machine making handling with a weight up front a lot easier. Another advantage is that these Indians have unique (for the period) twist grip controls with cables routed through the handlebars and, unlike the majority of motorcycles of this era, the throttle is on the left side meaning MK could crank the camera with his right hand while safely controlling the speed and steering. This would have been more difficult with the usual lever controls on the right handlebar. Kaufman could clearly manage this big beast of 1920s motorcycles with one hand so I suspect it was his. It seems to have been his second Big Chief, despite it being a very expensive motorcycle in the Soviet Union – an enthusiastic technophile, he was a pilot as well (there are aerial sequences in his film ‘Spring’).
1927 Indian Big Chief (like the one used in the film)
1923 Indian Big Chief – the same type that Kaufman is riding in the earlier photograph above (note the different front suspension to the later model)
Twist-grip throttle on left handlebar (operated by MK below while cranking the camera) and klaxon fixed to the top tube. A speedometer is fitted to the left of the klaxon.
[01:03:30 – enlargement]
Not a spelling mistake on this 1920s advert! In 1923 the company changed its name from the Hendee Manufacturing Company to the Indian Motocycle Company (after one of its successful models) – no “r” in motorcycle when the word was used with the name Indian for some unknown reason.
From a vintage motorcycle enthusiast’s point of view the ‘race’ is interesting with a variety of early and pre-1920s single cylinder touring machines taking part, but no contemporary racing ‘bikes to match the speed of Kaufman’s 90 mph Indian V-twin! I have been unable to find out where the banked track was located or what the other motorcycles were.
NOTES & ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
1927 Indian Big Chief photograph with the kind permission of Yesterdays Antique Motorcycles. Also, many thanks to Geert Versleyen of YAM for help with identifying the two Indians.
1923 Indian Big Chief photographs with the kind permission of Vintage Bikes Collection, a private Polish collection of early motorcycles and cycles.
Period photographs are from multiple sources so no specific attribution can be made. Contemporary Soviet photographs are in the public domain (Russia has a seventy year copyright limit).