The History of Early Russian Cinema Essay
The History of Early Russian Cinema
The beginning of the twentieth century was an exiting time for this business that we call show. The film industry had not restricted itself to Hollywood. The film industry had spread its wings round the world at a fantastic rate. This term paper focuses on the early years of Russian cinema, the films that were made, and the directors that pushed the boundaries of Russian entertainment. We will trace a path through history; from the beginning of the silent era, the introduction of sound, and the sound of drums which heralded the beginning of a second great war.
This paper will touch upon such pre-revolutionary Russian films as Seaside Walk, The Gadfly and the Ant, Christmas Eve, Kliuchischastia, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Queen of Spades. We fill find the fall of Nicolas II will not be an end to the Russian film industry. The industry will continue. We will also look at such films as Chelovek s kino-apparatom, The Battleship Potemkin, Novyy Vavilon, and Putevka v zhizn. The path we will take with this paper will lead us from 1907 to 1977; through the Russian revolution, the Great War and the beyond the Second World War.
Even though French film companies dominated the Russian Empire film market up until the beginning of the First World War, Russian companies started appearing as early as 1907. The Russian Empire had a fledging film industry waiting to bust out on to the world stage. The beginnings of which can be seen in the film Seaside Walk. Seaside Walk was originally titled D? niz k? nar? nda g? zinti, one of the earliest examples of Russian film known to still exist. Directed by Vasil Amashukeli, Seaside Walk was filmed in 1908. Amashukeli not only directed Seaside Walk, but is also credited as being the person that wrote and produced the film.
Seaside Walk was made with shot 33mm film. By today’s standards, Seaside Walk is considered a short film. Amashukeli wrote, produced and directed several other short films in 1907; working in Baku, primarily making films of oil production and extraction in and around the capital. These films included Oil Extraction and Transportation of Oil. These titles really speak for themselves. The films Amashukeli made were documentary based. This type of film was pretty much the order of the day. The entertainment industry only recently started to expand its wings at this point.
The difference between the films made in 1907 and 1912 is as plain as day. Wladyslaw Starewicz who will eventually change his name to Ladislas Starevich started to make a name for himself as a gifted director of animated films. Starewicz had directed several short animations by the time he choose to create a drawn animation. Starewicz adapted Krylov’s fable The Gadfly and the Ant into what is now considered to be one the best examples of “Russian animated cartoons. ” It was this animation that elevated Starewicz out of obscurity and subsequently introduced his work to the international entertainment industry.
Gaining foreign success may have been the goal for some filmmakers but not was necessarily for either Starewicz or Aleksandr Khanzhonkov. However, the added bonus that foreign fame brought to their careers did not go unwanted. Starewicz went on to direct an adaption of Nikolai Gogol’s Noch pered Rozhdestvom (Christmas Eve). Starevich’s adaption of Nikolai Gogol’s book ran for approximately 41-minutes. Unlike the majority of the films Starevich directed, Christmas Eve is for the most part live-action. The film is considered to be one of the finest examples of early Russian cinema.
Christmas Eve is what we would now consider to be a black comedy. The film has a satanic subject matter with various comedic folkloric twists. Christmas Eve is set in a Cossack stanitsa. On Christmas Eve, a demon visits a witch named Solokha. After visiting with the witch, the demon steals the Moon from the night’s sky and conceals it in an old rag. This film is significant because this is the first known adaptation of Christmas Eve that was filmed. Film production in Russia increased at an extraordinary rate, going from 19 films in 1909 to 129 films in 1913.
This is relatively tame in comparison to that of the United States but the political climate in what was then the Russian Empire is a significant factor. Nicolas II was still on the throne at this point. Nicolas’s authoritarianistic approach to governing coupled with an obtuse conservative attitude only served to exasperate the near-total isolation he placed himself in from reality. In 1913, the Russian Empire saw the release of two significant films. The first of which was Kliuchischastia (The Keys to Happiness) is significant because it was one of the first Russian films to be made in two parts.
This two part film was an instant success. The second film, Terrible Vengeance, directed by Starevich, won the Gold Medal at an international festival in Milan in 1914. There were 1005 films entered in the awards and Starevich’s film was one of five films to take home an award. Winning this award inspired Starewicz to continue working on feature length films. A significant number of the films that were made in 1913 were short films by today’s standards. A substantial change to the Russian film industry came in 1914.
Short films were the norm up until this point; however, filmmakers were constantly trying to push the limits of what could be done with film, and short films had limitations which did not lend themselves to telling a more complex story. The switch to full or feature length films can be seen with films made around this time. This is not to say that there weren’t directors already making feature length films. It just means the number of feature length films being produced started to increase whereas the production of short films was declining.
The number of films made in the Russian Empire went from 230 in 1914 to 500 in 1916. It is clear from these figures that being at war had no effect on film production but there was an impact on the type of films being produced. Historical films were losing ground to more contemporary themed adaptations. The classics no longer had the appeal they once had. The reason for this is that audiences started to consider the classics as being “too sedate. ” This period in Russian film history not only saw an incredible increase in film production, but also a parallel increase in the number of studios producing said films.
In 1913, Russia could boast 18 fully operational film studios. This is an impressive figure. Especially when you understand the Russian film industry, at this point, is less than a decade in existence. This figure ballooned to 47 by 1916. Many of these film companies were what one might consider “fly-by-night operations”. Companies disappeared almost as quickly as they had come into view. This was not that unusual. The same thing was happening in Europe and the United States. Oscar Wilde’s classic The Picture of Dorian Gray is a popular novel; so much so, o one can blame filmmakers for wanting to capitalize on said popularity.
One of these filmmakers, Vsevolod Meyerhold, directed an adaptation of Wilde’s novel in 1915. Meyerhold believed that theatre productions and film productions should be viewed as art but as distinct forms of art within themselves. This was not exactly a popular notion at the time. It has since gained ground over the years to become the school of thought within the Russian entertainment industry. Unfortunately, the 1915 adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray is now lost to history.
Unfortunately, like many films made around this time, the Meyerhold adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray appears to only exist in reference form, a mere footnote in some obscure textbook. However, the same thing has been said many times regarding other productions which been thought lost but have since been found in some of the most obscure locations. The arrival of the Great War; otherwise known as the First World War had no lasting detrimental impact on Starewicz’s ability to make films, for he was able to work through the war with the blessing of the then tsar.
During the war, Starewicz wrote scripts and directed films for several companies. He made approximately 60 live-action films during this period, most of which were fairly successful. Starewicz saw many historical events which hindered his ability to make films; this includes the Great War, and the October Revolution of 1917. However, regardless of what history’s future had in store for Starewicz, he weathered the storm. He continued doing what filmmakers do. Starewicz made films. Starewicz made many films. Starewicz found that the majority of the Russian film community sided with the White Army.
They moved from Moscow to the Black Sea. Starewicz took his family; they stayed briefly, but fled the area before the Red Army took the Crimea. The Starewicz family stopped for a short time in Italy before moving on to Paris, France. Their plan was to settle down and create a new company. Starewicz used the remains of Georges Melies’ old studio. Starewicz made one short animated film, The Scarecrow, before the operation was wound up, and moving to the United States to work for the Hollywood studios. Yakov Protazanov was directing around the same time Ladislas Starevich was.
Between 1911 and 1918, Protazanov directed approximately 80 feature length films. These films included The Queen of Spades (1916) and Father Sergius (1917). The Queen of Spades is considered to be one of Protazanov most successful pre-revolutionary Russian animations. The premise of The Queen of Spades is gambling. One could argue that, for the time period, making a film about gambling was pushing the boundaries of good taste. During a card game, Narumov tells his friends about grandmother, a Countess. She was most likely the reason he liked to play cards. As a young woman, she had ran-up a sizable gambling debt.
She was apparently able to settle the debt by learning a secret system of playing cards. This system virtually guaranteed she could win by playing her cards in a specific order. One of Narumov’s friends becomes so obsessed with learning the secret that he goes to great lengths to uncovering what his grandmother did. The extent of his obsession was so great; he starts courting the young ward of the grandmother in the hopes that this would somehow gain him access to the Countess. A surprising aspect of The Queen of Spades is the films lack of moralizing, especially given the period in which it was made.
Nicholas II was still the tsar at this point. He was an absolutist. He believed in one language, one faith, and one tsar. Regardless of this fact, Protazanov was still able to make The Queen of Spades. This in itself is somewhat refreshing. The outcome of many Soviet and American films made around the same time depicted evildoers being punished for their crimes. Protazanov approach to filmmaking applied a different slant. In the real world, evildoers sometimes get away with what they have done. Father Sergius is one of the last films made in what was the Russian Empire.
Father Sergius, a short film based on a novel written by Lev Tolstoy. Lev Tolstoy, known as Leo Tolstoy in the West is better known for the epic novel, War & Peace. Father Sergiusis is one of a few pre-revolutionary Russian films to survive. The film adaption is considered to one of the best, all be it elaborate adaptations of a Tolstoy novel, ever made. The protagonist, a young, libertine officer played by Ivan Mozzhukin thinks little of committing casual sins whilst in the service of the Tsar. This is something he comes to regret as he grows older.
He discovers the past may not always stay in the past. His past depravities begin to manifest themselves physically, in his shriveled face and desiccated body. He wanders up and down the countryside, searching for redemption. Protazanov’s film primarily emphasized the high and low points of life in the Russian Empire. This is something Protazanov achieved by filming in the actual locations described by Tolstoy in his novel. It is argued that the overall theme of corruption in high places was the causality of Father Sergius being automatically banned by the Tsarist censors.
One might have thought that this would have been the end of Father Sergius, never to see the light of day again. Though the film was banned by the Tsarist censors, it found a more receptive audience after the Russian government passed into the hands of the revolutionaries. As mentioned, 1917 saw the making of Father Sergius but it also saw the end of the Great War for the Russian Empire and the empire itself. The revolution had finally arrived. The Russian Empire had ceased to exist; however, the Russian film industry survived the fall of Nicolas II.
The revolution had just as much effect of the Russian film industry as the beginning of the war had. Regardless of the change of government, the entertainment industry thrived. The new regime actually liked films. The provisional government saw great potential in filmmaking. Where Western countries saw a market for filmmaking as entertainment; the newly formed Russian provisional government saw an opportunity to educate the masses, which in itself, is an admirable concept. Creating educational films may not have been everyone’s cup of tea.
Filmmakers toed the party line, making a few educational films here and there. Filmmakers saw the money in making films for purely entertainment reasons. Educating the masses is one thing; entertainment is something completely different. The mid 20s were considered by many to be the golden age of cinema. It was during the late 1920s that director Dziga Vertov produced newsreels titled Kino-Pravda (Cinema Truth). Vertov used rapid-fire-editing typically only seen in feature length films. Vertov integrated this approach with a combination of multi-camera shooting and a wide range of “bizarre camera angles.
Vertov continued using this same approach to make Chelovek s kino-apparatom (The Man with a Movie Camera). Sergei M. Eisenstein directed several films during this time period; three of which stand out for not only having “a fusion of theatre and powerful intellect” but also being some of the “most original silent films to come out of Russia: The Battleship Potemkin, Oktober and Old and New. ” The Battleship Potemkin is possibly the most famous of the three films mentioned here. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert writes, “’The Battleship Potemkin’ has been so famous for so long that it is almost impossible to come to it with a fresh eye.
It is difficult to look at anything this old with fresh set of eyes. The Battleship Potemkin, influenced in part by D. W. Griffith, is a testament to Eisenstein as a creative genius. The fact that the film continues to be an effective example of early film on some levels is an indication of said genius. If this were not the case, Eisenstein’s work would no longer be incorporated into film-television-digital-media degree programs. Although some of the themes depicted in the film The Battleship Potemkin are to a certain extent melodramatic.
This is hardly surprising given how dated the techniques have become. This is an inevitable but tragic truth that all films have to face during the lifetimes. New techniques are implemented virtually every day. This is true of the way filmmakers edit material together. The editing techniques used to create the film were revolutionary at the time. This in itself makes the film historically relevant to film historians. The use of what is now known as Soviet montage is unmistakable. Nowhere does this montage have greater effect than in the incredible Odessa steps sequence.
The numerous disconcerting bewildering jump cuts represent how chaotic terror of the situation had become. The rapid editing of the entire sequence was pure genius. Nothing like this had ever been seen before. The attacking militia is often shown by only a line of marching boots advancing upon the citizens. This is argued to be a cinematic technique that emphasizes not only the impersonal nature of the military but how oppressive it could be. It isn’t until we get to the end of the sequence do we see a close-up of one of the Cossacks. He is shown in close up as he brutally slashes an old woman begging for her life.
Eisenstein clearly gives evil an identity; an identity which is plain for all to see, for this form of evil still exists today. Most of the destruction depicted in Eisenstein’s film is shown through citizen’s eyes. Interestingly, The Battleship Potemkin seems to be one of the earliest examples Russian films where the director instructs one of the actresses to break the fourth wall. Breaking the fourth wall is where a character appears or actually acknowledges the audience in some way. This can be done by speaking directly to the audience or by merely looking directly into the camera.
The scene in The Battleship Potemkin depicts a woman carrying child. She is walking up steps towards a line of heavily armed soldiers. The scene cuts to a close up of the women. It is in this part of the film were she appears to be not only looking at but actually speaking directly into the camera. This is a perfect example of breaking the fourth wall. This suggests the woman is not only pleading the militia to stop the massacre but also petitioning the audience for support. The audience like all audiences at a cinema is unable to change the course of events in the film.
The audience most likely becomes enraged at the guards gunning down the helpless woman and child. This is possibly the desired reaction. This is possibly what the director wanted to elicit in his audience. Breaking the fourth wall is just as effective today as it was when The Battleship Potemkin was made. Western intellectuals viewed Russian filmmakers as creators of genuinely “revolutionary cinema. ” Intellectuals were not fazed by Russia’s filmmakers supporting a communist regime. The reputation of the Russian film industry, like that of the American film industry, was based on the work of a handful of directors.
Directors produced work that achieved “classic status” before anyone knew what a “classic film” was. A case in point is the 1929 film Novyy Vavilon (The New Babylon), a film directed by Grigori Mikhailovich Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg. “This took place in a remarkably short space of time. ” Prior to this point, Russian cinema was noted for how commercially bland the productions were. The Bolshevik Revolution changed that perception forever. Time marches on and so too does innovation in this business we call show.
The 1930s brought with it the most significant innovation in cinema since the birth of the silent film era. Sound had made it to the big screen. Talkies had arrived in the Soviet Union. Talkies would end many acting careers but allow many other careers to begin. 1931 saw the premier of the Soviet Union’s first talking film, Putevka v zhizn (A Road to Life). A Road to Life, directed by Nikolai Vladimirovich Ekk, was an instant success. People flocked to the cinema to hear more than see what the excitement was about this modern marvel that was talking films. Talking films had been around since 1927.