Compiling History for Masses: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty
In August 1926, Sovkino, the Soviet state body in control of cinema production, commissioned Esfir Shub to make a film commemorating the tenth anniversary of the February 1917 revolution. For Shub, who had spent years behind the editing table, this was a long-awaited chance to enter the ranks of film directors, and to prove that non-fiction film deserved greater appreciation.
Being passionate about showing historical facts and not merely staged reenactments, Shub created her film entirely from historical footage filmed in pre-revolutionary Russia and Europe between 1913 and 1917. The result – which came to be known as Padenie Dinasti Romanovykh (The Fall of The Romanov Dynasty, 1927) – became a big success, both in its own time and beyond. The film redefined the idea of montage documentary and even prompted claims that Shub had “established a specific cinematic genre, the so-called compilation film.”1 While the latter is highly debatable, because films of this kind appeared long before 1927, Shub’s approach to selecting film material and the editing methods she used in The Fall of The Romanov Dynasty certainly set the work apart from its compilation film predecessors.
Once approved for work on her own film, Shub began her efforts in looking for and recovering old footage. This proved to be a challenging but exciting task, which in many ways resembled the work of a criminal detective. For one thing, there was no centralised film archive, no clear understanding of where to look for the desired footage, which was scattered at different locations and often left uncatalogued. In her memoirs, Shub recalls that fragile film strips were often kept in horrible conditions which led to their rapid deterioration, “We found footage in basements, in places with such levels of humidity that the emulsion was peeling off the film base.”2
Shub’s hunt for historical footage landed several major successes including some footage of actual February 1917 events, parts of which came from the batch of newsreels Sovkino managed to buy back from the US.3 Another discovery was the so-called film chronicle of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, which “was piled up in a wet basement in Leningrad and had never been catalogued by anyone.”4 The last Russian Tsar liked to be filmed and had a resident cameraman who documented important events as well as everyday life of the royals. In her film, Shub made extensive use of this footage, juxtaposing the lavish life of the Tsar family with the existence of the poor and unprivileged. All in all, over the course of gathering historical footage she watched around 60,000 meters of film, 1500 meters of which made it into the final cut of The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty.
Having collected enough material, Shub proceeded to do what she knew and liked best – editing. She first entered the film industry in 1922 when Goskino (predecessor of Sovkino) hired her as a film editor. Shub began her career by re-editing foreign films for the Soviet screen. In a country where its own film production was very much limited due to shortages of film stock and dire economic conditions, reassembling foreign features to load them with new (Bolshevik) ideological meaning was common practice.
The New Economic Policy introduced in 1921 revived movie-going culture in the country – people flooded the theaters looking for temporary escape from the troubles of life. The Soviet authorities could not allow bourgeois ideology to dominate the screen, thus foreign films and those made in Russia before the Revolution underwent serious re-edits before being released for the general audience.
Between 1922 and 1925 Shub alone re-edited about two hundred films. This work, as she said herself, became her film school. “I learned how to evaluate composition and mise en scène. I developed memory for the shots, movement within the frame, the rhythm and tempo of the piece.”5 Her favourite part was to take a number of short disjointed clips which had no intertitles or any other textual cues and organise them into a coherent logical film sequence. So when it came to working on The Fall of The Romanov Dynasty, she did just that – assembled bits of found footage filmed in different years and at different places into a continuous narrative about the class struggle.
According to Shub, the major themes and structure of the film emerged out of the footage she was able to dig out. The Fall of The Romanov Dynasty is divided into three parts: it starts by showing Tsarist Russia “during the black reactionary years,” then shifts to the horrors of World War I, and concludes with the February Revolution, which was mostly shown through crowds of workers in the streets and the array of historical documents such as official government manifests and Bolshevik proclamations.6 The depictions of revolution, of course, culminated with historical footage of Vladimir Lenin. Shub, who later lashed out at Sergei Eisenstein and criticised his October (1928) for featuring staged representation of Lenin, was very much preoccupied with the idea of historical fact and authenticity.
Shub’s adherence to historical non-staged footage lay in her firm belief that only newsreel was capable of representing the great revolutionary struggles of 1917, and that staged accounts of historical events would inevitably lead to distortions. However, as evidenced from her writing, it was not just the facts she was interested in, but rather their very particular reading – the interpretation “from the point of view of the class that won the revolutionary battle.”7 This is what made The Fall of The Romanov Dynasty a new kind of compilation film, neutral or even pro-monarchist footage (such as the Tsar Chronicles) became hardcore Bolshevik propaganda through the use of montage and intertitles.
To ensure that the commemorative film was completely in line with the official ideology and supplied national memory with a properly refined image of the February Revolution, Shub worked in close connection with Museum of the Revolution research associate Mark Tseitlin. He was the author of the intertitles and is sometimes credited as a co-writer for the film. The last ideological touch was added by Ilya Traynin, the director of the studio where Shub worked. After the first screening of the film, Traynin replaced Shub’s rather neutral working title February with the pompous The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty.
Upon its official release on March 11, 1927, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty was greeted with favour by both Bolshevik leaders and cultural elites, namely the members of the Left Front of the Arts. The film secured Shub’s reputation as a film director and earned her several osbriquets, including that of pioneer of the compilation film, and the first Soviet female documentary filmmaker. The success of the film also paved the way for her next two projects, Velikiy Put (The Great Road,1927) and Rossiya Nikolaya II i Lev Tolstoy (Lev Tolstoy and The Russia of Nicholas II, 1928) – the latter is considered to be lost. Both films were made out of found footage just like The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. The trilogy is considered by many to be Shub’s best achievement. Her later films, some of which she shot herself, received considerably less attention.
- Vlada Petric, “Esther Shub: Cinema is my life”, Quarterly Review of Film Studies 3:4 (1978): 429. ↩
- Esfir Shub, “And Again the Newsreel”, trans. Anastasia Kostina, Feminist Media Histories 2:3 (2016): 23. ↩
- Esfir Shub, “The First Work”, trans. Anastasia Kostina, Feminist Media Histories 2:3 (2016): 19. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Esfir Shub, Zhizn’ Moya Kinematograph (Moscow: Isskustvo, 1972) p. 82. ↩
- Shub, “The First Work”, op. cit., 20. ↩
- Ibid. ↩