This seminal Soviet film was screened at the Il Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016. With 2017 approaching this seemed like a harbinger for commemorations of the Great October Revolution and the revolutionary cinema that it produced. The film is a compilation of ‘found footage’ and is credited in direction and scripting to Esfir Shub. She was the key editor in the Soviet Cinema of the 1920s. Daria Khitrova writes in the Festival Catalogue of the ‘universal praise’ for her work in the Soviet film community.
“Shub learned the craft of film editing in a hard but creative way. For years, her job at the Soviet film factories was to doctor foreign (and later domestic) movies ideologically unacceptable for Soviet audiences. In many cases, it involved a full turn-around of the plot, characters, and situations, without, of course, any additional filming being an option.”
This experience developed Shub’s editing skills but her standpoint on artistic creation followed on from her involvement with the Soviet avant-garde and the Constructivist Movement. Importantly she collaborated with both the stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. This project was initially her suggestion and it offered merit to the Soviet Production arm Sovkino as there was no existing cinematic record of the Revolution. Initially the working title was ‘February Revolution’. The plan was to produce a compilation film, at this time a rare and undeveloped form, running from 1913 [the anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty] until February 1917, That month saw a revolutionary uprising in Petrograd, appropriately on Woman’s Day. This led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas and the end of the Romanov Dynasty. When soldiers broke away and supported the revolution the ruling class were unable to suppress the uprising. They did form a bourgeois government and this and the Soviet continued side by side, a period of ‘dual power’.
Note, Shub followed up this film with one on the October Revolution, The \Great Road (1927). Shub’s main source of ‘found footage’ was the Museum of the Revolution in Moscow but she also collected material from Petrograd where the earliest Soviet museum had been based. The film also credits M. Z. Tseitlin as ‘consultant’. He appears to been part of the Museum and presumably helped Shub identify material.
A subtitle for the film reads,
“montage of historical documents”
The footage includes newsreel and actualities filmed in Russia, film of the Romanov Dynasty including their own home films, and material from the period from elsewhere. Some of the war footage includes material filmed at Verdun and the French uniforms can be recognised. One piece of films appears to be from the USA and show soldiers setting off to war. As might be expected the film does not have a series of credits for source material. And the main function of the film is as illustration, so in the case of generalised events such as war different footage can serve a similar purpose.
The film is approximately six reels in length: these are not used as chapters or segments as is the case for some films of the period. However, the film, whilst the overall chronology runs from 1913 to 1917, is presented in sections which both chronicle events but also present thematic aspects of the narrative.
The opening reel introduces the audience to the ruling class, both in the form of the Romanov’s but also in the bulwarks of state power: the church, the military and the police including the secret force or Ohkrana. An opening title reads,
The first sequence show us the military and then a religious procession. We move on to the State Duma,
“obedient to the Tsar”.
This is a collection of landowners, members of the bourgeoisie and clergy, supported by a network of Deputy Governors in the provinces. Footage also shows us the fortresses of religion, the monasteries, and the vast estates of the landowners and aristocracy. The film frequently uses footage of well known characters involved in events, many of whose names we would no longer recognised. But some remain familiar,
“Rasputin’s rival Illidor”
This is followed by film of the peasants, presented as obedient to the dominant classes.
In the second reel the audience are shown the extensive celebrations for the 300th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty. At the end of the second reel, carrying on into the third, are presented the exploitation of the Russian peasants and workers. It introduces the notion of capitalism:
“Capital plunders, fighting for markets”
This leads into the competition across Europe and the increasing preparations for war.
“The hands of the workers were preparing death for their brothers”.
And there are shots both of factories and the production of munitions and armaments like the new form of warship, Dreadnoughts. We see film of the mobilisations early in 1914. Titles point out the resulting contradiction, as workers are drawn,
‘away from machines’ and ‘peasants from fields.”
The fourth reel opens with a series of explosions that lead into the eruption of war and the conflict across Europe. This section shows frequent explosions, large scale artillery but also the experience of the ordinary soldier involved in trench warfare.
A title card informs us that
‘ 35 million people, killed, wounded or maimed.’
There are shots of the dead, often frozen corpses lying in the remains of trenches. There follows film of the wounded and of refugees, dead animal carcases and the firing of ‘wheat fields’. There is film of the efforts of the ruling class to recruit more soldiers to die on battlefields, assisted by the church. Women replace the mobilised workers in factories, producing more ammunitions for the front.
“The country was being ruined”
and we see queues and the results of shortages. This lead into 1917, and a particularly severe winter. There are shots of wind, snow and huddled figures in the streets.
Around the start of the fifth reel there is film of soldiers walking away from the front line. Title cards present the call of the Bolsheviks to workers and peasants:
“Everyone under the Red Banner of Revolution.”
There follow footage of mass demonstrations; of soldiers demonstrating in the streets and of delegates of workers soldiers and peasants gathering sat the Tauride Palace. The bourgeoisie form the Provisional Government: there are shots of the ministers, including Kerensky. The crisis increases:
“Moscow sides with Petrograd.”
And soldiers come over
“to the side of revolution.”
Reel six offers film of the opposing forces, the new government of the ruling class and the increasing crowds of workers, soldiers and peasants. Footage of the police and military imply the attempts at suppression. Soldiers form people’s militias and patrol the streets. The abdication of
“Nicholas the Bloody’
is greeted by cheering crowds.
On March 23rd there is a massive demonstration at the funerals of workers killed by the government forces. At the Petrograd Soviet Lenin calls for
“All power to the Councils of Workers.”
Endorsed by the deputies of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies the February Revolution is accomplished. Final shots of crowds, banners and deputies shaking Lenin’s’ hand.
As can be seen the tempo of the film increases as it approaches the key events of 1917. The found footage serves purposes that would have [in most cases] not been in the mind of the producers. So Shub appears to select the footage, partly on the basis of what it shows and how, but in addition, on what the context of the film provides in added meaning. This is a dimension that marks out Shub’s work from earlier example of compilation or found footage use. At the same time her selection relies on the literal information in the footage, marking her techniques off from those of the other Soviet Documentarists in the Factory of Facts. This also means that the pace of her editing is overall slower, as she relies on viewers extracting the information in the footage before relating this to preceding or following shots. The editing uses continuity rather than discontinuity. And the chronicle proceeds in a linear fashion.
The analytical aspect of the film relies on the title cards, some showing contemporary reports, statements or slogans: some providing information/comment. Cuts from one piece of footage to another illustrates and supports these. Shub’s experiences in editing imported films appears to have also relied on the addition of title cards of dialogue or plot information alongside the re-editing of the film footage.
The screening used a 35mm print from Gosfilmofond with Russian titles, translated into English in a digital projection. The print was reasonably good. As would be expected the found footage in the print varied greatly in terms of quality: one assume this was the case at the time of the original selection and editing. There were also some racking problems with the print. And we enjoyed a piano accompaniment by Mauro Colombis, including I think some familiar tunes and themes appropriate to the subject.