‘A Totally Useless and Even Harmful Form of Entertainment’

Article by Ellie Veryard. Edited by Emma Carmichael. Research by Jack Barnes.

Tsar Nicholas II

That was the scathing conclusion of Tsar Nicholas II on the newly emerging medium of film in early twentieth century Russia. Yet despite the Tsar’s declaration otherwise, film would indeed become one of the most useful mediums in post-revolutionary Russia. Much has been made of the use of film in Soviet Russia to transmit propagandist history and state ideology to an audience; from the classic montage scene of Battleship Potemkin (1926), to Yakov Protazanov’s bizarre Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) which tells the tale of a Russian engineer who leads a Martian civilization in their own revolution on capitalist Mars.
When compared with the mass of research on the Soviet film industry, cinema before the 1917 Revolution appears, as one Russian lecturer told me ‘overlooked and under investigated.’ But that does not make early cinema any less fascinating, for it was in this period that pioneers of early Russian film began to develop their own work, stepping out of the shadow of their European counterparts.

The Lumiere brothers

The first films exhibited in Russia were courtesy of the Lumiere brothers, who, after their initial showing in Paris which wowed audiences the year before, sent their emissaries across the globe to demonstrate their cinematograph. Their representative in Russia was Francis Doublier, arriving in May 1896 to show a series of short films to the Russian public. This included the now infamous Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, reportedly terrifying audiences who believed the engine would come steaming out of the screen towards them. The showing caused a sensation, heightened by the travelling tour of the cinematograph across Russia in May 1897 bringing film to the masses. By 1903 its popularity had created the first stationary cinemas in Moscow, bringing a more middle class and bourgeois audience through the doors. By 1914 there were around 1400 cinemas in Russia.

Whilst the popularity of film had been growing, debates began to rage: Could film ever be considered as an art form? Or was it simply sensationalist entertainment? Kornei Chukovsky, writer and literary critic, called it ‘philistinism’, whilst others regarded it as a purely commercial venture. But turning the medium into an art form was on the agenda for film makers, who considered seriously how best to utilise it to that effect. In 1911, Leonid Andreyev encouraged others to think about the future of cinema and the creative genius and talent which could emerge from this field. This consideration fed into debates regarding the death of theatre with playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky declaring ‘Theatre has brought itself to ruin and now must bequeath its inheritance to cinema.’ Hopes were high that instead of simply replacing the stage, film would help to reinvigorate theatre performances and the ways in which to engage and captivate an audience.
The audience too became the subject of as much discussion as cinema increasingly transcended both high and low culture. Rich and poor alike could be found in the same theatre, separated by the price of tickets, the rich in the boxes, the poor in the stalls. ‘Moving photography’ appealed to all bank balances but the elite were to be sorely disappointed when the foreign films they enjoyed so much were cut short.

The outbreak of the First World War isolated Russia from the European film imports it had so heavily relied upon. For Russian filmmakers it was a time of mixed fortunes; equipment, stock and actors were all in short supply yet without the influx of French films that had dominated the business, the production and exhibition of home-grown Russian cinema dramatically increased. Previously, squeezed out by the larger firms, Russian film makers had largely produced pornography, although attempts were made to rival the creations produced by native divisions of French industries. Now isolated from Europe, film makers such as Yakov Protazanov, Evgeni Bauer and Lev Kuleshov began to emerge and by 1915 a studio run by Aleksandr Khanzhonkov became the forerunner in Moscow, eclipsing the French exported Pathe Moscow.
Themes too began to change as film makers turned towards Russia for their inspiration. Documentary had been the most popular genre, with ventures including the recording of scenes such as the coronation of the Tsar, recorded in 1846 by the team who first brought the cinematograph to Russia. In the early 1900s the bleak mood caused by the Russo-Japanese War and the crippling problems of famine and urbanisation left film as a means of escapism. In inner cities, migrant peasants were subjected to high taxes and terrible working and living conditions; often strangers would be forced to share the same bed, working and sleeping opposite shifts from one-another. The situation culminated in the Russian Revolution of 1905 and although promises of political change were made, the failure of these initiatives to come into fruition exacerbated the mood. Escapism through film was reflected in the type of short-scenes produced, with films drawn from Russian folklore or displaying erotic and decadent content most people could only aspire to.

A scene from the Defence of Sevastopol

A large number of historical events were soon dramatised including The Death of Ivan the Terrible (1909) and Defence of Sevastopol (1911), directed by Khanzhonkov and the first film ever to be shot by two cameras. Adaptations of literary works were also produced, such as Anna Karenina (1914). During World War One and as the growth of indigenous talent increased, one of the key themes of Russian film was psychological motivation. This had long been a strand found in Russian literature; Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time (published 1839 and 1841) focused on the self-critical analysis of the protagonist’s own actions. Channelled through the melodrama, character analysis and motivation often depicted the new, shifting roles of women with melancholy endings typical to the genre.

Not all the films produced in this period were filled with doom and gloom, however, with a good number of slapstick comedies filling theatres. Newsreels and propaganda also increased under the direction of the Skobelev Committee established in 1914.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 changed Russian film on many levels; Anatoli Lunachasky, appointed People’s Commissar for Enlightenment proposed a gradual reorientation of film towards revolutionary ends. The most immediate effect of the revolution was that censorship no longer prohibited films on the Tsar and other government activities and in subsequent years themes and characters would change once again emphasising the triumphant working class.
Over the course of around twenty years Russian film went from non-existence, evolving under the wing of foreign influence, expanding to exploring traditional themes of literature and folklore, to portraying the changing social thinking of the day. Understanding the transformation of Russian film-making until 1917 can tell readers just as much about the social and cultural life of elements of the Russian Empire as the propaganda reels of the later century help us to understand the ideology of the Soviet Union. Less well known they may be, “totally useless” they certainly are not.

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The first cinematic equipment arrived in Russia 4 months after the premiere of the first film in Paris

Films quickly became a staple of traveling fairs.

Tsar Nicholas II granted help to the makers of the Defence of Sevastopol but refused to get involved with any other cinematic production.

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