Before the revolution films weren’t very popular in Russia so there wasn’t much of an industry. The working class was too impoverished and the ruling class basically didn’t care.
However, there were some films produced around Moscow. A few of those are of note and the avant-garde seemed to be the norm.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (Portret Doriana Greya, 1915), The Storm (Groza, 1916) and The Strong Man (Silnyi chelovek, 1917) by Vsevolod Meyerhold – a very famous Russian theatrical director.
Unfortunately none of the movies seem to exist online and perhaps may no longer exist in real life, they would have had to make it through a huge revolution. These pictures will have to do.
The last film of note before the revolution was a Yakov Protazanov production of Lev Tolstoi’s Father Sergius (Otets Sergei, 1918). I did manage to find a clip from this film but it’s subtitled in Spanish. Well worth a look though, the film seems fairly intense.
In 1917 a new government took over Russia and the Soviet Cinema was born. The new government believed in the power of the cinema and wanted to exploit this new media. They immediately abolished censorship and started producing anti-tsarist propaganda. Only two of these films were produced, however. After the revolution there were still battles being fought between the Red and the White Soviets – film stock was scarce.
One person did get a bit of filmmaking in during this period, his name Dziga Vertov. He was an editor for the newsreel footage shot during all that fighting. By 1921 he had made three films from that newsreel footage.
None of those films seem to exist online so I won’t name them. But in those films he experimented with subliminal cuts of one or two frames each and the dramatic reconstruction of documentary events.
One, an important technique that views film as a subconscious manipulation tool and the other, a technique for propagandizing history or viewing film as a conscious manipulation tool.
Then Vertov and his group of Kinoki (kino-oki, cinema-eyes) went around Russia documenting everything – with a propagandistic slant, of course. From 1922 to 1925 Vertov released a carefully crafted series of newsreels to test out his theories on manipulation. This series was collectively called Kino-pravda. This has no sound so turn up those tunes.
In 1924, Vertov released a film called Kino-glaz which used many different camera, lighting and editing techniques and tricks to achieve what one critic called “an epic vision of actuality.”
What is essential about these films isn’t just their significance to Russian history but their significance to film history -- in that they are all about montages. An aesthetic that would dominate Russian cinema for years to come.
Vertov’s silent work culminated in a film named The Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, 1928). Some people consider this one of the most important films of the silent era, it is certainly Vertov’s virtuoso masterpiece. This does not have sound so once again, crank up those tunes.
There’s still more experiments to come from the Soviet Cinema, but first I think a scandal may be brewing in Hollywood.
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