Russian Cinema Before the Revolution Part I

By | February 21, 2022

After a decade of imported and broadcast films as low-cost entertainment, Russian audiences began to demand new thrills from the cinema. In the autumn of 1907, the ambitious photographer Aleksandr O. Drankov organized the first Russian film studio that dared to compete with foreign operators, starting the second period in the history of pre-revolutionary Russian cinema, that is, its liberation from the foreign monopoly. It began to fish subjects in the patrimony of the national culture; Russian folklore, history, legend and literature offered endless material to far-sighted producers. Drankov quickly produced a series of seventeen films, which made him for a short time the undisputed ruler of Russian cinema; to him we owe, among other things, very rare images of Lev Tolstoy immortalized in 80-letija grafa LN Tolstogo (1908, The 80th birthday of Count LN Tolstoy). The merciless laws of the market soon put Drankov’s organizational and advertising skills in competition with those of another protagonist of Russian cinematic history prior to 1917, Aleksandr A. Chanžonkov. The latter, sending his rival’s business into crisis, obtained in 1908 the exclusive distribution of the products of Le Film d’art, the French house of André Lafitte which made use of the collaboration of great writers, set designers and musicians, spreading a cinema to subject based on the great actor and on the adaptation of literary works. In turn, from the very first production choices Chan-žonkov oriented himself towards this trend, specializing in the film adaptation of Russian classics, folk tales, songs and romances. According to usaers, the blow immediately made Drankov falter, but he reacted by producing the first entirely Russian film of pre-revolutionary national cinema, Sten′ka Razin (1908), which had a resounding success with audiences. It was actually a very primitive adaptation of the famous folk song inspired by the national hero, divided into six sections separated by captions. The director, Vladimir F. Romaškov, director of the People’s House in Petersburg, set the story completely on location and entrusted it to the late-romantic acting of the actors of his theater, which gave the film the somewhat clumsy rhetoric of an old woman. popular print. However, with this film there was a decisive turning point in the Russian cinema scene, which soon saw the growth of other competing production companies – Thiemann & Reinhardt, Gloria, Ermol′ev -, protagonists of a season of Russian cinema which, although neglected for a long time by critics and historiographers, constitutes a fundamental page of world filmography. From that moment on, films of various genres were produced and distributed, which can be divided into some fundamental strands: the costume film, often inspired by the exploits of historical or legendary heroes of the homeland history, a trend inspired by the great classics of literature, cinema and the popular science film or razumnoe kino (intelligent cinema). In a short time, hundreds of important works by Russian or foreign writers (AS Pushkin, NV Gogol ′, LN Tolstoy, H. de Balzac, Ch. Dickens, AN Ostrovskij, MI Lermontov, AP Chekhov); despite the ingenuity of the production and the limitations due to the technical equipment, these films contributed to popularizing unknown works to large sections of the illiterate Russian population. Furthermore, if until then cinema had been considered a vulgar and pernicious form of entertainment, around the 10s some great theatrical actors began to take an interest in it, playing different roles and determining a notable growth in prestige for this new form of entertainment. Suffice it to say that even prestigious theaters such as Konstantin S. Stanisl-avskij’s Art Theater, Malyj Teatr and Aleksandrinskij Teatr provided exceptional interpreters to rival art: Vladimir N. Davydov, Konstantin A. Varlamov and Fyodor I. Šaljapin, Marija Germanova and Vasilij A. Orlov worked for the cinema. In the same period, the number of cinemas in the cities of Russia grew enormously, and soon we witnessed the birth of a phenomenon still unprecedented in the great empire: stardom. In fact, in 1910, the Danish firm Nordisk exported some films starring Asta Nielsen who became Russia’s most loved and imitated actress within two years. At the same time, various foreign genres spread with tremendous success, among which the comedy films starring the Frenchman André Deed, known in Russia as Glupiskin (The Stupid) and, above all, by Max Linder, were unrivaled. In the early 1910s a genius craftsman went to the cinema, destined to become the father of Russian children’s cinema: Vladislav A. Starevič. A skilled builder of plasticine and fine rubber figures, he animated them himself thanks to the camera, making a series of animated films on his own that thrilled the French public. Among his works there are not only adaptations of the fables of Ivan A. Krylov, such as eg. Strekoza i muravej (1913, The dragonfly and the ant), but also a propaganda film against alcoholism P′janstvo i ego posledstvija (1914, Alcoholism and its consequences), in which a little devil is seen eloquently emerging from a bottle of vodka; therefore one of the first world experiments of organic harmonization of actors and puppets Lilija Bel′gii (1915), as well as the avant-garde work ‘wild’ Mest ′ kinematografičeskogo operatora (1912, The cameraman’s revenge), a film-denunciation of the gory aspects of the cinema of the time interpreted by the usual animated stickers. 1911 was a particularly fruitful year, we tried to pay more attention to the quality of the films than to the quantity, and some important works were made, among which Oborona Sevastopolja (1911, The defense of Sevastopol) by Vasilij M. Gončarov and Chanžonkov stands out, the first feature film in the history of world cinema (2000 m of film). It was a series of episodes that showed the essential phases of the siege of the city (1855) during the Crimean war, as well as some historical characters who were protagonists of the story. Filming took place at the very site of the historical event and boldly mixed documentary footage, mass scenes and acted pieces.

Russian Cinema Before the Revolution 1