Cinema of the Russian Empire

The Cinema of the Russian Empire roughly spans the period 1907 – 1920, during which time a strong infrastructure was created. From the over 2,700 art films created in Russia before 1920, around 300 remain to this day.

In April 1896, just four months after the first films were shown in Paris, the first cinematic apparatus appeared in Russia. The first films seen in the Russian Empire were via the Lumière brothers, in Moscow and St. Petersburg in May 1896. In the same month, the first film was shot in Russia, by Lumière cameraman Camille Cerf (1862-1936), a Belgium filmmaker, who recorded of the coronation of Czar Nicholas II at the Kremlin in Moscow.

The first permanent cinema was opened in St Petersburg in 1896 at Nevsky Prospect, No. 46. The first Russian movies were shown in the Moscow Korsh Theatre by artist Vladimir Sashin. After purchasing a Vitagraph projector, Sashin started to make short films, which by August 1896 were being demonstrated to theatre audiences after the theatre performance had ended.

In 1907, the journal Kino was first published, it was the first Russian periodical devoted to the cinema.

Film in Russia became a staple of fairs or rented auditoriums. After the Lumières came representatives from Pathé and Gaumont to open offices, after the turn of the century, to make motion pictures on location for Russian audiences. Theatres were already built, and film renting distributors had already replaced direct sales to exhibitors, when, in 1908, Alexander Drankov produced the first finished Russian narrative film, Stenka Razin, a 10-minute fictionalised account of episodes from the life of Stenka Razin, based on events told in a popular folk song and directed by Vladimir Romashkov. It premiered on the 28th October 1908.

At the same time as Drankov was making his film, the Moscow cinema entrepreneur Alexander Khanzhonkov (1877-1945) began to operate as a film director and screenwriter. In 1912, the Khanzhonkov film studio was operational, and Ivan Mozzhukhin had made his first film there, a feature film of 2000 meters entitled “The Defense of Sevastopol“.

This was a historical war film about the Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War and one of the most important films in the history of Russian cinema and cinema in general. It was the first feature film made in the Russian Empire and it premiered on the 26th October at the Livadia Palace of Tsar Nicolas II. It was also the first film in the world recorded using two cameras. The film was also notable for using special “sound effects” (gun and cannon fire) and for using the actual war veterans as consultants. Tsar Nicholas gave some special assistance to Khanzhonkov and the other makers of “The Defence of Sevastopol” and a few similar films, but the industry was not nationalised nor governmentally subsidised or otherwise controlled.

Khanzhonkov also produced Ladislas Starevich’s (1882-1965) ground-breaking stop motion animation. Starevich made the first Russian animated film (and the first stop motion puppet film with a story) in 1910, Lucanus Cervus. He also used dead insects and other animals as protagonists of his films and was decorated by the Tsar for his work in 1911. He continued making animated films until his emigration to France following the 1917 October Revolution.
A History of Russian Cinema (Paperback)
Russian Cinema: Inside Film (Paperback)
The BFI Companion to Eastern European and Russian Cinema (Paperback)
Cinema and Soviet Society: From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin (KINO: The Russian Cinema Series) Paperback
Real Images: Soviet Cinema and the Thaw (KINO: The Russian Cinema Series) Paperback
Dziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film (KINO: The Russian Cinema Series) Paperback

In 1912, a German concern filming in Russia introduced the director Yakov Protazanov to the world with its “Departure of the Grand Old Man“, a biographical film about the last days of author Leo Tolstoy. The film was co-directed by Elizaveta Thiman, and was actress Olga Petrova’s first film.

Protazanov went on to direct The Queen of Spades in 1916, an adaptation of the Aleksandr Pushkin short story of the same name, and considered one of the best pre-revolutionary films. The film was the second production (first was the silent film adaptation of the Pyotr Tchaikovsky opera) of a novel by Aleksandr Pushkin.

Tsar Nicholas himself made some home movies and appointed an official Court Cinematographer, although he is purported to have written in 1913 that film was “an empty matter…even something harmful…silliness…we should not attribute any significance to such trifles”.

Competition from French, American, German, Danish, British and Italian companies, distributing their country’s wares to the eager Russians, developed, but the indigenous industry made such strides over the next five years that 129 fully Russian films, even if many of them were comparatively short, were produced in 1918 alone. Detective films were popular, and various forms of melodrama.

There were only a few rules of censorship on a national level, such as not making the Tsars characters in a dramatised film, but the filmmakers were largely free to produce for the mass audience. In fact, local officials might be more stringent in censoring or banning films.

The arrival of World War I in Russia in 1914 sparked a change. Imports dropped drastically, especially insofar as films from Germany and its allies left the market rapidly. Russian filmmakers early on turned to anti-German, “patriotic” films, often hastily made, even being filmed while the scripts were still being written. in 1916, Russia produced 499 films, over three times the number of just three years earlier, and more of them feature length. Russia’s allies, in turn, began to import some of the more striking product, including further films by Protazanov and Yevgeni Bauer (a specialist in psychological film), who both impacted, among others, the burgeoning American film industry.

Yevgeni Bauer (1865 – 1917) had a particularly great influence on the aesthetics of Russian cinematography at the beginning of the 20th century. He made more than seventy films between 1913 and 1917 of which 26 survived. He already used the relatively long sequence shots and displacements that would come to be associated with camera virtuosos. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan called Bauer “The greatest director you’ve never heard of,” and Georges Sadoul called him “the first true artist in the history of cinema”.

Adversely, Russian companies were forbidden to send cameramen to the “front”, and war footage had to be imported from France and England. Some Russian concerns combined footage from these with enacted war material to create faux documentaries. Also, the Skobolev Committee was established by the government to oversee the making of newsreel and propaganda films.

And then came the Russian Revolution, on top of the ongoing international War. With audiences turning against the Tsar, film producers began turning out, after the February Revolution, a number of films with anti-Tsarist themes. These, along with the usual retinue of detective films and melodramas, filled theatres when the streets were not filled with revolutionaries. However, the destruction of the infrastructure in the major cities, the failing war-drained economy, the takeover of rural cinemas by local Soviets, and the aversion of some in the film industry to communism, caused the Russian film industry per se to effectively die out by the time Lenin on November 8, 1917 proclaimed a new country, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

Ironically, the last significant Russian film completed, in 1917, Father Sergius would become the first new film release a year later, in the new country of the Soviets. The film was co-directed by Yakov Protazanov and Alexandre Volkoff and based on the eponymous story by Tolstoy.


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