A groundbreaking documentary film about the February Revolution
The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty is notable for being constructed almost entirely out of stock footage which was compiled by director Esfir Shub, who had worked as an editor on several films before making this film. Whereas other documentary filmmakers, including Dziga Vertov, created films out of their own footage, Shub constructed a documentary narrative out of newsreel footage shot before the Revolution. Using this footage, she created a narrative about the brutality of the First World War and the neglect on the part of the Tsar and his ministers, one of the catalysts for the 1917 Revolution.
Although she was working with found footage, Shub constructs meaning in her film in a way that is similar to the montage used by Eisenstein and Vertov. The juxtapositions of the upper classes at leisure with the carnage on the front lines as well as footage of Lenin with massive crowds creates a pro-Bolshevik narrative out of actuality footage. However, her extensive use of intertitles describing the events shown on screen further distinguishes her from the major Soviet directors of the day, driving the narrative forward and making it completely comprehensible for audiences.
Esfir Shub was born in the town Surazhe in the Chernigovsky governatorate (which is now the Brianskaya province), in the southwest part of the Russian Empire. By the mid-1910s, she settled in Moscow to study literature at the Institute for Women’s Higher Education, where she got involved in the revolutionary movement that was becoming popular among young female students. In 1918, Shub started her career in the Soviet administration at the head office of the TEO Theatre Department of the Narkompros (People’s Commissariat of Education) although she was originally hired only for minor secretarial tasks. Having a fascination for the theatre, she began collaborating with the stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and endorsed the manifesto for a renewal of Russian theatre written by the director Evgenii Vakhtangov. Together with the poetess Nina Rukavishnikova, Shub conceived a mass pantomime involving hundreds of extras that was to be staged at the Moscow circus in 1921. During her time at the Narkompros, she also collaborated on issues of the journal Vestnik Teatr and got acquainted with the Left Front of the Arts (LEF) group. LEF was an ensemble of artists with whom Shub would be associated till the end of the decade; its founder, Mayakovsky, became one of Shub’s most vocal supporters when, in the mid-1920s, she turned her expertise to film direction. Later between 1928 and 1931 she took part in the artistic avant-garde group “October,” considered to be the last constructivist collective of the century. …
After gaining expertise reediting pre-revolutionary and foreign productions as well as new Soviet features, Shub became, largely on her own initiative, a pioneer of the new Soviet documentary subgenre: the “compilation film.” Her first accomplishment as a compilation director was Padenie Dinastii Romanovykh/The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), part of a trilogy to celebrate the rise to power of the Bolshevik Party. The film combined vastly different kinds of footage (old newsreels, amateur footage, footage shot by official cinematographers of the imperial family) recovered fortuitously from cellars, vaults, and closets of wartime cameramen such as Aleksandr’ Levitsky and Eduard Tissé, whom she interviewed when possible. Using restoration methods, Shub saved precious revolutionary footage that might otherwise have been destroyed. Here, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty represents the second period in Soviet documentary cinema history following the earlier Dziga Vertov period. Thus a documentary work made entirely of archival material was contrasted with Vertov’s celebrated “life caught unawares” poetics.
Despite the official position that not one meter of negative or positive film on the February Revolution had been preserved, Shub recovered footage classified as lost. For The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty she inspected about 3 million feet in order to select 17,060 feet to be combined as montage (Petric 1978, 430–32). Her method, a minute study of formal elements, blending shots that had no strict causal or temporal relationship to make a precise political point, took further what she had learned from Lev Kuleshov as well as Eisenstein’s theory of montage. Asserting fact over fiction, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty was conceived as a visual book of history,meant to document the real Russian Revolution, which began in February 1917, not October 1917. Before the 10th anniversary of the February Revolution (March 11, 1917, in the old calendar), Shub discovered additional material in a huge package of films purchased from Eastman Kodak, found to contain intimate scenes with Lenin and a never-before-seen image of the dead leader, which she inserted in Veliky put’/The Great Road (1927).
Dunja Dogo, “Esfir Shub,” Women Film Pioneers Project