Russian Cinema: The Importance of the Early Silent Era
Russian Cinema 1896-1919
From the introduction of film, the Russian culture has not only embraced the filmic culture, but has stamped their indelible mark onto their own national identity and the world.
As more films from the early silent era emerge, it becomes clear the Russian filmmakers were bold visionaries who, early on, used film as links to their past, statements of their presents and declarations for their future.
The Lumière brothers brought their new invention (moving pictures) to Moscow in May of 1896, shortly after their first screening in France in 1895. The first film ever made in Russia was the coronation of Nicholas II at the Kremlin. It became clear that film would become an important part in allowing the country to express its ideals as well as its strength.
The French influence would be heavy early on. Film production in Russia was dominated by Pathé Frères (1908) and Gaumont (1909). These French companies entered the country already vertically integrated, meaning they controlled the production, distribution and showing of the film. This didn’t leave much room for many other production companies, but the government already had one in place since 1907. It competed somewhat, but, at that time; French films were the most popular, widely seen and respected.
The Coronation of Tsar Nikolai II
- German Cinema: What You Need to Know About the Silent Era
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Film Gains Respect
Since Nicholas II and his family were fans of film and would attend the cinema, it became fashionable to do so. Russian film had a small, but healthy production of shorts, but none that really cemented their place within the industry. They were still spectacles to be enjoyed, but not yet to be taken seriously.
It was in the summer of 1914 that the industry was altered. Russia was heading into World War I and decided to close its borders. Distribution to and from the country reduced significantly, especially from Germany, which was closed off altogether. It was a blow to filmgoers who had taken liking to the popular German Expressionism movement.
With a lack of competition, Russian production companies formed. When the Italians entered the war in 1916, Russia closed its doors to them, creating a hole in the market. This meant the domestic film industry took off and began to cultivate its own national identity.
The Look of Early Russian Film
The Russians were quick to adapt prestigious literary works as the source of their films. They used Tolstoy (War and Peace) and Pushkin (Mozart and Salieri) to create films that would define the look at feel of early Russian Cinema.
Russian filmmakers created films with their people in mind. So, what did the Russian people enjoy? They preferred sad stories with tragic endings. On top of that, their films tended to move at a snails pace with long moments of inactivity and focus on an actor’s movement. In fact, they loved to focus on an actor’s over-exaggeration, which was a derivative of Italian and German filmmaking practices. Though the acting was exaggerated, it wasn’t flashy or glitzy in any way as the German or Italian films leaned towards. The expression within the film tended towards an internalized expression, facial movements instead of lofty arm gestures and the like.
The Leading Men
Evgenii Bauer directed over eighty films during this period. He started off as a set designer for the Pathé Frères, but soon moved up to be a director for the Russian Khanzhonkov company. He is considered one of the great cinematographers of the era and though he helped shape the way Russian filmed aesthetically, his work has been overlooked. Focusing on the morbid, one of the films he directed is The Dying Swan (1917). It is a story about an obsessed artist and his melancholy painting of a ballerina. His love brings the painting to life, but he kills her so that he may finish his painting.
A Scene from The Dying Swan
Another important director of this period is Yakov Protazanov. He was on the forefront of the look and feel of Russian films. He directed The Departure of a Grand Old Man (1912), a film about the life of Tolstoy. This film was banned because Sofia Tolstaya didn't like the way she was portrayed and threatened to sue. His work was only beginning during this period and he would show a great deal of vision within the next few years.
The Night Before Christmas
One of the most prolific actors of the period was Ivan Mozhukhin, who acted in every major director’s films, but was also the face of the Kuleshov effect, a movement within the Russian film industry promoting montage. He acted in Protazanov’s Father Sergius (1917), which was an adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel as well as The Queen of Spades (1916) a film made from Pushkin’s short story by the same name. He was also in the 1913 adaptation of The Night Before Christmas where he plays a demon. He was the leading man for the early era of Russian cinema. He would also become the face of the new generation, even if that wasn’t his intention.
In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution killed all film production. It wouldn’t stay that way for long, with the emergence of a new type of director and a new vision for Russian film. Out with the old or slow narrative and internalized acting and in with the new: communism and a revolutionary idea about montage.
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