The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927)

Director: Esther Shub

Back in the day, this was apparently greeted as the “right” way of doing documentary montage compared with Vertov’s films, or at least so says the booklet accompanying the DVD. In truth, Shub’s films and Vertov’s are starting from such different premises I’m not sure you can really draw a proper comparison anyway; for one thing, Shub was the editor of pre-existing footage, not the creator of new footage. The propagandist aspect is still there, obviously, but in a different fashion, cos all of Shub’s footage is pre-revolutionary (from the tercentenary of the Romanovs in 1913 to the 1917 revolutions); Vertov’s film that we just saw was about the glories of the new order, Shub’s is about the horror of the old regime.

One area where the Flicker Alley set does perhaps fall down a bit is that the films come without commentaries, which is where the older Eureka edition does have one advantage, i.e. the introduction and commentary by Oleg Donskikh. He is quick to remind us (which he does often) that Shub’s film is propaganda designed to bolster what he calls “the Bolshevik myth”, that Russia before the revolution was kind of shit and only the Bolsheviks were capable of bringing it into the modern age and all that. Donskikh reckons that the conservatism of the old regime has been overstated and some of the earlier Romanov tsars were relatively progressive in effecting substantial cultural change, and that Shub basically used these images to tell a story that was, frankly, historically wrong. Which I suppose is fair enough; the film makes few bones about being anything other than a character assassination of the Tsarist period. But surely the images she was working with weren’t necessarily innocent… wouldn’t most of them (particularly the 300th anniversary footage) have been intended as some kind of propaganda themselves originally? i don’t know, it just seems a bit disingenuous or something to pontificate about the message Shub’s film was pushing and ignore the idea that the newsreel and documentary footage she was using wasn’t intended by its makers to push a message as well… From this vantage point, of course, the important thing about Shub’s film (and indeed the others she made on the same lines) is that at least we have that historic footage to debate; when so much historic film of this sort has vanished into the ether with time—indeed, so much of it had already been lost when Shub made her compilations—it’s nice to still have this stuff, irrespective of the reasons for its preservation…

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