Following a period in which domestic filmmaking was noted for its commercial blandness, Russian cinema underwent an explosive series of developments due to the Bolshevik Revolution. Under the czar, escapist entertainment was the order of the day, with such films as Vasili Goncharov and Yakov Protazanov’s Smert Ioanna Groznogo (The Death of Ivan the Terrible, 1909), Goncharov and Kai Hansen’s Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great, 1910), Goncharov’s Zhizn i smert A. S. Pushkina (The Life and Death of Pushkin, 1910), Pyotr Chardynin’s Kreitzerova sonata (The Kreutzer Sonata, 1911), and Protazanov’s Pikovaya dama (The Queen of Spades, 1916).
Many of these filmmakers would continue to work after the fall of Czar Nikolai II, but others would flee to Germany, France, and the United States when Vladimir Lenin seized power in October 1917. Quickly sensing the power of the cinema to mold the populace, Lenin pressed ahead with the production of films that frankly espoused the Bolshevik cause.
By 1918, the new regime had launched a series of “agit-prop” trains, packed with cinematographic equipment, theater groups, performers, and entertainers, all of which were charged with the task of bringing the revolution to the masses across the country. On the first agit-prop train was Eduard Tisse, later the cameraman to the great Soviet director Sergei M. Eisenstein, and future director and montage (editing) theorist Dziga Vertov (born Denis Abramovich Kaufman). Vertov served as the editor for the films shot on the train, which were sent back to Moscow for processing and post-production and then dispatched on the next agit-prop train as fresh programming in support of the Revolution.
In the following years, Soviet cinema moved ahead stylistically by leaps and bounds, despite the scarcity of new stock and an embargo on films and new photographic materials from the West. In 1919, the industry itself was nationalized, and Dziga Vertov launched his series of Kino-Pravda (Cinema Truth) newsreels in 1922, essentially using the agit-prop format, but expanding it to dizzying heights through the use of rapid-fire editing, multiple cameras, bizarre camera angles, and the plastic manipulation of space and time through newly devised theories of editing technique. Vertov’s most famous film is undoubtedly the silent classic Che-lovek s kino-appar atom (The Man with a Movie Camera.
LevKuleshov’s Editorial Experiments
Lev Kuleshov was the innovator behind many of Vertov’s techniques and worked with his students to reedit existing films, such as Griffith’s Intolerance, to create new effects from stock footage due to the shortage of raw film stock. Kuleshov isolated, among other editing principles, the “Kuleshov effect,” in which the face of the actor/director Ivan Mozzhukhin, taken as one continuous close-up and purposefully devoid of expression, was intercut with a body lying in a coffin, a young child with a toy, and a bowl of hot soup.
Though the juxtaposition of Mozzhukhin’s face with these images was accomplished entirely in the cutting room, viewers immediately discerned in his face sorrow, happiness, and hunger, simply because of the relationship between the actor’s face and the other images. In an even more influential experiment, Kuleshov introduced the “creative geography” effect, in which a man and a woman meet, the man points to a building, we see a brief shot of the building, and the couple ascend a staircase to reach the structure. However, all the shots were taken in different places at different times, and some of the images were pirated out of stock footage from existing newsreels. Kuleshov’s highly influential theories were soon part and parcel of the Revolution’s visual arsenal, but it remained for Sergei Eisenstein to put Kuleshov’s discoveries to their best use.