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Esfir Shub: a new message from old film footage

This article is over 17 years, 4 months old
In the final column in this series Esther Leslie looks at Russian filmmaker Esfir Shub
Issue 1937

Necessity is the mother of invention, goes the cliche. Necessity drove Esfir Shub to become a brilliant film editor in the years immediately after the 1917 Russian Revolution. In the early 1920s filmmaking resources were scarce, but film was a key modern art form and a crucial means of conveying information to people across the newly formed Soviet Republic.

Shub’s work in the film industry involved re-editing foreign films, such as Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse or trashy US serials, making them “ideologically correct”. This was a key cultural role – in 1924 over 90 percent of films shown were produced in capitalist countries.

Fritz Lang’s film, for example, was converted into an anti-capitalist tale called Gilded Rat. The Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein watched Shub working, and learned from her. Shub found a politically viable solution to a materials crisis, and she learned how to montage films – editing together different camera shots for effect.

In 1927 Shub made her first independent documentary – The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. It was part of a trilogy on Russian history, reconstructing the past through newsreel footage and the home movies of the Romanov dynasty who ruled Russia before 1917.

Documentary film of whatever type – news, industrial footage, home movies – could yield information about reality. Shub’s compilation film showed the Romanovs at their summer home and carrying out duties of state, the carnage of war and Lenin agitating.

Much of the material had originally been produced to serve right wing causes, but Shub was able to skilfully redeploy the clips in a new context. In her first job at the film company Goskino, Shub met the filmmaker Dziga Vertov. He was also a documentary maker and, despite later debates between them, Shub considered herself his pupil. In 1927 she argued in the journal Novyi Lef that the controversy between staged and unstaged films – epitomised in the work of Eisenstein and Vertov respectively – was “the basic issue of contemporary cinema”.

She insisted that only documentary cinema could express reality, arguing that “with great mastery it is possible to make a film from non-played material that is better than any fiction film”.

Shub criticised Eisenstein’s film October as a distortion of history, because it restaged the events of the 1917 Russian Revolution using actors. However, Shub also ran into arguments with Vertov. She objected to his efforts to monopolise non-fiction filmmaking, insisting in a piece written in 1926 that “different facts must reach the studio”, not just those endorsed by the Futurist school led by Vertov.

Vertov deployed all manner of tricks and technical devices to emphasis cinema’s role in mediating reality – not simply reflecting the world, but reconstructing it in film.

In contrast Shub avoided playing with the material, tending rather to let the chunks of film run their course.

The film material was of historical interest in itself and, she argued, did not need to be undercut and criticised through cinematic devices. Connections between events and their interpretation were expressed through her much less flashy style of editing.

Despite her criticism of other filmmakers – a product of the exciting culture of debate in the young Soviet Republic – Shub acted in solidarity with them as Stalin’s cultural policy tightened its grip.

In 1931, while filming in Mexico, Eisenstein was accused in the Soviet journal International Literature of “technical fetishism” and other “petty bourgeois limitations”, Shub wrote warning him of the increasingly hostile climate and recommending his swift return.

She suffered too, denied authorial rights to her trilogy and demoted to simply an editor.

The bureaucrats who now controlled Soviet filmmaking could not understand the transformation in the forms and division of artistic labour resulting from the revolution. They could not see that an editor – a hands-on worker in film – might usurp the traditionally more glorified role of director.

In her later years Shub joined a call for anti-militarist films to counter “bourgeois war propaganda” in 1932. She worked on a few documentaries in the 1930s and 1940s on topics such as the building of the Moscow metro, the history of soviet cinema and the fight against fascism. She died in 1959, with the stimulating debates about cinema and cultural form a 30 year old memory.

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