The Romanovs had been in power for three centuries and motion picture cameras captured the family and the Russian people on the eve of the First World War and the Ten Days That Shook the World.
A Royal Pain
Delving into Russian history is always an intense experience. It’s complicated, dark and no era has been more deeply examined than the days leading up to the 1917 revolution. In the comfort of hindsight, it is obvious that the Romanov dynasty was crumbling and that the Great War was its deathblow but the Russian royal family put on a brave face for its 300th anniversary festivities in 1913.
This actuality released by Pathé filmed the Romanovs driving about, engaging in religious services, meeting and greeting and meeting and greeting… It’s not long on plot, as is typical for actualities of the period, but it does give us a peek inside the lives of Russians just before their world would be changed forever.
Tsar Nicholas II, like the other royal heads, understood that the new motion picture technology could be used to showcase his family and appeal to patriotism. The perfectly drilled soldiers may not have aged too well after Battleship Potemkin but seeing the children of the family is always interesting, especially considering the continued pop culture fixation with Anastasia. (The myth of her survival was bolstered by the absence of two bodies, a son and a daughter, from the mass grave where the rest of the family was buried. However, a second grave was discovered nearby and it contained two bodies. DNA testing confirmed that they were the missing children of the tsar.)
It’s easy to get caught up in the pageantry and romance of the thing but there is also a distinct aroma of death. Silent movies always give off a slight haunted flavor but it is particularly strong with this actuality. We are witnessing dead people walking and I am not just talking about the Romanovs. The young soldiers, the officers, the priests, the random spectators… if the Great War did not kill them, the Revolution likely did.
(I won’t be discussing cinema in the Soviet Union because that is a whole other kettle of fish but just know that where the First World War and the Russian Revolution are concerned, I am pretty much Team Nobody. Be a Don Bluth fan, by all means, but don’t use him as your only source for 20th century Russian history. If you want to know more about Russian cinema under the tsar and the Soviets, I highly recommend Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film by Jay Leyda.)
The glamour of the occasion did not seem to come across on the screen for every viewer. Franz Kafka described footage of the tsar’s tercentenary in rather unflattering terms. The grand duchesses are called peevish and one (Kafka does not specify which) is described as “gentle, aging, limp” which seems odd as the oldest child of Nicholas and Alexandra would have been in her very early twenties. Kafka also takes special notice of the tsarevich being carried from event to event by a Cossack bodyguard, a sign that his hemophilia was a serious concern.
I intentionally avoided reading Kafka’s description until I had jotted down my impressions and was interested to find that even in 1913, war and revolution still in the distance, he sensed the same whiff of death. “In another scene men who have long passed by salute from afar.” Whether this was literally on the screen (at least two tercentenary featured the present tsar’s ancestors) or a reference to the still-very-much-alive dignitaries featured in the newsreel, I cannot say. What is certain is that the gloomy author was in no mood to be charmed by the royal family of Russia. (As a Jewish man, it is hardly surprising that Kafka would feel this way; the infamous anti-Jewish pogroms were ongoing in Russia.)
Tsar Nicholas II was, by even the most generous interpretation, a weak and incompetent ruler who was simply not up to the challenges of a roiled populace and a powder keg of treaties and counter-treaties that was about the blow many of Europe’s monarchies sky high. As I like to say, the Russian people leapt out of the frying pan and into the fire but that doesn’t mean the Romanov frying pan was a pleasant place. (There has been an effort to rehabilitate the tsar and attribute every failure to being such a gosh darn saintly person but y’all know how I feel about such hagiographical fawning. He was simply the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong place at the wrong time. And an anti-Semite. In any case, whether through malice, apathy or incompetence, people were just as dead.)
By the way, I highly recommend reading the Willy-Nicky Telegrams, messages exchanged by Kaiser and Tsar on the eve of the Great War, a conflict that would dethrone one, doom the other and send tens of millions to their deaths. Two men who should never have been put in charge of anything bigger than a lemonade stand pig-headedly propelling their nations to war… brr! Oh, and the telegrams are not translated, they were originally written in English. Nicky and Sunny (Alexandra) exchanged the most treacly correspondence as “hubby” and “wify” while Willy (Wilhelm) bragged about being Queen Victoria’s favorite grandson (he wasn’t), so this use of English would have been expected. (At the age of four, the future Kaiser Wilhelm I pulled a knife on his cousin and then bit him. Apparently, somebody still thought it was a good idea to let him be in charge. Let that be a lesson: inbreeding and large military organizations do not mix.)
The tsar’s reign is interesting from the perspective of film history; it ran parallel to the rise of new film technology. Nicholas took power in 1894 but was uncrowned until 1896, when the country was deemed suitably calm to host the coronation festivities. Meanwhile, 1895 had been a big year for the movies as projected films in Germany, France and the United States had moved the technology from a coin-operated peepshow to a novelty moneymaker.
The Lumière brothers understood that movies allowed audiences to travel to exotic and exciting locales and they sent cameramen around the world to capture everyday life and historical events as they unfolded. This also gave them a way to showcase the novelty and turn a profit from audiences eager to enjoy the new technological wonder of moving pictures. The Lumière camera was a clever device that doubled as a printer and projector so their employees could both photograph and screen movies as they traveled.
Nicholas’s coronation took place in Moscow on May 14, 1896 and the French embassy had secured permission for the Lumière crew to record the event. Francis Doublier, a teenage lab worker, was in charge of both the general enterprise and the precious camera and was granted permission to film on a special platform inside the Kremlin itself.
Three days after the first movie was shot in Russia, the first screening was held in St. Petersburg to great acclaim. The composer Alexander Glazunov was so enraptured with the technology that he became a proselytizer and convinced friends to accompany him back to the show. British pioneer R.W. Paul’s film company and representatives of Edison followed with their own shows throughout the spring of 1896.
The same day as the Lumière triumph in St. Petersburg, another, more tragic event was unfolding, one that perfectly illustrates both the general reign of Nicholas II and the attitude toward motion pictures. An estimated half-million people were waiting to see the tsar and receive both a souvenir photo and a souvenir sausage and Doublier was present to film more coronation material. Two cisterns had been lightly boarded over and this thin floor gave way. An estimated 5,000 people were crushed to death and were carted off to mass graves while the tsar danced at a ball hosted by the French ambassador. The French crew was treated with suspicion by the local constabulary and were rounded up and their equipment impounded; they were eventually released but the camera was never returned.
Using a backup camera, the Lumière team continued to work the fertile territory of Russia—even the new tsar was a movie fan—but they ran into trouble again when they filmed an officer flirting with a dancer (the horror!), which led to one Lumière representative being deported.
However, the movies continued in Russia, grinding away to record the tragic events of 1904-1906, delighting and distracting audiences with assorted imported fare. Nicholas continued as well, offering concessions to a fed-up people when they threatened his power and snatching them back when he felt safe once again. Political dissidents found shelter in the dark of movie theaters, shouting their slogans and melting into the crowds who had come to enjoy the latest French productions.
France and Russia’s cultural affinity is well-documented and while other producers came and went, French films were a constant in the 1900s. (Russians also enjoyed Danish films and were devotees of Asta Nielsen.) Pathé and Gaumont built production facilities, which in turn expedited the start of Russia’s own native film industry, which released its first picture in 1908. Alexander Drankov was the brains behind this new Russian enterprise but others would soon follow.
Before Drankov could release Stenka Razin, Pathé released their own fiction film shot in Russia, The Cossacks of the Don. It was a massive hit and sold 217 copies. For comparison, Edison’s biggest hit of 1906 in the United States had been Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, which had sold 192 copies.
With the three-hundredth anniversary of the Romanov dynasty being celebrated in 1913, both Drankov and his rival Alexander Khanzhonkov produced jubilee pictures that reenacted the entire history of the omanovs and both were distributed by Pathé. (Khanzhonkov had a trump card in the battle for cinematic supremacy: a magnetic young actor named Ivan Mosjoukine, one of Russia’s very first home-grown film stars and future king of French cinema as well but that is another story for another day.)
Alas, I have not seen either of these productions but the Drankov film had the cooperation of the Romanovs and was said to be lavish while the Khanzhonkov was said to be the more artistic. This actuality is… Well, it’s a whole lot of people getting in and out of cars and meeting other people. If nothing else, it puts across the tedium of royal pomp and ceremony.
This film is essential viewing for anybody interested in the early twentieth century or Russian history. There’s nothing earth shattering but you get to see historical figures mingle with the common people they will soon send to their deaths. Yeah, it’s pretty depressing, especially seeing the young soldiers who would almost certainly have been the first to die. Keep some hankies handy and give this one a watch.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of the Kafka Goes to the Movies box set. The film is accompanied by a lovely piano score by Richard Siedhoff.
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