Friday, 9 July 2010

The first dramatic Russian film - 1908 - Stenka Razin - Vladimir Romashkov

One need only compare American, French and German films to see how greatly nuances of shading and colouration can vary in motion pictures. In the photographic image itself, to say nothing of the acting and script, there somehow emerge differences in national character

This astute observation from Japanese author Tanizaki Junichiro can apply equally to the film of other nations, and with this idea in mind, we can compare and contrast various countries initial attempts at film making. Stenka Razin, Russia’s 1908 entry into the world of film, re-tells a specific moment in Russia’s history, thus drawing immediate parallels with Italy’s first feature film, La Presa Di Roma. Where La Presa Di Roma was based on the key events which led to the unification of Italy in 1870, Stenka Razin focuses on the Cossack leader of the same name, who led an uprising against the Russian nobility two centuries earlier.
And as with the 1903 version of Alice in Wonderland and the 1907 version of Ben Hur, it was based on a literary source. However, unlike Alice and Ben Hur, it was not based on a source that was so long that meant only specific moments could be shot from that text. Instead, it was based on a popular Russian folk song, which had been written in 1883:
From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sailed the arrow-breasted
Ships of Cossack yeomanry.

On the first is Stenka Razin
With his princess by his side
Drunken holds in marriage revels
With his beauteous young bride

From behind there comes a murmur
"He has left his sword to woo;
One short night and Stenka Razin
Has become a woman, too."

Stenka Razin hears the murmur
Of his discontented band
And his lovely Persian princess
He has circled with his hand.

His dark brows are drawn together
As the waves of anger rise;
And the blood comes rushing swiftly
To his piercing jet black eyes.

"I will give you all you ask for
Head and heart and life and hand."
And his voice rolls out like thunder
Out across the distant land.

Volga, Volga, Mother Volga
Wide and deep beneath the sun,
You have never seen such a present
From the Cossacks of the Don.

So that peace may reign forever
In this band so free and brave
Volga, Volga, Mother Volga
Make this lovely girl a grave.

Now, with one swift mighty motion
He has raised his bride on high
And has cast her where the waters
Of the Volga roll and sigh.

"Dance, you fools, and let's be merry
What is this that's in your eyes?
Let us thunder out a chanty
To the place where beauty lies."

From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sailed the arrow-breasted
Ships of Cossack yeomanry.
This was a sensible, smart move which allowed Stenka Razin to use a literary source that actually matched film’s relatively short length at that period.
The folk song is a helpful companion piece to the film; it is clear that the film follows its plot quite closely. It is worth pointing out that by using the folk song as the film’s source rather than any historical account of Razin’s life, it allows the film to focus on an emotionally charged moment in his life, rather than focusing on one of his military conquests. The mythology of Razin would only add to the film’s popularity, as was the case with earlier films passed on popular figures, The Great Train Robbery and The Story of the Kelly Gang. Yet unlike those two films, which centre on the violent actions of outlaws, Stenka Razin focuses on its protagonist’s (drunken) abandonment of his princess. 
Thus from its inception, Russian film proved itself to be capable of combining various themes in a populist yet subversive manner.

Stenka Razin, produced by Alexander Drankov (who had previously made a number of Lumiere-esque actuality films), was released on 15th October 1908 (see the original poster for the film above), a date widely acknowledged as being the birth of Russian cinema. Drankov was very much aware of the importance of this film:
Having spent enormous amounts of money, human labour and time I did everything in my power to ensure that the technical and artistic level of the movie is appropriately high for an epoch-making film in our cinema. 
Unfortunately, the version of the film we have does not contain any score. This is a pity, because Brigit Beumers’ well written A History of Russian Cinema emphasises the importance of the film’s score:
The score for the film was specially composed by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov; this was an outstanding innovation at the time, if we bear in mind that most cinemas of the period employed only pianists to accompany the films. The use of specially composed music highlights the importance of the occasion: the folk songs written for this first Russian film were intended for the audience to hum along to.
Therefore from its inception, Russian cinema was attempting to form a more symbiotic relationship with its audience. Rather than the audience being passive and merely watching the film, Stenka Razin actively encouraged their participation. This adds further weight to the suggestion that choosing a popular folk song as the film’s source was a clever idea. The audience would not only be aware of the film’s story, but the score would also have been familiar to them (listen to the full Russian folk song at the bottom of this post).

The film opens with a shot of Razin’s boat in the distance, with the Volga river at the forefront of the shot. The movement of the river foreshadows some of Tarkovsky’s finest cinematic moments, and is perhaps this film’s most visually impressive scene. 
The majority of the film involves a large number of characters accompanying Razin and his Persian princess around his ship and a forest. Their function is similar to that of the mob in one of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – they are a fickle bunch who will ultimately have a big say in the protagonist’s prospects. After joining in the merriments of the princess’ arrival, then soon turn on her and decide to get Razin drunk in order to make him abandon her and return to their cause.
A slight criticism of the film would be that the titles play too large a role in conveying the plot.  For example, they make us aware of the mob’s plot to get Razin drunk, but we then only get a glimpse of the mob throwing their hats in the air – it would have been more helpful to have actually seen the act of Razin getting drunk.  
Returning to Junichiro’s quote, Stenka Razin is a distinctly Russian film. From its shots of the Volga to its almost obstinate refusal to focus on its main protagonist for more than one minor scene, it is a real pleasure to see Russia enriching the melting pot of cinema with its unique ingredients.




  1. This is a really fascinating 102 year-old (!) artifact... The film almost seems designed as a series of illustrations to set alongside the folksong: a kind of -
    Stanza 1) Wooded Island with River Wide and Free;
    Stanza 2) Forests;
    Stanza 3) Moslem Dancing;
    A strangely static film, too, which really enhances this sense of 'illustration'! Compared with any of the other recent films, this one does feel like a series of 'moving pictures'... or, in the case of the forest scene, a CCTV camera (with anachronistic digits ticking away in the corner)!
    The loss of the soundtrack is definitely a shame (although try the Wagner Rheingold overture with the opening river scene!! Instant Malick!)...
    And - wow- that cut to black at the end (as she hits the water) is stunning.

  2. @ Rob - Many thanks for an astute and thought provoking reading of the film. I had not thought of the film as being static and more akin to a set of moving illustrations - and yes, the way that the film mirrors the stanzas of the poem reinforces this very idea.

    I will find the Wagner Rheingold overture a listen with the film and see what the results are.

    There is something hypnotic about early film making where water is involved. I recently saw a Lumiere Brothers actuality film of the Niagara Falls - it was stunning.