“I consider that cinematography is an empty matter, which no one needs … only an abnormal person could place this farcical business on the level of art.” (1)
These were the words of Nicholas II of Russia, the last tsar of the Russian Empire. Despite his objections to filmmaking, Nicholas was himself the subject of one of the world’s first movies in 1896. In an effort to display the grandeur of his coronation, and perhaps to capitalize on the novelty of cinematography, the Russian leader employed France’s Lumière brothers to capture the ceremony. The Lumières sent cameraman Camille Cerf to the Kremlin in May of 1896 to record the occasion. The result was not only the first real documentary, but the first Russian movie as well.
Nicholas enjoyed Cerf’s depiction, and he would request several follow-up films over the remainder of his reign. With titles like “Tsar Inspects Warships” or “Tsar Drinking the Health of His Troops”, these movies can be understood as propaganda, enacted to indoctrinate the country with the majesty of their leader. According to IMDB, Nicholas appeared in some 23 of these films during his lifetime, usually dominating centre stage as a benevolent and wise presence.
Nicholas was also a dictator, a tyrannical presence that drew the ire of disadvantaged Russian workers. There had long been a tension between the upper and lower echelon’s of Russian society, but Nicholas’s disconnect with his subjects ignited the ire of the country’s labour-class. Whereas the coronation video shows a prosperous era, the majority of Russians knew only suffering and hard-labour. Likewise, the tsar showed little interest for the toils of the average peasant, and refused to give them a voice. Perhaps this is best depicted with the handling of the filmmaking boom, which was reserved strictly for the benefit of the regime. Nicholas discouraged movies by private citizens, and prohibited the filming of strikes, or other inflammatory material. But it was to no avail. The Russian Revolution exploded across the country in 1917, fueled by decades of domination by the aristocracy. By October, the country was under the control of the communist Bolshevik’s, and a purge was instituted against the imperial regime of the tsar. In 1918, Nicholas II and his family were executed by a group of Bolsheviks.
After the communist takeover, Russia experienced a renaissance of filmmaking prowess. Innovators such as Sergei Eisenstein captured the grit, confusion and hope of the newfound Soviet Union, while auteurs like Dziga Vertov redefined the very concept of art. The story of the Soviet Union is intertwined with the rise of cinema because the two are dependant on one another. So far we’ve seen movies create jobs, confront science and build industries. But now we look at the Soviet Union and we realize the full potential of moving images. We see a medium capable of crumbling nations, changing norms and creating ideology.