Film Editing as Women’s Work: Ėsfir’ Shub, Elizaveta Svilova, and the Culture of Soviet Montage

Lilya Kaganovsky
Ėsfir’ Shub; Elizaveta Svilova; Soviet Union; montage; editing; feminist film history; women’s cinema


Shub and Svilova


Shub: Re-Editor, Editor, Director-Editor

Svilova: cutter, editor, editor-director




Suggested Citation


In her 1989 groundbreaking feminist study, Kino and the Woman Question, Judith Mayne acknowledged that while her book focused on questions of gender and ideology in Soviet avant-garde films, there were “no discoveries of previously ignored films to be found here,” nor was there an “attempt to seek compensatory treatment for the women directors who have been ignored or marginalized in film history, women such as Olga Preobrazhenskaya and Esther Shub.” (Mayne 1989: 10) “My concern,” wrote Mayne, “is less with recreating and recomposing the cinematic landscape of the 1920s, than with rereading the films which have become a part of the institution of film history and film theory” (ibid.). Rather than examining the works of women filmmakers that might offer “evidence of a radical difference,” and “of other approaches to filmmaking which would challenge the standard views of and assumptions about the time,” Mayne’s book provided a vital alternative reading of canonical Soviet films of the 1920s (all directed by male directors, shot by male cameramen, and scripted by male screenwriters), that paid attention to how gender and the “woman question” were constituted for Soviet cinema and its difference from classic Hollywood models.

Mayne’s Kino and the Woman Question and Lynn Atwood’s 1993 Red Women on the Silver Screen were the first (and to date, only) books to address the question of women in Soviet cinema, and in both cases they focused largely on representation – that is to say, on women in front of, not behind the camera. Indeed, to this day, no one has attempted to “recreate or recompose” the cinematic landscape of Soviet cinema, or to make a case for the Soviet women filmmakers who have been ignored or marginalized by subsequent film history. This lack of scholarly attention to Soviet women’s cinema by critics in Russian / Soviet studies is mirrored by critics outside of it – there are, for example, no essays on Soviet films or on female directors in any of the English-language volumes devoted to women’s cinema, from E. Ann Kaplan’s 1983 Women and Film to her 2000 Feminism and Film. And yet, in the history of Soviet cinema, women often occupied vanguard roles: in 1925, Ol’ga Preobrazhenskaia helped to found the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK); in 1927, Ėsfir’ Shub invented the compilation documentary and in 1932 recorded the first ever sync-sound interviews; Elizaveta Svilova’s editing skills made possible Dziga Vertov’s rapid montage; and Iulia Solntseva was the first of only two women to receive the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival (Solntseva received her award in 1960; it would take another fifty-seven years for a second female director, Sofia Coppola, to be so honoured).

Despite these and other significant contributions, women in the Soviet film industry have remained largely invisible, and it is still remarkably easy to tell a history of Soviet cinema by focusing only on male directors.1 In part, this invisibility stems from the fact that the very notion of a “women’s cinema” was itself anathema to the Soviet mind set, including to those who may or may not have been its actual practitioners. In the West, women’s cinema, as it had been understood by feminist theory of the 1970s and 1980s, was by definition counter-cultural because it broke with patriarchal conventions of the ways in which women could be filmed and the kinds of stories that could be told about them. But Soviet cinema actively resisted the gendered visual and narrative tropes of classic Hollywood films, while Soviet culture defined itself as providing equal opportunities from the start, thereby relegating the question of sexual difference to the dustbin of history.2 And, while Socialist Realist art produced a number of female artists, almost none of them made it on to the world stage, in part because they were often pushed into traditional arts and crafts (which never counted as high art and therefore was not worthy of museums, criticism, etc.), and in part because women’s art (zhenskoe iskusstvo) was devalued as such, in favour of works that showed a “man’s hand,” a “man’s eye,” or a non-female way of looking or thinking.3

Soviet rejection of Western feminist theory and the repudiation of gender difference as a precondition for thinking of oneself as an artist meant that the “gender of the author as producer” played a much smaller role in the consciousness of these artists than for prominent filmmakers in the West (Stollery 2002: 87-99). Ironically, this also meant that the work of these women in the film industry was lost to history: because their narratives often did not conform to that of their male counterparts and because they never insisted on their status as “auteurs,” their contributions were subsumed by the larger historical narratives that took place around them. Moreover, because Western feminist theory largely focused on the absence of women or on the problematics of their representation, with very few exceptions (for example Kira Muratova), none of these women became a part of the institution of film history and film theory. They first “fell out of the limelight and then out of the film history itself” (see Gaines 2018). This study takes as its point of departure the history and contributions of two Soviet editors/directors – Ėsfir’ Shub and Elizaveta Svilova – in an attempt to make visible what has largely remained invisible: film editing as women’s work.

Shub and Svilova

In the history of Soviet filmmaking, it is hard to imagine two biographies that were more radically different. Ėsfir' Shub was born to a well-to-do Jewish family in Ukraine in 1894, and grew up surrounded by artists, poets, writers, and theatre directors. Her education took her from the Institute for Women’s Higher Education in Moscow to Symbolist circles, Constructivist evenings, and an apprenticeship in Vsevolod Meierkhol’d’s revolutionary theatre. There she met poets Aleksandr Blok, Andrei Belyi, and Konstantin Bal’mont, the writer Fedor Sologub, and others. She was a close friend of avant-garde filmmakers Sergei Ėizenshtein, Dziga Vertov, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, the revolutionary poet Vladimir Maiakovskii, and the Socialist Realist writer Aleksandr Fadeev. She was a welcomed guest at the house of the writer Aleksandr Ėrtel, and at the residence of Osip and Lilia Brik. A picture taken by Aleksandr Rodchenko shows Shub with artist Varvara Stepanova at an “evening of the constructivists,” with Rodchenko’s poster for Vertov’s 1924 Kinoglaz / Kino-Eye (Dziga Vertov, 1924, USSR), visible on the wall behind her.


Fig. 1: “A constructivist evening” with Ėsfir’ Shub (bottom right) and Rodchenko’s poster for Vertov’s Kino-Eye (Courtesy of Alamy Stock Photo).

She travelled to Berlin with Vertov, edited films with Ėizenshtein, spent evenings talking about the future of Soviet art with Maiakovskii. Shub remained at Goskino until 19424, when she became one of the main editors of the newsreel series Soiuzkinozhurnal, later called Novosti dnia / News of the Day in the Central Studio for Documentary Film in Moscow. In 1933-1935 Shub supervised the montage workshop in Ėizenshtein’s class in VGIK. During the war she edited newsreels and continued to teach montage in VGIK when the school moved to Alma Ata on the Black Sea. Her closest friends in the film world were Ėizenshtein, Pudovkin, Vertov, and the critic Viktor Shklovskii. In 1959 she published a book of memoirs of her life in the cinema Krupnym planom (In Close Up), republished in 1972 with the title Zhizn’ moia – kinematograf (Cinema is My Life). Over a long career (she died in 1959), Shub directed over a dozen films, and while “Ėsfir’ Shub” may not be a household name, it figures in many biographies and film histories. As Vlada Petrić claims, along with Preobrazhenskaia, “Esther (Esfir) Shub was the most outstanding Russian woman-filmmaker of the silent era.” (Petrić 1978: 429) 5

By contrast, Elizaveta Svilova is probably the best known editor to have worked in the USSR, and yet, her name is barely mentioned in most of the usual sources on the history of Soviet cinema, and like most editors, she remains under-researched.6 Born in Moscow into a railway worker’s family in 1900, she began apprenticing in the film industry at the age of twelve, cleaning film and aiding the selection of positives and negatives in a film laboratory. From 1914-1918 she worked for the Pathé studio in Moscow as a cutter and photo-printer (Penfold 2013: 14). She worked as an editor for pioneering pre-revolutionary director and actor Vladimir Gardin, and on Meierkhol’d’s 1915 adaptation of Portret Doriana Greia / The Picture of Dorian Gray (Vsevolod Meierkhol’d and Mikhail Donin, 1915, Russia). In 1918 Svilova moved to Department of the People’s Commissariat of Education (Narkompros), in her words, to “nationalise the film industry,” (ibid.: 15) and in 1922, she was managing the editing workshop at Goskino (State Cinema). It was there that she met Dziga Vertov and thus began their life-long collaboration, which together produced some of the greatest documentary / non-played films of the early Soviet period, including the 1929 Chelovek s kinoapparatom / Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929, USSR).7 Between 1939 and 1956, Svilova edited over one hundred non-fiction films and newsreel episodes, and directed such significant WWII documentaries as Berlin / The Fall of Berlin (with Iulii Raizman, 1945, USSR, winner of the 1946 Stalin Prize); Osventsim / Auschwitz (1945, USSR), and Sud narodov / Nuremberg Trials (1947, USSR).

Upon Vertov’s death in 1954, Svilova changed her name to Vertova-Svilova and retired from the film industry to dedicate herself to the preservation of Vertov’s memory and archive. Thus, her own role in the Soviet film industry is overshadowed by the larger-than-life presence of her husband, despite the fact that Vertov himself frequently referred to his life-long collaboration with Svilova and included sequences of her editing in his remarkable Chelovek s kinoapparatom (as well as, much earlier, in Kino-Pravda No. 19). In 1970, Svilova, in collaboration with Ilia Kopalin and Semiramida Pumpianskaia, released a re-edited version of Vertov’s Tri pesni o Lenine / Three Songs of Lenin (Dziga Vertov, 1934, USSR), in an attempt to restore the work to its original form.8 Alongside it, she also published the book Tri pesni o Lenine (Three Songs of Lenin) (1970) and compiled a festschrift in 1976, Dziga Vertov v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov (Dziga Vertov Through the Eyes of his Contemporaries), to commemorate Vertov’s contribution to Soviet cinema. In the final years of her life, she toured Europe with the re-edited version of Three Songs of Lenin, which by then included the ten original negatives of Lenin she found in 1932. It is largely because of Svilova’s efforts to preserve his archive that Vertov is remembered today as one of the greatest Soviet avant-garde filmmakers, rivalling even such a well known figure as Sergei Ėizenshtein.9


Fig. 2: Elizaveta Svilova and Dziga Vertov at the cutting table (Courtesy of Alamy Stock Photo).


How do we measure a film editor’s contribution? How do we begin to see where the work of the director stops and her work begins? In the formative early years of cinema (whether the US, Western Europe, or the USSR), editors – or “cutters,” as they were originally called – were often women, and unlike the professions of director or cinematographer, editing was always considered “suitable for the female sex,” because of its similarity to sewing, weaving, and other forms of female handy work (Meuel 2016: 8). As David Meuel and others have noted, in this early period, women were well represented in the producing and directing ranks (there were at least twenty-five female directors working in the US film industry during this time), but they were most dominant in another key filmmaking role: that of the editor or cutter (see Meuel 2016: 8). Initially, film directors in the US cinema industry did their own cutting, which in the first years of filmmaking was fairly rudimentary. But as the amount of film footage that a director needed to make a film increased, a new breed of behind-the-scenes worker appeared to sort through, organize, and assemble this “raw” material. Beginners in this field were called “patchers,” and they worked their way up to “negative cutters.” The job requires workers to sift through enormous quantities of filmed footage by hand to find the shots that worked best and then put them together in the optimal way to tell stories. And because the work was “low paying and considered menial and monotonous (work akin to knitting or sewing),” women – usually young women just out of high school with little or no professional training – were considered ideal candidates for the job (Meuel 2016: 8).

All this changed around 1910, when D.W. Griffith and others began to understand filmmaking as first and foremost an art of editing, that could literally mean the difference between a film’s success and its failure. The husband and wife team of James and Rose Smith, who worked with Griffith on such classics as The Birth of a Nation (1915, USA) and Intolerance (1916, USA), perfected many of the editing techniques that radically altered film art, including dynamic crosscutting to build suspense, the strategic use of a close up to intensify drama, the variation between medium and long shots to move the narrative forward (Meuel 2016: 8). And indeed, it was Ėizenshtein’s viewing of Griffith’s Intolerance that spurred the development of Soviet montage theory, and the notion that film is simply raw material until it is assembled on the editing table (Eisenstein 1949).10

In her 1923 application to the “Council of Three” to join the “kinoki (Vertov’s filmmaking group, can be translated as cine-eye group), Svilova described the work of an editor before Vertov’s newsreel series Kino-Pravda, before “montage” became the operative mode of Soviet cinema.11 She noted that she had been working in the cinema industry since 1910, and that during that time, she had worked for a number of firms, with a number of directors, and on many feature films, most of them dramas, since the newsreel (khronika) “scarcely existed,” nor was there any understanding of editing as such. Film directors, she writes, would make a film by putting it together in the order of the scenes, give instructions where to stick in the intertitles, look at it on screen, “and the picture would be considered ready, that is to say, edited” (Svilova 2004: 88). The set was filmed from a single location 25-30 (or in rare cases ten) meters away, so there was nothing for the director to edit, and any experienced editor (montazhnitsa – fem.) could create the film without the help of the director. Svilova notes that in this way, working in the Gardin studio she assembled films for directors Nikolai Malikov and Iosif Soifer, while over at the Khanzhonkov studio the editor, Vera Popova, used to edit their directors’ productions without any difficulty.12 This was even more true for newsreels, she notes, which no one thought to edit in an artistic way. Newsreels made by Pathé and Gaumont were shot from a distance of 40 meters and put together by the cameramen who shot them, with the additions of intertitles. Again, no one thought about editing these pieces of film in such a way as to produce a work of art.13 Svilova claims that for her, the breakthrough came in 1922, when she saw the first issues of Kino-Pravda and met its “editor” (redaktor – usually used for literature / newspaper editors, probably here to underscore the fact that Kino-Pravda was a newspaper, modeled on Pravda), Dziga Vertov (Svilova 2013; Tsivian 2004: 89). Svilova’s account, while exaggerated to draw attention to the work of Vertov and the kinoki, nevertheless highlights the shift in the very idea of film editing that took place precisely between the 1910s and 1920s. Whereas earlier, film was merely “assembled,” it could now be artistically constructed.

In the US, as the cinema industry became more successful and more homogenized, work roles became more specialized, and they also became more segregated, with gender emerging as one of the principal determinants in who worked in such roles as producer, director, and editor. What Janet Staiger has called Hollywood’s “assembly phase” meant an increasingly detailed (and gendered) division of labor, and the use of the continuity script, standardized by 1914, meant that tasks could be assigned to specialists who would not necessarily have to work closely together. Thus, the editor could assemble hundreds of numbered shots into a film with minimal input from the director (Bordwell et al. 1985: 134-147; see also, Thompson 1993: 386-388). Between the late 1920s and the early 1940s only one woman, the editor-turned-director Dorothy Arzner, regularly directed films for a major Hollywood studio. Male directors, meanwhile, adopted “overtly masculine forms of dress such as jodhpurs and high laced-up boots as well as stern, often harsh, on-set behaviours” (Meuel 2016: 10). With the exception of editing, behind-the-camera work was no longer seen as a female profession.14

The gender politics of the early USSR were in theory inclusive, and its cinema industry was also less segmented and regimented than its American counterpart.15 As Kristin Thompson shows, like early Hollywood, the French, German, and Soviet industries in the 1920s were similarly structured by a division of labour, but in each of them, most of the control over the final product remained with the director, with a smaller number of editors when compared to the US. Instead, all three industries employed an “assistant” or cutter (called a “monteuse” in French and “die Kleberin” in German, both gendered feminine), responsible for splicing the dailies together and helping the director, who was also the main person in charge of editing (Thompson 1993: 388). Soviet film directors typically edited their own films, making both the rough cut and the final work print version, while Soviet editorial duties more closely resembled those of an assistant editor in Hollywood: “sorting shots, splicing the rushes together, and eventually cutting the negative” (Thompson 1993: 396). Indeed, arguments put forward by Ippolit Sokolov and others in the late 1920s in favour of an “iron scenario” were precisely aimed at montage directors like Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Vertov, who rejected the very idea of a script by which their work would be bound, in favor of assembling the film entirely on the editing table (Sokolov 1926). As director Semen Timoshenko wrote in 1926, “exposed footage was not itself artistic – it only becomes so when arranged into a whole” (Timoshenko 1926: 74-45).16 For the most part, Soviet film directors were men, while, as Martin Stollery notes, “fleeting references in memoirs and visual evidence from photographs taken in Soviet cutting rooms suggest it was often women who performed the auxiliary role of editor” (Stollery 2002: 95).17 Going into the 1920s, in the USSR and elsewhere, women often worked as screenwriters, editors / cutters, costume designers, and the like, often without receiving on-screen credit.18 Thus, it is precisely because women played a less visible role in the establishment of the Soviet film industry that Shub and Svilova emerge as such important figures for historical analysis. Together, their work shows us why we need to pay closer attention to women’s contributions to Soviet cinema (and world cinema, more broadly), while their roles as editors help to shift our focus from the director-auteur, always already conceived as male, in another direction.

Shub: Re-Editor, Editor, Director-Editor

Compared with Svilova, Shub’s career in the cinema looked more like the careers of the male avant-garde directors around her. The fact that we know so much less about her than about her close friends and fellow filmmakers Ėizenshtein and Vertov is in many ways the result of gender bias stemming from both the historical circumstances in which she worked and our own gendered ways of seeing. As Stollery has noted, while Shub’s practice of authorship conformed to the avant-garde ideal of “author as producer” much more so than Ėizenshtein’s or Vertov’s, from an industry perspective, her films could only be perceived as “an extension of the type of work usually performed by invisible, uncredited women” (Stollery 2002: 96).

Like many early Soviet filmmakers, Shub started out in the theatre, as an officer in the theatre Department of the People’s Commissariat of Education (Narkompros). From there, she went to work as a film editor for Goskino (State Cinema), in 1922, where she was put in charge of re-editing foreign films imported for Soviet distribution, and where she produced her own compilation documentary films Padenie dinastii Romanovykh / The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), Velikii put’ / The Great Way (1927), and Rossiia Nikolaia II i Lev Tolstoi / The Russia of Nicholas II and Lev Tolstoy ((1928). Shub learned her craft on the job and during evenings spent in Lev Kuleshov’s apartment watching him edit pieces of film on his light table, as well as by studying closely the work of fellow Goskino director, Dziga Vertov.

As Shub notes in her memoirs, Zhizn' moia – kinematograf, the editing table and the screening room taught her the proper construction and composition of a shot, forced her to develop a memory for different shots, their internal structure, content, and movement, as well as to determine the rhythm and tempo of the work as a whole.19 She learned when to cut from a long shot to a medium one, from a medium to a close up, and the reverse. Re-editing films made it possible for her to understand the “magnetic power” of scissors in the hands of someone who is literate in the art of montage, and to begin to work toward a form of invisible or continuity editing (“stremit’sia, chto by perekhody byli ne zametny”), cutting in such a way that the shots would replace each other smoothly with a match on both movement and content within the shot (Shub 1972: 76). Re-editing both foreign and domestic films – including Westerns, detective films, films with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Pola Negri, Asta Nielsen, Lillian Gish and others – Shub learned the way pieces of celluloid are not merely stuck together, but need to be organized in order to produce both rhythmic and dramatic effects (ibid.: 8). She saw that film required a different kind of acting from the theatre, and that montage was a way to bring out the “emotional” quality of both the actor and the film. Her favourite task was to splice together partial and unmarked rolls of film, without intertitles or libretto, into a coherent narrative – or, as she put it, “to create a scenario for an already existing film” (ibid.: 76).

At Goskino’s Montage Bureau, Shub re-edited over 200 films for ideological content, becoming an expert at montage, and experimenting with composition and rearrangement to create new films on the editing table. Ėizenshtein learned montage from Shub. The “Brothers” Vasil’iev were her students.20 Together with Ėizenshtein, for example, she reedited Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse, der Spieler / Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922, Germany), in which, according to Shub, they “changed the narrative structure of the film as well as the intertitles. Even the film’s title was changed; it became Gilded Rot (Pozolochennaia gnil’)” (Shub 1972: 75; see also Petric, 1984: 21-46). Stollery notes that unlike the typical editorial experience, Shub’s original post in Goskino’s Montage Bureau enabled her to exercise and develop her creativity, without being overshadowed by a director (Stollery 2002: 95). Shub is the only woman recorded as having worked at what Yuri Tsivian describes as this “professional elite club,” which acquired a “certain reputation within the film industry” (Tsivian, 1996: 336). Yet, Tsivian’s account of this professional elite club barely mentions Shub, and instead, focuses on a number of male editors, including “Benjamin Boitler,” who was “recognized as the wittiest of the them all” – but who has since “passed into oblivion” (Tsivian 1996: 336). Tsivian goes so far as to dedicate his article to this figure of wit and wickedness, while noting in a footnote that while he was able to track down the other editor, “Birrois,” mentioned by Ėizenshtein in this context, “the record does not mention Boitler” (Tsivian 1996: 343). This does not prevent Tsivian from speculating on why Ėizenshtein, who by that point was already working on his first film, Stachka / Strike (1925, USSR), was sitting up all night re-editing Dr Mabuse. One answer might be: in order to learn montage from Fritz Lang, but that answer seems unsatisfying, since “nothing of Lang’s style can be traced in Eisenstein’s films.” A more adequate answer, Tsivian suggests, is that he was there “to learn from Boitler” (Tsivian 1996: 341). And yet, by far a still more adequate answer might be: he was there to learn from Shub. Not from the witty male editor whose existence we can neither confirm nor deny, but from the woman who was literally sitting right next to him.

Fellow filmmaker Sergei Iutkevich, for example, describes the terrifying moment when he was faced with the prospect of editing his first film, Kruzheva / Lace (1927, USSR) – the feeling of complete helplessness when looking at reels of celluloid that needed to be spliced together according to some “unknown laws” by which “raw film material becomes a film” – and turning to Shub for help because of her “sense of the segment” (chuvstvo kuska) (Iutkevich in Shub 1972: 5-6). At this time, Goskino was still located in the old Khanzhonkov studio space that was not even equipped with a Moviola, meaning that one could not see the rough cut until the following day, and all editing, in Iutkevich’s words, was done by “intuition.” The art of montage for Iutkevich was the ability to combine “dead” pieces of celluloid in such a way as to produce a “living” film, and “the best practitioner of this art was Esfir Shub” (Iutkevich in Shub 1972: 6).

Another telling story was Shub’s contribution to the making of Kryl'ia kholopa / Wings of a Serf (1926, USSR) on which Shub worked together with the director Iuri Tarich and screenwriter Viktor Shklovskii, participating in on-location shooting and directorial discussions. Watching the shoot as it happened, Shub noted that the actor Leonidov (who played the role of Ivan the Terrible) had a particularly strong facial expression when the film would first begin to roll, squinting one eye as the lights came on. These early shots were not considered part of the usable material and usually cut from the negative before those were handed over for editing, but Shub inserted them into the film, using these “accidental” shots to bring out the character of Ivan, and which, according to Iutkevich, “made all the difference to the film’s success” (Shub 1972: 9; 80-81).

Friends with Vertov and Rodchenko, and married to Aleksei Gan,21 Shub thought of cinema as a constructivist enterprise, in which the method of montage allowed her to assemble archival footage to tell a new story with previously existing material, earning the title of “director-editor” (rezhisser-montazher) (Shub 1972: 9). As she wrote in 1927:

Over the course of two months I watched 60,000 meters of negative and positive film. We made 5200 meters of positive prints (from duplicate negatives) for editing; out of this, 1500 meters made it into the film. While editing I sought to address the documentary nature of the material. Without abstracting the material, without focusing exclusively on formal tasks (subject matter – objective form – just means of expression), I used the functional method of Constructivism. This allowed me to consistently and steadily, despite the very limited range of the filmed historical events, create a cohesive film story demonstrating a certain phase of the Revolution (Shub 2016: 18).

Nonetheless, when Shub first moved from re-editing foreign features to making her first compilation film, her role was not perceived as that of director, but merely an editor “assembling” found footage. Padenie dinastii Romanovykh was originally released without giving Shub on-screen credit, and Maiakovskii and Ėizenshtein both had to step in to insist that the film carry her name (Mayakovsky 1988: 172). The head of Goskino, Il’ia Trainin understood Shub’s work as that of a basic cutter gluing together pieces of film shot by others, a work that “anyone could do” (Leyda 1960: 224-225, and 230). It was in fact, Shub’s “authorial invisibility” as Stollery has called it, that made her work revolutionary, by making it part of a collective, rather than individual enterprise (Stollery 2002: 93). The process of locating, sifting through, compiling, reshooting, reframing, enlarging, matching speech, action, and movement within the frame of pieces of film originally shot by many different cameramen – all of this Shub did in order to produce a coherent and fluid narrative that told the story of the years leading up to the February revolution with documents that had been made for an entirely different, if not the opposite, purpose. To make successful compilation films (called “montage films” in Russian – montazhnye fil’my), Shub needed to edit not just for artistic and ideological consistency, but also for differences in style, quality, format of film stock, and speed – all this was necessary to achieve visual consistency. A great deal of (unacknowledged) creative labour went into the production of this film-document, made with largely “second hand” materials.

Shub’s Padenie dinastii Romanovykh was the first of three compilation films she made during 1927-1928. Shub researched the film at the Museum of the Revolution in Leningrad, where for two months she poured over 60,000 meters of film, locating and organizing existing film material, convincing the Soviet government to buy 2,000 feet of negatives about the February revolution from the US, and eventually, shooting an extra 1,000 of the final 6,000 feet of the final film (Malitsky 2013: 164). Shub thought of her work as similar to that of an engineer who would construct a new building or machine from already existing parts. Mikhail Yampolsky calls Shub’s films “reality at second hand,” a kind of “readymade” cinema, in which the archive took precedence over individual vision (Yampolsky 1991: 162-163). But fellow filmmaker Grigorii Kozintsev put it a different way: in a 1972 documentary film Ėsfir’ Shub – Krupnym planom (Ėsfir’ Shub – In Close Up), Kozintsev stresses that for the first time, “history” became the star (geroi) of cinema. For Shub, he notes, montage was not the mere act of gluing together pieces of film, nor was it merely a way to tell a story; montage was a way of thinking, of expressing thought on the screen (“montazh ne kak skleika, montazh ne kak sposob rasskaza, montazh kak khod mysli”).22

The length of an edited sequence became one of Shub’s main formal achievements. Her reliance on found archival footage and her use of long takes were seen by Soviet critics as a way to restore authenticity to the film document and to “connect” with the masses (Stollery 2002: 93; Yampolsky 1991: 162-163; Roberts 1991). This was particularly true of the reception of her Padenie dinastii Romanovykh, assembled and released in 1927, and commonly acknowledged as the first compilation documentary film.23 Following Shub’s lead, Lef critics (such as Viktor Shklovskii, Osip Brik, and Sergei Tret’iakov) argued in favour of documentary films composed largely of long takes, which would allow for contemplation and examination of the material. They claimed that this method and form would help film become less a product of individual vision, literally and figuratively, and thus less likely a distortion of the filmed material reality. Using many different people to film raw material would make the images more relevant to a variety of viewers. And the long take would restore documentary authenticity by imbuing particular images with more authority.

For critics and fellow filmmakers like Brik and Kuleshov, Shub’s success lay in the slower pacing of her editing, particularly when compared to that of Vertov’s brother and cameraman, Mikhail Kaufman, who, according to Kuleshov, “had not grown out of his inclination towards rapid montage.” In Kaufman’s work, “the best sequences are too short – you cannot examine them properly” (Yampolsky 1991: 162).24 In 1929 Shub herself formulated the basic aim of her montage: “emphasis on the fact is an emphasis not only to show the fact, but to enable it to be examined and, having examined it, to be kept in mind...” (Shub 1972: 268; also in Yampolsky 1991: 162-163). Working and thinking “collectively” to actively change the conditions of production, Shub created an archive of film documents that could be used by everyone (compare this to Vertov’s similar call for a film archive), developing a new genre based on the repudiation of the notions of authorship, very much in opposition to her fellow avant-garde male directors (Stollery 2002: 93-94). And as a result of this stance, she was nearly erased from film history. As Stollery notes, following Ian Christie, Western evaluation of early Soviet cinema can be broken down into two original phases, roughly understood as “Eisenstein vs Pudovkin” (before 1968) and “Eisenstein vs Vertov” (after 1968). Stollery suggests that in our current third phase, we might look instead at “Eisenstein vs Shub” to rethink the notion of authorship for Soviet cinema, but also, I might stress, to acknowledge that our knowledge of film history has been shaped by certain kinds of conventions, inflected by historically constructed gender distinctions that govern the stories we tell about people and events.

Thus, for example, we might look once more at the famous picture of Ėizenshtein on the throne of Nikolai II, the picture that, as Stollery notes, vividly encapsulated the tension around authorship within Ėizenshtein’s biographical legend. The photograph, taken during the making of Okt’iabr / October (1928, USSR), of the “stumpy director sitting across the Tsar’s throne in the Winter Palace dressed in what appear to be workman’s overalls,” demonstrates Ėizenshtein’s position vis a vis art and authority – both revelling in it and gently mocking it at the same time (Stollery 2002: 88). As Marie Steton has claimed, “With a mock gesture of His Majesty waving his hand, [Ėizenshtein] ordered photographs to be taken of himself in his role of iconoclastic emperor of a new art form. But as he sat on the throne, his short legs did not touch the floor. Defiantly, he flung his legs over the arms of the throne and was photographed again” (Seton 1952: 96; and Stollery 2002: 88-89).


Fig. 3a: Ėizenshtein during the filming of Okt’iabr (author’s collection).