Esfir Shub and the Problem of Realism
While the names of Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein are bound to evoke some, even if mostly schematic, associations in the popular memory, that of Esfir Shub, their colleague and sometime mentor, draws an unfortunate blank. Although I am Russian and have a sustained interest in cinema, I myself had never seen her work until I was invited to provide live intertitle-translation for two of her films this April. The small, closed screening was organized at the Museum of Modern Art by Keith Sanborn, a filmmaker, media theorist, and translator, who has recently taken up the task of revisiting Shub’s legacy.1
Most of the invitees—avant-garde filmmakers, Slavicists, Russian men and women of letters who likely ought to have had prior experience with Shub’s films—shared my predicament. Standing in the bright lobby of MoMA, attaching name-tags, and waiting to be ushered inside, we assessed our collective intelligence about her. It amounted roughly to this: Esfir Shub, an early Soviet filmmaker, was a pioneer of “found-footage” montage and a genre of essay film who received her training recutting Western import films to tailor them to meet the ideological demands of the Soviet screen—a skill that she would later employ to edit original documentaries from archival footage.2
According to Jay Leyda, so good was she in amassing her material, that other filmmakers would later turn to her negatives to “borrow” and never return sought-after footage. As a result, Shub’s originals suffered mutilation and material from her archives was disseminated, unacknowledged, in countless historical films.3 Along with her husband Aleksei Gan, a theorist of Constructivism and the editor of Kino-Photo, a magazine dedicated to promoting non-acted, documentary exposition of everyday life in a variety of media, Shub was acquainted with everyone in Soviet cultural life at the time—Shklovsky, Tretiakov, Osip and Lilya Brick, Eisenstein, Vertov, and Mayakovsky, just to name a few.
Despite her central position, very little serious research has been done on Shub. There are no monographs written about her, no translations of her biographical and theoretical writing, and even the Russian versions are out of print and notoriously difficult to find. Her films are practically never shown today. And yet when The Great Way and The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, the two films screened by Sanborn at MoMA, were released in 1927, they were lauded by vanguard left artists and theoreticians as an evolutionary leap of cinema and a new direction for the documentary genre, provoking a lively discussion about the value of the non-acted versus acted cinema (with preference mostly given to the former).
What might account for Shub’s present-day oblivion? While historical sexism and anti-Semitism could have contributed to this lamentable situation, I would argue that it is the subtle and challenging mode of her realism—ideologically driven, yet not interested in streamlining emotions in the service of propaganda; evoking sympathy, yet precluding gratuitous identification; committed to presenting the material in all its complexity, while at the same time maintaining a framework of socio-historical awareness—that made it difficult for her work to be reduced to a personal style.
Commissioned to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty and The Great Way tell an engaging story of the conditions which led to the collapse of Czarist Russia and of the struggles of the early years of the Soviet State. The internal contradictions of the crumbling empire and the challenges of the new republic are revealed by means of a demonstration of “facts”—faces, documents, slogans—which, edited together with sensibility and occasional humor, gain much rhetorical and emotional momentum. The structure of the relationship between the people inhabiting the historical moment—politicians, peasants, workers, soldiers, street children, the Czar, and the Bolsheviks—is revealed as much through pithy juxtapositions as through vivid and poignant details of daily life. More obviously critical comparisons—as when footage of a philistine-looking provincial governor sipping tea on a lawn in the company of his equally stout wife and bulldog is followed by images of peasants toiling on what is presumably his land—are complemented by more subtle instances, which are no less telling of the texture of lived history. Adolescent boys are sent to fight and die at war with much patriotic pomp, soldiers’ faces show expressions of docile gratitude upon receiving token gifts from industrialists that earn huge profits in the war economy, and nightmarish state emblems lie in fragments on the ground.
Writing about The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, Lev Kuleshov, the man credited with the invention of montage and not a documentary filmmaker himself, praised Shub’s work as being “more interesting, more truthful, and more convincing” than any fiction film could ever aspire to be.4 He believed her major achievement lay in the coherence and skill with which she managed to organize the disparate footage available to her, without letting subjective aesthetization contaminate the presentation of material. Shub edited together fragments of footage, none of which was shot or even commissioned by her, much of which was inherited from the Czarist era. She organized her material by means of intertitles that she composed herself and for which the footage serves as an illustration. The text is factual, very direct, sometimes ironic in tone, and practically always devoid of metaphor. Most of the time, intertitles serve as catalogue cards, naming the new category being presented in the manner of evidence. The work of synthesis, sympathy, and judgment is not hammered in, but is left mostly up to the viewer.
If there is a protagonist in Shub’s work it is the crowds, the masses. For example, in a scene from The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, Shub offers an exposé of the various strata of society of the Czarist Russia of the early 20th century—“Moscow of the priests,” “Policemen,” “Members of the State Duma,” etc.—but after each title card we see not actors representing a well-known and sometimes caricatured type, but people going about their activity, which proves to be an incredibly interesting and fascinating sight. In all these groups passing before the camera we cannot help distinguishing specific details, individual gestures, and facial expressions, yet none of these dissolves our memory of each person’s social position. Shub’s work balances on the taut line between the structural vision of history and the irreducible particularity of the people who inhabit it. It was Shub’s bravery to allow the cinematic material to speak for itself that was seen as her most significant innovation at the time.
My suspicion is that it was precisely her commitment to deliberately minimizing her authorial presence in favor of offering “raw” documentary material—irreducibly complex, full of details, and objectively existing outside of artistic will and hence never fully assimilable by aesthetization—that made her work too difficult for modern audiences longing for the personal “melodrama” of the auteur.
Shub’s strategy of alienating the author and the viewer to the same degree, precluding them from easy identification with the material without shutting out the emotional response altogether, is similar to what Shklovsky, a fellow member of Left Front of the Arts (LEF), termed ostranenie, a “pathos of distance”:“In art it is most necessary not to tie oneself up too closely. It is necessary to maintain an ironic relationship to one’s material and not allow it to get to you. Just as in boxing or in fencing.” Shub’s mode of documentary practice is best analyzed within the context of LEF’s attempt to develop an industrialized form of narrative, which sought to substitute contemplative and hence bourgeois art forms with their industrial analogs. (In the context of graphic art this meant, for example, eschewing oil painting in favor of designing wallpaper; with narrative such transition proved to be more challenging.) In this process, cinema and literature were theorized in the same way, and the future of both was believed to lie with a genre they termed factography, a mode of presentation of reality by means of editing together (in a film-reel or on a newspaper page) documentary evidence. The general principles of factography could be roughly summed up in the following way: the author was to be substituted with an editor; plot was to be done away with and replaced with montaged sequences5; the notion of a hero was to be shifted from the subject of psychological interiority to the productive and historical forces shaping the lives of people and objects alike. The latter does not imply dehumanization, but rather an attempt to come to terms with historical conditions, to form relationships of people with things and with each other, instead of meddling with the “mysteries of the soul.”
Configuring a proper ratio between pathos and information was essential for factographic cinema and literature. Too much nerve tonic would threaten to disintegrate the image into a merely fascinating sight; too little would render it lifeless. In the thematical issue on cinema of the Novyj Lef #11 – 12 from 1927, containing the transcription of a conversation of which Shub was a participant, LEF collective described this problem in somewhat cumbersome terms as a dilemma of producing art either as intellectualizer or as an emotionalizer.
Esfir Shub was navigating between this Scylla and Charybdis with extraordinary grace; her films allow neither for sentimental identification, a feeling of being washed-out by the impressions of the beautiful glimmers of silver light and shadow, nor for a completely detached perspective. This is both an ethical and an aesthetic stance, a decidedly difficult position that offers neither the comfort of facile identification nor the comfort of disembodied reason, but rather posits an ever-dynamic question of a representation of history that abandons neither the ideological stakes nor the rich particularity of life.
1 Keith Sanborn recently travelled to several archives in Moscow and is planning to undertake more extensive research into what’s left of Shub’s archives and to translate her writings.
2 Sanborn recently uncovered documentation in Russian archives that Shub prepared Fritz Lang’s The Indian Tomb for distribution and collaborated with Eisenstein on a reconfigured version of Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. She may also have been responsible for re-editing D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, and possibly a Chaplin film, among others.
3 A more graceful example of the appropriation of footage from Shub’s film is the documentary sequence of the evacuation of Spanish children during the Spanish Civil War in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror.
4 Kuleshov, Lev. “Screen Today” in Novyj Lef #4, 1927.
5 On the question of plot Osip Brik wrote that “people will not allow the plot to mutilate the real material, they demand that real material should be given to them in its original state…That is why people prefer to have poorly linked real facts in all their reality to dealing with a well-ordered plot construction into which these facts have been squeezed, like Procrustes’s bed.”
ANASTASIYA OSIPOVA is completing her Ph.D. at the Comparative Literature Department at NYU and teaches at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study.