The importance of history: Tsar to Lenin and Pathé’s Fairy Tales

‘Tsar to Lenin’, available now from Mehring Books, is an invaluable assemblage of archive footage from the 1917 Russian Revolution, while today the BFI releases ‘Fairy Tales’, a collection of early colour stencil films from French production company Pathé Frères.

“The chapter is dedicated to the critical restoration of a series of facts and episodes of the October Revolution distorted by the epigone historians. One of the incidental aims of this chapter is to make it impossible for lazy minds, instead of working over the factual material, to quiet themselves with the cheap a priori conclusion that ‘the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.’ […] It is through thoughtful, work-loving and critical minds that the truth in the long run makes its way to broader circles.”
- Leon Trotsky’s introductory note to the appendix of his History of the Russian Revolution, 1932 (translated by Max Eastman)

Tsar to Lenin (1937) was first completed in 1931, a year before Trotsky first published his History of the Russian Revolution. The film’s two makers, however, disagreed with its method of distribution: while American socialist Max Eastman thought selling the film to a Hollywood studio would secure its wide theatrical distribution, Russian-born Herman Axelbank feared the political consequences of such a move. Consequently, the project lay dormant for six years, a period in which technological advancements allowed Eastman to record voice-over narration, having originally written text to be included as intertitles.

The final product was a succinct 63-minute film, and its 1937 New York premiere was received positively by members of the press, who recognised its essential truths regarding the greatest moment of the century. By that point, however, Stalin’s counterrevolution was in its full stride, as demonstrated by the Moscow trials and the violent eradication of the old Bolsheviks; in the same year, Trotsky published The Revolution Betrayed. Among those seeking to discredit the film’s “Trotskyist propaganda” was the bureaucracy itself in Russia, to whom facts and truths were a constant thorn in the side, and the Communist Party in America, to whose leaders the film appeared as a feature-length lesson in falsification.

In the whirlwind of intellectual confusions and political betrayals, a smear campaign put an abrupt end to the film’s theatrical expansion; by the time Eastman died in 1969, it had been forgotten. Several years later, the Workers League – forerunner to the Socialist Equality Party – began negotiations with Axelbank, and in 1978 acquired ownership of the film. At a time when prolonged economic failures and bankrupt rhetoric supporting austerity measures are only widening social gulfs the world over, many people are looking once more to alternatives. Simultaneous to the formative experiences of ongoing struggle, the revolutionary class must also look to history in order learn its lessons and avoid its mistakes. To this end, Mehring Books’ DVD release of Axelbank and Eastman’s work anticipates the Russian Revolution’s centenary by half a decade.

As previously mentioned on this site, communism is a dirty word. The extent to which it ruffles feathers would be amusing, were it not for the murderous reaction it has often elicited from the ruling classes. Indeed, the painfully predictable lengths to which contemporary politicians go in order to present the ideas of “change” and “progress” within the safe boundaries of capitalism have their roots in the Stalinisation of the Bolshevik Revolution. Ignoring the historical and social factors that might account for the rise of Stalin’s bureaucracy, counterrevolutionaries – be they politicians, historians, academics or anyone else upholding or apologising for the status quo – have fatally misassociated Trotsky with Stalin. As Trotsky himself noted in the first line of his introduction to The Revolution Betrayed, “At first the bourgeois regime pretended not to notice the economic successes of the soviet regime – the experimental proof, that is, of the practicability of socialist methods.” The same work went on to outline the extents to which the bureaucracy betrayed the economic principles initiated by the revolution and the workers’ state, but the bourgeois world was only too happy to take Stalin at his word: that he was the logical successor to Marx and Lenin. No wonder people became confused, disillusioned and disgusted with the regime.

With resources on his side, Stalin was able to reconstruct his own image as an active participant in the revolution alongside Lenin. To this end, he doctored images, made corrections to documents and witness testimonies, and omitted from official archives any mention of Trotsky, thereby seeking to obliterate his chief rival from history itself; he also ordered the murders of anyone else who could challenge the extent of his involvement in the revolution. This brief context goes some way to explain why certain circles accused Axelbank and Eastman’s film of the very thing Stalin himself was attempting: a system-wide falsification of a historical event that had worldwide ramifications. The reason why Tsar to Lenin appeared so detrimental to Stalin’s project wasn’t because it defamed him, but because he doesn’t feature in it at all. The film is an assemblage of archive footage taken of and by the revolution’s participants, recorded by over 100 cameramen and collected by Axelbank over the course of 13 years, and contains not one image of Stalin! As a result, the film acquires today the weight of an extraordinary and invaluable corrective; of course, its release to DVD enables a domestic and/or communal consumption unavailable and/or financially impractical in 1937. As such, it should be essential viewing for any Marxist meet-up group.

The functional, unfussy title of Tsar to Lenin is telling in its direct intentions. On the one hand, it connotes a simple exchange of power, from one single authority to another, but on the other it suggests a swift shift from a faceless authority to an actual person. This second point is important when thinking of the revolution, led by a party of industrial workers, and how it foregrounded the needs and desires of ordinary women and men. Lenin himself was and remains a mysterious figure precisely because his achievements appear to be so extraordinary, from a formidable literary output to a political astuteness, not only in his engineering of a socialist revolution in a backward country whose industry hadn’t even been capitalised, but in his repeated and humbling trust in the masses; even and especially when he was in exile, when other leading Bolsheviks showed signs of rightward shifts and reactionary compromises, he relied on the people's revolutionary thrust to carry through motions to their fullest degree. Lenin’s name is synonymous with the revolution’s success in the same way Stalin’s is with its betrayal. His belated appearance in the film – similar to that in Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution – both magnifies an unshakable mysticism and corroborates notions that his contribution completed, accelerated and steered a revolution that would in any effect have happened without him – if in a wildly different shape and, perhaps, to a different end.

As such, the titular use of Lenin’s name, as a kind of synecdochic summation of the events of 1917, is merely a question of making the work accessible, of giving it a recognisable face that today allows us to reclaim the revolution as his as opposed to Stalin’s. Throughout the film itself, there are plenty of images of the masses. Indeed, such images make the film so heartening and endearing. One of its most powerful sequences demonstrates the fundamental irreconcilability between private and collective ownership. We learn that the provisional government, formed after Tsar Nicholas II was ousted from power in February, comprised private landlords and capitalists. As Eastman narrates, this government wanted to “restore order, defend private property and win the war”; the voiceover accompanies an image of five or so men – this is hardly representative of the needs of a nation that comprises one sixth of the earth’s land surface. Immediately after this, we cut to images of the masses, marching through the streets in their thousands; Eastman tells us that, in comparison to the provisional government, the soviets “wanted to confiscate the landlords’ estate and have bread, peace and liberty”.

Russia’s involvement in the war was crucial to swaying supporters to the Bolshevik cause. Early in the film, following archive footage showing the Tsar enjoying leisure time at home, we learn that the war effort was marked by disastrous retreats, and by corruption, disillusionment and worse. Ignoring brewing dissent at home, the Tsar – who had no military experience – assumed the role of commander-in-chief and set off for the front. Imperialism exploits domestic poverty and despair in order to recruit and train its working classes to reap wealth abroad for its ruling classes; Nicholas' assumption of leadership of the entire military was not only a tactical folly, but a brazen slap in the face of all Russia's people. Tellingly, one of the turning points in the February insurrection was the soldiers’ switch in sides, from unquestioning defenders of the monarchy to sympathy and support for the ordinary worker – Trotsky’s account of this episode in History of the Russian Revolution is especially uplifting, speaking as it does of that wondrous moment when superficially opposed factions of the working class discover their common social ground.

Later in the film, we watch with some absurdity as Kerensky, a social democrat and “Minister-President” of the compromisist provisional government, arrives at a meeting of the soviets like a celebrity, a bouquet in his hand. Assuming leadership of a system he didn’t think plausible, Kerensky fatally chose to continue the war effort “to complete victory”. Disgusted and aware of the futility of half-measures, Lenin called for a second revolution. Kerensky, in response, exiled Lenin, jailed Trotsky, and appointed General Kornilov to head a counterrevolution. Like the Tsar before him, Kerensky ignored the masses’ cries for bread, peace and land. Without the satisfaction of basic human needs, this daft celebrity puppet lost favour as quickly as he had won it.

The recurrent message here is one of human needs. Lenin’s chief strength was in meeting them; by doing this, he was able to succeed where too many others had failed. In the aftermath of November 1917, in which the second revolution for which Lenin had called succeeded, the bourgeois world organised a counterrevolution: while Japan sent 70,000 troops into Siberia, France, Italy and the UK sent troops to Vladivostok; the Trans-Siberian Express was seized and held against the soviets. In so doing, ruling elites throughout the advanced world evinced the blatant disdain with which they viewed and continue to view their working people. But the reason why capitalists hate their workforce is because their own social status is rarely attained on merit, and challenge to their authority is both legitimate and collective. Consequently, against the organisation of a Red Army under Trotsky’s leadership, the counterrevolutionary forces, armed by the Allies, were somehow defeated in a war fought on fourteen separate fronts and with a battle line 7,000 miles across. This is further testament to the strength of organisation and revolutionary spirit.

Such history is complex, and Tsar to Lenin provides an incredibly concise overview of the period; it provides both a comprehensive enough introduction to these events as well as illustrative evidence of material written on it elsewhere. It is not without its own flourishes: Eastman’s narration is legitimate but his delivery often appears dated, even vindicatory, while brief mention of Emily Pankhurst’s Suffragettes visiting Russia in support of its war effort could do with some elaboration; the musical accompaniment also veers down too-easy paths at times, notably into a circus theme when the German Kaiser appears on-screen. These are, however, minor quibbles. Crucially, Eastman's narration often channels Trotsky's wit, referring to Prince Lvov, the Prime Minister of the provisional government, as a man who "liked nothing less than excitement", and, in the early stages of the film in particular, he acknowledges his own authorial responsibilities as a narrator conceptualising a historical period through others' first-hand accounts. The film is for the most part an editorial triumph. In this respect, Tsar to Lenin's achievement is its linear assemblage of over 100 different cinematographic documents, collected in the course of over a decade, of the most important episode of the twentieth century.

The BFI’s last DVD release of the year, meanwhile, is Fairy Tales, a collection of early colour stencil films from French production company Pathé Frères. As with Tsar to Lenin, we may look to this compilation as a primary account of history and, in particular, of cinematic culture. Created between 1901 and 1908, these works range from three to fourteen minutes in length and evince a common but not exclusive approach to the then-new art form, namely to recreate the popular mass entertainments of the time, including fairy tales, magic acts and dance routines.

This is the age of Walter Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction, when an artwork was no longer unique by definition, and could be sold and exhibited concurrently, thereby securing an unprecedented accumulation of revenue – indeed, the reason why these early films still exist, in various states of deterioration, is due to the fact that in order to return a profit they had to be produced in great numbers. For its creative inspirations, Pathé looked to the Parisian theatre, while aspiring to a mass consumption that would have been socially and practically radical. The aesthetic if not quite the social equivalent today might be the digital exhibition of so-called “alternative content” – cinemas exhibiting opera performances from the New York Met.

On the one hand, this appears to support claims that film is the bastard fusion of preceding art forms, while on the other, these films are distinctly cinematic for the basic, unalterable fact that they are viewed on a one-dimensional plane that is both spatial and temporal: no rearrangement of seating can change our own visual perspective (only the camera itself has that authority), and the varied possibilities of a live performance are eradicated by the immortalising effect of the printing process. In other words, two different prints of the same film may differ in quality, but they are still the same film – whereas two separate visits to see the same theatrical performance will always result in two different performances.

The random sample of 25 films (plus several extras) included here are deliberately presented without the luxuries of digital restoration, which emphasises – as far as a DVD transfer can – their age and materiality; the release is a fascinating addition to any film historian’s collection. Furthermore, the films’ heavy reliance on familiar stories and narrative techniques contradicts any modern-day nostalgia that bemoans the industry’s current tendency to rehash (or remake or reboot) apparently untouchable classics, or else perceive this as a recent phenomenon. They also challenge notions that cinema today is somehow less principled, that its craftsmanship is driven more by commercial viability: in reality, as Bryony Dixon’s notes inform us in the 26-page booklet that accompanies this release, Pathé (and also Gaumont) cornered the market for stencil colouring in order to capitalise heavily from it; the dialectical pay-off was between a guaranteed unmatched technical quality and a monopoly in profits.

Consequently, historians ought to look at these films less as primitive than as the progressive artworks of their time. Similarly, that their narratives are near indecipherable is perhaps indicative less of a storytelling deficiency than of storytelling itself being of secondary importance to the filmmakers. As such, with the exception of Anson Dyer’s delightful 1922 animation Little Red Riding Hood, included here as an extra, it’s nigh on useless evaluating these works against the same ratings system by which we measure films today: just as the early narrative films show evidence of being more concerned with the retention of spatial integrity between shots than of a temporal linearity, so these Pathé pictures employ familiar stories only as an accessible and acceptable outlet for dazzling colour, impressive movement and on-screen trickery.

As for the films themselves, Fairy Tales includes work by Ferdinand Zecca (1901’s Drama at the Bottom of the Sea, The Seven Castles of the Devil and Ballet des Sylphides, and 1902’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves), Gaston Velle (1904’s Japonaiseries and Weird Fancies, 1905’s Metamorphosis of a Butterfly, The Hen That Laid the Golden Eggs, The Wonderful Album), Segundo de Chomón (1906’s The Bewitched Shepherd and Magic Roses, 1907’s The Golden Beetle and The Red Spectre, and 1908’s The Black Pearl), Vincent Lorant-Heillbronn (1906’s The Fairy of Spring), and Albert Capellani (1907’s Cinderella and The Talisman). Several lack a director’s credit (1903’s Eccentric Waltz, 1907’s The Black Witch, 1905’s Christian Martyrs and Loïe Fuller, 1908’s The Blue Bird and The Fairies and the Faun) and others have more than one (1906’s Tit for Tat is credited to Velle and Capellani; 1908’s Sleeping Beauty to Capellani and Lucien Nonguet). In addition to these, there are four extras: In the Land of the Gold Mines, another Pathé production from 1908, a Georges Méliès elaborate rendition of Bluebeard from 1901, and the Anson Dyer animation already mentioned, which was produced by British film pioneer Cecil Hepworth; the fourth extra repeats Weird Fancies with nine different soundtracks composed by students at Sint-Lukas University College of Art and Design in Brussels.

These nine students were taught by artists from recording label Touch, whose roster of performers have composed soundtracks to accompany each film. These are perhaps the most contentious element of this release. Though often fruitfully challenging in themselves, their self-conscious digitalism often jars with the images and, even in the case of Mike Harding and Michael Esposito’s three compositions (consisting of “audio created from period projectors and electronic voice phenomena taken from a silent film studio in Santa Barbara, California”), which seek with sincerity to utilise mechanisms of period machinery, the effect is often one of distanciation. Eerie drones and evocative sound effects may well complement early (or silent narrative) cinema if employed well, but some of the films’ soundtracks are notably slim in conception, and the high-pitched tones that draw attention to their own non-synchronicity with on-screen action do little to reconceptualise the films in any lasting, engaging context. That said, some of the soundtracks do work. Among the more effective are those that tend toward a traditional musicality. They are Marcus Davidson’s contribution to Ballet des Sylphides; Philip Jeck’s contribution to Loïe Fuller; Christian Fennesz’s score for Tit for Tat – whose haunting timbres get to the core of the menace that lies beneath many of these fairy stories; Hildur Guðnadóttir’s lovely string accompaniment to The Fairy of Spring; Sarah Nicholls’ theme for Sleeping Beauty, which at least attempts a synchronicity with in-film events; and The London Snorkelling Team’s musical response to The Black Pearl, which is the standout soundtrack of the entire release.

The films remain the main attraction, though. All have their moments, of course, but a few deserve final mention for the sheer delights offered by their unison of colour and movement. The septet of distinct scenarios that comprise The Seven Castles of the Devil render an otherwise predictable narrative progression vivid and exciting; Eccentric Waltz is a parade of form as content, a demonstratively colourful record of a dancer whose swirling skirt is striking and delirious – and finds stunning echoes in Metamorphosis of a Butterfly; Weird Fancies is perhaps the most distinctly cinematic film here, denying a traditional proscenium and providing an aerial view of its action, an abstract and celestial display of acrobatics and artistry for the sake of artistry; the arresting, all-red saturation of The Black Pearl; and those hints, few and far between, toward spatial curiosity taken up soon after by D. W. Griffith and other pioneers of narrative cinema – note the pans in Cinderella as well as the unprecedented depth, allowed by on-location filming, in a chateau courtyard scene in Sleeping Beauty. Incidentally, both of these latter films list Albert Capellani as director.