Wednesday, October 5, 2016

FILMBAY 2000 Greatest Films of All-Time (1888-2014) by Year # 0054 - STENKA RAZIN (Vladimir Romashkov, 1908, Russia, 10m, BW)


(Vladimir Romashkov, 1908, Russia, 10m, BW)


STENKA RAZIN (Vladimir Romashkov, 1908, Russia, 10m, BW)

Directed by     Vladimir Romashkov
Produced by     Alexander Drankov
Written by     Vasily Goncharov (play "Ponizovaya Volnitsa")
Starring     Yevgeni Petrov-Krayevsky
Music by     Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov
Cinematography     Alexander Drankov
Nikolai Kozlovsky
Production company
A. Drankov's Atelier
Release dates 28 October 1908
Running time 10 minutes
Country     Russian Empire
Language Silent film

Stenka Razin (Russian: Стенька Разин) is the first finished Russian narrative film. The 10-minute silent film is a fictionalized account of episodes from the life of Stenka Razin. It premiered on 28 October [O.S. 15 October] 1908.

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.


This is a decidedly a Russian film intended for Russian audiences. We also know who produced it: Alexander Drankov, who would go on to found one of Russia’s first major production companies, and who collaborated with Vasily Goncharov on the script. Like many early silent pictures, it relies somewhat on the audience’s prior familiarity with the subject matter to make sense of the story. Stenka Razin was a well-known figure in Russian folklore, a rebellious Cossack leader who defied the Czar and his bureaucrats. This movie was also based on a folk song which elaborates the story, which we only see as vignettes.

The song informed the audience’s understanding of what they saw, but the movie also had music written specially for it, which was novel at the time (Wikipedia claims both that this is the “first” Russian narrative film and the “first” musical score for a movie, but I’m leery of “firsts” and will not pronounce for certain on either point). Being the first Russian dramatic silent film production — a tribute to the determination of its producer, Aleksandr Drankov. When his first seventeen actualities failed to win serious attention in early 1908, he answered the widespread call for Russian-made films with Stenka Razin. Energetic promotion ensured the film's commercial success and launched Drankov's career as a producer.

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