The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927)
Directed by Esfir Shub
January 19 at Anthology Film Archives’s “The Compilation Film“
Bullwhip documentaries tearing a ruling class apart are so easy: just compile a heap of self-promotional footage left behind by the rulers themselves, and let the judgments rain down like hail, a natural and inevitable autocritique, with fangs. This past year’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu is the most recent and probably most punishing example, but the first of this subversive subgenre was this 1927 ribbon of agitprop, assembled by Esfir Shub in the full flowering of Soviet montage-fever out of the early-century castings left behind by the czar’s empire.
In actuality the film has little to reveal about the Romanovs per se—they were not, apparently, a family given to home movies and “human interest” family newsreels—and sticks close to the ribs of a familiar historical tale: long-term injustice + lop-sided build-up to war + WWI in all of its hellacious derangements = revolution. But no film tosses up a window on what caused the Bolshevik uprising quite as intimately as Shub’s—Eisenstein’s grotesquely corpulent fat cats are here, too, but they’re not lens-distorted actors, just real politicians, millionaires and generals, with names. That many or maybe all of them had their heads on pikes by 1920 is Shub’s largest elision; here, the passage to full-on Soviet-ness happens bloodlessly, with a burst of flag-waving and happy marching. Still, insurrectionary fury and elan pulses out of the movie organically, and it’s a timeless vibe: much of what’s here was virtually reenacted last year, in the Middle East and even amid our own Occupiers.