Ukrainian film editor Esther Shub (1894-1959) was a pioneer of the "compilation film," editing old footage into new and often brilliant films. As one of the pioneers of the Soviet cinema, she discovered essential principles of editing, which were later developed by other filmmakers.
Esther Shub was born on March 3, 1894 in the Chernigovsky District of the Ukraine, and moved to Moscow as a student. There, she became part of the artistic avant-garde, and soon turned her talents to film. According to Graham Roberts in History Today, she later wrote in her memoirs that she saw film as "a method of expressing all that the Great October Revolution had brought," and noted that for her country, "A new life was beginning." A few years before, the bloody upheaval of the Russian Revolution had resulted in the Soviet takeover of the country, and many people were filled with ideological optimism about the new government. Shub applied several times for a job in film, and was refused several times, but she persisted. Eventually she was accepted for a job in the film section of the Commissariat of the Enlightenment.
Created Compilation Film
Shub began working with film in 1922, a few years after the Russian Revolution and the takeover of the Soviet government. At the time, the Soviet Union did not have access to much of the equipment needed for filmmaking. There were few production facilities in the country, and it was difficult for people to get films from other countries. In addition, the new government would only allow films that supported its ideological principles, further cutting down the supply of acceptable material. The Soviet government hired Shub to recut and retitle American films to make them "suitable" for Soviet audiences to watch; this meant that the films had to portray Soviet ideals, not American ones.
Shub took these films from abroad and edited them to conform to Soviet principles. Her first work was a complete re-editing of Charlie Chaplin's 1916 film Carmen; it was the first Chaplin film ever to be seen in the Soviet Union. She then edited a wide range of films, from Pearl White serials to the 1916 film Intolerance. In her work, Shub was inspired by the earlier work of Dziga Vertov and his wife and collaborator, Elizaveta Svilova. They had developed the style of montage, editing diverse and often seemingly unrelated pieces of film to express a consistent idea or theme. Shub took this style and expanded it, creating the "compilation film," which is completely made up of preexisting film footage. In the process, she discovered principles of editing and intertitling that were used and developed by other filmmakers after her. As the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers noted, "She brought to [the compilation film] genre far more than her speed, industry, and flair; she brought a positive genius for using all sorts of ill-considered odd bits of old footage as a painter uses his palette, using them as if they had all been especially shot for her."
In addition, Shub eventually began working on the creation of new films, working with famed director Sergei Eisenstein on the shooting script of Stachka ("Strike," 1925), Bronenosets Potemkin and ("The Battleship Potemkin," 1925). She and Eisenstein enjoyed a collaborative friendship, and Eisenstein was inspired by Shub's work and editing techniques; they influenced one another and shared an interest in documentary techniques.
"The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty"
Working on these films inspired her with the idea to depict events in history by editing and compiling pieces of films from a particular period. She spent three years researching and watching newsreels that had been filmed from 1912 through 1917, Tsar Nicholas II's personal collection of films, footage shot by friends of the imperial family, footage from two official imperial cinematographers, and the long-stored films of wartime cameramen. She even bought some material from sources in the United States. Working with these disparate materials, she compiled Padeniye dinasti Romanovikh ("The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty," 1927). She made this film because, surprisingly enough, there was no visual record of the Russian Revolution, which transformed both Russian and world history. The film drew on old sources, but it also included footage that Shub shot in order to make up for gaps in the documentary material. Her studios were not in favor of the project from its inception, and after it was completed, they refused to recognize her rights as author of the film. Graham commented that although few of the pieces she worked with were very long, she turned this potential pitfall into one of the strengths of the film: "Brief scenes are brought together or intercut with bold titles… to create a direct, powerful, yet graceful montage form." He added, "Thus a wide range of material could be used effectively to create a single overarching message." That message was that the fall of the Romanov dynasty was inevitable, as was the rise of the Soviet state.
"The Great Road"
"The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty" was followed by Velikii put ("The Great Road," 1927). Velikii put was drawn from newsreels covering the years 1917 through 1927, and was notable because it incorporated intimate scenes of Soviet revolutionary Nikolai Lenin, the first time these scenes had been seen by Soviet audiences. The film opens with a shot of a Tsarist statue, representing the old empire, followed by a shot of broken statues, showing the shattering of the Tsarist empire at the hands of the revolutionaries. In this debris, a small child, symbol of the new regime, is playing. This is followed by an image of the new government's flag flying over the Kremlin, and shots of massed workers, with the words: "Through their leaders, the proletariat [working people] of all lands are solidly behind the workers' and peasants' revolution." Subsequent scenes show workers in other countries supporting the Russian Revolution.
The second and third reels of the film depict the establishment of the Soviet state and the threats it faced from both external and internal enemies, as well as the new leaders of the state. The fourth reel shows the destruction of Germany resulting from World War I and presents the idea that another revolution is underway there. In the fifth and sixth reels, Shub shows the civil war in Russia from 1918 to 1921. The seventh reel celebrates the leadership of Nikolai Lenin, and the eighth uses footage of Wall Street, the Paris stock exchange, and other symbols of capitalism to present the idea that outside Russia, workers are treated as slaves by capitalist overlords, and that it is only a matter of time before the downtrodden American and European workers rise up against this system in a revolution similar to Russia's.
Graham notes that the film uses techniques that later became Shub's trademarks: the use of text from documents, newspapers, and even statues to anchor her images, and the use of non-Soviet material to make points consistent with the Soviet ideology. As he commented, "Shub can always rely on non-Soviet material that can be manipulated and/or retitled to make pointed criticisms of the actions of industrialists, politicians and anti-Soviet forces in general."
Shub then began work on Rossiya Nikolaya II i Lev Tolstoy ("The Russia of Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy," 1928). This was originally intended to be a biography of writer Leo Tolstoy, but she was unable to find more than a few hundred feet of film about him. Shifting her focus, she wove this material in with film from other sources to create a film about that historical era. Because of her difficulty in finding material for this film, she abandoned the chronological format and instead presented the flavor of the period.
In 1928, Shub also visited the set of Eisenstein's October (1928), where they often discussed editing techniques that Eisenstein used in the film. Shub also maintained contact with Dziga Vertov, although they disagreed about whether or not a film should be based on a script. Although both of them emphasized authenticity, Shub believed that a documentary could include both staged events and authentic, historical footage. Vertov, in contrast, believed that there was no room for staged events in a documentary.
Helped Pioneer the Sound Documentary
In 1932, Shub helped to pioneer the sound documentary with The Komsomol—Sponsor of Electrification (1932). For this film, she created her own version of the typical "Soviet Hero," a young man who passionately believed in Soviet ideology and who wore the traditional Russian costume of high-necked blouse and leather jerkin. Instead of using her previous technique of editing and combining archival material, she turned to ultra-realism, which, as the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers noted, predated "by 30 years many of the practices and theories of cinema verityé." She deliberately included shots in which people looked directly into the camera, acknowledging that they were in a film; shots that showed the arc-lights illuminating the sets, shots in which people were rendered clumsy or stuttering by the presence of cameras or microphones; and shots which showed the microphones and cameras. She wanted to continually remind the audience that they were watching a film, created by crew and camera. This was a strong contrast to traditional film techniques, which strove to hide the artificiality of filmmaking and make the audience feel that they were part of events and scenes, watching invisibly from the shadows. Perhaps because she was so ahead of her time in doing this, some critics did not understand her motives. According to the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, a Soviet critic complained that she was "indulging herself with a contemporary enthusiasm for the future of sound film and with the peculiar cult for film-apparatus."
Despite her skill, in the mid-1930s Shub's films fell into disfavor with the government as Soviet ideology shifted. In her memoirs, she described numerous films that were either never made, or which the government handed to lesser-known but more favored filmmakers. By 1934, according to Graham, she was writing magazine articles titled "I Want to Work," but none of these articles were published. In 1937 she was allowed to make Strana Sovietov ("Land of the Soviets"), but only on the condition that she emphasize the heroic role of then-Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Ispaniya ("Spain," 1939) incorporated footage from archives, documentary film shot by Roman Karmen, scenes from the film The Spanish Earth (1937), and film captured from Fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War to present Spanish Republican principles and ideas. The film also included narrated words and music that were integrated with the images to produce a powerful emotional effect.
In 1940, Shub worked on Kino za dvadtsat let ("Twenty Years of Soviet Cinema), and during World War II she worked on more conventional newsreels featuring current events of the war. Over the course of her career, Shub spent over two decades in the Soviet film industry. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, she worked entirely as an editor and wrote her memoirs about filmmaking techniques. In addition, she wrote a script titled Women (1933-34), which examined women's roles throughout history. Although this project was never filmed, the script reveals Shub's interest in feminism. Shub died on September 21, 1959, in Moscow.
As the Oxford Companion to Film noted, "Shub's accomplished editing, and particularly her use of pre-existing material to create ironic or didactic effects, was influential on later documentary and compilation filmmakers, but perhaps as important was her insistence on the importance of tracing, identifying, and preserving historic film."
Acker, Amy, Reel Women, Continuum, 1991.
Barden, Liz-Anne, Oxford Companion to Film, Oxford University Press, 1976.
Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey, Women Film Directors, Greenwood Press, 1995.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, St. James Press, 1996.
Women Filmmakers and Their Films, St. James Press, 1998.
History Today, November, 1997.