Tolstoy on the Cinema

Source: David Bernstein (trans.), ‘Tolstoy on the Cinema’, New York Times, 31 January 1937, p. 158, supposedly quoting Leo Tolstoy in conversation August 1908

Text: Tolstoy on the Cinema

He Foretold the Future of the Medium While It Was Still in Its Infancy

Although Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is one of the four or five novels that have been made into moving pictures more often than any others, the sage of Yasnaya Polyana never had to go through the torture that is scenario writing in Hollywood. But Leo Tolstoy had his own troubles with the movies, nevertheless. All through the last years of his life, when his writings and philosophy were revered the world over, Tolstoy was bothered by an unceasing flow of visitors, who questioned him on all sorts of things, from literature to vegetarianism. And, on the eve of his eightieth birthday, in August, 1908, the motion picture camera men flocked into his home for a few historic shots. Said Tolstoy on that occasion to his friend I. Teneromo and the visitors:

“You will see that this little clicking contraption with the revolving handle will make a revolution in our life-in the life of writers. It is a direct attack on the old methods of literary art. We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and to the cold machine. A new form of writing will be necessary. I have thought of that and I can feel what in coming.”

“But I rather like it. This swift change of scene, this blending of motion and experience – it is much better than heavy, long-drawn-out kind of writing to which we are accustomed. It is closer to life. In life, too, changes and transitions flash by before our eyes, and emotions of the soul are like a hurricane. The cinema has divined the mystery of motion. And that is greatness.

“When I was writing ‘The Living Corpse,’ I tore my hair and chewed my fingers because I could not give enough scenes, enough pictures, because I could not pass rapidly enough from one event to another. The accursed stage was like a halter choking the throat of the dramatist; and I had to cut the life and swing of the work according to the dimensions and requirements of the stage. I remember when I was told that some clever person had devised a scheme for a revolving stage, on which a number of scenes could be prepared in advance. I rejoiced like a child, and allowed myself to write ten scenes into my play. Even then I was afraid the play would be killed.

“But the films! They are wonderful! Drr! and a scene is ready! Drr! and we have another! We have the sea, the coast, the city, the palace – and in the palace there is tragedy (there is always tragedy in palaces, as we see in Shakespeare).

“I am seriously thinking of writing a play for the screen. I have a subject for it. It is a terrible and bloody theme. I am not afraid of bloody themes. Take Homer or the Bible, for instance. How many bloodthirsty passages there are in them- murders, wars. And yet these are the sacred books, and they ennoble and uplift the people. It is not the subject itself that is so terrible. It is the propagation of bloodshed, and the justification for it, that is really terrible! Some friends of mine returned from Kursk recently and told me a shocking incident. It is a story for the films. You couldn’t write it in fiction or for the stage. But on the screen it would be good. Listen – it may turn out to be a powerful thing!”

And Leo Tolstoy related the story in detail. He was deeply agitated as he spoke. But he never developed the theme in writing. Tolstoy was always like that. When he was inspired by a story he had been thinking of he would become excited by its possibilities. If some one happened to be near by, he would unfold the plot in all its details. Then he would forget all about it. Once the gestation was over and his brain-child born, Tolstoy would seldom bother to write about it.

Some one spoke of the domination of the films by business men interested only in profits. “Yes, I know, I’ve been told about that before,” Tolstoy replied. “The films have fallen into the clutches of business men and art is weeping! But where aren’t there business men?” And he proceeded to relate one of those delightful little parables for which he is famous.

“A little while ago I was standing on the banks of our pond. It was noon of a hot day, and butterflies of all colors and sizes were circling around, bathing and darting in the sunlight, fluttering among the flowers through their short – their very short – lives, for with the setting of the sun they would die.

“But there on the shore near the reeds I saw an insect with little lavender spots on its wings. It, too, was circling around. It would flutter about, obstinately, and its circles became smaller and smaller. I glanced over there. In among the reeds sat a great green toad with staring eyes on each aide of his flat head, breathing quickly with his greenish-white, glistening throat. The toad did not look at the butterfly, but the butterfly kept flying over him as though she wished to be seen. What happened? The toad looked up, opened his mouth wide and – remarkable! – the butterfly flew in of her own accord! The toad snapped his jaws shut quickly, and the butterfly disappeared.

“Then I remembered that thus the insect reaches the stomach of the toad, leaves its seed there to developed and again appear on God’s earth, become a larva, a chrysalis. The chrysalis becomes a caterpillar, and out of the caterpillar springs a new butterfly. And then the playing in the sun, the bathing in the light, and the creating of new life, I begin all over again.

“Thus it is with the cinema. In the reeds of film art sits the toad – the business man. Above him hovers the insect – the artist. A glance, and the jaws of the business man devour the artist. But that doesn’t, mean destruction. It is only one of the methods of procreation, of propagating the race; in the belly of the business man is carried on the process of impregnation and the development of the seeds of the future. These seeds will come out on God’s earth and will begin their beautiful, brilliant lives all over again.”

Comments: Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a Russian novelist and political thinker, author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Tolstoy is known to have gone to the cinema on more than one occasion, and was acutely aware of the new industry because in his last years he was regularly pursued by newsreel cameramen. There are accounts of him reacting to the average cinema fare with disgust, and this interview needs to be treated with caution. It is a record of a conversation supposedly conducted with Tolstoy on his eightieth birthday in August 1908 by Tolstoyan acolyte Isaak Teneromo, but Tolstoy’s daughter told film historian Jay Leyda (in his book Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film) that “there are several aspects of this record that make it suspect, but that it incorporates remarks that Tolstoy may have made, either to Teneromo or others, but not on his eightieth birthday”. Teneromo subsequently wrote the screenplay for Ukhod velikovo startza (The Departure of a Great Man) (Russia 1912), a film dramatising Tolstoy’s life.

Links: Copy at New York Times Archive (subscription site)

The Tragedy of Tolstoy

Source: Aleksandra Tolstaya, The Tragedy of Tolstoy (Yale University Press, 1933)

Text: Chertkov and mother willingly informed everybody of the day of father’s departure from Krekshino; and when we came to the railway station, moving-picture men and photographers were waiting in readiness and cameras clicked. At the Briansky terminal in Moscow a crowd gathered – it seemed to have suddenly sprung up from the ground. Wrenching ourselves free, we took a hackney coach and went to Khamovniki. Here again the house was full of guests: Chertkov, Gorbunov, Dunayev, Maklakov, Goldenweiser. Brother Sergey had come from his estate. Father was cheerful and in good spirits. In spite of the multitude of people, he had rested up at Krekshino. I believe it was Maklakov who suggested going to the theater.

“Why not?” said father. “I would like to go to the ballet.”

Everybody was surprised. “Why to the ballet?”

“I have two followers who dance in the ballet, I should like very much to look at them.”

But the Bolshoy Theater was closed for the summer. We went to a movie on the Arbat. The audience recognized father at once, whispered, and craned their necks. It was stuffy, and a stupid piece was on the screen.

“What a pity,” father said, “the film might be one of the mightiest means of spreading knowledge and great ideas, and yet it only serves to litter people’s brains. And geography! How fine it would be to use the movies for the study of peoples and countries!”

We left the picture early and went home.

Comments: Aleksandra Tolstaya (1884-1979) was the youngest daughter of and secretary to the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. This visit to a cinema occurred in 1909 during a trip to Moscow. Tolstoy was regularly pursued by news cameramen at this time.

Unchained Russia

Source: Charles Edward Russell, Unchained Russia (New York/London: D. Appleton, 1918), pp. 300-305

Text: But as to what we call morals; of course the standards of the Nevsky Prospekt after sundown are reflected in the powerful Russian literature and the extraordinary Russian drama. There are those among us that are willing to take the Russian novel as it is and slip off our Puritan scruples for the sake of the Russian novelist’s unequaled grasp upon the vital and the moving; for when you read him it is as if one of Bret Harte’s “jinnies fierce and wild” had reached out of space and caught you irrevocably by the heart. And as to the drama, if I may make any fair guess, that is no more than beginning, and another generation is likely to see Russian plays that will set the world agape, morals or no morals. But I speak of the people as they are today, and according to all tradition and theory one of the best reflexes of their mental state should be found in a typical audience at a theater or a typical group of spectators at a film show.

But I solemnly swear to you I went out upon such a hunt and returned but little wiser. There was at one of the larger film theaters of Petrograd when I was there a moving-picture show that certainly should bring out a people’s mental processes, if anything of that kind could. It was a version of the Russian Revolution and the story of Rasputin. Morals aside, once more, the thing was exceedingly well done; there is no question about that. The acting seemed to be superbly spirited; the stirring scenes of the Revolution were put on with endless accessories, great crowds and potent realism. Night after night the theater was packed with people. They sat there and gazed upon vivid picturings of the most colossal drama in modern history and of the strangest and weirdest tale ever told, and for emotion might as well have been graven of stone.

I could not then explain this fact and do not pretend to explain it now. I went back to the place more than once to make sure, and I talked with others that went, some of them as much puzzled as I, and it was always the same story. The people sat absolutely unmoved before scenes that one would think would stir them to their depths. There was every kind of strong, if primitive, emotion in that play; also everything calculated to appeal to the revolutionary spirit of revolutionists and the reactionary spirit of reactionaries, and nobody seemed to be either glad or mad.

They saw the alleged relations between Rasputin and the late Czarina indicated with a frankness and lack of reserve that might have appalled a crowd of Westerners, but these apparently were neither shocked nor pleased. They saw the late Czar depicted as dull, sensual, cruel and as his wife’s degraded dupe, and if there were monarchists in the company they did not care, and if there were republicans they suppressed their elation. They saw the Czar signing his abdication and surrendering the throne of his ancestors and were unconcerned. They saw the uprising of the people, the dawn of liberty, the fighting in the streets, the triumph of democracy, the long-looked-for day come at last, the long processions of cheering multitudes, and gave never a hand-clap.

I could never well understand that play. The author might with equal reason be believed to have planned it to awaken enthusiasm for the Revolution or sympathy for the deposed and worthless tribe of Romanoffs — I never could tell which. The Czar in the earlier scenes was represented as unattractive, but the last scenes seemed intended to make him a martyr and a figure of cheap pathos, if anybody cares for that. He is a prisoner in his palace; he paces up and down with bent head, and then tries to pass out of a doorway. Two soldiers, with bayonets advanced, halt him. He nods his head and sighs, and then paces around to another door and two other soldiers halt him there. Then he draws apart the window curtains and looks sadly into the street where the people are celebrating the Revolution, and the end of it is a “close up” of him in that position.

One night a young officer, pointed out to me as the son of a noble, shed tears at this rather mawkish scene, but the rest of the people did not cry nor seem to care. It was plain that they were interested, but whatever emotions they felt they successfully concealed.

On another occasion I saw a film of a celebrated American comic hero of the movies whose impossible and galumphing antics have made millions roar in this country, and he did not seem funny to the Russians. They observed him chasing cannon-balls and dancing on his head and did not even smile. This time it was plain they were bored by the show. They talked and moved restlessly about and cracked sunflower seeds, and some went out, a signal proof of disapprobation, for the Russian is thrifty; he will not easily spend money for a show and then leave it.

Yet a few nights later I saw an audience composed of about the same class of people made ecstatic by a vocalist. He sang very effectively some Russian folksongs and the people cheered him with a sincerity of feeling that any performer might be proud to evoke. They were discriminating, also; they knew good singing from a poorer offering; they were not carried away by any bare appeal of the song itself. Being singers themselves they had reason to know the real from the counterfeit. A little later they would hardly give a hand to a performer that they thought fell short of a laudable standard.

It was a very large audience and a program that began at 8:30 P.M. lasted until 1 A.M., which in summer is no unusual time for these entertainments to close. A man made the audience cry with the way he read a simple little poem. I doubt if anybody could make an American audience cry with the same thing. Another man made them laugh with a comic sketch of his own composing. I think this was the most interesting part of the performance. The sketch being new there was an unusual chance to see how the minds of the people worked upon a humorous suggestion and they seemed to work like a steel trap. They seized the idea the instant it left the speaker’s lips.

They laughed at funny lines, wept at a poem about a little girl in the snow, and looked with considerable indifference on film-show antics of a high-priced and favorite entertainer.

Comments: Charles Edward Russell (1860-1941) was an American journalist and prominent socialist. He was a member of Elihu Root’s American mission to Russia in June 1917, which offered America support to Kerensky’s Provisional Government. Russell was impressed by the influence of film on Russian audiences and pressed for American propagandists to produce films for Russian consumption. The film he describes could one of a number of Russian films at this time which dramatised the falls of the Romanovs, with a particular focus on the antics of Rasputin (e.g. Tsar Nikolai II, 1917). Russell would later appear in the American feature film The Fall of the Romanoffs (USA 1918) as himself, in a scene filmed outside the Duma during his time in Petrograd. I cannot identify the American comedian to whom he refers.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

Six Years at the Russian Court

Source: M. Eagar, Six Years at the Russian Court (New York: Charles L. Bowman, 1906), pp. 87-88

Text: Once there was a cinematograph exhibition for the children and some friends. One picture showed two little girls playing in a garden, each with a table before her covered with toys. Suddenly the bigger girl snatched a toy from the little one who, however, held on to it and refused to give it up. Foiled in her attempts, the elder seized a spoon and pounded the little one with it, who quickly relinquished the toy and began to cry. Tatiana wept to see the poor little one so ill-treated, but Olga was very quiet. After the exhibition was over she said, “I can’t think that we saw the whole of that picture.” I said I hoped the end of it was that the naughty big sister was well punished, adding that I thought we had seen quite enough as I had no wish to see anything more of such a naughty girl. Olga then said, “I am sure that the lamb belonged at first to the big sister, and she was kind and lent it to her sister; then she wanted it back, and the little sister would not give it up, so she had to beat her.”

Comments: Margaretta Eagar (1863-1936) was an Irish governess who from 1898-1904 cared for the four daughters of the Emperor and Empress of Russia: Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. The screening appears to have taken place at the Russian royal residence at Tsarskoye Selo, near St Petersburg, and dates from the early 1900s. I have not been able to identify the film.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Russia of To-day

Source: John Foster Fraser, Russia of To-day (London: Cassell, 1915), pp. 92-93

Text: One more experience: we must go to a kinema show. The “pictures” are just as popular in Petrograd as in London or New York or Sydney or Paris. We have difficulty in getting seats and we pay twice as much as we would in London. Of course there are the usual American films; the Transatlantic dramas are pronounced “Anglichani” by the Russians who fail to know the difference.

But the Russian likes strong meat. Merely amusing pictures leave him cold. There was a film of the career of “A Daughter of Joy” which would not have been passed by the Censor in England. There was a sad love drama. The Russians will not have a happy ending. They adore a mournful ending where the young lady has to marry the man she hates and the real lover cuts his throat with a razor at the marriage feast and writhes on the floor before he expires with the bride on her knees sobbing upon his breast. The Russian glories in murder in the “pictures.” He and she turns up his or her nose at the sentimental journeys-end-in-lovers-meeting sort of film which is popular in other countries. The manager of a film firm told me it was usual to have two endings, one gruesome for Russia and one happy for elsewhere.

Comments: John Foster Fraser (1868-1936) was a British travel writer and cyclist. ‘Russian endings’, in which Russian-produced films had tragic endings for the Russian market and happy endings for export, were common.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Reminiscences of an Early Motion-Picture Operator

Source: Francis Doublier, ‘Reminiscences of an Early Motion-Picture Operator’ in Marhsall Deutelbaum (ed.), ‘Image’ on the Art and Evolution of Film (New York: Dover Publications, 1979), p. 23 (text of 1949 lecture originally reproduced in Image magazine, vol. 5 issue 6, 1956)

Text: The Dreyfus affair was still a source of great interest in those days, and out of it I worked up a little film-story which made me quite a bit of money. Piecing together a shot of some soldiers, one of a battleship, one of the Palais de Justice, and one of a tall gray-haired man, I called it L’affaire Dreyfus. People actually believed that this was a filming of the famous case, but one time after a showing a little old man came backstage and inquired of me whether it was an authentic filming of the case. I assured him that it was. The little old man then pointed out that the case had taken place in 1894, just one year before cameras were available. I then confessed my deception, and told him I had shown the pictures because business had been poor and we needed the money. Suffice to say, I never showed L’affaire Dreyfus again.

Comments: Francis Doublier (1878-1948) was a camera operator and projectionist for the Lumière company, and toured Russia with their films 1896-1898. This incident, which took place in southern Russia, refers to exhibiting films that supposedly represented the original trial of French artillery captain and victim of anti-Semitism, Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus’s second trial took place in 1899, and was filmed in actuality (exterior shots) and dramatised on film.

Ten Days That Shook the World

Source: John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1919), pp. 59-60

Text: The city was nervous, starting at every sharp sound. But still no sign from the Bolsheviki; the soldiers stayed in the barracks, the workmen in the factories … We went to a moving picture show near the Kazan Cathedral – a bloody Italian film of passion and intrigue. Down front were some soldiers and sailors, staring at the screen in childlike wonder, totally unable to comprehend why there should be so much violent running about, and so much homicide …

Comments: John Reed (1887-1920) was an American journalist and socialist whose first-hand account of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 in Ten Days That Shook the World is one of the most vivid and closely-observed accounts of the epoch-making events. It served at the inspiration for Sergei Eisenstein’s film October (USSR 1928) and John Reed’s story was told in the film Reds (USA 1981) with Reed played by Warren Beatty. The city referred to here is Petrograd, now St Petersburg. The period is just before the fall of the Russian Provisional Government and the takeover by the Bolsheviks.

Trapped in "Black Russia"

Source: Ruth Pierce, Trapped in “Black Russia”: Letters June-November 1915 (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1918) pp. 118-119

Text: Yes, we go from café to cinematograph and try and keep warm.

I’ve never liked moving pictures before. Here they are presented differently than in America. Some of the plays I’ve seen have the naïveté and simplicity of a confession. Others interpret abnormal, psychopathic characters whose feelings and thoughts are expressed by the actors with a fine and vivid realism. There is the exultation of life, and the despair, the aggression and apathy, the frivolity and the revolt. The action is taken slowly. There are no stars. You look at the screen as though you were looking at life itself. And the films don’t always have happy endings, because life isn’t always kind. It often seems senseless and cruel and crushes men’s spirits. I wish we could have these films in America instead of the jig-saw puzzles I’ve seen.

Comments: Mrs Ruth Pierce was an American living in Russia in 1915, but little else seems to be known about her. Her book is ostensibly a set letters written to her parents while she and her husband tried to get out of war-torn Russia. At the time of the cinema trip described here she was living in Kiev (then part of the Russian Empire). Russian films of the period were indeed distinguished by their psychopathic elements and tendency towards unhappy endings.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Trapped in “Black Russia”

Source: Ruth Pierce, Trapped in “Black Russia”: Letters June-November 1915 (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1918) pp. 118-119

Text: Yes, we go from café to cinematograph and try and keep warm.

I’ve never liked moving pictures before. Here they are presented differently than in America. Some of the plays I’ve seen have the naïveté and simplicity of a confession. Others interpret abnormal, psychopathic characters whose feelings and thoughts are expressed by the actors with a fine and vivid realism. There is the exultation of life, and the despair, the aggression and apathy, the frivolity and the revolt. The action is taken slowly. There are no stars. You look at the screen as though you were looking at life itself. And the films don’t always have happy endings, because life isn’t always kind. It often seems senseless and cruel and crushes men’s spirits. I wish we could have these films in America instead of the jig-saw puzzles I’ve seen.

Comments: Mrs Ruth Pierce was an American living in Russia in 1915, but little else seems to be known about her. Her book is ostensibly a set letters written to her parents while she and her husband tried to get out of war-torn Russia. At the time of the cinema trip described here she was living in Kiev (then part of the Russian Empire). Russian films of the period were indeed distinguished by their psychopathic elements and tendency towards unhappy endings.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Epikhodov

Source: Hugh Walpole, extract from ‘Epikhodov’, in Winifred Stephens (ed.), The Soul of Russia (London: Macmillan, 1916), pp. 38-39

Text: Beside my quarters in Petrograd is a tiny cinema theatre. Because we hang over the still waters of a side canal, where trade is sleepy, the proprietor of the cinema has to go out of his way to attract the great world. In the vestibule of his theatre there plays every night a ghastly discordant band, his windows are hung with flaming posters of cinematographic horrors, and in the intervals between the pictures he has music-hall turns — the two dwarfs, the gentleman who sings society songs, the fat lady and her thin husband — all this for a penny or twopence. The little room of the entertainment is stuffy and smelly; about one is the noise of the cracking of sunflower seeds. Once and again the audience embraces the audience with loud, clapping kisses. During the musical-hall turns the door is open and you can see into the blue sunlight of the white night, the cobbled street, the green toy-like trees, the gleaming waters of the canal upon which lie the faintly coloured barges.

Comments: Hugh Walpole (1884-1941) was a prolific British novelist, best known for Rogue Herries and its follow-up novels. He spent much of the First World War in Russia, working for for the Red Cross and then as head of the Anglo-Russian Propaganda Bureau, based in Petrograd. This essay comes from a collection on art and society in Russia, produced in aid of Russian refugees, and deals with Russian drama (Epikhodov is a character in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard). Walpole also describes the mixture of cinema and variety in his 1919 novel The Secret City (qv).

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