Herman Axelbank's film Tsar to Lenin provides an unparalleled film record of the Russian Revolution.
Axelbank worked at Goldwyn Pictures in New York. In 1917 he spotted a newspaper headline: Revolution in Russia! "I wish I could take motion picture there," he said. "We don't have any of our own from 1775."
The American revolutionary Max Eastman helped him make the film. An early supporter of the Bolsheviks, Eastman had travelled to Russia in the 1920s. He had close political relations with many of the leaders of the Soviet regime and especially with Leon Trotsky.
Max Eastman helped edit the film and write the captions that would explain what was happening in the scenes. He also raised money to finance the project. Tsar to Lenin was shot as a silent movie, and completed in 1931. Delays and arguments meant that by the time it was ready to be screened in 1937 audio could be added. Max Eastman narrates the film.
Motion film clips of many of the key events in the revolutionary years from 1914 to 1921 are shown in chronological order. These include the Tsar sprinkling holy water on troops as they leave for the front, demonstrators showering Kerensky with flowers as he enters the soviet, soldiers returning from the front joining the demonstrations in the streets of Petrograd, Trotsky speaking from a train on his return from exile and Kamenev at the May Day Rally in 1917.
To see speakers at the podium of the first congress of the Communist International is astonishing. Close ups of the faces of people bring them alive in a way only film can. Scenic shots of Trotsky leading the Red Army against the invading White counter-revolutionary forces provides a dramatic ending to the film.
Tsar to Lenin premiered on 6 March 1937 at the Filmarte Theatre in New York City. Huge crowds turned out to see what the New York Times described as "an important work....a complete, impartial and intelligent film history of the Russian Revolution".
Stalin didn't like the film. He was not in it. As he had played no noticeable part in the actual revolution there was no footage of him.
Distributors were told that they would not be allowed to market Soviet films by Sergei Eisenstein if they placed Tsar to Lenin in movie theatres. Unfortunately, this proved to be a highly effective tactic. Eastman later recalled that Tsar to Lenin "never had any run at all. Its triumph at the Filmarte was, for all present purposes, the end of it." Later McCarthyism and the Cold War kept the film out of the cinemas.
Tsar to Lenin provides an important historical record and is a must see for revolutionaries.
Tsar to Lenin is directed by Herman Axelbank and is out now