The Soviet silent movie era is dominated by a handful of names: Dovzhenko, Vertov, Pudovkin, and above all, Eisenstein. But even in the opening years of the 20th century, the global film industry was never solely a man’s domain.
Inspired by The Women Film Pioneers Project, The Calvert Journal is remembering the women pioneers of the Soviet movie industry who were often overlooked by history — even as Lenin and his followers preached gender equality in the early days of the Soviet Union. Amid the instability and unease that followed the revolution, these women made very different choices. They worked across a range of genres, from documentary to animation. Some suffered under the totalitarian regime, while others supported the system with ideological pictures. Together, however, they laid the groundwork for the generations of women directors that followed.
Widely seen as the first woman director in the Soviet film industry, Olga Preobrazhenskaya started her career as a theatre actress, and starred in her first motion picture at the age of 32. She co-directed her first film, an adaptation of Pushkin’s The Squire’s Daughter, with Vladimir Gardin in 1916. Preobrazhenskaya would often reminisce that a number of journalists saw her name as a typo, changing it to a suitable male version before penning their reviews. Yet despite this initial mistrust, Preobrazhenskaya continued working, ultimately making 14 films. She was named as an Honoured Artist of the Russian Soviet Republic before dying at the age of 90 in 1971.
Esfir Shub’s film career began at the state film company, Goskino, where she was asked to censor foreign and pre-revolutionary films. Although artistically dubious, her role gave her great experience as an editor, a skill she was keen to put to other purposes. To do so, she created the “compilation film”. Her first work, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty in 1927, saw Shub recover and restore hours of footage from old newsreels and amateur film, painstakingly pairing it together with work by the former imperial family’s official cinematographers. Later, she mainly worked on ideological and industrial films, but also was interested in feminism and even wrote a script called Women. This project was never completed.
Aleksandra Khokhlova was born into a prominent family within the Russian intelligentsia: her grandfather, the merchant Pavel Tretyakov, founded Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. Khokhlova was exposed to the arts at an early age, but her privileged background saw officials stall her acting career in the late 1920s. Officially, Khokhlova was told that she was “not beautiful enough,” to make it on the stage, although it was widely understood that her family’s ties to the aristocracy were to blame. No one, however, stopped her from directing: she made six films, including Sasha, a moving story of a pregnant peasant woman who moves to the city in search of work.
Margarita Barskaya was born in Baku and raised by an independent and energetic mother. She started acting as a child and, after several film roles, decided to move to the other side of the camera. She learned the arts of directing and editing from her husband, Pyotr Chardynin, whom she later left — instead she moved to Moscow to become a director for children’s films, a genre, she soon found out, that didn’t actually exist yet. Although her career began in the silent era, she was one of the early pioneers to adopt sound: her 1933 film, Torn Boots, was one of the first Soviet “talkies”. In 1937, Barskaya was fired and banned from making films for “ideological reasons” after falling foul of the government. Two years later, driven to despair by both the political situation and her tragic personal life, she killed herself.
Born within exactly one year of each other, Valentina and Zinaida Brumberg studied and worked side by side all their lives. After graduating from the prestigious Vkhutemas art school, the sisters were admitted into The First Experimental Animation Studio at the Russian State University of Cinematography, VGIK. At first, Valentina and Zinaida worked in a manner reminiscent of Walt Disney’s in the 30s, but later developed their own characteristic style, directing such iconic films as a minimalist adaptation of Olesha’s Three Fat Men (1963). Ultimately, their careers spanned for five decades.