Lost and Found: Anniversary of the Revolution. Interview with film historian Nikolai Izvolov

One of the highlights of IDFA 2018 was the world premiere of the reconstructed film Anniversary of the Revolution (1918), which is considered “the grandfather” of the feature-length documentary genre. The film was directed by Dziga Vertov, who captured the main events that led to the Russian Revolution and the first year of the newly established communist state. Vertov complemented his film shootings with several newsreels of the time, creating a two-hour account of the historical events. The film was released on 7 November 1918 to celebrate the first anniversary of the revolution and was screened in several cities in Soviet Russia. However, the film prints were soon chopped into small pieces and became dispersed. The re-release was recently made possible by a unique discovery that helped a team of archivists and researchers reconstruct the original piece. The work was led by film historian Nikolai Izvolov, who shares the interesting details of the work in this interview.

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How did you work with film prints to reconstruct the movie?

The film – or, rather, its parts – was stored at the Krasnogorsk archive (the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive – RGAKFD). First, I had to work with the 35mm acetate prints, as nitrate prints of most fragments have not survived. In the old editing sheets, which were compiled in the late 1960s, we found a full reference of the set of preserved materials: there were negatives, dupe negatives, positives, and if it was the original nitrate, it was also indicated. Unfortunately, it was impossible to work with nitrate positives, because many of them are kept as originals and are not available to researchers. After all, I managed to get one of these nitrate positives, and it was very useful because it included intact intertitles in reddish colour. Its RGB characteristics allowed us to select colour characteristics for the titles in the digital copy.

However, the main restorative work was not with the film prints but with the catalogue. Fragments of the film (stored in separate rolls) were catalogued under certain numbers, and before calling them from storage it was necessary to know that they corresponded to the text of the intertitles for The Anniversary of the Revolution found by Svetlana Ishevskaya at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI). The correspondence of the intertitles and their sequence was the most significant factor that allowed to identify the film’s main parts. Afterwards, analysis was applied to such characteristics as the sequence of the intertitles’ numbers and the sequence of the frames between intertitles. This was done after the acetate prints were brought from storage, and after viewing and analysing them using the editing table’s screen. Further work was to make digital copies of each fragment and to complete postproduction – that is, to make the film suitable for exhibition.

How can intertitles help the work of an archivist?

Intertitles constitute a very important parameter. By having the list of intertitles, we can identify the composition of different prints. So, if an archivist has this list, it becomes one of his most important instruments. Actually, intertitles can help identify a whole film!

In this particular case, the film could not be reconstructed for almost a hundred years because the list of its intertitles was not available. The list had neither been preserved in Vertov’s personal archive at RGALI, nor as part of the archive transferred by Yelizaveta Svilova in the early 1970s to the Austrian Film Museum. So, until the list of intertitles was found among the materials of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s archive at RGALI, reconstruction could not be launched in principle. When we had this list, we had the exact plan, and it became possible to build up the main body of the film: its visual material. I believe that this work was done in a well-reasoned manner, because in addition to the correlation of the intertitles’ text, across the entire film there is also a correlation between the intertitles’ sequential numbers and the sequential numbers of the so-called “starts”.The list of intertitles is also important because Vertov not only used separate shots from other peoples’ films but frequently incorporated entire ready-made, edited sequences. I had to know exactly where Vertov cut fragments from the source material, and it is impossible to determine this without the list of intertitles. Therefore, lists of intertitles constitute one of the most important parameters for the restoration of silent films.

 

Did you apply any photochemical or digital restoration to the material?

Unfortunately, while reconstructing the film, I did not have the financial resources to do a complete work – that is, to carry out the wet gate scanning that is necessary to remove scratches.  Reconstruction began without a production budget, and only the good will of the RGAKFD administration brought the work to its logical conclusion. All the work was done by 2K film scanning, and then the scans were computer-assembled. Thus, no photochemical treatments of the film were carried out.

Certainly, there is still a possibility, if there is a bigger budget, to carry out this work at a higher technical level, with the use of wet gate scanning, 4K scanning and a specialised software which removes all of the defects that have appeared in the film since its production. However, we must bear in mind that in 1918, Vertov, having obtained positives for editing, duped them – that is, many scratches that had appeared as a result of exhibition by that time were already firmly imprinted on the film. The audiences in those years saw already badly scratched material. This brings up the question: do restorers have the right to improve the image in the Vertov film, or do we have to recreate it in the form in which it was seen by the audiences of that time? This is not an idle question, because if we can now find the original nitrate positives used by Vertov, as well as the non-duped materials, then we can employ wet gate scanning in order to get clear samples. However, from a historical point of view such samples will not be quite genuine because Vertov used scratched ones.

Of course, during restoration any intrusion into the original material is unacceptable, with one small exception. In some cases, it was necessary to insert titles that were not preserved in the existing fragments of The Anniversary of the Revolution. There were two options. The first one was to simulate fonts used at the time of the film’s production and to recreate intertitles which would be visually indistinguishable from the originals. I did not go with this option because it would have produced a clear fake, so I instead chose the other option. When I had to insert the missing intertitle it was inserted with the use of modern fonts so that contemporary researchers could determine what exactly was inserted in the film by the restorer. I believe that this is quite a correct way to work with the material of the film. This is the only digital, computer intervention I allowed at this stage of work. Titles were also coloured on the computer; unfortunately, authentic colour which was in the original nitrate positive (which served as the source for determining the colour) can only be achieved when working with actual film. As we were unable to work with film, our objective was to achieve the colour of the letters but not of the background. The background turned out not quite black, but this was not crucial in our case.

Are there other lost movies from the Soviet Russian film heritage? And if yes, which are the most sought after?

As for the loss of our film heritage, the statistics are almost the same for all countries – for Russia, for European countries, for the United States. Approximately 80% of all films shot during the silent period of cinema are lost. A huge number of films perished – we know about them only from the descriptions in textbooks, in the press, in memoirs. To list them all would be too difficult because the list of just their titles would make up a whole volume. As for my personal preferences, I would very much like to find Alexander Medvedkin’s film Hey Fool! What a Fool You Are!, a 4-reel fiction film made in 1932. I also would like to find the negatives of a considerable quantity of footage of Lenin, which vanished mysteriously in the early 1920s.

Interview by Paulina Reizi and Janka Barkóczi

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