Tsar to Lenin is one of the most important films made in the 20th century. Its subject is the Russian Revolution of 1917. The viewer never loses his sense of astonishment at being witness to events that altered the course of human history. Before the age of television with its ubiquitous 24-hour instant coverage, there seemed something miraculous about history being captured and preserved on film.
This extraordinary documentary was the product of a complex and contentious collaboration between Max Eastman (1883-1969), the famed American radical and socialist, and Herman Axelbank (1900-1979), a Russian-born immigrant who assembled the greatest cinematic record of a seminal event in world history.
In his memoir, Love and Revolution: My Journey through an Epoch, Eastman provided a lively account of the origins and creative process out of which the film emerged.
In the late autumn of 1928, a young man named Herman Axelbank came to see me—a persuasive young man. He was broad and short, hairy enough so that his chin was always blue, and his skull, which he kept close-cropped, was so shaped as to give him—but for his eyes—a rather formidable appearance. His eyes were deep blue and warm, and could be very convincing of his nobility of spirit. And he had in his possession a thing of great value to mankind: a collection of all the important films, or most of them, that had been taken of momentous events and personalities in the Russian revolution … He had a ray of imagination and a stubbornness of purpose which, if combined with an adult regard for the purposes of others, would comport with the idea of genius. Ever since 1920 he had been collecting these pictures with unflagging energy, ingenuity, a shrewd sense of historic values, and a matchless skill in getting what he wanted without losing anything he already had.
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