Film Reception in Estonia in the Early 20th Century: From Fairground Shows and Conjurer Acts to Respectful Drawing-Room Entertainment

By Virve Sarapik (Estonian Literary Museum / Estonian Academy of Arts)

© Virve Sarapik, 2010

The following essay examines the early film reception in Estonia and its transformation over the first decades of the 20th century. The discussion focuses on the aspects that influenced the notions and opinions about films and who voiced them. In the early 20th century, cinema enjoyed huge popularity among the audiences. However, early history of Estonian film contains an interesting contradiction: films were eagerly watched but it was not considered suitable to talk or write about them. At best, newspapers printed short notices about films, but did not analyze cinema as such, criticize them or make recommendations; film was initially regarded as an entertaining technical novelty. Soon enough, worries emerged about the corrupting influence of cinema on people’s cultural consumption. Young Estonia was the most innovative Estonian cultural movement of the early 20th century, and therefore this article concentrates on the ideas of its leading figures about cinema. Comparisons are made with the discussions on futurism that appeared in the Estonian press at the same time.

During the first decades of the 20th century, or more precisely until 1917, Estonia was a part of Tsarist Russia. The wave of Russification in the late 19th century was followed by a noticeable rise in cultural self-awareness. Tartu, primarily the intellectuals forming the circle of the daily newspaper Postimees, and Tallinn, with its more pragmatic attitudes, became the major cultural centers. At that time, several Estonian-language daily newspapers and a few general interest magazines were already being published. The first professional theaters, as well as several cultural and educational societies with a large membership had been established. However, Estonian-language cultural and academic literature was still absent. In addition to the University of Tartu, offering education in Russian, people could study at other universities in neighboring centers, above all in neighboring Helsinki where female students were also accepted, but also in Riga and St. Petersburg, and, further afield, in Germany. In addition to profound social and political upheavals, the 1905 Russian revolution marked a turning point in cultural life as well. The period preceding this date was characterized by the feverish emergence of different circles and groups of high school students. The brutal suppression of popular uprisings in 1905 (including executions without legal sentencing and corporal punishment) was a true shock for Estonian intellectuals and resounded even in Western Europe and elsewhere. Many intellectuals and high school students who had participated in revolutionary events were forced into exile, where they generally continued to maintain contact with their homeland. Many young people went to study in Finland. Paris became a desirable cultural center; for artists, the Ǻland Islands and various Norse and German cities became favored destinations.

Young Estonia, formed of high school students immediately before the revolution of 1905, became the most radical movement of cultural innovation. This group, or rather a movement, of relatively loose membership drew together writers, students and artists; it published almanacs and, for a period of time, also a magazine: it organized art exhibitions and published books. Surprisingly, the key members of the movement did not spend much time together—they lived in different locations and even different countries, some of them studied abroad, some of them were exiled.

In terms of world view and aesthetic positions, Young Estonia was far from homogenous. The political sympathies of its members ranged from absolute neutrality through moderate Marxism to rightist views. Among the literary movements, neo-romanticism occupied the central position. The following common features of the early aesthetic and social views of Young Estonia could be delineated: (1) the development of a new social stratum, the intelligentsia, which could only happen by creating a suitable semiotic environment; (2) the demand of aesthetic unity: the text and all its parts had to be subjected to the same principles, while form and content had to be in correspondence, and the style in accord with the narrative and characters; (3) the rhetorical positioning of an ideal emphatically far away from Estonia (a popular metaphor, for instance, is the image of climbing a mountain, ascent in general, but especially to the skies); (4) the semiotic totality of the ideal that presupposes its “foundation” in the most primary basis, language.

Thus the ideal of the Young Estonia movement is characterized by harmony and entirety—a kind of unity of social classes and cultural spheres, as well as the text and its parts; hence the connections between the arts and society (i.e. the belief that through the development of the cultural sphere, the whole of society develops as well), the connection of language with the act of language, the harmonious accord of various arts.

Young Estonia decisively disagreed with the older generation of Estonian intellectuals, attempting to break free from the still dominating German and Russian cultural influences and reorient towards Scandinavian and Romance cultures. Their central slogan was: “More culture! … Let there be more European culture! Let us be Estonians, but let us also become Europeans!” (Suits 1905: 17)

The Cinematograph Reaches Estonia
The rise of the Young Estonia movement coincided with the growing number of film screenings in Estonia, and with the first longer writings on cinema. Tsarist Russia, contrary to the Soviet Union, was not separated from the rest of Europe through an excessively strict border regime, and films arrived in Estonia quite soon after their first appearance in European centers. Some equipment for showing moving pictures had been introduced already earlier (e.g. cinetoscope in March 1896; as announced in Postimees on March 30, 1896[1]), but demonstrations in Tallinn and Tartu in October and November of 1896 attracted much more attention. Advertisements and notices in newspapers link the name of Edison and the cinematograph.[2] It has generally been supposed in Estonian film history that these films and machines had really been made by Edison personally (cf. Kosenkranius 1964: 8; Paas 1980: 14). But in the second half of 1896 cinema was already quite regularly shown all over Europe, yet was still not entirely clear which company had actually produced these films. The films were described as depicting bathing in the sea, a Parisian street, an American express train and a speed painter (according to Postimees on September 27, 1896). According to an advertisement, the program originated from an exhibition in Berlin (Gewerbeausstellung in Berlin-Treptow from May 1 to October 15, 1896). Although Edison indeed had had a pavilion at the Berlin exhibition, his name was already so familiar in the Estonian newspapers of the time that it rather signified the invention of things in general than a particular person. And in the Edison pavilion in Berlin the cinematograph of Lumière brothers (cf. Prinzler 1993: 519) was displayed; after that, the cinematograph could well arrive in Estonia.

In both towns the venues of film exhibition were relatively prominent: the small hall of the Great Guild building in Tallinn and Bürgermusse in Tartu. Newspapers published only a few notices—a couple of advertisements and introductions—but the attitude of the public was favorable. At first the notion of living pictures was used to denote films, and the words kinematograph and bioscope were used as well. More often, however, the phrase of “living pictures” was reserved for short theatrical scenes and sketches that were included in party programs. This seems to confirm Yuri Tsivian’s view that the rapid spreading of cinema in Russia in the early 20th century was supported by several synchronous cultural processes, including the approach of short theatrical forms to the film (Tsivian 1996: 194-8).

Early Writings on Film and Shifts in Their Subjects
Comparably, a slight temporal shift can be also noticed in the choice of subjects of film writings. Furthermore, it is interesting to find that film and cinema were not very often discussed in newspapers. After some initial salutations that mostly admired the technological novelty, films were very rarely mentioned over the following years. Longer essays started to appear only after 1905 and these demonstrated a considerable change in attitudes. Due to the lack of cultural press, as mentioned above, films were talked about only in daily newspapers. At the same time it should be mentioned that even the first translations of Nietzsche’s works into Estonian were serialized in a newspaper (Nietzsche 1901-02).

During the first decades of the 20th century film was still presented as a charming form of entertainment, although descriptions of produced films were occasionally given as well (e.g. a sorcery play The Seven Castles of the Devil in Eesti Postimees on May 22, 1902). When writing about cinema, comedies managed to attract most attention, but war scenes and current events were noticed as well. Besides towns, films were also shown at country fairs: “Instead of acrobats and musclemen, now there are talking machines and ‘living pictures’.” (Postimees on February 12, 1903, p. 3.)

More critical notes appeared in 1908-09, when attention had already turned to the supposedly frivolous and immoral content of the films and their effect on the most enthusiastic part of the audience—children—came under critical observation. The majority of films distributed in Estonia were probably the productions of a lower (meaning also cheaper) category.

The year 1910 witnessed the appearance of entirely negative writings, for example, “Do not let your children go to cinematograph theaters!” (Virulane on October 14, 1910, p. 1.) The author of this article thought that films were dangerous primarily for physiological, not moral reasons, emphasizing that they weaken the eyes and the whole organism, and that too rapid changing of impressions causes inattentiveness and superficiality. The educational effect, generally recognized by critics, was also an incorrect conception according to this author. On the other hand, several quite exhaustive writings explaining the technical aspects of filmmaking were published in the same year, such as Secrets of Cinematography (in Päevaleht on February 15, 1910, p. 2, and on February, 16, p. 2), analyzing pictorial effects of Princess Nicotine (directed by J. Stuart Blackton in 1909).

The most important discussions of film were published in 1912, demonstrating a wide range of opinions and examining the functions and possibilities of cinema, as well as its negative aspects. The style of these writings was also much improved, leaving aside the earlier feuilleton approach. The most important writings were published under the aliases of P. O. Rolf and S. Culex.[3] Both authors published in the daily Tallinna Teataja, which was the arena for the most serious film discussions before World War I.

In his two-part article, P. O. Rolf called for discussing films, clearly representing the more critically minded camp. His pieces offered plenty of valuable information, facts and economic data on filmmaking in different countries and mentioned a number of well-known productions. His critiques proceeded from two perspectives. First, Rolf found the film programs, based on commercial interests, negative and subjected to the “demands of the market,” corrupting the taste of the audience. While many other authors still recognized, despite the criticism, the remarkable educational potential of films, Rolf did not support this opinion. His criticism mostly concentrated on dramas, where he distinguished between two possibilities: first, purely cinematic films, specially made for cinema; and second, dramas made for the stage and adapted for screen. He declared most productions of these two types unfit. The adaptations of books and plays were slightly better in his opinion than the original screen plays, but as the films were silent—that is, lacked words—the adaptations were still an act of brutality against the original works, chaining them into a Procrustean bed. At the same time, as there were no means for restricting the proliferation of cinema, it was still better to discuss its problems since “silence would be incorrect” (Rolf 1912).

A few months later S. Culex published a response to Rolf, and his tripartite essay can be considered the most advanced local writing on cinema of the period before the World War I (Culex 1912). According to Culex, cinema can be approached from three aspects: (1) as a tool for preserving the past; (2) as a possible new branch of art; (3) as a means of extracting as much money from the pockets of the audience as possible over a short period of time. The second point is most noteworthy here, since so far nobody in the Estonian press had discussed film from this perspective. The authors supporting cinema had so far emphasized three moments: film as an educational tools; or as an entertaining medium; or, less often, as a means for recording events.

Regarding the first option Culex first pointed out its cultural and national importance, but in the end he agreed that in the future film could also be a means of recording people’s private events. “Another and much more complicated question is … whether cinema could be able to create serious works of art?” He believed that the most programmatic dispute would focus precisely on this question. His own answer was affirmative, but he conceded that at first the notion of art should be specified. Culex admitted that he had found aesthetic satisfaction, above all visual pleasure (faces, landscapes) in several films, and compares the medium with the art of dance. Obviously, these ideas were of an absolutely pioneering nature in the Estonian context, but surprisingly they also ran in parallel with some rather rare opinions in the rest of the world.

Further, Culex examined the narrative aspect: it had been stated that because of lack of words a drama shown in the cinema could not be as valuable as a drama seen on stage. He agreed with the opinion that, compared with theater, the cinematic drama stands on a lower level (like a woodcut compared to a painting). “But still, it is an art in its own right. And what’s more, a skilled artist could compose even such dramas where lack of words wouldn’t be so acutely felt, but where an interesting plot and beauty can be revealed in appearances visible for the eye. Art is restricted within its abilities and means, and it has to attempt to make an effect just by using its strong points.” Thus, cinema has plenty of such visual opportunities that are missing in the theater, primarily in representing fantastic stories. “This is a real theater of smokers of opium and hashish…” Finally, Culex referred to several authorities whose views he had probably used to support his argument (first of all Victor Auburtin, but also Björn Björnson, Alfred Gold, Stefan Zweig and others, see Culex 1912).

Futurism and the Cinema
Yuri Tsivian (1994: 9-10, 48-9; 1996: 194) also links the spreading and reception of cinema with futurism in Russia before World War I, and there is a good reason for comparing this with its reception in Estonia.

Before World War I the Estonian press used the word “futurism” remarkably often, seeing its heyday around 1913-14. Despite a number of quite reasonable introductory reviews, most writings ridiculed and mocked futurism.[4] We could summarize that the term “futurism” was applied quite loosely, covering the entire avant-garde of the time, or more precisely, the bits of information about it that reached Estonia. The other dimension of the term was evaluative: at best, futurism could be neutral, although it was largely understood as a negative-ironic term. However, even though futurism was generally ridiculed, the attitude was not exactly hostile. The word itself seemed to fulfill the function of entertainment and gossip, signifying all that is incomprehensible in a culture undergoing a process of innovation. Finally, the term’s contradictory interpretations also derive from the movement itself, from the various styles, manifestos and actions of the futurists.

The interpretations that spread in Estonia in the first decades of the 20th century can be roughly divided as follows: first, futurism as a particular way of creating a text, a certain style (e.g. Barbarus 1914; Semper 1919); second, futurism as a world view and an attitude of human psychology; a desire for a future, a negation of the past, or both, can dominate (e.g. Tammsaare 1914; Tuglas 1915b: 787-8); and third, futuristic activity as revolt or mockery and buffoonery.

The endless mentions, ridicule and comparisons of futurism derive on the whole from the third aspect, as the activities of futurists were simultaneously fascinating and off-putting, experimental and ridiculous, and thus hardly encouraging anyone to take futurism seriously. The branches of futurism outside Italy were generally more playful and less serious. The Estonian press did not normally distinguish between Italian and Russian futurism, but articles about the latter in Russian papers must have been the main source of local futurism-related folklore.

It was inevitable that sooner or later the futurists, too, had to turn their attention to cinema. First of all, film was a relatively new phenomenon closely connected with technological inventions, and thus contained the favorite features of the futurists with suitable dramatic potential: movement, speed, dynamics. As early as 1910-12 attempts were made to unite music, color and movement (e.g., experiments by the brothers Arnoldo Ginna and Bruno Corra in abstract film, see for example Verdone and Berghaus 2000: 398-403). Futurist Life (Vita futurista), the first film by the Italian futurists (of which only a few stills have survived), was completed in 1916 (Aiken 1981; Verdone and Berghaus 2000). On September 11, 1916 a collective manifesto of futurist cinema was published (Manifesto del Cinematografia Futurista), which determined the relations between futurism and cinema most vividly. The manifesto claimed that books were as passé as cathedrals and museums, and they would soon be replaced by films, full of dynamics, theater without words (cf. Marinetti 1972: 130-4).

The honor of an even earlier film belongs to Drama in the Futurists’ Cabaret no 13 (Drama v kabare futuristov № 13, 1914, ca 20 min.), an avant-garde film by the Russian cubo-futurists. It was filmed in autumn 1913 as a joint venture of a group of futurists in Moscow (cameraman-director Vladimir Kasianov, the cast including Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, brothers David and Vladimir Burliuk and Vladimir Maiakovskii). On the one hand, its plot parodied the usual patterns of film of that time, on the other it commented on the futurist folklore as presented in the press. The articles told horrid tales about the wild and absurd daily activities of futurists, such as dragging the dead body of Goncharova, who was stabbed in the cabaret, along the streets of Moscow, or wandering aimlessly around with flowers and symbols painted on their faces (cf. Ginzburg 2007: 281-3). The painted faces were a favorite topic also in Estonian newspapers, and this remained the main feature of futurists for a long time (Tuglas’s “art philosophers with whitewashed and striped faces”, Tuglas 1915: 788; see also Bobrinskaja 2007: 97-8).[5]

Although these texts did not mention futurist cinema, some echoes of this branch of futurism nevertheless reached Estonia through third-rate “living pictures,” flooding hundreds of cinemas. As in the rest of futurist folklore, they encouraged mockery, irony and even hostility. It was clear from the responses that early 20th century literature and art were not properly digested and understood.

Young Estonia and the Cinema
Considering the background described above, it is worth examining the response of the leading figures of Young Estonia to cinema. Traditionally, in addition to manifested attempts at cultural innovation, Young Estonia had been associated with the appearance of urban culture in Estonia.

Though earlier publications included only a few passing references to urban culture, the problems of the city came to the fore in several of their programmatic texts and in the visual design of the Fourth Album of Young Estonia in 1912 (see Noor-Eesti IV). By then the core members of Young Estonia had also had real experience of a metropolis. If earlier attitudes toward the city in Estonia had been critical, then in these Young Estonia texts the city finds its positive face. The Young Estonia movement generally withdrew from such phenomena as factories, engineering, and industry. In their imagination, working people and the intellectuals live in separate worlds, with different desires and needs. However, the freedom of the educated classes would be impossible without political freedom. Although they believed that technological advances formed a precondition for building urban culture, neither their own literary works nor their other aspirations bore this out.

Young Estonia’s later period coincided with the intensive use of the term “futurism” in Estonian journalism. At that, Young Estonia’s own relations with futurism as a phenomenon of art were contradictory. On the one hand, as the term was so widely employed, it was not possible for Young Estonians to ignore it. Younger “Young Estonians,” such as Johannes Semper and Johannes Barbarus, were among the first serious popularizers of futurism, while the older members of the movement maintained a skeptical distance. On the other hand, the attitude towards futurism was further complicated by the outbreak of the war in 1914 and news about the futurists support for the war. Young Estonia was firmly against the war (Suits 1915, numerous articles in Vaba Sõna, or Free Word). In fact, the outbreak of World War I signified the collapse of their European ideals: they yearned for Europe, but this “Old” Europe had already gone and been replaced by a battlefield. This explains the following sentence: “Anarchists and futurists can now sleep peacefully: the programs of destruction and disorder are being most effectively carried out by the instigators of the current world conflagration.” (Suits 1915: 7)

A phenomenon that left only a few, yet telling traces during the ten-year existence of Young Estonia, is cinema which was, as mentioned earlier, certainly not classified as art in Estonia at that time. However, the Young Estonians held a totally negative view of cinema, as can be deduced from the few existing references.

Generally the reception of cinema in Estonia resembles that of futurism because it, too, is regarded as flimsy entertainment. For example, Postimees published a feuilleton on March 13, 1910 titled The Age of Cinemas, which suggests that there should be a cinema in every house: “There is a hope that our town will soon have five cinemas; only five, can you imagine how little that is! There should be at least five hundred in order to meet the needs of the people in our town. Think how many art lovers we have, and how many must turn back from the cinema doors because there is no room for them inside.” (Papa-goi 1910)

For Young Estonians, the cinematograph had an exclusively negative connotation as a symbol of buffoonery. For example, in 1912 one of their leaders, the poet Gustav Suits said: “The culture of each nation primarily needs creative actions. The pleasures of a truly national culture cannot be satisfied through the lowest level of civilization. […] In the interests of Young Estonia we should remind ourselves as often as possible that the whole cinematography, all the hullabaloo around a talented filmmaker […] and his work is temporary, whereas the work itself survives and has a lasting effect on people for centuries to come…” (Suits 1913: 44) In his theater review, Bernhard Linde used cinema as a synonym for everything bad, low or farcical (e.g. Linde 1910/11: 597; Linde 1912: 201). Only the linguist Johannes Aavik mentioned in his letters to Friedebert Tuglas in 1910 that he occasionally goes to the cinema in Helsinki, to ward off boredom and seek entertainment (Vihma 1990: 32, 37). These are practically the only neutral observations from that time. Johannes Semper, who was younger than others, also talked about cinema in his memoirs, together with automobiles and the gramophone. However, these were nostalgic recollections of his childhood, rejoicing about the new technological miracles rather than a possible field of art (Semper 1969: 99-100).

Only few news about films reached Estonian dailies and other publications, whereas the French issued their first specialized periodical Phono-Ciné-Gazette already in 1905. Before World War I all major papers published news about films (Abel 1988: 5-7). In October 1907, the first Russian independent journal Sine-fono, published by Samuil V. Lure was established (Youngblood 2009). By 1913, there were about ten specialized film magazines in France, and a film journalists’ association was founded as well. Discussions about the functions of film flourished. Due to the pressure of companies, the tradition of art films which largely resembled filmed theater, developed. The educational perspectives provided also significant topics for discussion. The companies created a network of exhibition suitable for middle and higher classes, and cinema became an inseparable part of urban culture (Abel 1998: 9-14). This was precisely the time when Friedebert Tuglas, the artists connected with Young Estonia, and many other exiles of the 1905 revolution lived in Paris.

Although the aspirations of the Young Estonians were characterized by a strong strive for unity and harmony in the cultural sphere, the latter still contained separate fields with which a Young Estonian intellectual hardly ever came into contact. Even though the problems of urban culture emerged in 1912, urban locations never became an organic part of Young Estonian literary texts. The urban culture of the Young Estonians did not present the hustle and bustle of streets, full of vehicles and people. Instead, a city or a town was represented as a suitable place of residence for an intellectual, with idyllic parks, museums, theaters and houses with windows opening on to green gardens.

Although the ideals of Young Estonia changed in the course of ten years, their attitude towards industrial culture remained the same. The outbreak of the war further increased the distance: the futurists’ buffoonery, circus and cinema stay on the other side of the “frontlines.”

Further Developments
Immediately after Estonia’s independence and the end of World War I, film lost even more of its social and cultural standing. This coincided with the central figures of Young Estonia gaining top positions in Estonian cultural life. Friedebert Tuglas was given the nickname of “The Pope of Estonian Literature,” Gustav Suits was elected professor of Estonian literature at the University of Tartu, and several artists belonging to the movement obtained key positions in the artistic arena.

While prior to World War I film discussions reached quite a serious level, nothing comparable appeared in the press immediately after the war. But as P. O. Rolf wrote already in 1912, there was no escape from the “bacillus.” New exhibition halls were built, the first Estonian film society Estonia-Film was founded in 1919 (remaining active up to 1932), and movie-going became a part of people’s lifestyle. In a neutral context, cinema was also mentioned in literary texts.

Film discussions reached a new peak in 1922–24. In 1922 Johannes Semper published a more comprehensive analysis of cinema. He described his visits to film studios in Berlin (most likely to the Universum Film AG or UFA), discussing the shortcomings and possibilities of contemporary films, and concluded that “the future of cinema as a special kind of art still lies ahead” (Semper 1922). Against this background it is interesting to read Tuglas’s Literary Diary from 1920, where he recounts:

I went to the cinema quite often when this art was still young and its technical side rather helpless and naive … Just as we had high hopes when Edison’s great achievement, the gramophone, appeared. Now, however, all illusions have vanished and the gramophone will remain what it is—the most vulgar means of entertainment. The methods of cinema are now brilliant, but it is essentially still what it was before … The technique is splendid. But I never go to cinema anymore. (Tuglas 1920: 40-1)

In the early days of cinema there is no mention of it in any writings of Tuglas, nor in his reflections, memoirs or letters. It would be reasonable to assume that Tuglas went to the cinema in Helsinki together with Aavik in 1909, when they got closer, or during his exile winters in Paris when the cinema was a warm place where people had the opportunity to spend their time cheaply. Or was the cinema perhaps seen as a suppressed and unacknowledged secret vice? We have no way of finding out. By 1925 Tuglas’s attitude seemed a bit mellower, and he thought that cinema as an art form might have a chance in the future after all, even in the same league as painting and theater: “If cinema would only abandon the literary topics and methods of dramatic theater, it would finally find itself and become an interesting and valuable art. The current naivety and tastelessness of cinema is caused by its ill-developed manner of compromise art.” (Tuglas 1925: 74)

At the same time, several writings displaying absolutely opposite views were published in 1924. In one of them, the theater critic and dramatist Arthur Adson, discussed the state of crisis in cultural life. In his opinion, art, literature and music had all been drawn into this crisis. “But where is the crisis unknown?—The answer is, in cinema, on stadiums and race tracks, and with the publishers of gossip and entertainment magazines … In general, an undertaking that has even the slightest pretension of art or ethical aspirations has to back off or be overshadowed by those that tickle, poison, excite, corrupt, that are tasteless or, at best, only offer entertainment” (Adson 1924). As one possible way of protecting high culture, Adson suggested a radical step that nobody had dared to speak of even in the pre-war era—to ban cinemas (still making some allowance for educational films), circuses, gambling parlors and cabarets. “This would be a right policy for art and culture.” (Adson 1924)

On the other hand, Johannes Semper conveyed his impressions from a congress of aesthetics and art history held in Berlin in October 1924, where the problems of film as art were discussed in a separate panel (Semper 1924: 693, 698-9). Based on his own convictions, a writer of the younger generation, Richard Roht, wrote a persuasive article on cinema as an entirely independent field of art that had to be distinguished from theater. According to Roht, its characteristics should be recognized for their own sake: “Cinema is the cinema.” (Roht 1923: 873) Like Semper, Roht also drew from his German experience and observed that Estonian cinemas were indeed full of second-rate trash and there was no proper criticism which would help film art to advance and grow “from an outcast into a full and equal citizen” (Roht 1923: 880).

Richard Roht was still quite exceptional on the Estonian literary scene for his open approval of films, and his own works can also be characterized by film-like features. Tuglas found already in his above-mentioned writing of 1920 a rhetoric, based on the despicable cinema, of comparing Roht’s works and film, and thereby completely trashed his writing: “Finally I realized: Roht—this is cinema. Perhaps a very good cinema, but still cinema.” (Tuglas 1920: 36)

However, the mid 1920s mark a recovery from the crisis in filmmaking and its reception, as well as in general attitudes of society. More and more valuable films were gradually distributed in Estonian cinemas; the first full-length Estonian feature film, the historical drama Shadows of the Past (Mineviku varjud) and the first full-length documentary Through Estonia with a Film Camera (Filmikaameraga läbi Eesti), were both made in 1924; attempts were also made to publish serious film magazines.

Thus, we could say that nothing unusual happened in Estonian film writing in the first decades of the 20th century (circa 1901-24) in comparison to other European cultures. Serious film discussion began in 1912, examining the characteristics and opportunities of the emerging field of art. A similar, quite a short temporal shift can be seen more than ten years earlier in the arrival of the first films and equipment in Estonia. The scale of events is, naturally, incomparable and the writings were quite naive, but the main ideas about films were reflected in Estonian daily newspapers. There were still no special columns for film writing, and special publications discussing films had not yet emerged (and this would not happen until 1921). In this context I have analyzed the views on cinema voiced by the supposedly most progressive cultural and literary movement of the time, Young Estonia, whilst also making comparisons with the futurists.

After World War I, several members of Young Estonia who had so far been living in exile, returned to Estonia and gained key positions in the cultural life of the time. The film reception of the immediate post-war period was characterized by a standstill, or even a noticeable step backward. Even in 1924, some people were quite seriously discussing the possibility of banning cinema in order to save culture. The mid-1920s marked, however, a breakthrough concerning more serious film writing as well as the development of the Estonian film scene on the whole. Cinema was thus first properly acknowledged in Estonia only in the early 1920s.

This article was written with the support of the Estonian Science Foundation grant no. ETF7679 Participatory Culture in Cyberspace: Literature and its Borders and targeted financed research project no. SF0030054s08 Rhetorical Patterns of Mimesis and Estonian Textual Culture.


1] Newspapers had published notices about these novelties even earlier. For example, Johann Sepp had written on several occasions about Edison’s phonograph and kinetoscope (Sepp 1895, 1896).
2] See for example in Postimees 1896, 27 September, p. 4; 30 Oct., p. 3.
3] One of the two could well have been Paul Olak, a writer of a broad frame of mind and a later dramatist and theater director, who worked for the Tallinna Teataja at that time. The use of aliases was a rule rather than an exception in the Estonian press of the time and a person could easily use a number of them.
4] Reflections of futurism in the earlier Estonian writings have been thoroughly examined by Rein Kruus (Kruus 1981).
5] The manifesto Why We Paint Ourselves (Pochemu my raskrashivaemsia, cf. Zdanevich and Larionov 2000) was published in 1913.

Works Cited

Abel, R. (1988) “Before the canon,” in Abel, R. (ed.) French Film theory and criticism: A history/anthology, 1907-1939, vol. I, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 5-33.

Abel, R. (1998) The ciné goes to town: French cinema, 1896-1914, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Adson, A. [A. A.] (1924) “Kriisid ja kriisid,” Päevaleht, 18 October.

Aiken, E. (1981) “The cinema and Italian futurist painting,” Art Journal 41. 4, Futurism, pp. 353-7.

Barbarus, J. (1914) “Estetiline käärimine,” Vaba Sõna, no. 3, pp. 106-10; no. 4, pp. 137-41.

Bobrinskaja, E. A. (2007) “Futuristicheskij ‘grim’,” in Bongard-Levin, G. M. (ed.) Vestnik istorii, literatury, iskusstva, vol. 4, Moskva: Sobranie, Nauka, pp. 88-99.

Culex, S. (1912) “Veel kord kinematografist,” Tallinna Teataja, 20 August; 22 August; 23 August.

Ginzburg, S. [1963] (2007) Kinematografia dorevoliutsionnoi Rossii, Moskva: Agraf.

Kosenkranius, I. (1964) Eesti kino minevikuradadelt, Tallinn: Eesti Riiklik Kirjastus.

Kruus, R. (1981) “Futurismi kajastusi eesti trükisõnas enne 1917. aastat,” Keel ja Kirjandus, no. 6, pp. 337-47; no. 7, pp. 397-406.

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Updated: 15 Mar 10