Tallinn views lead to great discovery

Tiit Tuumalu
, senior culture editor
Please note that the article is more than five years old and belongs to our archive. We do not update the content of the archives, so it may be necessary to consult newer sources.
Photo: Kaader filmist

Russian film historian Pyotr Bagrov has identified a movie thought to have been destroyed – the very first Estonian feature film shot in 1913 titled «Laenatud naene» (The Borrowed Wife). After a 102 year pause, the film again reaches Estonian viewer.

-Hello, Pyotr, I’m calling to you from Postimees – that’s the very newspaper that, 102 years ago, published an ad about Tartu cinema Imperial showing «The Borrowed Wife», a film introduced as «a grand and interesting comedy for 500 metres starring [the actor] Mr Pinna from Tallinn».

Really? The greater the joy.

-Thanks to you, Estonian feature films are a year older now – 102. What’s more, we are also able to show it, the very first film!

That’s an exaggeration, saying thanks to me. But when it comes to being a year older, that’s just one aspect. The other, perhaps more important, is that «The Borrowed Wife» is head and shoulders above «Bear Hunt in Pärnu County» (Karujaht Pärnumaal) artistically speaking. That film by Johannes Pääsuke (dating 1914) was, how do we put it... amateurish? «The Borrowed Wife» features the greatest actors and actresses of the Estonian theatre.

For that fact alone, it is on another level. I’d say, that for a 1913 comedy it is absolutely excellent. Even in the broader sense. Even in Russia, back then, there was not much of interest happening in film art. So there’s nothing to be ashamed of, at all.

-The story of how the film was found, especially how it was identified, is exciting.

Well, exciting may be an overstatement, but... You see, the native films are rather well described here at Gosfilmofond archives. The only place where we are lacking is pre-revolution era. There are about 30–40 items there regarding which we do not exactly know what these are. Even if these do have a name, it is nominal, the actors we do not know … Which is no wonder as before the revolution in the Russian Empire – and it was vast – about 3,000 films were shot, 300 of which have been preserved.  

Among these mysterious unidentified films without credits before or in the middle was archived under the heading «Glupyshkin». Glupyshkin (Foolshead) was how in Russia they called the French comedian André Deed, but he was not in the film. On the one hand, the domestic origin of the film was hinted at by a shot featuring a train wagon labelled «Spalnyi vagon» (sleeping wagon); on the other hand, the acting was not Russian-like at all.  

In the pre-revolutionary Russia’s films, the genres were split like in a class society: there was the high genre i.e. drama and melodrama, and there was the comedy – the low genre. The latter were done fast and sloppy, sometimes in a couple of days, with second class cast. If the actors from major theatres featured in movies at all, these would have been the serious ones. In the comedies, people were running around, waiving their hands, it could hardly be called acting.

With this film, the acting was more restrained, referring to a different temperament, and also to bona fide drama actors involved.

In a word, we were sure this was no ordinary Russian comedy. Add the non-Russian architecture. Then it turned out the film had also been called «Glupyshkin of Riga», only that… this also led nowhere: these were not views of Riga.

-Sounds like a detective story – a lead, a dead end road, then a hint promising a solution yet these are false tracks … You have it happen often, in your job?

Perhaps the comparison to a detective story isn’t wrong at all, though they usually deem work with archives a bore. Quite often, the road to a discovery may be much more exciting than the discovery itself. But the talk about discoveries … I love to quote the Austrian film museum director Alexander Horwath who said there are no archive discoveries, there’s just the bad cataloguing.

-So how did you end up with Tallinn?

With an unknown movie, the leads may come in varying ways like the age of the [physical] film, the faces, the views. Here… First, there was this sense this may have been the Baltics … I showed it… You see, the thing is I know Estonia a bit. True, I’ve not been to Tallinn a lot in my life, but I have been to Narva-Jõesuu – vacationing, in the summers. My grandfather served in Estonia, was a military doctor; my mother was also born in Estonia, to this day the relatives dwell in Narva-Jõesuu.

In a word, I showed it to my parents. And my dad immediately said this is Tallinn. So you see: it is not only film historians who make discoveries, as my father is biochemist!

By the way, this is how – by the views – I recently identified another movie, a Georgian one. It had been shot in Tbilisi, in about 1916 or 1917, about.

-So it is your father we must be thankful to?

(Laughs.) Why not? But, seriously, we were always thinking of Estonia as an option, but without any objective leads to that. It kept being Latvia, rather. Latvia back then featured an active film industry. Not Estonia.

Once my father said this was Tallinn, I wrote to your film historian Lauri Kärg and asked what he thought it may be and whether or not the actor was Paul Pinna, and it was easy from there – henceforth it was also Lauri’s discovery. He has provided very valuable information to me, and has searched it out very diligently.  

-Recognising Paul Pinna would probably be beyond most Estonians …

Ah so how do I know? Because I am dealing with silent films; for instance, for years I have been compiling a biographical collection containing Russian silent film actors, but not Russians only but all the nations which were in Czarist Russia. As few films were shot in Estonia, well-known actors were few as well: Paul Pinna, Betty Kuuskemaa…

-Of Mr Pinna’s acting, for instance, there is no other recording as early as that – for that very reason the film is important, as well as for others from [the theatre] Estonia.

Yes, at the end of the silent film era you had another one named «Dollars» (1929), also a comedy where he played, but regrettably it has not been preserved. With more of a presence, yet in a side role, he is featured only in the first post-war film Life in the Citadel (Elu tsitadellis), just before his death.

-You are very well versed in these Estonian issues?

«Very» is saying too much. It’s just that my interest was sparked after this movie here.

-Still vacationing in Narva-Jõesuu?

Yap, every year. We have a small place there we can be. I have basically grown up in Narva-Jõesuu, spent all my summers there. Estonia was the only place in Europe, so to speak, where we could go – everybody was going! And so did my family.

Lots of things still to be unearthed with this film. Till today, it’s director is a mystery, the camera operator is assumed – Yevgeni Slavinski – and part of the actors remain unidentified. End it isn’t even certain if it was indeed shot in 1913, perhaps earlier – in 1910.

In the latter I doubt. Of course, it cannot be claimed a hundred percent. For 1913, it would be a normal film, but something totally else for 1910–11. Had we any Estonian films from back then, we would be able to compare. But the first one may be a primitive one, or a progressive, as there is nothing to go by, only the foreign ones. And most of these were also shown in Estonia.

Yes, we don’t even know some of the actors for sure: Alfred Sällik, yes, but is it truly Betty Kuuskemaa playing the borrowed wife? And the others… Aleksander Trilljärv, regarding whom the media back then claims he was in the film … looks like him and then not really… Lauri keeps sending me new pictures, and indeed the questions are more than the answers, at the moment …

-Will we ever be able to find out who actually did it?

We may hope, but not take it for granted. At Gosfilmofond, we have some excellent films from the end of 1910ies, with famous actors, but we know nothing about the directors or operators. But the solution may fall into our hands, out of the blue, and not as related to the film at hand at all. Rather, a random thing.

By the way, with the films back in that era, the operator was actually even more important than the director. This seems to be so with «The Borrowed Wife» as well. One will immediately detect there’s no cunning thought-through plan here. The actors are rather creating their own roles, and some are obviously overdoing it.

-We know who ordered the film i.e. was the producer in today’s language – Riga film office owner Semyon Mintus. Whose film is it then? Estonian? Latvian? Estonian-Latvian?

Very interesting question. Add to this the assumed operator – the Russian Yevgeni Slavinski – and considering that Mr Mintus was a Jew who advanced the Jewish agenda with some of his films, things get confused indeed.

This, actually, is quite characteristic to the silent film era. Especially in Russia, were cultures got mingled. Even so, I’d lay the emphasis on Estonia: it has been shot here, it is meaningful for Estonians, Estonian actors are playing. But, sure: there is the strong element of cooperation.

-The first Estonia-Latvia cooperation film, then?

Why not! That’s what makes history interesting, that it can be in various ways interpreted.

-What next?

Whatever may have been discovered in Russia has been discovered. I am putting it on standby – you never know, what may indirectly lead to some new thing –, but the next step is for Estonian researchers to take.

The film is shown on Thursday November 12th at 7:30 in the evening in the cinema Artis, and together with the restored film  Dangerous Curves (Ohtlikud kurvid) on Saturday November 14th at 12:30 in the afternoon at Coca-Cola Plaza, as introduced by Pyotr Bagrov and Lauri Kärk.

«The Borrowed Wife»

He film is built on a well-known comedy of the time. The main hero is living the carefree bachelor life, having lied to his rich uncle (Paul Pinna) that he has gotten married to get money from him. Now, the uncle is coming to pay a visit. The hero gets busy to borrow a wife.

The 13 minute film has no remaining credits at its beginning.

The film’s identifier, senior curator for scientific projects at Gosfilmofond Pyotr Bagrov, is an internationally best known younger generation film historian in Russia. His helper in Estonia, Lauri Kärk, is lecturing on film history at University of Tartu.

The original negative of the film is held at Gosfilmofond.