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Featured Image and Page Header Image: Collection Eye Filmmuseum, Amsterdam. Coppyright: Goskinprom/Sovkino.


Choices and challenges

The kiss of life for a silent film exists of a screening on a big screen, with live musical accompaniment and a vast audience. However, the way to resurrection of a silent film is long and paved with many obstacles. Behind each screening there is a story to be told about choices and challenges. Here follows the inventory of one case study: the presentation of the Georgian silent film Eliso (1928) in the Netherlands.

Visual imagination

By entering the domain of silent cinema you gain access to a purely visual imagination, without spoken dialogues. The phenomenon of the silent film is a historical subset with various variants of cinematic expression. Many filmmakers from that period of three decades, roughly from 1895 to 1930, can be regarded as early masters of film art, full-fledged artists who made work with a timeless power of expression. A silent film offers an open stage for musical accompaniment. To be more specific, I shall discuss a specific case study: the screening in Dutch cinemas of the relatively unknown Georgian silent film Eliso (Nikolaj Sjengelaja, 1928). I choose this example because of the joyful fact that this film is part of the collection of Eye Filmmuseum in a (almost) complete version and that the chances of organizing a new musical accompaniment have been seized (most recently in 2017). Why this is such good news, I hope to be able to substantiate with a handful of arguments in the next paragraph.

A neglected masterpiece

Programming a screening of Eliso means a choice for a non-canonic feature. What relevance has a film that is ninety years old for an audience of today? This question can be countered with the following arguments.

First, the story of Eliso is about the Russian occupation of a mountain village in the Caucasus, around 1864. The tsarist army is waging a cruel war, the Russian government wants to seize the farmland and the houses of the villagers and deports them to Turkey. In this film, the Russians (and the Cossacks) are the villains. Russians are depicted as foreign invaders who are ready to reach their goals by bribing (sadly enough, it proofs that collaboration can easily be bought) or deceit. It is uncertain how the Georgian public will have seen the film in 1928, but for an audience in the 21st century it is almost inevitable to make the parallel with Chechnya or Afghanistan. The Russian presence in the Caucasus and the resistance of the population against it unfortunately has a timeless actuality. Georgia has recently been a war zone. So, attention should be paid to the film heritage from this conflict-stricken country as a valuable addition to the news coverage in the news reports.

Second, Eliso contains a love story between a Christian hero (the shepherd Vazja) and an Islamic heroine (the village girl Eliso). The hero saves the cattle of the villagers and he dares his life for them in his fight in a remote Russian army post, but still he gets to hear at the end of the film: “You are different, and you will never become one of us”. There is a deeply rooted social division on the basis of religion. This too unfortunately has a timeless actuality. The heroine manifests herself as an assertive young woman, yet at the end she sadly chooses to conform and not to follow her love.

Third, a contemporary audience can also experience Eliso as an interesting example of world cinema. Director Shengelaja has a good sense of the visual appeal of the exotic folklore of his native country and he situates the story of injustice and abuse of power against the background of beautiful vast mountain landscapes and pittoresque villages and exotic costumes.

A fourth and more common argument lies in the status of the creator. In my opinion director Nikolaj Sjengelaja (1903-1943) shows himself at a young age as a master of film style, using the examples of Soviet cinema as a departure for a more varied approach of storytelling. He uses stereotypes and aims at agitation with a clear emotional appeal, but he takes also time to create suspense and skillfully tells three intertwined stories. He certainly can be regarded as one of the great pioneers of Georgian cinema. Initially he was a promising poet, in the circle of Futurism (Vladimir Mayakovsky, among others). Sjengelaja worked as assistant director at two films by Kote Mardsjanishvili. This experience made him decide to make films himself at the then brand new Groezija Studio in Tbilisi. This film studio was founded in 1923 and was one of the first studios in the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union. His debut Eliso(1928) immediately became a triumph. In the Pravda positive comments appeared on the film and compliments for the then 25-year-old director. Serge Eisenstein also praises him for the visualisation of the ‘lezginka’ scenes, the traditional dance from the Caucasus which is also shown passingly in Oktyabr (1928): Eisenstein admits that the version of Sjengelaja is better (Leyda, 1973, 273).

And last but not least, a strong argument for the relevance of Eliso is the observation that the film has a flowing rhythm, a well-crafted build-up of tension from calm start to dynamic ending. It offers a mix of individual heroism and treason driven by blind ambitions. The incompetence of the Russian military offers comic relief, but in essence the fight against the Russians has a bitter ending: the village is lost and the villagers are refugees. The climax of the film is a lyrical lament about collective suffering of the village population. In an impressive scene the village elder turns the feeling of grieve and despair into a fierce dance.  The contemporary viewer can therefore see Eliso separately from all historical contexts and appreciate the film as an impressive autonomous work of art.

Film historian Denise J. Youngblood praises Eliso in her book Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era (1991): “The director had strong pictoral and dramatic instincts and good control over the silent film techniques of closeups and rhythmic editing. Eliso’s stealthy return to the village is beautifully done, only shadows showing the course of the action. Shengelaia also showed a sense of humor rare in Soviet melodrama, turning a swordfight in a hilarious parody of a Fairbanks swashbuckler. The hero battles Russians in the general’s office from under a table, then with his back against a door, holding off dozens of attackers on both sides.” (Youngblood 1991, 182)

However, despite the increasing focus on world cinema and despite the increasing attention within film history for the non-canonical corpus, Eliso still remains a marginal film. English-language studies of silent Soviet cinema like Lawton (1992), Kenez (1992) and Gillespie (2000) for instance do not mention Eliso.

American film historian Jay Leyda mentions Eliso just briefly in his book Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film(1973): “After collaborating on two films to learn the medium, Nikolai Shengalaya left his literary career completely to work in films; his first independent film, Eliso, was a triumph. It was suggested by an anecdote recorded by the Georgian writer Kazbegi about a Tsarist scheme in 1864 to evict a village that occupied a desirable piece of land. The film makes the whole village its hero rather than any individual, and a richness of exotic folk-material in it reminds one of Women of Ryazan.” (Leyda 1973, 273).

The journey of Eliso to the Netherlands

Most silent films from the Twenties in the film archive of Eye Filmmuseum (formerly Nederlands Filmmuseum) are a legacy of the film club and distribution firm Nederlandsche Filmliga (handed down in the so-called Uitkijk Archive). This has not been the case with Eliso. It is noteworthy however that in 1930 a program was presented at the Nederlandsche Filmliga in The Hague and Arnhem where a fragment of Eliso was shown, as part of a package of film fragments that had been brought by Joris Ivens from the Soviet Union.

The availability of a complete print in good technical condition is a prerequisite for a film screening. Three copies of Eliso are available in the film vault of the Eye Filmmuseum: a 35mm archive print, a 35mm distribution print and a 16mm distribution print. How were these acquired?

The 35mm archive print was acquired in 1967 from Sov-Export and shown in a programme of Fifty Years of Soviet Film. This archive print was not available for screening outside the Filmmuseum because this copy had the status of a unique item. Therefore, this 35mm archive print of Eliso has not been removed from the vault since 1967 for a very long time.It took several decades before this print was restored and made available for screenings elsewhere. A great event, because with a length of 2190 meter it is the only print that is to be considered as (nearly) complete. Projecting it with a speed of 18 frames per second it results in a screening time of circa 106 minutes.

In the eighties two incomplete distribution prints (a 35mm and a 16mm) of Eliso were imported. The intertitles were removed, therefore the 35mm distribution print had a length of 1269 meter (which corresponds to circa 62 minutes screening time). The 16mm distribution print seems to be another incomplete version (circa 80 minutes screening time).

How could it happen that these two distribution prints of a Georgian silent film ended up in the Netherlands? For this we return to the year 1980 and to the distribution branch of the Film International Festival in Rotterdam, started in 1972 with Huub Bals as director. Film International had a major setback in 1980 when a fire broke out in the film storage in the night of 18 to 19 December and a large part of the distribution collection was lost. With the money from the insurance the collection was reconstructed as far as possible with new prints. There was even some budget left for new purchases. Director Huub Bals was advised by various scouts in his choice of festival screenings and film purchases, including the internationally respected Swiss film journalist and scholar François Albera, who drew his attention to the new generation of Georgian directors.

As a result, the programme of the tenth Film International Festival in February 1981 contained five Georgian films. This package consisted of a recent feature film (The 19th Century Georgian Chronicle directed by Aleksandre Rekhviashvili, 1979), three early films of the director Otar Iosseliani, who had decided to emigrate to France (Falling Leaves, 1967; Once Upon a Time There Was a Singing Blackbird, 1970; Pastorale,1976) and as a surprise bycatch the silent film Eliso (Nikolaj Sjengalaja, 1928). The Georgian director Eldar Sjengelaja was a guest in Rotterdam at the Film International festival in 1981 and presented his father’s film. But Eliso was just one of the many films in the festival program, in total 55 titles were shown and there was also an extensive side bar program ‘Hollywood B films’. Therefore, in the Dutch press little attention was paid to Eliso. Georgian emigré director Otar Iosselliani got the most coverage, also because he did not get a visa for the Netherlands and he could not travel abroad from Paris. An exclusive press conference was organized in Lille, near the border.

After the festival in 1981 the distribution department of Film International could buy generously, thanks to the insurance money. Almost all of the Georgian films could be acquired for exhibition in the non-commercial cinemas of the Netherlands. Elisowas shown immediately in April 1981 during a modest tour along three cities (The Hague, Rotterdam, Amsterdam). For these screenings the 16mm print was used, without musical accompaniment. That must have been a stiff viewing experience, but the reactions from the public and the press are not documented. No wonder that screenings of Eliso were sparse for a very long time.

Five screenings in three decades

The first revival of Eliso happened eighteen years later. Eliso was programmed on 23 May 1999 in the Dutch Filmmuseum, using the archive print, accompanied by pianist Wim van Tuyl.

In 2005 two filmprogrammers, Erik Daams (Filmhuis Den Haag) and me (Lantaren/Venster), organised a series of screenings in a programme called Stomme Sovjets! (Silent Soviets). We scheduled thirteen films (including two early Russian melodramas), with a big help concerning clearing all the prints from Arja Grandia, the late grand lady of Archival Loans of the Dutch Filmmuseum. We also secured the cooperation with several outstanding musicians.

Eliso was presented on 24 October 2005 in Filmhuis Den Haag. We used the incomplete distribution print, in which the intertitles were missing. To compensate, we provided the audience with a hand-out with the summary of the plot and Erik gave an introduction, spot on as always.The live musical accompaniment was provided byWim van Tuyl (piano) and Pien Straesser (soprano). They opted for a choice of existing songs from the Russian classical repertoire.

Their research and their dramaturgical considerations brought them to compositions by Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin and Dmitri Shostakovich.

  • The Tchaikovsky song ‘Nur wer die Senhnsucht kennt’ was selected from the collection Mignon songs, the text of Goethe is translated into Russian. This song about the desire for love is used at the beginning of the film, when shepherd Vazja visits the village of Eliso and they secretly look at each other from a distance. Their love is mutual, but cannot be pronounced: he is Christian and she is Muslim. The song returns at the end when they have to say goodbye because Elise’s father is blocking their commitment.
  • The adaptation Mussorgsky made of the traditional Ukrainian dance song ‘Hopak’ was used for another scene at the beginning of the film in which the villagers collectively build a house. The lyrics of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko are about Cossacks and cheerful drunkenness, but the melody is fitting the ambiance of the scene.
  • The Shostakovich song ‘The city sleeps’ was used for the scene where the shepherd boy arrives crying and reports that the cattle have been stolen. The ‘Song of Ophelia’ of Shostakovich was also used (both songs are part of the Seven Romances after poems by Alexander Blok, opus 127, 1967).
  • The song ‘Through the leafy forest’ by Shchedrin was used to dramatize the charge of the Cossacks on the defenseless villagers, who resists peacefully with a sit-down demonstration.
  • The melancholic aria of Tchaikovsky ‘Farewell, dear land, familial fields and meadows’ from the opera Jeanne d’Arc was used when the villagers started their forced exodus
  • The dramatic Serenade (or Ständchen) of Mussorgsky was used for the death scene of the young mother during the exodus. This song was taken from the collection of Songs and Dances of Death composed in 1870, based on a text by Russian poet Arseny Arkadyevich Golenishchev-Kutuzov.

Two years later, on 18 november 2007 this presentation of Eliso was successfully repeated at Lantaren/Venster (Rotterdam).

In 2008 Wim van Tuyl and Pien Straesser adapted their musical accompaniment to the longer version of the archive print of Eliso for a screening on Sunday, April 10 of that year as part of the series Cine Concerts at the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. A big triumph!

In 2017 a new approach was demonstrated: Eliso was screened at Eye Filmmuseum on 10 December, accompanied by Syrian saz-player Jawdat Jassem, Itai Weissman from Israel on EWI (a kind of electronic saxophone), Diego Rodriguez Lopez (Columbia) on bass guitar, Henning Luther from Germany (percussion) and Martin de Ruiter (bandoneón). The musicians of this international ensemble met in Lola Lik, the asylum seeker center in the former Bijlmerbajes, where Eye organized cultural evenings for refugees and local residents. It was an excellent performance, worthwhile to be repeated soon and also to be recorded and have a worldwide distribution.

To conclude

To programme Eliso remains still a challenge. The question is how the press can be tempted to write about this and how the public can be tempted to buy a ticket. The contemporary spectators have to be able to take three hurdles: defying the ‘sound barrier’, the time barrier and the culture barrier, because we are talking about a silent film, from 1928, from Georgia and the story is also situated in the nineteenth century. The film programmer of today must establish himself as a bridge builder to his intended audience. I hope to have given a useful start to this.

I am indebted to many friends and experts for their commentary and help, especially Erik Daams (Filmhuis Den Haag), Rommy Albers (Eye Filmmuseum), Ivo Blom (VU) and Arie van der Ent. A Dutch version of this text has been published in TMG 11/2008-1, pp. 4-21.
  • Albera, F. (1981) ‘De Sowjet-Cinema. Rusland en de republieken’, in:Film International Kwartaal, tijdschrift voor internationale filmkritiek (1981/1) p. 38-43.
  • Albera, F. (1986) ‘Aggiornamento à l’ Union des Cinéastes’, in: Positif 310 (december 1986) p. 22-26.
  • Amengual, B. (1986) ‘Cinéeurasie. Les Cinémas soviétiques d’Asie Centrale et de Transcaucasie au festival de Pesaro 1985’, Positif 310 (december 1986), p. 30-33.
  • Daams, E. (1981) ‘Georgië, volgens Iosseliani, Rechwiaswili en Shenguelaia & zonen’, in:Kijkschrift, nr. 44, 1981, p. 2-5.
  • Gillespie, D. (2000) Early Soviet Cinema. Innovation, Ideology and Propaganda, London.
  • Heijs, J. (ed. 1981) Catalogus Film International Rotterdam # 10, Rotterdam.
  • Heijs, J. & W. Oosterbeek (eds. 1982) De Rotterdamse filmcollectie, Rotterdam.
  • Hommel, M. & M-P. Meyer & G. Zuilhof (eds. 1991), NFM/IAF distributiecatalogus, Amsterdam.
  • Kenez, P. (1992) Cinema and Soviet Society, 1917-1953, New York.
  • Lawton, A. (ed. 1992) The Red Screen: Politics, Society, Art in Soviet Cinema, New York.
  • Leyda, J. (1973) Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film(first published in 1960).
  • Pack, S. (1995) Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde, Köln (p. 126: film poster of Eliso (136 x 101 cm, 1928, by Anatoly Belsky).
  • Radvanyi, J. (ed. 1988) Le cinéma Georgien, Paris.
  • Youngblood, D.J. (1991) Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era, 1918-1933, Austin.
  • Eliso, review in: Variety, april 19, 1989.
There are many different transcriptions of the director’s name: Sjengelaja (Dutch); Shengelaya (English); Chenguelaia or Sengelaia (French); Schengelaja (German). The film title is written as Eliso or Elisso.
Eliso- Soviet Union 1928. Director: Nikolaj Sjengelaja. Scenario: Sergej Tertjakov & Nikolaj Sjengelaja, based on a story of Alexandr Kazbegi (Kazbek/ Kazebegui). Camera: Vladimir Kereselidze. Production: Goskinprom-Groezija, Georgia. With: Kira Andronikasjvili, Kokta Karalasjvili, Aleksandr Imedasjvili, I. Mamporija, Aleksander Zorzoliani, T. Poetsoenava.
What is the most authentic version of Eliso?
  • The circumstances of the world premiere in 1928 is not documented: which audience, which print? which musical accompaniment?
  • Eliso was redistributed in the Soviet Union in 1935, provided with a soundtrack with music by Iona Toeskia. Director Nikolaj Sjengalaja was still alive then, but his opinion on this version is unknown to me. It is in any case a relatively early re-release of a silent film. This version was screened on 18 March 2006 at the Filmmuseum in Frankfurt and on 19 March 2006 at the Metropolis cinema in Hamburg in a program organized by the Deutsch-Caucasian Gesellschaft. Probably this version was also shown in 2001 during the ‘Go East. Festival des Mittel und Osteuropäischen Films’, in Wiesbaden, as part of the symposium ‘Das Bild des Others: Caucasus’.
  • In 1964 another version was made with Russian commentary and dialogues. This version has a lenght of 2190 meters and reached the Netherlands in 1967.
The archive of Eye Filmmuseum contains three prints of Eliso:
  1. D235 = archive print, 35mm, full frame, positive (circa 2190 meter, with a projection speed of 18 f/s this correspond to circa 106 minutes). Dutch subtitles. Acquired on 1 november 1967 from Sov-export. The archive print seems to lack still circa 110 meters, because (Leyda 1983, 434) and website silentera.commentions a length of 2300 meter.
  2. GV 161 = distribution print 35mm, normaalbeeld, no intertitles, black and white, with Russian commentary and dialogues. Circa 1269 meter; with a projection speed of 18 frames per second it corresponds to circa 62 minutes. Acquired on 1 februari 1988, bought from distribution company Classics (Amsterdam).
  3. GZ 1069 = distribution print 16mm, silent. Circa 880 meters, with a projection speed of 24 f/s it corresponds to circa 80 minutes). Acquired on 30 juli 1990, as a gift from Film International.
 Ten screenings of Eliso in the Netherlands (1967 – 2017)
  • 14 november 1967, Filmmuseum (Amsterdam) as part of the programme 50 years of Soviet Film.
  • februari 1981, Film International Festival, with an introduction of Eldar Shengelaia
  • 20 april 1981, Studio 2000 (The Hague), silent
  • 24 en 25 april 1981, Lantaren/Venster (Rotterdam), late night screenings, silent
  • 27 april 1981, Kriterion (Amsterdam), silent
  • 23 may 1999, Filmmuseum. Accompanied by Wim van Tuyl (piano)
  • 24 oktober 2005, Filmhuis Den Haag, as part of the programme ‘Stomme Sovjets!’ (Silent Soviets). Accompanied by Wim van Tuyl (piano) and Pien Straesser (soprano).
  • 18 november 2007, Lantaren/Venster (Rotterdam). Accompanied by Wim van Tuyl (piano) and Pien Straesser (soprano).
  • 10 april 2008, Filmmuseum. Accompanied by Wim van Tuyl (piano) and Pien Straesser (soprano).
  • 10 december 2017, EYE Filmmuseum. Accompanied by Syrian saz-speler Jawdat Jassem, Itai Weissman from Israel on EWI (a kind of electronic saxophone), Diego Rodriguez Lopez (Columbia) on bass guitar, Henning Luther from Germany (percussion) and Martin de Ruiter (bandoneón).
First screenings in the Netherlands of a fragment of Eliso: There is a conformity between several sources: it happened in 1930, there is however some confusion about the exact dates …
  • The database of the Filmmuseum mentions 23 May 1930 as date of the screening.
  • The website ‘Cinema Context. Film in Nederland vanaf 1896. Een encyclopedie van de filmcultuur’ ( mentions two screenings: 24 May 1930 (in The Hague, Buitenhof 20) and 30 December 1930 (in Arnhem, Irene, Beekstraat 71).
  • The overview of the Nederlandse Filmliga seasons in the book Linssen, H.Schoots & T.Gunning (1999) Het gaat om de film! Een nieuwe geschiedenis van de Nederlandsche Filmliga 1927-1933, Amsterdam confirms the two cities, but the dates are slightly different. In The Hague the programme of 25 may 1930 consists of Nogent sur marne (1929), De roos van Pu-Chui(1927) and ‘fragments brought by Ivens from the Soviet Union’, namely: Arsenaal (1928), het elfde jaar (1928), Zvenigora (1928), Eliso(1928) and De jeugd overwint (…). In Arnhem the programme on 31 december 1930 is identical, with addition of Hoogstraat (1930), a collage of newsreels made by Willem Bon and the recitation of the Maria-legend De speelman by Charlotte Köhler.
Screening of Eliso elsewhere (selection)
  • In 1985, the Pesaro film festival presented a program of Georgian films.
  • In 1988 an extensive retrospective of Georgian film was organized by Center Pompidou
  • In 1989 another extensive retrospective was organized by the Hong Kong Film Festival. In Variety (april 19, 1989) appeared a review of Eliso.
  • 22 October 1995: Montpellier Mediterranean Film Festival
  • In 2001 during the ‘Go East: Festival des Mittel und Osteuropäischen Films’ in Wiesbaden, as part of the symposium ‘Das Bild des Others: Caucasus’.
  • 15 May 2005: Festival d’Aneres (France)
  • 18 March 2006 at the Filmmuseum in Frankfurt and 19 March 2006 at the Metropolis cinema in Hamburg in a program organized by the Deutsch-Caucasian Gesellschaft.
Nikolaj and sons
Nikolaj Sjengelaja and his wife Nato Vasjnadze are the founders of a dynasty of film directors. Eldar Sjengelaja (1933) is their eldes son, Giorgi Sjengelaja (1937) is their youngest son.
  • Twenty-Six Commissars (Nikolaj Sjengelaja, 1933)
  • Alaverdoba (Two Stories, Giorgi Sjengelaja 1962).
  • Tetri Karavani (The White Caravan, Eldar Sjengelaja, 1964)
  • Pirosmani (Giorgi Sjengelaja 1969).
  • Sherekilebi (The Eccentrics, Eldar Sjengelaja 1973)
  • Blue Mountains, or Unbelievable Story (Eldar Sjengelaja 1983)
Four Georgian Silent films
  1. Giuli (Lev Push & Nikoloz Shengelaya, 1927)
  2. Women of Ryazan (Olga Preobrazhenskaya & Ivan Pravov, 1927), this film was distributed in the Eighties in the Netherlands by Cinemien.
  3. Eliso (1928)
  4. My Grandmother (Kote Mikaberidze, 1929). This film was restored in 1976 and presented at the 1977 New York Film Festival. In 2005 Beth Custer composed a jazz score, commissioned by the Pacific Film Archive (
Update in 2020:
“The Georgian National Film Centre started in 2014 the initiative for bringing back classic works by Georgian directors to the country from their vaults in Moscow’s massive Gosfilmofond archives. It has so far resulted in a return of 51 productions out of over 500 preserved in the Russian capital. As a joint initiative by the film centre, the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport and the National Archives of Georgia, the restoration of eight films was completed as part of the “Year of the 1920s Georgian Cinema”, as declared by the GNFC. Launched with the goal of hosting screenings of the films following their restoration, the initiative had to be limited in scope due to the pandemic situation, however Chkheidze said it was a “10-year project” that included subjecting works from many decades of the 20th century to the same treatment.”
Restored in 2020:
  • Nikoloz Shengelaia Eliso (1928)
  • Kote Marjanishvili: The Gadfly (1928) and Gogi Ratiani (1912)
  • Aleksandre Tsutsunava: Who is to Blame (1925) and Revolt in Guria (1928)
  • Vladimir Barsky: Arsena the Brigand (1923)
  • Mikheil Tchiaureli: Saba (1929)
  • Nikoloz Kakhidze: The Young Pilot (1928)