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Axelbank, Herman, 1900-1979. OAC

 
 

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Biographical History

Herman Axelbank (1900-1979) devoted his energies for over fifty years to compiling a motion picture film chronicle of the last years of Imperial Russia, the Russian revolutions, and the new government which emerged from the upheaval. He was born in the village of Novo-Konstantinov, in the Russian Empire, on May 30, 1900; his family moved to New York in 1909. Fascinated with film-making from childhood, Axelbank got a job, in 1916, as an office boy for Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) at Goldwyn Pictures on Forty-second Street. The news of the February Revolution in Russia captured the young Axelbank's imagination. "Wish I could take moving pictures over there; we don't have any of our own [American Revolution] in 1775," he remembered remarking to a co-worker.

At about that time Axelbank met a cameraman whose assignments took him to Eastern Europe. Axelbank commissioned him to film Lenin and Trotsky, pawning his possessions and borrowing from friends in order to pay the cameraman's advance. In 1922 the cameraman returned with film of such events as the Kronstadt Mutiny of March 1921 and the Trial of the Socialist Revolutionaries of 1922. With such a beginning, Axelbank's film archive was already noteworthy; in the 1920's the Pathe, International, and Fox news services, and even the Soviet government, purchased film from him.

Axelbank soon acquired film taken on the German, Austrian, and Turkish fronts during World War I, film of the Tsar and his family, and of scenes from pre-revolutionary Russia, including provincial towns as well as Moscow and St. Petersburg. In most instances the names of the cameramen and other circumstances surrounding the filming have not been preserved. Surviving bills of sale from the 1920's show that Jawitz Pictures Corporation sold Axelbank film footage of the Provisional Government (cameramen: Darovsky, Himmel, Rizhok, Borisof, Slonim, and Dzhakel), Petrograd and Moscow during the Russian Revolution (cameraman: Thompson), and the Lenin funeral; Noxall Film Company sold him footage on Tsarist Russia, Denikin, and Kolchak (cameramen: Risemann, Kubelik, and Hoffman); and Robitschek, Ehrlich and Company sold him footage of the city of Moscow. Other records were destroyed in a 1959 fire at the facility where Axelbank stored his flammable nitrate film. Many other acquisitions of the 1930's through the 1950's were accomplished by means of verbal agreements.

In 1918 Axelbank attended a lecture by John Reed and later did some filming for the Friends of Soviet Russia, but he never became deeply involved in politics. His primary interest remained his historical film project.

In 1921 Axelbank assisted the Friends of Soviet Russia in making the film "Russia Through the Shadows," which was shown to raise funds for Soviet famine relief. In 1922 he made the three-reel documentary "With the Movie Camera Through the Bolshevik Revolution" using the footage he had already collected. Meanwhile, he continued collecting more film from cameramen and emigres, sometimes making trips to Europe and concluding the deals at some risk to himself. In 1924 he made "The Truth About Russia." He regarded these feature films as the means to raise money for his collecting efforts and as the groundwork for his film "Tsar to Lenin."

In December 1928 Axelbank contacted Max Eastman, who had published "Lenin's Testament" in the West, and asked for his assistance in the editing and narration of "Tsar to Lenin." The project took about one year. (One of the narrators whose voice appears in the early reels of the Herman Axelbank Film Collection is Eastman.) During this period Eastman went to Prinkipo Island to film Trotsky and his family in exile there. "Tsar to Lenin" premiered at the Filmarte Theater in New York on March 6, 1937. Its presentation of the role of Trotsky and the Old Bolsheviks in the Revolution aroused the ire of American Communists loyal to Stalin's line. They picketed the theaters in which the film was shown.

Through the years Axelbank attributed events such as his being followed, thefts of film, and the 1959 fire in the facility where his film was stored to continuing Soviet displeasure with his film collecting efforts. Ironically, in the 1960's and early 1970's representatives of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Marxism-Leninism showed interest in buying the early reels of Axelbank's film collection. In all probability they were interested in filling in gaps in their own film records of Trotsky and other revolutionaries whom Stalin had eliminated from the Soviet film archives as well as from life.

From the finding aid for Herman Axelbank Film Collection, 1896-1977 (Hoover Institution Archives)

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