Those who have some elementary knowledge in the history of the Latvian cinema may tell that first drama movie made in independent Latvia was Es Karā Aiziedams (I am leaving for war) on 1920. The movie that has sadly not survived. But, few may know that before WWI when Latvia was a part of the Russian Empire, first three drama movies on 1913 where made by Jewish filmographers. “Where is the truth? The Tragedy of the Jewish Student”, “Listen Israel!” and “The Shoemaker Leiba”. Of all three only the first one “Where is the truth?” is conserved and can be viewable on youtube. There is some doubts that “The Shoomaker Lieba” was actually filmed outside Latvia. But, from the first scenes of the “Where is the truth?” it is clear that this movie was shot in Riga and Ventspils. A movie remarkable for its political context and still obscure information about the its producer and director S. Mintus.
Cinema was the new trend of the XX century. After it first appeared in 1895 Paris, it soon arrived in Riga. On 1901 the first cinema was built-in Riga. A decade later 1910 first documentary of the Tzar Nicholas II visiting Riga were taken. The 2 min footage by Alexander Drankov study were made and still can be viewable today. As Russian Empire allowed private movie screening business and movie making the doors were open to Latvia to make first dramatic movies. And that is where the Jewish photographer and photo equipment seller S Mintus came in. He owned his own company “S Mintus shopping house”. With enough money and connections he went on venture to film his own movies. He also owned his own cinema “The Coliseum” in Riga. Since films were valuable and were mostly rented, not copied because of the technical issues, Mintus became wealthy by renting films all across the Baltic province. The cinemas rented film to display it on their screens. Copying was possible, but it could damage the original over time.
The large Jewish community in Ukraine and Belarus were the first to make Jewish themed movies. The script was taken from theater plays and were usually based along the ethnic lines of the Jewish life. Because the Russian Tsarist censorship was more touchy about political baselines than ethnic folk stories. Odessa soon became the center of the Russian Jewish cinema. Despite the political oppression by the Tsarist government and uneasy relations with other nationals, especially during the pogroms of 1905 Jews managed to stood out before others. And the trendy film making was one of the kind.
It’s not clear was S Mintus from Latvia, or he came from Ukraine, but he was certainly inspired by the movies made by Ukrainian Jews. The 1910 “L’Haim” that was said to based on Jewish traditional song, despite there was not such was a success. It was the very first Jewish film in Russia. On 1913 the Odessa based company “Mirograf” made the movie “The Tragedy of the Jewish student” (Трагедия еврейской курсистки), also in Germany a seemingly similar movie was made. It seems that both movies from Ukraine and Germany and the one in Latvia was based on the same theater play whose author is yet to be found. Of all three the film made by S Mintus was the most known and conserved until today.
The main role of the Adele Vaitzekind was played by Falkher (name not known), Ādams Ozols as her lover Rafail, Lūcija Lilaste in unconfirmed role and Ivan Hudpoleev as the Doctor. The movie was shot in Riga and Venstpils. The opening scenes features the center of Riga during the winter. The Riga Orthodox Cathedral, the University of Latvia main building is within the scenes. At the middle of the movie despite the main character still in Riga, the actual scene is shot in Ventspils. Also many of the interior scenes were actually filmed outside as decorations. Since the scenes were taken during the cold February winds, some of the room scenes shows flowers and carpets moved by the strong wind. It was because the decorations had no roof and were affected by the strong winter winds. As silent movie it had only live piano feature, but also the preserved version had no subtitles. It was because the lines of the movie characters were spoken by actors during the movie display.
The movie plot has a very complicated and social character. The main heroine Adele is from Bessarabia (Moldova). Without her parents she arrives at Riga to look for higher knowledge. She suddenly meets her old friend Rafail Edelgertz. A love is born as two enjoy sudden rush of romance. But, then a first wave of storm hits: authorities has sent her a notification to leave Riga as her rights of residence has been removed. This was because of the old Tsarist law since the Third partition of Poland. Russian Empire after acquiring vast territories of Poland-Lithuania was not ready to deal with such a large Jewish minority. Afraid from the migration, the Tsars suppressed Jews to live outside the former borders of Poland-Lithuania. And Riga was outside the so-called “Settlement line”. Getting into Riga was tricky for many Jews, but as Russia became more liberal at the end of 19th century it was possible for more Jews to come. But, in this case her residence permit was declined.
In desperate thoughts about going back to Kishinev, Adele asks Rafail for help. He seeks the advise from an educated doctor who also knows the law. He suggests to register Adele as prostitute so she can stay in Riga. To get registered she and Rafial makes a fake date, where Rafail poses as client. Police officers catches them in the intimate situation at the table with drinks near bed. After that she moves to another apartment to clear off police suspicion.
But, the storm rashes again; Rafiel must visit his sick father. He leaves Adele all alone in Riga. And then the trouble starts. A two robbers with similar look of Adele and Rafiel attacks man on the street and robs him. In fateful coincidence the event takes place near Adele apartment and as they run off the Adele walks out the door. In similar clothes and hat the robbed victim quickly turns her to police.
This is where the movie culminates: in mental breakdown in the prison cell innocent Adele dressed in black recalls her past. In the dramatically emotional moment Adele fades into her childhood home in Kishinev. She sees her parents and the maid. A seemingly happy scene turns into nightmare when the angry mob of men invades their house and kills her parents. It was a clear reference to the Jewish pogrom of 1903 that took place in Kishinev. A more pogroms took place during 1905 revolution. This part is notable for two things. The grandiose gothic like scene of Adele loosing her mind and the spectacular fading to events in past. A genial dramatic footage for the times of 1913. Also the pogrom scene a – touchy subject sparking the Jewish will of resistance.
The real criminals are found and Adele is released, but she is sick from her mental suffering. In final scene she dies in the hands of the ruined Rafail. The original footage featured him also dying on her grave, but the 1917 version of the movie had cut that scene out. The movie was a great success, however the Tsarist authorities were not too pleased about the pogrom scene. Many had accused the Russian government on being involved in the Jewish pogroms or doing not enough to halt them. Movie screening was limited. On 1917 after the revolution the movie was re-edited and shown again.
After a year on 1914 the World War I begun. Large numbers of the Latvian Jews were forced to move to Russia. The settlement line was suddenly broken. There is no info of what happened to S Mintus and his photo and movie business. Many details about his biography are yet to be found. The Riga Jewish History Museum and Ventspils History Museum has held events commemorating this historic movie, an academic detailed account is hopefully to follow.