Any historical film movement is usually going to get discussed in terms of the biggest name-brand directors responsible for the biggest name-brand films, and so it was with the Soviet Montage movement. Any cinephile worthy of the name will know Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov at least by name, and anyone who likes their work enough to do some digging will be able to come up with Alexander Dovzhenko and Vsevolod Pudovkin. Anyone who went to film school had damned well better know the name Lev Kuleshov, but they might not know that he was a director in addition to an editing theorist, and that's pretty much where it stops.

That is to say, that's not where it stops at all, of course; the Soviet film industry wasn't as robust as the Hollywood industry, obviously, but there were plenty of filmmakers active in the 1920s - they weren't even all involved with Montage theory, but let's try to keep things simple. Because the director I'd like to introduce you to now was working according to Montage principles, though a very personalised version of those principles that had very little to do with Eisenstein's hot and fanciful ideas. She was also the most prominent (perhaps only) woman directing films in the Soviet Union at this time, though I think that's not her most important claim to historical importance: she also invented, pretty much all by herself, an entirely new genre of film that remains important almost a century later, the stock footage documentary.

I give you Esfir Shub, everybody, and I hope this bully pulpit of mine is worth something, because she is a damned interesting filmmaker and I'd like more people to know who in the hell she is. The only one of her films to remain particularly accessible is the 1927 The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, her first major work as director (she'd been working for a decade as an editor), but it's enough to convince me that what survives of her work needs more care and attention. It was one of many projects commissioned by this or that arm of the Soviet government as part of the ten-year anniversary celebrations of the October Revolution, and like many of them, it tells a potted version of the official story of how the life of the proletarian Russian was one of misery and exploitation in service to the callous whims of the ruling classes.

Shub's approach to storytelling, like most of her contemporaries, is based in the holy power of editing, though The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty bears no real resemblance to anything by Eisenstein or those influenced by him. Even less does it resemble Vertov's work, and he's the most obvious point of comparison as the most prominent documentary filmmaker of that moment and place (though it seems unlikely at best that Shub and Vertov would have considered that they were working in the same genre; indeed "documentary" as a genre is a substantially younger conceit than that). Vertov's most famous film, Man with a Movie Camera, is a kaleidoscopic fever dream of moments captured from life and reconstituted as aesthetic objects, with the juxtaposition of shots creating impressions and feelings more after the fashion of a symphony (I would call Vertov the most musical of Soviet directors, in fact, and I am certain that Eisenstein would be heartbroken to hear that). Shub's film is entirely dedicated to narrative clarity - to journalistic reportage, for that matter. For all its obscurity and the frankly unengaging content of the film to anybody who's not invested in Russian/Soviet history or the rhetoric of propaganda, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty is easily the most familiar, watchable Soviet movie from the back half of the 1920s that I've ever seen. Shub's strategies for assembling footage have been used by countless documentarians of very sort over the intervening decades; show us something that happened in vintage footage, drop in a title card explaining it, show us the next thing. And along the way, be certain to imply that people in one bit of stock footage are are looking at something happening in another bit of stock footage, to create the illusion it all took place simultaneously. To name only the films that come to mind with the least amount of effort, anybody who has seen Asif Kapadia's highly celebrated compilation documentaries Senna or Amy will be right at home here.

So easy, so damn conventional does The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty seem, I think it genuinely runs the risk of being easy to take for granted what it's doing. But, really, put yourself in 1927. The very idea that there was even this thing called "archival footage" was barely older than the film itself, and here was Shub, not merely pillaging the archives of the Soviet Union for their wonderful fragments of recent history, but actually doing something with those fragments that made it seem like they had never been conceived with any other purpose to show up in her movie. At the time the film was made, the goal was unapologetic propaganda, of course: to contrast shots of everyday Russians shuffling about aimlessly with shots of the ruling Romanovs swirling about in their fancy outfits on their fancy boats and such; to linger on images of the Russian military being buffed to a blinding gleam while the suffering of ordinary folks was held to be of such little merit that there isn't even footage of them, just the implication of title cards and a looming, conspicuous absence.

I'm not sure, honestly, how effective any of this might have even been as propaganda; the shots of the parties and extravagance of the ruling classes is striking, to be sure, Shub doesn't have the luxury - or more likely, the inclination - to go for the kind of pointed, rhetorically aggressive gestures like the slaughterhouse montage in Strike. Shub's style is retiring and relatively objective; we know from her writings that she viewed the excess of more florid examples of montage filmmaking as less interesting than simplicity and directness - and this, too, makes her a progenitor to documentary filmmakers who likely never once heard her name.

It is pretty amazingly interesting as a repository of striking historical footage. And I speak here as someone for whom a great time-waster is watching a dozen or two actualitรฉs from the 1890s and 1900s - the simple perfection of the compositions and the representation of a thoroughly dead and forgotten period of human life gives these films a fascinating aesthetic charge that's different from anything else you could ever experience in cinema. So I get it, I'm a fucking weirdo. But anyway, the simple matter of encountering the footage Shub curated is already enough for me to be onboard with The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. Life in Russia between 1914 and 1917 is hard to imagine, was probably already hard to remember by the end of the 1920s; and here we are with more than 80 minutes worth of footage showing it off.

But Shub's not merely a curator, she's telling us the story of how revolution came to Russia (though it was commissioned for the anniversary of the October Revolution, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty only goes as far as the February Revolution that ended the reign of Tsar Nicholas II earlier in 1917). And as a piece of storytelling assembled from brief flashes and fragments, this is a magnificent piece of work. It is by no means the flashiest demonstration of Kuleshov's famous theories about how the viewer will subconsciously make emotional and narrative connections between moments joined through an edit, but it's among the most successful. Particularly near its end, as the Revolution ends in the return of Lenin to Russia, the film's fluid movement between places and crowds creates an impressive sense of broad-scale enthusiasm quickly sweeping the streets - and for that matter, Shub's nimble erasure of the month between Nicholas's abdication and Lenin's return suggest an inevitable wave of events rushing in. So perhaps it is good propaganda.

Whatever it is, it's a remarkable bit of storytelling, using the generative capacity of cinema like it had never been used before - the very conspicuousness of the editing serves to hide the artifice of the editing, in a strange way. It's an incredible experiment, one that predicted much of what cinema would and could do in the future, from Orson Welles's patchwork Othello 25 years later, on to the proliferation of jokey internet-based reappropriations of news footage. It would be silly to over-credit Shub for inventing all these things; The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty never took its place in any film canon, and I've little doubt that most of the director's heirs had the slightest idea she ever existed. But she did; she got their first; and despite how limited in anything resembling entertainment value this film might be, she pretty much got it 100% right on the first try.