My favorite “actuality” of the early 20th century, as opposed to a fictional narrative like D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat, is probably Joseph-Louis Mundwiller’s Moscow Clad in Snow from 1908. Commissioned by the French studio Pathe Freres, this seven minute documentary of the title city is the one and only directorial credit of a man who would enjoy a lengthy career as a cinematographer (including work on such esteemed titles as Abel Gance’s Napolean, Raymond Bernard’s The Chess Player and Pierre Chenal’s Crime and Punishment). It also probably offers the most fascinating images of Russian life of any movie made prior to the Bolshevik revolution. This is, for all intents and purposes, the best chance you have to see the “same Russia” that you can read about in the masterpieces of 19th century Russian literature.
The film is divided into four chapters, each of which is prefaced by an intertitle. The first section (THE KREMLIN – MARSHAL’S BRIDGE) begins with a sweeping panoramic shot of a majestic building seen in a long shot taken from such a great distance that the people walking in front of it look like insects. Mundwiller then moves in for closer views as his camera slowly pans from left to right or right to left in front of the building’s peaceful, snow-blanketed exteriors. We see people walking around, bundled up in heavy coats, hats and scarves, and traveling in one-horse open sleighs. At one point, a procession of army officers carrying rifles with fixed bayonets walks past the camera. This section ends with a thrilling shot of a busy Moscow street during a heavy snowfall. If not for the horses, this could be any large city today.
The second section of the film (TWO MONTHS OUT OF THE YEAR A BIG TRADE IN MUSHROOMS AND FISH IS CARRIED ON) takes place in an open market and offers us a chance to see the citizens of Moscow up close. Once again we see several pan shots, this time of merchants and patrons in the market, many of whom stare at the camera out of idle curiosity. They clearly don’t yet know what it means to be filmed; there is none of the instinctive hamming (or camera shyness) that you would find in similarly candid shots taken today. For me, witnessing the humanity of these ordinary people is the film’s emotional high point.
The third section (PETROVSKY PARK) takes place in a heavily wooded public park. Being a rural area, the accumulated snowfall seen on the ground here is considerably greater than in the earlier scenes. This section begins with a shot of more horse-drawn sleighs as the camera pans with them from left to right and right to left. The scene ends with a lovely shot of a group of men and women walking past the camera single-file with the aid of skis and ski poles.
The final section is a kind of coda (GENERAL VIEW OF MOSCOW) consisting of two more panoramic shots, this time taken from an extremely high angle that allows us to see the rooftops of the city’s many prodigious buildings. The angles here are so high and the frame crammed with so many buildings that no people (and not even much snowfall) is visible. In the first of these shots the camera pans from left to right and in the second it pans from right to left, which creates a feeling of perfect symmetry and closure. In seven minutes Joseph-Louis Mundwiller has used the most basic tools of film language (documentary shots of real locations and a system of meaningfully organizing them) to create an invaluable, evocative portrait of an era that would soon vanish forever. Moscow Clad in Snow is a film as wonderfully simple and straightforward as its title.
Moscow Clad in Snow is available on Kino Video’s The Movies Begin Volume 1 DVD and is accompanied by a sublime “needle drop” score from the public domain. It can also be viewed on YouTube here: