Shub was born, March 16, 1894, into a Jewish family of landowners in the town of Surazhe, a small town in the Chernigov region of the Ukraine, which is now the Brianskaya province of the southwest part of the Russian Federation. Her father, Ilya Roshal, was a pharmacist. Shub’s mother died when she was a young child and was also known to have one brother. Shub had a relatively privileged upbringing, which allowed her to travel to Moscow before the revolution.
By the mid-1910s, Shub had settled in Moscow to begin her study of literature at the Institute for Women’s Higher Education. There she got involved in the revolutionary fervor emerging amongst young university students.
After moving to Moscow, Shub became involved in the Soviet avant-garde world, specifically in constructivist theatre. In 1918, after working as Vsevolod Meyerhold’s private secretary in the Soviet administration at the head office of the TEO Theatre Department of the Narkompros (People’s Commissariat of Education), she began collaborating with the stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky on several theatrical projects. During this time she also became involved with the Left Front of the Arts (LEF) group.
In 1922, Shub began her film career at Goskino, the major Soviet state-owned film company. There she worked as an editor, in charge of censoring imported foreign films for domestic distribution, rendering these films “suitable” for Soviet audiences. Here she worked alongside Sergei Eisenstein, re-editing films such as the Soviet release of Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse.
Shub edited a wide range of films. Noted is her first work, a complete re-editing of Charlie Chaplin's 1916 film Carmen, which was the first Chaplin film ever to be seen in the Soviet Union.
Shub’s intensive experience at Goskino, reediting pre-revolutionary and foreign productions as well as new Soviet features, helped cultivate the journalistic style of filmmaking she is well-regarded for. Her method of editing had a substantial influence on both Dziga Vertov and Eisenstein, two of her most prominent peers.
In 1927, Shub released her first documentary, Padenie dinastii Romanovykh (The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty on YouTube). She was commissioned to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. It was released at the same time as Eisenstein’s October. However LEFists critiqued his film for being too personal, deeming the impersonality of Shub’s work more exemplary of the Revolution. Soviet film theorists praised Shub’s invisible authority as truly revolutionary, for it was consumed effectively as propaganda. In the making of these films, Shub collected an extensive amount of footage from old newsreels. The way in which she catalogued everything enabled the establishment of a filmic archive for the Russian Revolution. Shub’s extensive efforts and technical approach to filmmaking reveal her technological, political, artistic expertise.
Sergei Emolinsky, a constructivist critic associated with Soviet art journal, LEF, praises both Shub and Vertov equally for their different attitudes towards documentary film. He explains that while, “Vertov ‘threw himself on the given material, cutting it into numerous pieces, thus subordinating it to his imagination…Shub regarded each piece [shot] as to a self-sufficient, autonomous entity’.” This first-hand critique of the two methods indicate that Shub’s dedication to journalistic cinematography was the catalyst for what documentary film classifies today, compilation film.
Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) is one of Shub’s most famous surviving films and what many film historians classify as the first compilation film or Soviet montage. Shub traveled to Leningrad in 1926 to obtain the footage she needed for the film. She spent two months examining more than 60,000 meters of film (much of which was damaged) and chose 5,200 meters to take back to Moscow. She made the film because there was no visual record of the Russian Revolution. The movie is made up of stock footage and film that Shub shot herself to make up for the lack of documentation. The film covers the years 1912 to 1917, recounting the moments before, after and during World War I, and then ending with the October Revolution. The amount of footage Shub recovered and shot for this film is incredibly comprehensive. Her dedication to the project is evident and proves Shub’s skills of compiling, cataloging, and editing archival film. Shub’s contribution to the history of compilation film was influential in the United States in the 1930’s and during World War II. Historians Jack C. Ellis and Betsy A. McLane note that, “nothing like Shub’s films had existed before them, and her work remains among the finest examples of the compilation technique.
According to Shub, “the most successful and valuable filmmaking required ‘the greatest austerity of execution,’ rather than the ‘remarkable’ but irrelevant excesses…Eisenstein had indulged in when making October. Shub insisted that ‘mastery’ in filmmaking was not a matter of personal genius: ‘It is all a matter of technique…of aims and method. That is what we must talk about’.”
In 1932, Shub helped spearhead the first Soviet documentary to have sound, called Sponsor of Electrification.
Shub was married twice and had only one child with her first husband. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, she worked predominantly as an editor and spent time writing her memoirs both about her life and about filmmaking techniques. She also wrote a script titled Women (1933-34), which examined women's roles throughout history. Although this project was never filmed, the script reveals Shub's interest in feminism. Shub died on September 21, 1959, in Moscow.
Esfir Shub took the time to write her own memoirs entitled, Zhizn Moya — Kinematograf (My Life — Cinema) in the latter half of her career. More information about these memoirs can be found in Vlada Petric’s article in the Quarterly Review of Film Studies no. 4, “Esther Shub: Cinema is My Life” which is available for viewing at the New York Public Library. In her memoirs, she describes numerous films that were either never made or that the government handed to lesser-known filmmakers who were favored at the time. In her recollections, she is forthcoming about her struggle to win respect as a female theorist and practitioner in the male dominated field of Soviet cinema.1927- The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty
1927- The Great Road
1928- The Russia of Nicholas II and Lev Tolstoi
1932- Komsomol – Leader of Electrification
1942- The Native Country
1946- On the Other Side of the Araks