Monday, February 13, 2017

Found! "The German Curse in Russia" (USA, 1918)

In 1917 American cameraman Donald C. Thompson was one of the few cinematographers to film the Russian Revolution. For many years the authors have been searching for his extraordinary film which covered a major historic event. Now finally we can say that persistence has paid off again.

Film poster The German Curse in Russia (USA, 1918)

When Thompson reached Petrograd in February 1917 the city was the scene of riots and demonstrations against the Tsarist regime. He was on the spot with his film camera when the Petrograd regiments joined the strikers and a provisional government was formed. Thompson also covered the release of prisoners and the defense of the Winter Palace against the Bolsheviks. In the summer of 1917 he was present at the front to film the collapse of the Russian army.

The title of Thompson's film is a good summary of its contents. According to him, the peace that Russia signed when the Bolsheviks took over was no fault of her own, but the result of German political intrigues and propaganda. How he conveyed this message in his film is described in more detail in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War.

Thompson (left) at the Russian front, June 1917. Copied from his picture book The Crime of the Twentieth Century (1918)

After a first run at the Strand Theater in New York The German Curse in Russia was released by Pathé in the USA in January 1918 as a five-reel production. We located parts of Thompson's movie in the Axelbank Collection which was used for the 1937 documentary From Tsar to Lenin. From 1920, Herman Axelbank assembled an impressive film collection on Russia, gathered from various sources. These included footage shot by several Russian cameramen. Surviving bills of sale show Axelbank also bought film sometime in the 1920s from the Jawitz Motion Picture Library in New York City, a stock film company. Although Pathé controlled distribution rights of Thompson's movie Jawitz somehow had secured Thompson's original footage, showing the events in Petrograd and Moscow during the Russian Revolution. Through Jawitz Axelbank bought Thompson's film (or parts of it) which was used by Axelbank in his edit for the sound documentary From Tsar to Lenin.

"Women's Battalions of Death"

By comparing Thompson's photographs taken in Russia, as well as publicity pictures from his movie, we could do a reconstruction of scenes that were originally shot for The German Curse in Russia. Of special interest are shots showing the all-female combat units which were formed by the Provisional Government in 1917 in a last-ditch effort to inspire the Russians to continue the war against Germany. These Women's Battalions were filmed extensively by Thompson. Axelbank's films have a scene showing its commander Maria Bochkareva and British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, inspecting these young female soldiers. The scene has a full match with Thompson's pictures and was no doubt filmed by Thompson.

Maria Bochkareva and British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, inspecting the Women's Battalion. Scene from Thompson's film The German Curse in Russia (1918) 

Axelbank probably culled many additional scenes from Thompson's film such as sequences showing the burial of the victims of the February Revolution, the demonstrations on May 1, 1917 by the Bolsheviks and the rise of the Kronstadt sailors against the Tsar. Although we have no way of knowing for sure, the World War I battle footage from Axelbank's collection has a remarkable similarity with photographs taken by Thompson on the Dvinsk front in June 1917. These could also very well have been from his film The German Curse in Russia.

Here is a link to photographs from Thompson's book The Crime of the Twentieth Century (1918) on the Russian Revolution. 

And now, after almost 100 years, we present you a rough reconstruction of The German Curse in Russia - how it may have looked, based on Thompson's still pictures and film scenes that were used by Herman Axelbank. Enjoy!



  1. Congratulations on this fantastic piece of detective work. I have been a huge fan of Donald Thompson since discovering him when researching my new book 'Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917'. He is one of the heroes of my book! I tried and tried to trace a surviving print of this film but to no avail, but like you I tracked down surviving footage to the Axelbank film, in collaboration with US film historian David H Mould, who has written on Thompson. It's so great to see what there is compiled into a possible scenario. Thank you for your scholarship. Please keep me posted on any other news about Thompson's work at my website,

  2. Thank you, will keep you posted on any updates!

  3. Wonderful achievement! The jigsaw puzzle of Thompson's career and work still has a few bits missing, but you've filled in a major piece. I did my initial research on Thompson in the early 1980s (I'd come across him while doing my MA at the University of Kansas, and even interviewed a relative in Topeka about his later career in Asia). Of course, I've been wondering (and occasionally looking) for The German Curse in Russia for many years, and despaired of ever locating it until Helen mentioned the Axelbank collection and the film purchase from Jawitz. The issue has also been on my mind recently because I was asked to annotate and write an introduction to Donald Thompson in Russia, which is due to be republished by Slavica Press (in a series of books by Americans who were in Russia in 1917) later this year. So this is all very exciting. I now feel I am getting close to having the complete Thompson collection. I had worked with the footage from Somewhere in France and War As It Really Is many years ago, and in 2015 presented the remaining 23 mins of With the Russians at the Front at the McCormick Museum in Chicago (where I hd time to dig into McCormick's papers and diaries, which had some stuff on the 1915 trip with Thompson). I have your book but would love to meet and discuss sometime. David

    1. Many thanks for this, David. Let's keep in touch and keep up the good work!