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Issue #1804      November 22, 2017

Eisenstein’s classic October

In the decade before the Revolution, the arts in Russia were a ferment of ideas and activity. Various avant garde movements flourished as the intelligentsia also challenged the stultifying influence of the autocracy.

October – a still from the film.

The catastrophe of the First World War provided the catalyst for the people to finally challenge Tsarism successfully in the February Revolution, that brought Kerensky to power – a move Russian capitalists hoped would see the end of pressure for revolution. When the workers and peasants refused to accept the continuation of the World War and instead overthrew Kerensky’s bourgeois government in the October Revolution, many middle class intellectuals found the consequent turmoil disorienting and confusing.

Some, like Maxim Gorki, Alexei Tolstoy, and others fled abroad to seek refuge in Russian émigré communities in France or Germany. By the mid 1920s, however, most had returned, emboldened by the reports of the new regime’s bold plans for the rejuvenation of Russia and especially such projects as the mass literacy campaign.

The arts were seen as a potent tool in this nation-wide endeavour, especially the art form most closely identified with the 20th century: cinema. Lenin said that, for the Bolsheviks, it was the “most important” art form.

Before the Revolution, Russian cinema had still been in its infancy, and for the first few years afterwards was firmly in the hands of commercial filmmakers whose escapist romantic dramas safely steered away from politics. Frustratingly for the Soviet government, these films did nothing to help develop the cause of Socialism. And then a young intellectual named Sergei Eisenstein, consumed with revolutionary fervour, made Strike.

An account of a savage industrial dispute in Tsarist Russia, Strike had no stars, no glamour. Its form was closest to documentary, but its style was like nothing seen in Russia before. Eisenstein had come to film from the “revolutionary” movement FEKS, the “Society of Eccentric Actors”, who had tried to introduce into theatre some of the avant-garde movements influencing other arts, such as Symbolism and especially Constructivism.

In film, with its ability to present – and especially to reshape – reality, Eisenstein found his ideal forté as a revolutionary artist. He was the ultimate intellectual: extremely intelligent, very well read, a master of artistic theory. Where other filmmakers, even revolutionary ones like Svevolod Pudovkin, were content to see cinema as essentially photographed play-acting, Eisenstein recognised that the key to understanding the true nature of film was to understand the role and essential part played by the film editing process.

Eisenstein analysed that process and wrote profoundly on it, demonstrating that when a filmmaker joins shot A to shot B he does not create simply A+B, but a new entity, AB. The relationship of each shot with the one before it and the one after it was the true essence of filmmaking and Eisenstein called it montage.

On the strength of his work on Strike, Eisenstein in 1925 was asked to make a film commemorating various incidents in the unsuccessful Revolution of 1905. He shot material for several sequences then went to Odessa to recreate the mutiny on the armoured cruiser Prince Potyomkin. Overwhelmed by the filmic potentialities of the Odessa steps, Eisenstein abandoned the material he had shot for other sequences, and determined to make his film solely about the Potemkin incident. This decision must have dismayed the organisers of the celebrations of the anniversary of 1905, but it gave us one of the great classics of Soviet cinema: the misnamed (in English) Battleship Potemin, a film so powerful that it was banned in many countries, including Britain, lest it stir up the masses to riot or worse.

With Potemkin’s success abroad, first in Germany then elsewhere, Soviet cinema suddenly became a force in world art. In the USSR, meanwhile, the small group of committed Soviet filmmakers were preparing their film contributions to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. Pudovkin was making The end Of St Petersburg, an excellent but stylistically conventional historical drama about people caught up in the events of 1917. Eisenstein was making October, an anything but conventional, documentary-like recreation of those momentous events.

The film took longer to edit than planned, and only scraped into the anniversary year by dint of showing a “rough cut” at the Kremlin, then returning it to Eisenstein to be finished in early 1928. The finished film, however, is splendidly photographed, but it is the editing which gives it its power. Not only the juxtaposition of shots, but even the silent film inter-titles contribute, with Eisenstein changing their size for dramatic emphasis as needed.

An interesting sidelight for us: in the sequence showing the arrest of the Provisional Government, the ministers are informed that they are under arrest by the Bolshevik Antonov. When the February Revolution broke out, Antonov was in exile – in Australia. On hearing the news, he left Australia and made his way by any means possible until he eventually got back to Petrograd to play this dramatic role in the Revolution.

October was made for a Russian audience, to whom the events and the key participants were well known. Thus, when General Kornilov, head of the “Savage Division”, tries to stage a counter-revolutionary coup, it is not necessary for Eisenstein to explain what is going on. His audience knew it already.

Longer explanatory titles would disrupt the pace and the impact of the film which I am sure you will agree certainly deserves its place as one of the most powerful classics of the silent screen.

A promotional poster for the film October.

Next article – Courting strike action

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