Thursday, September 9, 2010

Eisenstein's October

It’s election season and time to think about politics, as if we haven’t for the last 9 months.

I recently bought Eisenstein’s October, his restaging of the events leading up to the Bolshevik takeover in November 1917 (October by the Julian calendar used by the Russians until recently). I’d only seen it in bits and pieces up to this point and never all the way through. It is loosely based on John Reed’s eyewitness account in Ten Days That Shook the World. The movie was commissioned to commemorate the 10th anniversary of those events in 1927. Almost all of the movie was filmed on location in the actual places where those events took place. The movie begins with Lenin’s return from exile at the Finland Station in Saint Petersburg, and concludes with the storming of the Winter Palace and the overthrow of Kerensky’s provisional government.

Of course, it’s shameless propaganda, but it’s loads of fun, a lot more fun than watching Nazis parade around for 2 hours in that other masterpiece of shameless propaganda by Leni Riefenstahl. Unlike Riefenstahl’s movie, this one has drama, conflict, and a plot. Over the past few years, I’ve become a fan of Eisenstein’s very eccentric movies. I give Eisenstein credit for preserving a small measure of independence, even in this movie, in the face of a regime that suspected all independence and initiative. Eisenstein eventually stood up to Stalin, criticizing him on film in no uncertain terms in Ivan the Terrible part 2. Stalin pulled the plug on the movie, had his hacks condemn Ivan in the strongest terms. The frightened Eisenstein had a nervous breakdown followed by a fatal heart attack, sparing Stalin the trouble of shooting him. Rieffenstahl was a Party woman deeply loyal to Hitler to the end, and some would argue (perhaps accurately) beyond the end.

October is a thrilling drama, even though we know the outcome of events. Eisenstein uses montage, novel camera angles, rapid editing, and a first rate sense of evocative imagery to stage a scene. A great example is his re-staging of the troops of the Provisional Government firing on Bolshevik protesters on the Nevsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg in July 1917. This version is a French translation of the inter-titles, but I think you can follow it along without much narration:

The musical score was written by Shostakovich in 1966 for a re-release of the movie.

I could be wrong, but the Bolshevik with the banner who gets stomped to death by the society bitches looks a lot like Eisenstein’s co-director Grigory Alexandrov. Alexandrov was an unrequited love interest of Eisenstein. The two men remained close friends and frequent collaborators despite Eisenstein’s disappointed feelings.

Stalin and his apparatchiks didn’t like October, and neither did the Soviet public. It was too modern. Whereas Eisenstein’s previous movie Potemkin was a big hit, October was a dud with the general public. Official critics complained about Eisenstein’s “formalism,” that the viewers just wouldn’t understand it and be confused. They have a point. Eisenstein used montage a lot to preach his message instead of planting speeches in the narrative. Here is an example where Eisenstein takes apart the old “God and Country” slogan entirely with suggestive imagery. Be warned, there are some grisly spelling sins in the inter-titles.

Religion and patriotism all boil down to just so much black magic to keep the masses enchanted and dominated, according to Eisenstein. Never mind that Eisenstein was doing his part in enchanting those masses with another form of black magic. I can see how some people might have scratched their heads in 1927 over the spectacle of the colossus of Tsar Alexander III re-assembling itself. We are accustomed to montage narration, but in 1927, it was still very new to audiences used to melodramas.

How true was the movie to the actual events? Probably not very much. The actual takeover of the Winter Palace was a lot less dramatic than how Eisenstein staged it in the movie. Most of the defenders of the Provisional Government surrendered readily. There were only 2 fatalities that whole night. A group of Bolshevik soldiers and sailors broke into the Palace, got lost in its vastness, and blundered into the cabinet of the Provisional Government. The soldiers arrested them, and had them write out their own arrest warrants since the soldiers were all illiterate. That was the beginning of the world’s first communist regime.

I think it is interesting to compare this movie as propaganda with Riefenstahl’s masterpiece made 7 years later. In The Triumph of the Will, Hitler is always front and center, even when he doesn’t appear on screen. The whole thing is one long pageant of Hitler as the Messiah come to save the German people and to end history in victory. The German people play an exclusively supporting role in Triumph of the Will. In October, Lenin plays a marginal role, and appears on screen only briefly. The protagonist in October is the people of Saint Petersburg who do all the suffering and fighting, and are crowned with glory in the end. The event itself was not very democratic (the Bolshevik Revolution was an armed coup d’etat), but Eisenstein’s retelling of it is very democratic, and passionately so. Eisenstein, like Riefenstahl, was a true believer in his Party. The power of his later movies comes from his disillusionment with that faith. I don’t know, but I suspect that its democratic quality was another reason for Stalin’s unhappiness with October. There was too much popular initiative and not enough Party guidance to suit him. There were too many scenes of nameless people pulling together, and not enough of named leaders leading the loyal and obedient masses. Maybe that’s why this movie remains so compelling almost 20 years after the regime Lenin founded collapsed in corruption and bankruptcy.

There's a great copy in a German version of the movie of the climactic Storming the Winter Palace scene on YouTube, but the embedding had been disabled. If you want to see it (and I highly recommend it), then go here.

The character who looks like Raskolnikov in a broad brimmed hat leading the Bolshevik charge and then later signing the paperwork for the transfer of power is Nikolai Podvoisky who actually led the storming of the palace. He really did sign the paperwork and the arrest warrants. Here, he does a much more dramatic re-enactment of that star turn in history.

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