One of most celebrated scenes from Eisenstein’s October.
The career of Russian film maker Sergei Eisenstein, who lived from 1898 to 1948, can roughly be divided into three phases. In his mid-20s, he made Strike, October, and the iconic Battleship Potemkin. He spent most of his 30s in the wilderness, first in Hollywood, and then in Mexico, where most of his work ended up either incomplete or destroyed. He ended his life as the court film maker for Joseph Stalin’s peculiar amalgam of communism and Russian nationalism, giving us Alexander Nevsky in 1938, Ivan the Terrible: Part I in 1944, and Ivan the Terrible Part II in 1947, which, although suppressed during his lifetime, is arguably is greatest film.
October, sometimes known as Ten Days That Shook the World and made for the 10th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, is an ambitious yet ultimately unsatisfying film. The Soviet government gave Eisenstein thousands of extras, a huge budget, and full run of the Winter Palace. He gave them more than their money’s worth, turning out a visual recreation of the events of July and October of 1917 so vivid and yet so realistic that it’s often shown in history classes as if it were documentary footage.
What makes October effective propaganda is how Eisenstein re-imagines Lenin’s relentless yet gradual takeover of the Russian state in 1917 as a single dramatic event. Yes, the storming of the Winter Palace did happen in 1917. In reality it was more of a walk into the Winter Palace than a storming of the Winter Palace. Nevertheless, we subconsciously conflate history and myth. It becomes, in effect, not the final stage of a coup, but the second coming of the fall of the Bastille. Indeed, while in our minds, we know that Lenin overthrew the shell of a liberal and social democratic provisional government, setting the final scene at the Winter Palace tricks our emotions into believing he overthrew the monarchy itself. Eisenstein took Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli’s monumental structure, and flipped the script on it. Where Catherine the Great intended The Winter Palace to showcase the eternal power of Imperial Russia, Eisenstein uses it to put the final nail in the Romanov coffin.
Then why did I find myself falling asleep during the last half hour?
October is basically two films, triumphalist state propaganda coexisting with revolutionary agitprop. Strike and Battleship Potemkin are two of the greatest pieces of revolutionary agitprop. Their intention is not to prop up a state, but to condemn one, not to celebrate the Bolshevik victory in 1917, but to protest Czarist and, more importantly, capitalist oppression. Strike ends in a massacre. Battleship Potemkin ends with a call for ongoing struggle, but is mainly known for the massacre on the Odessa Steps. Eisenstein’s intention, in both films, is to fill us with rage against the oppressor, to call us to arms, and, ultimately, revolution. Sergei Eisenstein, like all great poets, was most comfortable when he was in the opposition.
Yet how could he have made a film on the scale of October had the Bolsheviks not already won, had he not had the backing of the state in addition to his genius? He did go through a period of exile in the late 1920s and 1930s where he made a great but unfinished film in Mexico. But that was all in the future. In 1927, at the tender age of 28, he was commissioned by the Soviet government, which he believed in passionately, to do a film about the storming of the Winter Palace. In the late 1920s, Eisenstein was, essentially, the Bolshevik court filmmaker. Yet unlike Leni Riefenstahl, he wasn’t a fascist. Ivan the Terrible Part II, his final film, which he had intended partly to flatter Joseph Stalin, was suppressed. The intention was to glorify the dictator. The result was a honest, complex film that pissed the dictator off.
October is the dramatic recreation of two events that took place in 1917, the Storming of the Winter Palace and the — much less known outside of Russia — July Days. During the first half of October Eisenstein shows us how the Czar, who had led Russia into the holocaust of World War I, was overthrown in February of 1917 by a spontaneous uprising of workers and mutinous soldiers. St. Petersburg was left with a situation of dual power. There was the liberal, yet ruling class “provisional government,” which was determined to maintain the existing property relations and continue the war with Germany, and the soldiers and workers councils, “the Soviets,” dominated but not exclusively run by the Bolsheviks.
In July of 1917, against the wishes of the Bolshevik leadership, a mass rally was staged to protest the continued involvement of Russia in the war. It’s here where October really shines. The surging masses will remind you of the Battle of Algiers. You’ll gasp when government troops machine gun a group of marchers. It’s here you’ll find the film’s most famous scene, a white horse hanging from a drawbridge raised high over the Neva River. Eisenstein is the poet of industrial civilization. Only he could have combined the image of flesh and metal, both idealized, the beautiful white horse stopped dead in its tracks, the power of engines lifting the mighty span into the air. For anybody who’s tempted to condemn Eisenstein for making a film for the Soviet government, it’s important to remember that the provisional government under Kerensky government did actually kill over 700 people in July of 1917. They were determined to continue feeding Russian peasants and workers into the meat grinder in the west. The Bolsheviks did have popular support. But that popular support, in the end, is what makes the second half of the film so much less vivid than the first. Kerensky fled to the United States. The attempted coup by General Kornilov had been beaten back by red guards, and the Winter Palace was guarded only by a poorly armed and trained group of women soldiers, who quickly surrendered after the Bolsheviks had the palace surrounded. By mid October, the Bolsheviks had already effective seized power. The rest was anti-climax.
Indeed, never was there a more thrilling, heart pounding defeat or a duller more soporific victory than the two halves of October. Eisenstein was working for the Soviet Union, but, to loosely paraphrase William Blake, he was the true poet. He was always on the side of the oppressed and the defeated. Making a film about his own side winning was never easy.