Tag Archives: Lenin

October (1928)

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.

Strike (1925)

Strike, Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature length film, which he made right before Battleship Potemkin in 1925, holds up so well that I have a hard time thinking of another film about the labor struggle that surpasses it. Set in 1903 in an unnamed city in pre-revolutionary Russia, Strike dramatizes a strike, then a mass uprising, then a brutal crackdown. It spells out the collusion between big government and big business so clearly that the whole film feels almost like some kind of Ur-Narrative that lurks underneath the surface of capitalism.

“The strength of the working class is organization,” we read at the end of the opening credits, a quote by Lenin. “Without organization of the masses, the proletarian is nothing. Organized it is everything. Being organized means unity of action, unity of practical activity.”

Strike is not set in the Russia of serfs and masters, orthodox churches or grand inquistors. It’s not the Russia of Tolstoy, Gorky, or even Dostoevsky. This is a westernized, 20th-century Russia. We could just as easily be in London or Chicago. Inside the factory, the workers organize for the strike they know is inevitable. The factory owners know it too. A government minister looks over photos of spies and provocateurs he’s placed inside the plant. After one of the spies steals a micrometer worth 25 rubles, three weeks pay, one worker, Yakov Strongem, is falsely accused of the theft, and then fired. He hangs himself inside the factory, and the strike is on.

At first it all goes well. The workers at the factory are indeed organized. They have a unity of action and practical activity. The men take over the plant, and conduct what would later be known as a sit down strike. The factory owners, by contrast, are frustrated. Orders pour in they can’t fill. Their scowling faces and debauched luxury testify to their guilt as a class. The proletarian quarter of the unnamed city, by contrast, has become a little utopia. In addition to unity of action and practical activity, the workers now have free time. Children play. Families go on picnics. Husbands get to know their wives.

But if the quotation that opens up the film is by Vladimir Lenin, then the film has a Leninist message. It’s not enough to strike. The workers must take political power, or, like the anarchist communards in Paris in 1870, get crushed when the ruling class and the government recover from the initial shock and organize a counter attack. A set of demands, an 8 hour day, higher wages, limitations of child labor, is not enough. The bosses close the company stores. Children go hungry. People began to sell their property at pawn shops. Married couples squabble.

Then the government and the police make their move.

Here in the United States, we tend to be naïve about police use of agents provocateurs. Even 40 years after the cointelpro papers were stolen from FBI headquarters in Media, Pennsylvania, I still had a difficult time convincing myself that Jim Dwyer’s story in the New York Times was true, that during the Republican National Convention in 2004, NYPD provocateurs really did start a bonfire near the front of the main demonstration against George W. Bush to justify locking up 2000 people without charges. It’s so commonly known that the police sent homeless people, drug addicts and rapists into Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011, that if you say “take it to Zuccotti” to a veteran of Occupy Wall Street, he immediately gets the joke.

Eisenstein has no illusions. That agents provocateurs are part of the crackdown is something he just takes for granted. Everything unfolds like a TV show you’ve seen 100 times before. Police spies photograph the leaders of the uprising. They’re rounded up, jailed, and tortured. The police then go into the underclass, what Marx would have called the lumpen proletariat, and recruit a team of homeless derelicts as arsonists, who burn down a liquor store and blame it on the strikers. The strikers are onto the plan but it doesn’t matter. They call the fire department, but the firemen, instead of putting out the fire, turn their hoses on the workers and prevent them from clearing the streets.

What’s remarkable about Strike is not that Eisenstein stages a crackdown, but how he stages the crackdown. It’s 1925, only a few years after Mussolini and his black shirts marched on Rome, but Eisenstein knows exactly what’s coming. Indeed, Strike could have just as easily been called The Birth of Fascism in a Russian Factory Town. Eisenstein may have come to adulthood after the Russian Revolution, but he understands Czarist repression in his bones.

After the cops, after the fire department, we get the army. The government in the service of the capitalists does more than just shoot a few strikers and let the rest flee in panic then come back to work the next day. They stage a full scale, almost genocidal campaign against the workers commune that had been founded during the uprising. The final scene, where soldiers shoot down hundreds of strikers while the camera cuts back to a montage of cows being chopped up in a slaughterhouse has been extensively discussed as a good example of the directors “montage” technique.

But it was the last frame, a still, that made me blood run cold. It looks like the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, not one, not ten, not dozens, but hundreds of bodies, a little holocaust in what once had been a center of rebellion. The film actually ends with a sense of optimism. Eisenstein sees the murdered strikers as heroes who gave their blood to make the Russian Revolution possible. But not even he could see what was coming in the 1930s and 1940s.