October (Ten Days that Shook the World) (1927)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
“We have the right to be proud that to us fell the good fortune of beginning the building of the Soviet State and by doing so, opening a new chapter in the history of the world.”
- Vladimir Lenin
"In the light of the resolutions of the Central Committee, all workers in art must...fully subordinate our creative work to the interests of the education of the Soviet people. From this aim we must not take one step aside nor deviate a single iota. We must master the Lenin-Stalin method of perceiving reality and history... This is a guarantee that our cinematography will be able to surmount all the ideological and artistic failures...and will again begin to create pictures of high quality, worthy of the Stalinist epoch."
Eisenstein's epic drama comes as close to being an eyewitness documentary account about Lenin and the Socialist Revolution as possible since Nikolai Podvolsky and other leaders of the uprising served as consultants. Filming the events in their actual locations in Petrograd (later to be named Leningrad before returning to St. Petersburg) give the film added credibility that historians will find especially fascinating—especially notable is the storming of the actual Winter Palace. On the other hand, modern viewers with little interest in the Russian Revolution will think October overdoes its history, as occasionally events feel like they are tediously filmed in real time.
Nevertheless, Eisenstein ranks as a leading film grammarian—his editing techniques and use of creative camera angles have been studied and imitated for years. Given free creative reign and a large budget to produce October, Eisenstein pulls out all the cinematic tricks he can muster with his impressionistic style and ability construct incredibly complex large-scale mob scenes.
Imagine the technical challenge of staging such scenes in 1927! Filmmakers couldn't rely on CGI to fill in for the thousands of extras involved with these massive scenes. Much like his famous Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, the famous director communicates a sense of the chaos through a montage that combines large scale shots, a slowly rising bridge with dead horse attached, more intimate shots of a woman with hair draped over the bridge, and a fallen corpse. Individually many of these shots would appear to be lifted from a surrealistic Goya painting, but taken as a whole it makes sense and can only be Eisenstein. This bridge montage stands as the highlight of the historic film.
Beginning with the symbolic deposition of the Csar with the toppling of the Alexander II statue in Petrograd in February, Eisenstein's film outlines highlights of the early stages of the revolution amidst joyful and patriotic music. The initial exuberance becomes more somber when the Russians realize that the Provisional government has brought “no peace, no bread, and no land” after five months in power.
Lenin returns to rally the people, but counter-revolutionaries put down a spontaneous revolt (that inspires the famous bridge montage) Lenin must hide underground until the fateful ten days in October that truly shake the world.
While blatantly propagandistic, the film is surprisingly even-handed towards the Bourgeoisie government for the most part. However, as the crucial October date approaches Eisenstein juxtaposes images of Napoleon with Menshevik leader Alexander Kerensky and later associates the leader with golden peacocks and oppulance. Contrasted with these obvious symbols are simple images promoting the Bolshevik cause: Bread, Peace, Land, and Brotherhood.
The two-hour film will likely provide more details about the Russian Revolution than most non-Russian history specialists desire while others will resent the film's core political message, but film students will continue to gain by closely examining Eisenstein's artistic expression.
By no means does October represent the most coherent of Eisenstein's films. At times it seems that the filmmaker is experimenting with the medium, but still many parts continue to be engaging. MTV could learn some lessons from this great master—he certainly leaves us far more memorable montages than anything that modern copycat filmmakers have created.