In 1926, the October Revolution Jubilee Committee pulled Sergei Eisenstein, Grigorii Aleksandrov, and cameraman Eduard Tisse away from Generalnaia Liniia (The General Line, eventually completed in 1929) to begin work on a new film. Commissioned along with Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Konets Sankt-Peterburga (The End of St. Petersburg, 1927), Boris Barnet’s Moskva v Oktiabre (Moscow in October, 1927), and Esfir Shub’s Velikii put (The Great Way, 1927), Oktyabr (October) was slated to premiere at the Bolshoi Theater, on 7 November 1927, ten years to the day after the Bolsheviks had taken power.
For almost a generation, cineastes had been free to invent a language for this new medium in order to educate, and sometimes entertain, the masses. As Mark Cousins and Kevin Macdonald write in their anthology Imagining Reality, “The overthrow of the old order gave licence to iconoclasm, experimentation, and re-evaluation of all the arts, but particularly in cinema, which for the first time in its short life was taken seriously by intellectuals, artists, and politicians” (1).
October was only his third feature film, yet Eisenstein had already distinguished himself as a master among Russian montage filmmakers. Both Stachka (Strike, 1924), which extolled the virtues of the working class solidarity, and Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), about the 1905 mutiny aboard a battleship in the Tsar’s navy, combined extreme close-ups with documentary-style action, all composed in daring Constructivist diagonals and cut together at a revolution-inducing pace. Eisenstein declared, as Lev Kuleshov had before him, that editing was the soul of cinema, arguing that the juxtaposition of shots – not the shots themselves – gave moving images their meaning, and that actors were props used to serve that meaning. For a time, it seemed the star-driven story film, already codified as Hollywood doctrine, had a significant rival. The proletariat was ready for its close-up.
After three months of scriptwriting that began in January, Eisenstein and co-writer/co-director Grigorii Aleksandrov started shooting in April. They took over the streets of Leningrad – renamed from Petrograd in 1924 – where all locations played themselves. At the corner of Sadovaya Street and Nevsky Prospect, where 20 years earlier the 17-year-old civil engineering student Eisenstein had watched from a doorway as the Tsar’s troops fired on demonstrating workers, eager thousands volunteered to participate in the recreation of the July Days unrest. The stormy debates at the Smolny Institute, the former girls’ school where the representatives of the soviets shouted out their disagreements in smoke-choked proximity, were based on John Reed’s account in Ten Days That Shook the World – a portrayal emulated in Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), 60 years later. Even the battleship Aurora was given leave to take part in the filming.
Pudovkin was shooting simultaneously at some of these same locations for his story of a peasant who comes to St. Petersburg in search of work and finds his revolutionary zeal. “I bombarded the Winter Palace from the Aurora”, wrote Pudovkin, “while Eisenstein bombarded it from the Fortress of St. Peter and Paul” (2). According to British filmmaker and critic Ivor Montagu, who later accompanied Eisenstein on his tour abroad, they all doped themselves to keep up with the hectic production. They took other liberties, too, for instance, detonating more ordnance for the reenactment of the storming of the Winter Palace than the Red Army used during the actual event (3). No matter. Some footage in October fooled news agencies into publishing the film’s stills as the real thing.
Eschewing traditional protagonists, Eisenstein further developed what he called the “mass-epical” – in which the masses rather than an individual hero drive events. While director Barnet used the real-life Stalin and Bukharin for Moscow in October, Eisenstein preferred look-alikes to play historical characters, choosing lorry driver Vasili Nikandrov for Lenin, whom he also portrayed in Pudovkin’s film. (Lenin’s widow Nadya Krupskaia criticised the choice for not embodying her husband’s charisma – the proletariat presumably fine for everyone but the man speaking for them.) He used “types” for everyone else – the reactionary bourgeoisie who beat on the workers with parasols, the fur-topped members of General Kornilov’s counter-revolutionary Caucasian Native Division (“the Savage Division”), the formidable women of the Death Battalion reclining in their lingerie at the Winter Palace on the night of November 6.
From the “montage of attractions” pioneered in Strike, Eisenstein moved away from eliciting emotions to what he called “intellectual montage”, constructing and combining shots to communicate a larger idea. The power-mad dandy Kerenskii is intercut with a mechanical peacock and, through multiple exposures, a tank smashes a statue of Napoleon on Kerenskii’s desk. In the Deity sequence, Eisenstein exposes religion as superstitious nonsense in a series of jump cuts from icon to icon: “a baroque Christ with a huge mask of Uzume, Goddess of Mirth, and a ferocious Chinese dragon, a roly-poly Buddha. The Hindu god-goddess Shiva, an Eskimo carving, and a South Sea island mask.” (4)
Eisenstein constructed his film not only to celebrate the people’s victory but also to move them to revolutionary action. But the resulting film only moved the Party to censor it. The Jubilee audience saw just a few reels of the still unfinished October. Recut to excise Trotsky from the revolution’s narrative, it was released in March 1928 and, that same month, the Party Conference on Cinema convened to scold Eisenstein for baffling the people with esoteric montages. Writing in 1929, Eisenstein explained his original intent, defending some segments and regretting others, calling one a “means ossified into lifeless literary symbolism and stylistic mannerism” (5). His later critiques became indistinguishable from public recantations.
The General Line was revised in accordance with the now obligatory collectivisation process before its release as Staroye i novoye (The Old and the New) in 1929. Eisenstein was sent abroad, along with Tisse and Aleksandrov, to study the new technology of sound. He wrote a few scripts for Paramount, none of which he got to direct. Nor did he get to complete Que Viva Mexico!, pieces of which were sold off by disgruntled financier Upton Sinclair. (In 1979, Aleksandrov edited the repatriated footage based on their collective notes.) Eisenstein also left an unfinished short film about the dangers of backroom abortion in the hands of his German colleagues.
During his four years in the moviemaking capitals of the world, he completed only the short sound experiment Romance sentimentale (co-directed by Aleksandrov, 1930). Stalin recalled him to the Soviet Union in 1933, sending the secret police on a visit to the filmmaker’s mother as added incentive. Back at home Eisenstein embarked on another film about collectivisation, then reaching a bloody crescendo in the countryside. Bezhin lug (Bezhin Meadow), written with Isaac Babel, one of his many doomed comrades, was suppressed before ever being completed. He did not make another film until well after ample supplication at 1935’s All-Union Creative Conference on Cinematographic Affairs, the sole purpose of which seemed to be to attack “poor Sergei Eisenstein” (6).
Today, it’s hard to imagine the joy felt when the Bolsheviks came to power, promising Peace, Land, and Bread to be followed by a worldwide revolution liberating all of the downtrodden, or a time in which art in the service of revolution seemed like a good idea. In a letter to French critic Léon Moussinac in November 1928, Eisenstein already felt micromanaged: “People are beginning to notice heartbreaking symptoms of pre-revolutionary times even among the avant-garde…. And what is worse, this is the tendency of the people for whom we are working.” (7) Stalin’s iron fist had clamped shut and, rather than furthering the people’s revolution, October marked its end and the beginning of what Stuart Liebman laments as the “most dispiriting” chapter in film history (8). What is easy to imagine is Eisenstein, in private moments, regretting art created in the service of anything but art.
- Kevin Macdonald and Marc Cousins, Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary, Faber and Faber, London, 2006, p. 48.
- Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of Russian and Soviet Film, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1983, p. 235.
- Robert A. Rosenstone, “October as History”, Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice no. 5, Summer 2001, p. 273.
- Murray Sperber, “Eisenstein’s October”, Jump Cut no. 14, 1977: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC14folder/October.html.
- Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, ed. and trans. Jay Ledya, Harcourt Brace, San Diego and New York, 1977, p. 58.
- Denise J. Youngblood, Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era, 1918–1935, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1991, p. 231.
- James Goodwin, Eisenstein, Cinema, and History, University of Illinois Press, Bloomington, 1993, p. 81.
- Stuart Liebman, “Once Upon a Time in Soviet Cinema”, Cineaste vol. 24, no. 1, December 1998, pp. 76–81.
October (1928 USSR 103 mins)
Prod Co: Sovkino Dir, Scr: Sergei Eisenstein, Grigorii Aleksandrov Phot: Eduard Tisse Cam Asst: Vladimir Nilsen, Vladimir Popov Art Dir: Vasili Kovrigin
Cast: Vasili Nikandrov, Nikola Popov, Boris Livanov, Lyaschenko, Eduard Tisse