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Red October

Alex Thomas

October
Dir. Sergei Eisenstein (1928)
Accompanied by London Symphony Orchestra
@ the Barbican, 26th October, 2017

(c) Kino Klassika

 

One hundred years ago, the Russian capital St Petersburg, or Petrograd as it was then known, was witnessing scenes that would turn into the greatest geopolitical upheaval of the 20th Century, and that would come to define human history right up to the present day. In London, far from Moscow or St Petersburg, there has been an endless parade of events and shows to commemorate the centenary year of this momentous time. This fact is both a tribute to the cultural vibrancy of the city, and a telling indictment of the politics of present-day Russia. For the current regime, the legacy of the Revolution, in all its complex ambiguities, is easier to ignore than to embrace. It was not much simpler, however, for the young Soviet government on the decennial anniversary, still busily rewriting the history books as power struggles consumed its leading figures, until only one remained. In the cultural sphere of the day, after the triumphant success of Battleship Potemkin in 1925 – a film that stands as one of the greatest achievements of silent cinema, and which inspired generations of filmmakers and artists, Francis Bacon famously amongst them – the maverick director Sergei Eisenstein found himself in high demand. A committed communist himself, Eisenstein had planned to make a film about the events of October 1917 as the final part of his revolutionary triptych of films – succeeding The Strike (1925) and the aforementioned Battleship Potemkin. His “October” film was highly anticipated, received enthusiastic state support, and was to be released in commemoration of the ten-year anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power. What resulted was the most challenging (and perhaps most problematic) work in the filmmaker’s career. The authorities did not like October – it was partly censored, and a bowdlerized version was eventually released to muted reaction some months after the jubilee had passed in early 1928. By this point, Eisenstein’s theories of montage had reached their zenith, and the average cinema-goer in the 1920s (semi-literate urban proletariat and illiterate rural peasants drawn into the cities) was left baffled by the highly intellectualised, tendentious montage sequences that the director saw as conditioning the viewer to the correct political message, regardless of whether they understood it or not. Against this historical backdrop comes Kino Klassika‘s long overdue restoration of Eisenstein’s avant-garde masterpiece, which was reunited with a remastered version of the original score for one night only in a performance at the Barbican in October with the London Symphony Orchestra.

October is about as far from an historically realistic account of the events of 1917 as is Walt Disney’s Anastasia. There was no grand showdown between the loyalist troops and the Bolsheviks in Palace Square for one, nor any great mass wave of proletariat that swept away the Provisional Government and all corrupted bourgeois filth along with it, as seen in the climax of Eisenstein’s film. In reality, the legendary “storming” of the Winter Palace was carried out by around a hundred people, who met little to no resistance along the way. The moral righteousness of the revolutionary characters now comes across as humorous, rather than educative as intended, as we see the Bolshevik foot soldiers destroy the royal wine cellar and thwart the attempts of staff to loot the palace silver on their way out. In fact, the looting was widespread on both sides. The scenes featuring Lenin and Trotsky (the latter now restored to the film having been cut from the original after his exile by Stalin in 1927) now stir up gentle chortles more than genuine emotion – be it admiration or disgust – from the armchairs of the comfortably affluent Western audience at the Barbican on a Thursday evening in 2017. But to try to critique the film as an historical document is to be trapped in our own very Western ideas of accuracy and objectivity. Such concepts were radically challenged by the post-structuralists, and now in the era of Trump and Putin are refracted in mainstream discourse as “post-truth”, “fake news”, and so on. Rather, we should interpret Eisenstein’s work, and a great deal of Soviet propaganda more generally, as preoccupied with the creation of dominant narratives. Montage, factography, Socialist Realism, and their ilk were never concerned with truth as some inviolable objective concept that could be captured and preserved, even if it were desirable to do so. Moreover, these narratives were continually being rewritten, changing with the political tides, and showed themselves time and again to be part of a highly malleable, and continual, writing process. So to the question I found myself asking – in the centenary year of the revolution, and ninety years on from the making of the film, does Eisenstein’s propaganda masterpiece affect the modern viewer?

The short answer is: not really, although one is reminded of all the reasons why the revolution was popular at the time. Even having studied Eisenstein and some of his theoretical essays, I found the montage sequences in October difficult to comprehend, and his once ground-breaking visual and editorial skills now feel commonplace. Furthermore, it seems that the modern viewer is no longer conditioned to understand the language of silent cinema as fluently as in the past, although the radically different social and political context also plays a part in this estrangement. The scenes that lambast the Orthodox Church for its corruption and collusion with the bourgeoisie, along with the comical sight of affluent women beating a worker to death with their umbrellas, simply no longer incite the kind of class animosity that they were intended to. The unsuspecting friend who I coaxed into accompanying me found the plight of a horse more sympathetic. The depiction of the bourgeoisie and their treacherous lackeys now appears too crude to inculcate any great resentment in their direction, especially as we know how it all ended for them. That said, however, it is simply impossible to watch October and not be on the side of the Bolsheviks. The construction of the film is a masterpiece in climactic build-up, as the revolutionary energy swells into a massive flood of bodies that consume the screen and everything in it. Eisenstein’s epic is a classic triumph of good over evil, and it is undoubtedly infectious, however flawed and comical many of the more overt moments of propaganda may appear today. Moreover, as a study in mass cinema, i.e. cinema without main protagonists, October reached new heights for what was possible in the medium. However, Eisenstein’s radical ideas for cinema were ultimately too challenging for audiences, and by the time of October they were already coming under political pressure. That this would turn out to be the last of the great master’s completed silent films seen on general release – his final silent, Old and New (1929), was mutilated by the censor – makes it even more valuable as a monument to the achievements not only of Eisenstein but also of the broader Soviet avant-garde, the milieu that inspired so much of his revolutionary aesthetics.

The original score to October was the work of a German composer, Edmund Meisel (continuing the successful collaboration from Battleship Potemkin). Criticised for being too avant-garde, this score was scrapped and used only in some foreign screenings of the film. Now remastered to fit the restored film, what was on show at the Barbican was perhaps the most complete realisation of Eisenstein’s true vision of his work. Performed by a full ensemble of the London Symphony Orchestra, the war-like original soundtrack totally consumed the chamber, the concert hall acoustics making the crescendo of both film and score unite to overwhelm the viewer with the sheer power of sight and sound at its most dramatic. The Soviet authorities made a terrible mistake in dumping the original score, which undoubtedly heightens the power of the accompanying images. In this case it even managed to rouse the montage-wearied Barbican audience two hours into the film for the final hurrah as the proletarian masses gloriously storm the palace and sweep away the insipid, indifferent troops who are meant to be defending it. Having a full orchestral accompaniment to this scene alone would have almost justified the ticket price – this is the only real way to watch silent cinema, I found myself thinking – but the LSO were magnificent throughout.

One significant aspect that made October seem its age is its treatment of women, which somewhat tarnishes the film with an unpalatable hue. This fact is somewhat inexplicable to me, given that the issue does not jump out in the director’s other films (although I have not looked closely), but the evidence in October strongly suggests that Eisenstein was a misogynist. The female figures in the film are almost universally on the wrong side of history; that is, they are bourgeoisie, and the very few that appear on the side of the workers are background decoration to the scenes of escalating agitation that result in the triumphant final storming – exclusively by men – of the palace. One might argue that this fact reflects the historical reality pre-emancipation, but as we know, Eisenstein was not concerned with notions of historical veracity. It is easy to laugh now at the absurdity of a scene in which some evil-eyed bourgeois women gleefully beat to death a huge proletarian man with their umbrellas, or at the ironic-derogatory representation of the “Women Shock-Troops” who are put in charge of defending the palace but instead choose to lounge around smoking and having sex with each other in the tsarina’s boudoir. However, this was part of an unsettling tendency in the film, and ultimately it became very difficult to take Eisenstein’s political message seriously alongside these regular injections of casual misogyny parading as cheap humour. At the time of making October, the Soviet Union was the most progressive country in the world when it came to women’s rights – indeed, emancipation was a cornerstone of revolutionary rhetoric. But whilst this was the case in word, it was not so in deed. The years leading up to Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan in 1928 were marred by the disappointment of revolutionary progress after the heroism of the Civil War, in which masculine tropes of physical strength, bravery, weapons, and a general fetishisation of homosociality had prevailed. From that time, the feminine was largely excluded from the revolutionary narrative, and it is unfortunate that Eisenstein falls lazily into this outdated trend in his film. October depicts women as weak, spineless, untrustworthy, morally and politically backward, in contrast with the heroic, progressive young men who win the revolution through great sacrifice. Whilst this may have been an unfortunately all-too-common view in the Soviet Union at the time, it now makes for jarring viewing and undermines the main subject of the film.

To add insult to injury, Eisenstein also resorts to parodic representations of the national and regional ethnicities of the Soviet Union: a man from Ukraine sports an absurdly proportioned handlebar moustache, whilst a man from Siberia wears incongruous felt boots and crosses his legs in bizarre, dainty fashion. Both stare gormlessly around at proceedings, not knowing what to do with themselves. Unfortunately, these demeaning stereotypes are not isolated incidents. Perhaps Eisenstein’s genius as a filmmaker should not be judged according to modern social standards, but such images play on and reinforce the popular notion of people from the peripheries as unintelligent, under-developed peasants who had no political consciousness. From my seat in the circle I saw at least four people walk out during the screening-performance. Whether this was due to their previously-unknown distaste for silent cinema, objection to revolutionary propaganda, offense at the negative portrayal of the Orthodox Church, dislike of German avant-garde orchestral music, or their moral refusal to endure any further the rabid misogyny and prejudice towards minorities on show, I will never know. For those looking to appreciate a canonical exemplar of pre-sound montage technique and mass revolutionary cinema, October is essential viewing. Just do not expect to be cheering on too wildly at its dénouement.

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Sergei Eisenstein’s October, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra, was screened at the Barbican on 26th October, 2017.

Alex Thomas is studying for a DPhil in Russian at University College, Oxford.