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Saturday, August 1, 2015

Sergei Eisenstein | Oktyabr': Desyat' dney kotorye potryasli (October: Ten Days That Shook the World)


ten days of intense dreaming and desire
by Douglas Messerli

Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov (screenplay), Sergei Eisenstein (director) Oktyabr': Desyat' dney kotorye potryasli (October: Ten Days That Shook the World) / 1927, USA 1928


A ten-year anniversary celebration of the 1917 revolution, Sergei Eisenstein’s Oktyabr': Desyat' dney kotorye potryasli mir (October or Ten Days That Shook the World), was commissioned by the Soviet government, one of two films (the other by Vsevolod Pudovkin) about the events of that year. Eisenstein originally planned, as biographer Oksana Bulgakowa has written, a much more historical film, including the Red Army victories under Trotsky. But that plan was rejected and, at nearly the last moment, almost all references to Trotsky were eliminated; the committee insisted that the director and his assistant, Grigori Alexandrov, focus only upon the events that occurred in Petrograd.

     When an American journalist asked who had authored the screenplay, Eisenstein sarcastically answered, “the Party.” The deletions of Trotsky came at the very last moment, in fact on the very day it was to be shown at the Bolshoi Theatre, with Stalin himself visiting Eisenstein’s editing room to view the scenes concerning Trotsky. Presumably Trotsyist opposition protests in Moscow and Leningrad that morning, November 7, 1927, had resulted in this decision.
       Eisenstein’s final work, although reverential of the Soviet heroes, in its sometimes comic exaggerations of the Tsar’s world and the figures of the provisional government, seems almost to wink at the heroic posturing of Lenin and the delegates of the Military Revolutionary Committee.

      In many respects the film is a brilliant example of Eisenstein’s famed use of photo montage, as well his use of unforgettable images to convey the power of events. Early in the film, the government’s horrific decision to raise the bridges after several striking workers had been shot and others were attempting to escape to their homes, underscores the cruelty and insensitivity of the Tsar and his counterrevolutionary toadies. A horse, previously shot by the military, hangs high in the air before finally falling into the Neva river below. A dead woman’s hair slowly slides into the crack where the parts of the bridge once met. Well-dressed, obviously wealthy patricians and members of the bourgeoisie mock arrested Bolsheviks and throw hundreds of copies of Pravda into the waters below. These beautifully filmed moments justify comments such as Pudovkin’s: “How I should like to make such a powerful failure.”
But even if one generally admires Eisenstein’s more formal collaging of images such as his quick shifts from a baroque Jesus to a Buddha, Hindu deities, Aztec gods, and African idols—suggesting that all religions are equally meaningless—there is something too heavy-handed and simple-minded about many such scenes that fill this film with many slightly embarrassing moments. 
     A huge mechanical peacock lifts its head and slowly lifts metallic feathers into the air, supposedly representing the absurdity of the Tzar’s and the provisional government’s self-deluded pride. The ridiculously moody Alexander Kerensky (leader of the provisional government) turns into frozen sculpture of Napoleon, and later, when his government is threatened, crawls into bed, melodramatically attempting to bury his head under the covers. Sabre-rattling Tatars, presumably in league with the Lavr Kornilov, the tsarist counterrevolutionary officer, suddenly convinced by Bolsheviks to abandon their leader, spin off into a celebratory dance joined by the Bolsheviks leaping and splashing about in the mud in a kind of mock Pereplyas.

      In short these comic rifts, appearing throughout the film, pull against the more somber subject of the revolution itself, as if Eisenstein were attempting to balance the mechanizations that lead to the dramatically powerful storming of the Winter Palace, with which the film closes, with music hall humor—occasionally shifting in a single scene, as when, after introducing the terrifying Women’s Death Battalion, the director suddenly turns their bedding down for the night upon the Tsar’s billiard tables into a comic shtick. 
      Yet for all these flaws, Eisenstein’s film is filled with so many remarkable images that even if we occasionally might cringe at the silliness of the worst of them, we can only be in awe of the film overall. The real revolution that Eisenstein’s work documents is not the Bolshevik event of 1917, but the utter inventiveness of his movie itself.

      By that time, however, Stalin had so squelched creative endeavors that the very next day after the film’s delayed showing, authorities called for a panel, “Questions Arising from the Film,” which, as film critic Bernd Reinhardt notes, marked a campaign against Soviet formalism.

      Today we perhaps can enjoy this film less because of its thematic focus than its evocation of the 10 days of intense dreaming and desire of the Soviet people—of which the work is itself is further evidence.

 

Los Angeles, August 1, 2015

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