10 January 2004 | lawprof
Brilliant Eisenstein Aided By a Strong Shostakovich Score
American John Reed, who never met a Bolshevik he didn't admire and trust, wrote a still spellbinding first-hand account, "Ten Days That Shook the World," of the November (October in the Old Style calendar) revolution that ended Russia's Provisional Government. Directors Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov dipped into Reed's almost breathless panegyric to the quixotic and jumbled events that led to the capture of the fabled Winter Palace for the epic, "Oktyabr" (shown here as "October").
Whatever Aleksandrov's contribution, this is emphatically and unmistakably Eisenstein's film and it's a masterpiece. Tracing the increasingly chaotic days from the overthrow of the Romanovs until the victory of the Bolsheviks and their foolishly trusting partners, Eisenstein's 1927 movie freezes the mood and emotions of one of the most turbulent episodes in Russian, indeed in world, history.
A signature technique of Eisenstein is the fast pan from enormous, fluid and raging crowd action (here occasionally taken from news film but more often staged with a cast of thousands) to a closeup of faces that reflect deep emotion. As in "Battleship Potemkin," dealing with an earlier phase of the unraveling of tsarist Russia, Eisenstein's heroes are the proletariat, poor but possessed of a fierce and empowering nobility. The bourgeoisie are inflated, food and drink-sated fools, their supercilious natures reflected by expressions bordering on the imbecilic.
With Eisenstein's films, viewers tend to remember several scenes that most exported his vision. Here a dead horse and a long-haired young woman, killed as she joined in a workers' protest, undergo a slow passage from the deck of an opening bridge into a river. It's harrowing, unforgettable.
Lenin is, of course, a hero. The hero. Trotsky, on his way to banishment and eventual assassination, is shown as a weak would-be compromiser, actually a mild obstacle to the march of the Soviets to power. I bet he didn't like this movie.
Contrasting peoples' moods with still shots of objects was always an Eisenstein trait. The workers are juxtaposed with weapons, streets, bridges. The feckless Kerensky, head of the Provisional Government, is pictured against statuettes of Napoleon. Depicted as a coward he abandons his cabinet in a car bedecked with a small American flag. The flag is shown several times. I wonder why. And the poor tsar and tsarina, soon to be brutally murdered with their children and servants at Ekaterinburg, have their framed photos alternated with those of their imperial commode.
Dmitri Shostakovich, not simply the greatest Russian composer of the last century but also one of the world's finest, was ideologically and creatively in tune, no pun intended, with Eisenstein and officialdom's retrospective paean to the Bolshevik overthrow. In 1927 he was years away from being Russia's most endangered composer because of the whims of the madman, Stalin (who isn't in this film). His score is hardly his best work, not even his finest film music. It is an effective accompaniment to the action.
Originally a silent film, the added-on soundtrack has virtually no speech but the sounds of marching, running, trains, guns and other objects enliven the picture, now faithfully and well-restored.
"Oktyabr" is, of course, a political polemic and the history portrayed is what the party ordained as truth. Eisenstein was a brilliant innovator but he was no counter-revolutionary deviationist and wrecker. He adhered to the party line and so does the movie.
The restored print is making the rounds of film societies and art theaters and should, if possible, be viewed on a large screen. But even on a TV set "Oktyabr" will reach out and grip the viewer.
10/10. A milestone in film-making.