October 1917 – Ten Days That Shook the World (Oktyabr)
Russia (1927) Dirs. Sergei Eisenstein / Grigori Aleksandrov
In 1927 the Soviet Government commissioned two films to mark the tenth anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution (Vsevolod Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg being the other) which saw the Bolsheviks, a proletariat movement, overthrow the Provisional Government set up after the fall of the Monarchy in February of the same year. Since making his mark on an international scale with his seminal classic Battleship Potemkin Sergei Eisenstein was drafted in to direct, using the book by American John Reed, the eyewitness account entitled Ten Days That Shook The World.
While it may have the structure of a “regular” film, this feels more of a documentary and thus is not a film one watches for easy entertainment. However, as a depiction of history and a landmark in filming and editing techniques, which saw Eisenstein use this project as a way to expand upon and develop his “”intellectual montage” concept further. It is this mixing of religious iconography with the action of the film’s events that gives this film its power, along with the stark realism of the reproduction of this historical period. Indeed, since there was no footage of the actual storming of the Winter Palace, Eisenstein’s more exciting and more artistic recreation of events has long been assumed to be taken by gospel for historians and other filmmakers. Unfortunately the film itself was flop, the montage scenes apparently making everything difficult for the audiences to follow.
There is no denying this is pure propaganda and in keeping with such, the facts always benefit the victors and their opposition are naturally painted in very unflattering colours. That said, for many of us this will stand as an eye-opening history lesson – to a point at least. It has been said a lot of what was depicted here is subject to “artistic licence”, -something which really applies to just about every film depiction of a real life incidents – although this benefits from the use of real life participants in the actual revolution, including one of the Bolshevik leaders Nikolai Podvoisky, along with the cast of actors. The direction the story took wasn’t all down to Eisenstein: during the editing stages he was forced to remove every scene involving Trotsky by Stalin (a result of Trotsky since being ousted from his position in office after an unsuccessful uprising of his own against Stalin) which left the film a third of its intended running time and some holes in the narrative.
Regardless of the credibility of the films accuracy or how it stands as a balanced propaganda piece, artistically this is a stunning and inventive work. With his montage formula firmly in mind, there is said to be over 3,200 shots used here which must have been a nightmare for the editor when you consider everything was done by cutting and splicing the negatives together. Thus we have a film of highly symbolic and challenging scenes in which Eisenstein juxtaposes the actions and his feelings towards the characters onscreen with a symbolic simile or counterpart. Equally impressive is his well constructed dramatic moments which are often given a lift with the simplest of effects. For instance, early in the film a bridge is raised to stop the revolutionaries from approaching the city, upon which lies the body of a woman and the corpse of a horse. As the bridge raises the horse’s limp body hangs off the edge of the bridge while the woman’s body slowly disappears into the gap formed by the opening bridge, her long hair still trailing on the surface above. A poetic yet chilling scene indeed.
October 1917 – Ten Days That Shook the World is not a film that can be easily recommended to a mass audience. One has to be a true cineaste with an eye for the technical marvels Eisenstein achieved with his imagination and keen sense of composition to truly appreciate this. As a history lesson and a piece of shameless propaganda, it stands up very well but again one needs to be prepared for what is a stark and glamour free recollection of a pivotal moment in Russian history.