Sunday, January 23, 2011

Angry Russians: Sergei Eisenstein's October

History On Film Film On History: History, Concepts, Theories and Practice
By Robert A. Rosenstone Pearson Longman
$39.20 paper
ISBN: 978-0-582-50584-4


October: Ten Days That Shook The World
Dir. Sergei Eisenstein
Sovinko; $24.99, DVD

Sergei Eisenstein, according to Robert Rosenstone in his book, History On Film Film On History, was one of the first to use film to convey history and foundation myths. His work in the film, October: Ten Days That Shook The World, demonstrates his ground-breaking artistry utilizing “a kind of montage that helped him to construct epic works which promoted the twin-edged theme of the masses entering history and history entering the masses.”

He also uses camera angles to indicate the power of a character or the chaos of a street riot. His film is a recreation of the Bolshevik Revolution, completed ten years after the historic event. To audiences, the film could be labeled propaganda, but Eisenstein is brilliant in the way he uses his camera to tell a rich and intense story. Rosenstone marvels at his ability to use “humour, repetition, visual metaphor, mini-essays, the poetry of movement” to convey the story. “October manages to provide an overall interpretation of its subject that is not so different from those argued by major historians of the revolution.”

The opening image in the film is the pulling down of the statue of Alexander III, emperor of Russia. The symbol of a statue of a failed leader being destroyed is a recurring motif in film, literature and even real life. The scene is an obvious influence on Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) which ends with the pulling down of King Hamlet’s iron image outside the gates of Elsinore. Even in the waning days of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, there is the well-known film of the American military and Iraqi civilians pulling down his statue on the streets of Baghdad. The citizens of Iraq willingly assist in the destruction, and strike the fallen idol with their shoes to demonstrate their hatred and disgust. In the absence of the deposed leader to tear limb from limb, Eisenstein uses the symbolism of destroying the statue to represent the people’s feelings.

Eisenstein’s intent in the film is not entertainment but to recast the drama and recreate a version of historical events. Rosenstone writes: “Through a refusal to focus on individuals, radical editing techniques (four times as many cuts as in the standard film of the time), and overt visual metaphors (a screen full of raised sickles represents the peasantry; raised rifles stand in for the army; turning wheels mean a motorcycle brigade; a statue being torn down indicates the fall of the Czar; the same statue reassembling itself suggests the provisional government has taken over the role of Czar), a work like October clearly reveals that it is constructing rather than reflecting a particular vision of the past.”

The historical relevance of this is that October, while not history per se, allows us to see the dream life of the people. The revolution is filtered through the camera lens and subjected to the manipulations of fiction. The film is history and fiction, containing some historical accuracy while capturing the emotional point of view of memory and reflection. We see a version of what happened and the way an artist like Eisenstein interprets the event.

Eisenstein uses jump cuts and hand-held cameras to convey the jittery excitement of documentary film making. He also uses a wealth of visual symbols to convey character and ideas. His influence on modern film makers is evident here as well, with one example being Barry Levinson’s 1990 film, Avalon. In that film, Levinson utilizes fast motion filming techniques that give the impression of early cinema and newsreel, yet he photographed in color with modern film stock.

Rosenstone tells us that: “October can only make arguments about the past the way a film can make arguments: through visual, dramatic, symbolic, metaphoric and fictional forms. Like any work of history, October will use traces of evidence from a vanished world as a basis for staging, or creating, a representation of that world in the present. As a film, it will deliver to us a world in a narrative, a story of people, events, moments, or movements of the past in an effort to make them meaningful to us in the present.” The danger in this effort to create a deeper meaning in historical events is that people see the film and adopt that version as history.

Eisenstein’s film succeeds as propaganda and in telling an interesting story in a compelling manner. But Rosenstone warns us that “The subtext of each suggests that film is not a proper medium for telling us about the past…Any film maker knows that facts can never speak for themselves. We have to speak for them.”

The strength of filmic history lies in the image. For better or worse, fiction or history, we are there, transported into the moment when the world changed. However, we must never forget that we are examining the world, the events, as seen through the vision of the film maker, in this case, Sergei Eisenstein. Although his film offers an intense, graphic, and compelling version of history, the clear light of historical accuracy in October might still be elusive.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great work, however in the second to last paragrapgh there may be an error. The last quote of the paragrapgh has a typo. fro > for

Paul L. Martin said...

Thank you for reading and the "heads-up." All fixed.