Eisenstein’s October at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Eisenstein was chosen to direct one of the two films commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution thanks to the worldwide success of the amazing Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin) in 1925–26. Early Bolshevik leader Nikolay Ilyich Podvolskiy gave him the commission.

As with BP, Eisenstein chose to work with mostly untrained actors. He selected people who resembled the historical figures they portrayed. Vasiliy Nikolayevich Nikandrov, who plays Lenin, had his head shaved to create the bald spot.

Sadly, due to the changing political climate, Eisenstein was forced to remove people who’d fallen out of favor. After the film’s release, he was forced to release an “updated” version without Trotskiy.

The climactic storming of the Winter Palace wasn’t based upon the 1917 event, but rather a 1920 re-enactment on its third anniversary. This planned mass spectacle involved hundreds of actors, dancers, circus performers, and assistants, as well as several thousand extras. Also present were armoured cars and tanks.

This re-enactment was viewed by 100,000, and was a grand theatrical production starting with the February Revolution and ending with the success of the October Revolution.

Due to the lack of photographic and print documentation of the original storming, the film’s depiction has come to be viewed as legit historical evidence of what actually happened.

Eisenstein wanted composed Edmund Meisel, who’d written a soundtrack for BP, to write a score for October too. The powers that be thought the resulting soundtrack too avant-garde, and ordered another in its place.

In 1966, Dmitriy Dmitriyevich Shostakovich wrote a new soundtrack, which later became a symphonic poem in his Opus 131 (C minor).

In 2011, after a five-year German–Russian collaboration, Meisel’s original soundtrack for the shortened version was restored. The gaps in the full version now feature music by German composer Bernd Tevez.

Overall, October didn’t do nearly so critically and commercially well as BP. The film was accused of being stilted and artificial, too experimental, overloaded with symbolism and allegory, spending too much time on Kerenskiy, and having poor acting.

Futurist poet Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovskiy, one of the earliest viewers, thought Nikandrov’s portrayal of Lenin was disgusting, superficial, and substanceless, like watching a statue instead of a real person.

Eisenstein’s montages came in for official disapproval. Authorities thought October unintelligible to the masses. Neither for the first nor last time, Eisenstein’s so-called formalism was attacked. The abovementioned editing-out of Trotskiy was also ordered after Stalin came to power and made him an enemy of the people.

Today, October is much more highly-regarded, both as entertainment and a piece of art. In 1928, Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin, who made the other film commissioned for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, commented, “How I should like to make such a powerful failure.”

Eisenstein’s October at 90, Part I (General overview)

Released 20 January 1928 in the USSR and 2 November in the U.S., renowned director Sergey Mikhaylovich Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World (Oktyabr: Desyat Dney, Kotorye Potryasli Mir) was commissioned by the Soviet government to mark the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. It was co-directed by Eisenstein’s longtime collaborator Grigoriy Vasiliyevich Aleksandrov (né Mormonenko).

The government also commissioned director Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga) for the occasion. That was released 27 December 1927.

The film opens with the tearing down of a statue of Tsar Aleksandr III in February 1917. We then see a priest blessing the Provisional Government, and a sampling of ordinary citizens.

The Provisional Government, led by Aleksandr Fyodorovich Kerenskiy, vows to continue honoring the commitments Tsar Nicholas II made to the Allied Powers. The war still rages, and the proletariat are still starving and exploited.

On 3 April, new hope arrives when Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Comrade Lenin) arrives at Finland Station, home from exile.  After being greeted by cheering crowds, he praises the revolutionary workers and soldiers who overthrew the monarchy, and vows no support for the Provisional Government.

In July, the Petrograd Committee of Bolsheviks constantly argues for and against an uprising. The people are restless, but are told the Party will lead them when the time comes, and asked to show restraint.

Protestors march on Nevskiy Prospekt, by the corner of Sadovaya Square, to the editorial office of so-called reactionary newspaper The Evening Times. The army fires on them, and mass panic reigns. In response, Kerenskiy orders the bridges raised, to cut the proletarian districts off from the city centre.

The victors laughingly throw copies of newspaper Pravda into the river. They also laugh when the 1st Machinegun Regiment calls for solidarity with the workers.

On 6 July, the Provisional Government orders Lenin’s arrest. Though underground, he directs the 6th Party Congress in absentia and orders an armed uprising.

Kerenskiy is shown in the Winter Palace and depicted as a future Tsar Aleksandr IV or Napoléon. Gen. Kornilov is also depicted as Napoléon. Obviously zero attempt at subtlety or unbiased historicity there!

Prisoners are freed, and the arsenal is in the hands of the people. Petrograd workers take over to defend their city. By Smolniy, Cossacks prepare to fight the Bolsheviks, but immediately change their tune when shown a leaflet promising bread and land. They begin joyously dancing.

Gen. Kornilov is arrested, and banners go up urging the proletariat to learn to use their rifles. On 10 October, the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks again debates an armed uprising. Trotskiy wants a postponement, but Lenin feels vacillating means losing.

Everyone approves Lenin’s proposal, both Bolshevik leaders and common people. Preparations are made for the uprising, and Lenin goes to Smolniy on 24 October. On 25 October, he takes charge. The moderate, sensible Mensheviks are left without a horse in the game.

The bridges are raised again, and the proletarian districts cut off from the centre, as the cruiser Aurora sails in. Now the bridges are in the workers’ hands. The Minister of War is quite displeased to learn the Cossacks are saddling their mounts in preparation to advance the Bolshevik cause.

Kerenskiy escapes in a car with Americans, while the Cadets march to the aide of the deposed Provisional Government. The Women’s Death Battalion unwinds on Tsar Nicholas II’s pool table.

Delegates of the Second Congress of Soviets assemble, and the Provisional Government drafts an appeal to the people, saying they’re the only lawful government in Russia. The Mensheviks open the Congress by reiterating this, but the people feel otherwise.

The Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries wisely say the Bolsheviks will be the country’s ruination, which doesn’t exactly go over well. The Bolsheviks carry the day. Later on, the women of the Death Battalion surrender, and the 12th Army joins the Bolsheviks.

Now the stage is set for the cruel, horrifying storming of the Winter Palace, an act which destroyed and plundered countless, priceless, historical treasures and artifacts.

While this film is obviously Bolshevik propaganda, instead of a more historically nuanced view of what really happened, this is a very important piece of film history. It’s full of Eisenstein’s trademark montages, and shows his overall genius as a director.

The film also shows how a desperate, impossible situation led to the drowning out of moderate voices and a mob takeover. It’s happened so many times in history, yet people never learn their lesson.