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

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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)

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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.

Battleship Potemkin at 90, Part III (Behind the scenes)

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Note: As in the previous two posts, this post will also use the authentic Ukrainian spelling Odesa instead of the Russified Odessa. It’s just common courtesy to use proper Ukrainian spellings when the country has been independent for over 20 years, and especially in light of certain factions trying to Russify the country all over again.

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As amazing as Battleship Potemkin is, this isn’t the type of film the average person watches for fun, lighthearted entertainment on a snowy day. Even someone interested enough in film history to take a class like film appreciation, film history, or Russian film might not immediately warm to it. To use a potentially infelicitous metaphor, some films are like making one’s sexual début in that most people have two first times. The first time you just watch the film, and eventually, the second time or later, is the first time you really understand, love, and appreciate it.

It’s not a very plot-centric film, not so much because it’s partly intended as political propaganda, but because it’s just not a typical movie story with a three-act structure, specific protagonists, and a sense of resolution. It’s a more episodic story that’s easily summed up by the five Acts—conditions on the battleship are horrible, the sailors revolt and seize control, rebel leader Vakulinchuk’s funeral inspires the people of Odesa to rise up themselves, thuggish soldiers and Cossacks murder the peaceful crowd on the Boulevard Staircase, and finally the sailors rendezvous with an Imperial squadron.

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Instead of using big-name actors like Vera Vsevolodovna Baranovskaya, Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin, Igor Vladimirovich Ilyinskiy, and Yuliya Ippolitovna Solntseva, Eisenstein instead chose mostly no-name normal folks and bit players. Accordingly, there are no real standout, memorable performances. Among the few trained actors are Aleksandr Pavlovich Antonov (Vakulinchuk) and Grigoriy Vasilyevich Aleksandrov (Gilyarovskiy). At least one of the bit players, Beatrice Vitoldi (the woman whose baby careens down the stairs), is known to have been murdered during the Great Terror. Keep in mind, this film was made in 1925, before Stalin was in total control.

This isn’t a film remembered for its acting performances, but its ideas and images. That’s because of the use of Eisenstein’s particular theory of montage, a method of using editing to create and understand cinema. In normal terms, this means using a series of connected but not preceding/succeeding images assembled together to impart ideological and intellectual power. It’s all about how the shots are edited, not what’s specifically in them.

In Eisenstein’s early period, to which this film belongs, montage was used to show how the masses are capable of rising up against their oppressors. These films are about the people as a whole, not focused on individual narratives. We’re riveted by the scene on the stairs not because we know and care about the people involved, but rather because of lighting, images, arrangement, Edmund Meisel’s brilliant soundtrack, and the overall mood.

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Over the ensuing years, the film was subject to censorship in various countries, including eventually the USSR itself. Most of the initial censorship was because of the violence in Act Four, but there was also censorship regarding the sailors’ revolutionary rhetoric. Maybe I’m just naïve or biased by my own political views, but I honestly don’t understand why so many people are so scared of the mere idea of Socialism or Communism. They’re just political philosophies, no different from being a Democrat, Republican, or Libertarian.

After Trotskiy fell from favor and was chased out of the USSR, the opening intertitle had to be cut. Some versions of the film replace it with a Lenin quote from 1905. The photography gallery in the awesome 2004 Kino edition reveals there were deleted scenes including a printers’ strike and an undertakers’ strike. The film was banned in a number of countries, not just censored. It was only in 2004, with the Kino DVD release, that audiences were finally able to see the film at near to its original length once more.

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Like many other films which have become acclaimed in the modern era, such as Duck Soup and Freaks, Battleship Potemkin too wasn’t such a critical box office hit during its original theatrical run. Let’s be honest, this wasn’t the kind of film the Soviet hoi polloi wanted to see. This is an intellectual’s film, not typical entertainment for the working masses, just as my older relatives wouldn’t be the target audience for a showing of Conceptual Art like Yoko Ono’s. Most Russians during this time period preferred imported American films full of action and romance, not their native films trying to make some kind of political point and use highbrow techniques like montage. I know I’m kind of uncommon for being a working-class intellectual.

The film routinely ranks among the greatest of all time in those incessant “best of” lists, which is truly an accomplishment, given what short schrift is routinely given to the silent era in these rankings. In the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, it was even rated the greatest film of all time. Ninety years later, it’s still fresh and riveting.

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Battleship Potemkin at 90, Part II (The real history)

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Note: As in Part I, I will be using the Ukrainian spelling Odesa instead of the Russified Odessa, and using the actual Russian name of the battleship, Potyomkin, as opposed to the Potemkin spelling consistently used for the film in all the major English-language literature. In referring to the actual historical events instead of the somewhat fictionalized film version, it only feels right to use the ship’s true name.

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Though the brilliant Battleship Potemkin is based on a real event, it’s also partly political propaganda. However, it’s not what I’d consider propaganda for an evil cause, since many of the people involved in the Revolution of 1905 had very justifiable grievances against the inept Nicholas II. Bolsheviks were only one among many groups rising up and protesting. If Nicholas had either become a constitutional monarch in more than name, or abdicated in favor of a Regency for the baby Tsesarevich Aleksey with some qualified relatives, Russian history would’ve been so much happier. There probably wouldn’t have been either of the 1917 Revolutions, and the Imperial Family certainly wouldn’t have been murdered.

The Russo-Japanese War was disastrous, yet one more reason why Nicholas was one of the worst Tsars in Russian history, either Romanov or Ryurikovich. Had his father, Aleksandr III, lived another 20 years instead of taking sick and dying suddenly at only 49, the Russian Empire certainly never would’ve entered that war. Yes, Aleksandr III was an extremely conservative reactionary and a horrible anti-Semite responsible for many pogroms, but I can respect how he kept Russia out of all wars. I think a lot of people who don’t know much about Russian history tend to give Nicholas a pass just because he was a really swell person and died so horribly. My thoughts on Nicholas and Aleksandra’s disastrous rule, and why Nicholas’s abdication was illegal, will be further addressed in future posts.

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Most of the experienced officers and enlisted men in the Black Sea Fleet were transferred to the Pacific during the Russo–Japanese War, leaving ships like Prince Potyomkin Tavricheskiy filled with mostly new recruits and lesser-experienced officers. Russian morale dropped even further after the disastrous Battle of Tsushima in May 1905, coupled with the ongoing uprisings and riots in the cities. The Central Committee of the Social Democratic Organization of the Black Sea Fleet (Tsentralka) thus began making plans for a simultaneous mutiny, though a date wasn’t decided.

On 27 June 1905, Potyomkin was stationed off the Ukrainian coast, near Tendra Island, when many of the enlisted men refused to eat borshcht made with maggot-infested meat (just as in the film). The real-life Dr. Smirnov also had told them it was “just” fly larvae which could easily be washed off with brine, and that it was still perfectly good meat they needed to eat. Ippolit Ivanovich Gilyarovskiy, the second-in-command, called for everyone to assemble on deck, but only 12 people volunteered to eat the borshcht. Mutiny then broke out, just as depicted in the film. Grigoriy Mikitovich Vakulinchuk, a Ukrainian and one of the mutiny leaders, was shot first by Gilyarovskiy and then a petty officer.

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Once Potyomkin was in rebel hands and seven of the eighteen officers were killed, the crew captured the torpedo boat Izmail, which had been responsible for bringing them that rotten meat. A committee of 25 sailors, headed by Afanasiy Nikolayevich Matyushenko (also a Ukrainian), was put in charge of the ship. With a red flag flying, they set sail for nearby Odesa.

When they arrived in the city, a general strike had just started, and police were trying to put down some rioting. However, the sailors refused to come ashore to help the people, as they preferred to wait for the other battleships in the Black Sea Fleet. Later in the day, the sailors captured a military transport, Vekha. Riots continued, and much of the harbor was burnt. On 29 June, Vakulinchuk’s funeral turned into a political demonstration, and the Army tried to attack the sailors who’d come ashore for the funeral. In revenge, Potyomkin fired two 6-inch shells at the Odesa Theatre, where an important military meeting was scheduled.

Similar to what happens in Act Five, Potyomkin had a rendezvous with two squadrons and several other battleships. Some of the other ships mutinied and joined them. However, the film doesn’t show what really happened afterwards, that the mutineers were ultimately unsuccessful and forced to return to Russia. As one final act of revenge, the sailors sank the ship, but the Navy easily refloated it. However, the seawater had damaged the engines and valves.

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In real life, there was no massacre on the Boulevard Steps (also called the Grand Staircase and Richelieu Steps prior to assuming its modern moniker of Potomkinski Stairs), either by soldiers or Cossacks. It was intended for dramatic effect, to implement montage, and to serve as propaganda against the Imperial government. However, troops really did fire on the crowds during the riots and demonstrations, with deaths said to be in the hundreds.

Battleship Potemkin at 90, Part I (General overview)

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(FYI: In keeping with my consistent style, all posts about this film will use the Ukrainian spelling Odesa instead of the Russified Odessa, with the exception of the title of the famous Act Four. The two-S spelling is how it appears in the actual intertitle, even if it’s not the city’s authentic Ukrainian name.)

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Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin), released 21 December 1925, is widely held as one of the greatest films of all time, one of the best Soviet films, one of the best silent films, one of the best Russian films, and the masterpiece of director Sergey Mikhaylovich Eisenstein. Due to censorship in multiple countries, including eventually the Soviet Union itself, however, the film has only in recent years finally been able to be seen at near to its original full length, the way Eisenstein intended it.

The film is divided into five acts:

“Men and Maggots” (alternately, “People and Worms”)

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The film opens in June 1905, and tells the real-life story of the mutiny on Prince Potyomkin Tavricheskiy during the disastrous Russo–Japanese War. An uproar starts when the sailors discover what they believe to be maggots in their meat. The ship’s doctor, Smirnov, has a look and declares them to be fly larvae which can easily be washed off with brine. The sailors nevertheless refuse to eat the meat when it’s used in borshcht. This first reel ends when a sailor smashes a dish he’s washing, with the inscription, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

“Drama on Deck”

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The entire crew is bade to gather on deck, and Chief Officer Gilyarovskiy asks everyone who liked the borshcht to take two steps forward. Only the petty officers obey, while all the rest continue in their righteous grudge against the higher-ups. In anger, orders are given for canvas to be thrown over everyone else, and a firing squad is brought out. However, they falter, and ultimately decide not to murder their brothers-in-arms. The mutiny then begins, and culminates in Gilyarovskiy’s cowardly murder of rebel leader Vakulinchuk.

“A Dead Man Calls for Justice” (literally, “The Dead Calls”)

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Vakulinchuk is honorably brought to nearby Odesa and laid in state in a tent. Slowly, rumors about the mutiny and Vakulinchuk’s murder drift in to the locals, who come en masse to pay their respects. A lit candle is in his clasped hands, and a sign on his chest says, “Killed for a spoonful of borshcht.” By the funeral, a note from the crew is read, urging revenge for what happened. The people vow a spirit of one for all, and one revolutionary demand after another is cheered by the crowd. However, they rightly turn on a man who makes an anti-Semitic “call to action.” A delegate from shore is sent to the ship, and Act Three ends with the raising of a hand-colored red flag over the ship.

“The Odessa Staircase”

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At first, the citizens of Odesa live peacefully with the sailors, and many boats go out to meet and help the sailors with food and supplies. A whole motley crew of people are gathered on a giant staircase, the city’s grand landmark and formal entrance from the harbor. All are inspired with revolutionary idealism and unity, until the foreboding intertitle, “And suddenly.”

The most famous scene in the film is when the thuggish soldiers come marching down the staircase and massacre the fleeing, panicked crowd. The massacre intensifies when Cossacks at the bottom of the steps join in. Unless you live under a rock, you’ve seen the baby in the pram careening down those steps during the massacre. Other iconic images include an older woman with a broken pince-nez and a little boy who gets trampled. In revenge, the sailors destroy the Odesa Theatre, the generals’ headquarters.

“Rendezvous with the Squadron”

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Our heroic sailors passionately discuss coming ashore to liberate the people from the ongoing tyranny, but one sailor points out landing isn’t possible because the Admiral’s squadron is on its way. Our heroes decide to meet Destroyer No. 267 head-on, and the lead-up to the confrontation is thick with tension. If the Imperial ship lets them pass and recognizes them as brothers-in-arms, all will be well, but if they act as ruthlessly as the butchers on the stairs, all could be lost. Whatever happens, the Potemkin sailors refuse to go down without a fight.