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Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘October’

Reviewed by Diana O’Dwyer

‘October’ by the famous Soviet director, Sergei Eisenstein, is a fascinating film. It is a socialist history that shows us the transformation of society, not simply by the leadership of a handful of individuals, but by mass collective action. You see an experimental work of avant garde propaganda by a director inventing the language of cinema before our eyes. An inspirational celebration of the Russian Revolution yet indelibly scarred by its betrayal.

Eisenstein was commissioned by the Soviet government to make the film for the ten-year anniversary of the Revolution in 1927 and was already famous for other films, ‘Strike’ and ‘The Battleship Potemkin’. All three films are classics of silent cinema and were part of the explosion of creativity during the revolutionary period in Russia.

Suprematism and constructivism transformed architecture, design, photography, fashion, painting and theatre as a generation of radical artists gave creative form to the revolutionary changes happening all around them and reveled in the freedom of expression unleashed by revolution. Just as the social and sexual reforms of the period (like access to abortion and early recognition of transgender rights) appear radical even today, it’s striking how ‘modern’ much of this revolutionary art still seems.

Envisioned as a democratic socialist art form for a classless society, constructivism emphasised functionality, communalism and reproducibility over ornamentation, individualism and exclusivity. Constructivist architecture, in particular, produced some of the simultaneously most original, functional and most beautiful works of modern architecture, born out of a political quest to design the egalitarian communist living spaces of the future.

Although as a silent black and white film with relatively poor picture quality, October lacks the instant modernity of constructivist architecture, it develops a parallel socialist project in cinema by visually demonstrating the role of the working class in changing the course of history.

Shooting less than a decade after the Revolution, Eisenstein effectively re-enacted it by filming in the same Leningrad streets and using a vast cast of the same local working-class that had overthrown both Tsarism and the bourgeois Provisional Government. The film’s focus is always on the masses, with repeated shots of crowds surging forward into history. It is largely devoid of individual characterisation. Where individuals appear, they represent larger social or historical forces. Even Lenin is not developed as a “character” and appears only fleetingly at key moments to spur on and embody the masses’ revolutionary fervour.

Also highly unusual to contemporary eyes is the film’s heavy use of political symbolism. This was partly necessitated by the lack of any dialogue, which meant the only “script” was the short declarative sentences on title cards inserted between shots. The absence of characterisation also meant that alternative ways of conveying meaning had to be found.

Eisenstein accomplished this by juxtaposing action scenes with symbolic montages. He cuts between protesters being shot at a demonstration outside the office of a right-wing newspaper and close-ups of well-fed bourgeoisie in fancy hats laughing callously. He splices scenes of Kerensky leading the Provisional Government and General Kornilov’s attempted coup with comical montages of Napoleon figurines and religious icons. Such symbolic sequences simultaneously inject the film with a subversive ironic sense of humour, also apparent when the revolutionary masses storm the Tsarina’s bedroom and uncover a chamber pot hidden inside the imperial throne.

Some of these more symbolic aspects fell foul of the metastasizing Stalinist bureaucracy, which had been assiduously entrenching itself since even before Lenin’s death in 1924. Eisenstein was condemned for ‘excessive formalism’, the excuse being that the plain people of Russia could not be expected to understand abstract imagery and so needed everything spelled out for them. In fact, there was no room for irony or ambiguity under Stalinism, which sought to impose a banal orthodoxy of meaning on all aspects of social and cultural life.

‘Socialist realism’

Party apparatchiks decreed that art must conform to the strictures of socialist realism in order to serve as propaganda for an increasingly undemocratic and reactionary regime. Just as homosexuality and abortion were re-criminalised and patriotism and the patriarchal family rehabilitated, the anarchic creativity of the revolutionary period was smothered in petrified conformity.

We will never know the precise impact Stalinism had on the version of October we see. Eisenstein’s original plan was for an even grander historical epic encompassing not just the Revolution but the Civil War, which would have made Trotsky’s central role even more unavoidable. We also know that on the day of the intended premiere – 7 November 1927, the tenth anniversary of the Revolution – a last minute diktat arrived to remove all scenes featuring Trotsky – and Stalin himself reportedly appeared in the editing room. Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party five days later.

The official version released months later was missing at least forty minutes of footage (destroyed forever) and extensively re-edited. The version currently available on the internet and DVD includes a title card claiming Trotsky argued against Lenin to postpone the Revolution, encapsulating Stalinist falsification in a single frame.

Yet in spite of everything, October stands as a seminal work of revolutionary art. Ninety years on, its Stalinist scars imbue it with an additional, tragic layer of historical meaning.

(This review first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Socialist Alternative, magazine of the Socialist Party, Ireland)




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