Since illiteracy was widespread across Russia, the new art of the cinema proved especially valuable as a tool of education and instruction. During the Russian Civil War (1919-1921) special trains were sent out into the countryside to show short ...
By Martin Melarkey
Foyle Film Festival marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution with a screening of October, Sergei Eisenstein’s epic portrayal of the events leading up to the Bolshevik seizure of power in the winter of 1917.
With state power in their hands, Lenin and the Soviet leadership believed that the survival of the revolution depended upon educating the Russia people about Marxist ideas.
Since illiteracy was widespread across Russia, the new art of the cinema proved especially valuable as a tool of education and instruction. During the Russian Civil War (1919-1921) special trains were sent out into the countryside to show short propaganda films about the revolution.
“The Bolsheviks took up cinema with a vengeance”, film historian Ian Christie explains. “In 1923, Lenin said that ‘cinema is the most important of all the arts for us’. This meant that the new generation of Soviet directors had a lot of backing for what they were doing. If they did something that was regarded as good propaganda, they got a lot of support.”
In the 1920s, the Soviet state supported a new wave of filmmakers - Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Alexander Dovzhenko – who were experimenting with fllm language and inspiring new ways of thinking about cinema.
Eisenstein gained international fame with explosive, uncompromising films in which the masses, rather than an individual, hero-drive events. With its shocking images of Cossacks firing on fleeing civilians and a baby in a pram tumbling down the Odessa steps, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) was a rallying cry for class struggle and the revolt of the oppressed.
In early 1926, the director was approached by the Bolshevik leadership to make a feature film to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. Shooting started on April 13 in Leningrad (formerly St Petersburg) on what was to be an epic production. Eisenstein was given access to the Tsar’s former palace, the streets of the Russian capital and an unlimited supply of extras from the city’s population.
The director gathered together thousands of sailors, soldiers and workers for the film’s climatic set-piece – the storming of the Winter Palace. Eisenstein remarked: “I always say that the masses can only be used like this in our country where you can lead two or three thousand armed workers onto the streets with impunity.”
Grigori Alexandrov, Eisenstein’s assistant director on October, recalled the choas that broke out during the filming of the scene.
“When we filmed the storming of the Winter Palace…there were more than five thousand of them altogether, armed with rifles and blank ammunition, and nearly all of them came from the factories of Leningrad. Many had taken part in the October Revolution of 1917, and had attacked the Winter Palace in reality ten years before. Their job was to do once again what they had done then.”
“Some of those who took part in the sequence had returned from various fronts of the Civil War, bringing some of their live cartridges, and decided to add to the realism by using them for the filming, so that when it was all over we had difficulty accounting for some of the windows in the Palace that had been smashed by bullets.”
With so many live bullets flying around amongst the vast crowds of extras, not surprisingly, there were casualties. According to Grigori Alexandrov, “it has long been a joke in the Soviet film industry that more casualties were caused by Eisenstein’s storming of the Winter Palace in June 1927 than by the attack of the original Bolsheviks in October 1917.”
This was also reflected in a wry comment made to Eisenstein by an elderly porter who was sweeping up the broken glass after the filming of the scene, “Your people were much more careful the first time you took the Palace.”
In October 1917 the Bolsheviks had quietly seized the reins of power, occupying the Winter Palace under cover of night and meeting little resistance. Eisenstein put the heroic legend of the revolution, rather than the reality on screen. His iconic images have a mythic power that has sometimes replaced actual history when they have been used as archive footage in documentaries about the Russian Revolution.
When October was premiered in Russia at the end of 1927, the reaction was far from enthusiastic, as Ian Christie explains.
“Many people were not happy with the picture that Eisenstein gave of the great October revolution. They said it was too intellectualised, too symbolic and it didn’t really deal with the nitty-gritty of the revolution. It was not a newsreel of the revolution as many people had hoped.”
“October is full of all sorts of observation of the nature of revolution. It’s a meditation on how revolutions can get out of hand and unleash energies. And that didn’t go down too well with some of the comrades.”
Ian Christie will give a lecture on early Soviet filmmaking in the Nerve Centre at 7.30 pm on Tuesday, November 21, followed by a screening of October. Tickets for this event are now on sale via www.foylefilmfestival.org.
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