The filmography of Russian “montagist” Sergei Eisenstein serves as a reminder of a time, a mere decade after the Bolshevik Revolution when some of the revolutionary energy of the young Soviet Union was being sublimated into interesting and forward-thinking art. The director’s October: Ten Days that Shook the World , based loosely on Jack Reed’s book, is a national origin myth, but one that avoids the usual stodginess of patriotic period pieces. Like Reed in the wake of the revolution he witnessed, the film is infused with energy and enthusiasm for new forms and ideas.
As would befit what people like Reed saw as the country of the future, October is resolutely modern(ist). It eschews narrative and formal techniques that its makers understood as bourgeois or, at the very least, typical of the capitalist culture of the 19th century. Classically structured scenes, centered around the actions of discrete, psychologically defined individuals, don’t exist in this film. Sequences are instead patterned according to social and ideological meanings they are meant to evoke or to the physiological effect they are meant to provoke in the viewer.
Take, for example, the film’s depiction of the April, 1917 uprising against the Provisional Government that had replaced Czar Nicholas II. Eisenstein shows the crowds marching peacefully from an overhead perspective when, suddenly, a close-up shot of a machine gun is spliced into the film. This image alternates rapidly with a close-up of the soldier manning the gun, before the film cuts back to the crowds dispersing. The rapid-fire visual alternation of the gun and the soldier replicate [and, in a silent film, replace] the aural effects of a machine gun firing. Although the perspectives of the firing gun and the dispersing crowd don’t match—so that we don’t know exactly where they are in relation to each other—we understand the horror of the crowd as they flee because our senses have been assaulted in a way analogous to theirs.
This un-locatable machine gun then serves as a synecdoche for the broader violence against the protestors, in that it is flashed on screen wherever the masses are being attacked. It is, of course, not meant to be the same gun for every assault in every location, but the images of the gun stands in for the violence perpetrated by the bourgeois Provisional Government against the people.The film’s famous bridge sequence, later in the same scene represents a more complex use of editing, as a scene of bourgeoisie beating up the Bolsheviks’ banner-bearer is intercut with the proletariat being gunned down on the bridge. The sadism of the bourgeois class is paralleled here with the inhumane forces of the Provisional Government, itself represented in condensed form by the abstracted machine gun.
Eisenstein, as you might guess, was convinced that the essence of cinema was in “montage,” or what we’d refer to as editing. It is through montage, Eisenstein insisted, that cinema’s difference and particularities as an art form emerges—and that difference is that cinema is a language, the image its word, montage its grammar. And in contrast to common usage in both Europe and America, he insisted on a “dialectic” use of montage, that is, on a highly formal use of montage in which a dramatic meaning is not “unrolled” through the arrangement of shots, but in which an idea “arises from the collision of independent shots--shots even opposite to each other.” In the example above, the idea that the bourgeois class is responsible for the slaughter of marching civilians is not developed through a series of shots, but arises from the “collision” of two seemingly disparate sequences.
This means the way October is arranged is not dictated, as feature films generally already were in Western Europe and America, by a main character’s actions. Nobody turns their head to look at the machine gun, giving the film a motivation for shifting its attention to the machine gun. In a similarly famous series of shots from the film—one that, perhaps, has not aged as well—the symbols of the Orthodox Church are followed in sequence by symbols from non-European and pre-Christian religion, on a “regressive” scale that shows the roots of religion in superstition and “primitivism.” The point--that the doctrines and iconography of the Church are outdated tools of control--emerges from this example of what Eisenstein referred to as “intellectual montage.”
In some senses, we’re very used to Eisensteinian film techniques. His rapid cutting and emphasis on the physiological effect of the image is familiar from action films. In most other senses, though, watching a Soviet Montage film requires adjusting one’s expectations about what film storytelling should be. October, like other Eisenstein films from the silent era, doesn’t even have a main character who would direct our attention—and this does not mean, as it would in the Hollywood context, that the film has an ensemble cast.
Instead, the protagonist of the film is meant to be the lower classes of the late Russian Empire as one huge entity. We see them throughout the film move through the streets of St. Petersburg en masse, gather together under banners, raise their arms [literal or figurative] in solidarity, and yes, get slaughtered by Czarist and liberal forces. Every once in a while, the figures in the crowd are individualized through quick cuts to faces meant to be representative of their class.
These masses, rather than millions of individuals, were also the intended audience of Eisenstein’s film. October positions the audience as the students to a history lesson about themselves: the film features figures like Lenin but is more focused on the broader movements that culminated in the declaration of the Soviet Socialist Republic on November 7th, 1917 [October 26th on the calendar the Russians were using then]. Its treatment of Lenin is certainly laudatory, but the center of the myth constructed here is the people, the many forces that banded together under the Bolsheviks that year, forces that the audience is meant to identify with.
Whether October actually served its purpose, giving a nation its own kind of story about its origins, is doubtful. The film was not a success; it was certainly not as well-received as Eisenstein’s earlier, more condensed story, Battleship Potemkin . But whether or not the Russian public enjoyed it, it remains an innovative film full of energy and the promise of the new: the promise of the new, international language of the silent film; the promise of a new, avant-garde art for the masses; and the promise of the new, socialist government of Russia. Each of these evident enthusiasms can’t help but be received with a degree of melancholy, from our historical vantage point.
More important than the public’s reaction, Stalin’s government did not fully approve of October. The Party had soured on Eisenstein’s formalist approach to film narrative, insisting that the proletariat couldn’t understand it, and had no interest in it. The chief concern of Stalin’s government, though, was probably not the pure entertainment value of their country’s cinema. More likely, what they meant is that straightforward, bucolic stories in which audiences could lose themselves were better forms of social control than cinema that makes you a reader.