Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 39
21 June 1999

Eisenstein at work K I N O E Y E:
Three Ways to Tell the Truth
Film depictions of the Russian Revolution ten years after the fact

Isobel Hunter

As part of the Barbican Centre's season bringing the city of St Petersburg to Londoners' doorsteps, three weekends of classic Russian films highlighted different aspects of Russia's history and its "window on the West". The first weekend, supposedly portraying the city itself, was in fact devoted to the October Revolution. The films shown are a revealing insight into the debate which raged amongst directors, theoreticians and Party officials a decade after 1917 as to how the Revolution and indeed "truth" should be presented cinematically to the masses.

Although billed as an exploration of representations of St Petersburg, the first weekend of films in fact only showed the city as a backdrop. The real star of these screenings were the events of the October Revolution in 1917, with one of the definitive portrayals of the phantasmagorical nature of Peter the Great's city - Kozintsev and Trauberg's Shinel' (The Overcoat, 1926) -curiously shunted off into the second weekend of films made by the Lenfilm studios.

The "St Petersburg" weekend included two films commissioned for the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, in 1927: Efsir Shub's documentary Padenie dinastii Romanovykh (The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty) and Sergei Eisenstein's docu-drama Oktyabr' (October aka Ten Days that Shook the World). In addition, Dziga Vertov's 1926 newsreel about Lenin - one of a series which went under Vertov's banner of Kinopravda meaning "film truth" -was screened as an opening short before Shub's film. Vertov's contribution to the celebrations came a year later in the form of another newsreel Odinnadtsatyi (The Eleventh Year, 1928). Although the Barbican did not show this film, it is similar in method to Kinopravda, and the three illustrate an interesting trichotomy in Soviet practices in cinema. Fierce debate raged around these three films over the most appropriate methods by which the Revolution's course should be captured on screen, and the best way to represent "fact".

Found footage

Shub's film, Padenie dinastii Romanovykh, is composed of spliced archive footage, which aims to show the iniquities of the Tsarist regime, the rise of popular unrest throughout the First World War and the final victory of the masses. After the exposure to countless TV documentaries and broadcasts using archive footage, a modern audience may view Shub's film as unremarkable and even boring. However, Shub's pioneering efforts in this field are remarkable. In her reminiscences, Shub recalled how she spent countless hours "opening" film documents which had lain forgotten or discarded in basements, cellars and cupboards, often unidentified as to the time, place and significance of the subject. She was even forced to track down films which had been sold abroad, and to watch hours of newsreel footage purchased from America in her attempt to find appropriate images.

Previously insignificant or trivial scraps of film attain new importance within the sequence of Shub's editing. For example, a shot of a regional Tsarist governor and his wife sipping tea in their garden, while their bulldog gambols at their feet, becomes a scene of despotic cruelty when it is intercut with shots of peasants toiling in the fields. Shub overlays the film with lengthy intertitles and uses quotes from speeches, banners and declarations to link the film fragments and place them in an appropriate historical framework, so that the viewer is left little latitude to interpret events for himself.

Dynamic documentary

Vertov's documentary technique is in marked contrast to Shub's. Vertov also uses footage of actual events, but unlike Shub, who utilised footage from a variety of sources, all of Vertov's footage was shot by his own team of cameramen and then stored in a library to be edited into sequence as needed. Vertov's film is far more fluid and more obviously experimental than Shub's. It abandons a pedestrian chronology to compile a dazzling kaleidoscope of events relating to Lenin's work in the aftermath of the Revolution. Thus, while Padenie dinastii Romanovykh presents the Revolution as a closed and finished event, Vertov attempts to explore its living legacy by creating a rhythmic and dynamic work. The vital nature of the Revolution and of Lenin is demonstrated decisively in the closing sequence, in which a shot of Lenin speaking is superimposed above his mausoleum, while young Pioneers gaze on, enraptured and inspired.

The entire structure of Vertov's film is dynamic, as demonstrated by his use of intertitles. Whereas Shub's are conventional typed sentences held statically in front of the camera, Vertov's titles move to invade the film sequences and animate them. For example, footage of Lenin speaking is intercut with short snatches of his speech, in an attempt to recreate the crowd's excitement at hearing the full statement emerge. Elsewhere, written statements appear within the moving film frames themselves: carried aloft as banners or pasted up as placards on buildings. In some ways, this forms an interesting parallel with Lenin's own vision of "Monumental Propaganda", as revealed in his Plan of 1918. Cities were to be plastered with inspiring and educational statements as well as sculptures and frescoes. Lenin's faith in the power of slogans is evidenced by the fact that in some cases, Tsarist monuments were allowed to remain in place after new words had been carved into their base.

So, it is fitting that in a film dedicated to Lenin, words should exist as such vital elements within the urban space. However, in Vertov's film, words are granted even more power and presence than in Lenin's own vision, because they do not exist as static elements which are carved in stone or painted on banners, but they grow and move. Intertitles to sequences are often made up of words of different proportions: one appearing after another like the blasts of a trumpet. Towards the end of the film, words spring to life in a short animated sequence in which they shoot out arrows to attack the goggling face of a foreign bourgeois. In contrast to both Shub's film and Lenin's Monumental Propaganda Plan, Vertov's words are not dead statements, but living elements which still retain a primal energy.

A film which shook the world

The third and most famous film in this screening, Eisenstein's Oktyabr', is an acted recreation of the events of the October Revolution It is directed with such dazzling mastery of cinematic timing and montage that the audience can hardly fail to swell with righteous indignation and thrill with excitement as the revolutionary struggle surges towards its climax. Oktyabr' is the third film in Eisenstein's trilogy charting the build up of dissent which led to the Revolution: Stachka (Strike, 1924) shows the stirring of consciousness amongst the provincial proletariat and their doomed attempt to better their conditions, Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) depicts the spreading of discontent from the shipboard sailors to the whole population of Odessa, and in Oktyabr' revolution finally sweeps into the old imperial capital and up the steps of the Winter Palace.

Again, in this film words are important. Whereas in Stachka and Potemkin intertitles are minimal, in Oktyabr' words are everywhere: lengthy intertitles repeat crucial speeches and, once more, banners carry words through the moving frame, a representation of the Party view that the revolution only succeeds once correct theory is present to direct the people's will. Yet, although words are accorded a more dramatic role than in Shub's film, they are still held as static fragments and not allowed the animation of Vertov's film.

Contemporary debates about the films of these three directors centred around the question of what was the most appropriate method of portraying historical events. Shub criticised both Vertov and Eisenstein for the "manufacture of facts," claiming that careful splicing of archive footage was the only way to portray reality, although ironically her montage techniques mirrored those of Eisenstein in their subjectivity. Other critics agreed that Vertov distorted the footage by allowing experimental technique to overwhelm the raw material. Vertov's critics even included the theorist Osip Brik, friend of the futurist writer and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and editor of the radical arts journal LEF (Left Front of the Arts), which had previously fiercely advocated experimental art but which now embraced the "literature of fact" and began to criticise overtly avant-garde work. In the pages of LEF, critics also pounced on Eisenstein's film, claiming it was misguided to use an actor to play Lenin, and that throughout the film the "truth" about the Revolution had been distorted to meet the demands of the dramatic plot.

Showing the years

The question obviously arises as to which film appears the most successful to modern audiences. Padenie dinastii Romanovykh is certainly a worthy attempt, but watches rather like a school history film - with its lengthy shots of named characters and First World War trenches. It does much to display the misery leading to the Revolution, but does little to thrill the audience to its romance.

In contrast, Eisenstien stirs and moves the audience, using comedy, pathos and suspense to keep it on the edge of its seats and to send it charging from the cinema, ready to race down darkened streets enthused with the spirit of the revolution. But, as critics at the time pointed out, the blurring of historical fact and artistic licence can be confusing and at times uncomfortable. One minute we are asked to accept acted scenes as authentic recreations of events, and the next to interpret a series of images - such as the famous raising of the bridges sequence and Kerensky ascending the stairs of the Winter Palace - as a complex and abstract metaphor.

Possibly the greatest danger of Oktyabr' is that precisely because it is so powerful and emotionally engaging, it can crowd out the true and more boring picture. Legend has it that because of the lack of original photographs and film footage, sequences and stills from the film have been used in subsequent documentaries and history text books purporting to be primary material. Vertov's films are difficult even for modern audiences, which are used to the quickly changing, multiple images of TV, video and computers. However, perhaps by demanding that the audience must concentrate to interpret the dynamic and shifting film sequence, Vertov ensures that his images do not degenerate into cliches, like some of Eisenstien's, or into stale historical footage, like Shub's, but remain thought-provoking and forceful throughout.

Isobel Hunter, 21 June 1999

Click here to buy Oktyabr' on VHS.

Click here to buy it on DVD

Reviews of other events in the Barbican's Romance and Revolution season:
Better to Die a Russian than to Live a Soviet
Sergei and Georgi Vasiliev's Chapayev
The Forgotten Avant Garde
 Soviet composers crushed by Stalin

The St Petersburg Legacy
 A portrait of a city through its poetry and music

Zaum and Sun
 The first Futurist opera revisited



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