Sergei Eisenstein’s communist propaganda films of the 1920s are not only crucial in understanding the power of filmmaking, specifically in Eisenstein’s earth-shattering use of the montage, but they are also exciting, even by today's standards. Although Eisenstein’s more well-known works like Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) are certainly notable in their own right, none of those films stuck out to me quite like his co-production with Grigori Aleksandrov, October (Ten Days that Shook the World) (1927).
October is a historical reenactment of the events leading up to the October Revolution of 1917, or, for those who don’t know their Soviet history, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian Provisional Government through an armed insurrection in Petrograd led by Vladimir Lenin. The film is often referred to as a “docu-drama,” but I would deem that classification incorrect because every shot in the movie is a recreation. If the film seems to have elements of a documentary, it’s just because it’s committed to its visual accuracy.
One of the most interesting points of discussion is whether or not the film succeeds as a historical reenactment. While yes, the film visually recreates the events of the October Revolution to a tee, it’s evident that Eisenstein was primarily focused on experimenting with the montage and his editing style rather than making something traditional as a way of teaching the masses about this Soviet-proclaimed triumph.
At the time of its release, the film was attacked for being narratively incomprehensible, which is a fair assessment. You would need to have a degree in Soviet history to fully understand exactly what happens in this film, and if you watch this film knowing nothing about the historical events it is based on (much like I did), you will probably learn very little. Yet, you don’t need to comprehend the story in order to feel the weight of the images and how they are edited together.
How Eisenstein combines historical reenactments with stark impressionism and abstraction is simultaneously mesmerizing and baffling. The Soviet filmmakers believed in what they called The Kuleshov Effect, which is a montage editing effect stating that audiences will derive more meaning from two shots in sequence than from one shot on its own. For instance, if you take one shot from a group of shots cut together in a sequence, that shot on its own will have a completely different meaning than when it is part of a sequence.
With October, Eisenstein pushes The Kuleshov Effect to its very extremes. The images Eisenstein juxtaposes in this film are so perplexing that audiences will most likely be left not knowing how to feel, which is further accentuated by the rapid-fire pace of the editing. The best example of this is when Provisional Government leader Alexander Kerensky attends a meeting in the Winter Palace, and Eisenstein chooses to cut between shots of him and a mechanical peacock.
How is the audience supposed to feel when these two images are sequenced together? What does the mechanical peacock represent? We know this isn’t a positive comparison given Kerensky’s involvement in the Provisional Government, as well as some other comparisons to Napoleon. Maybe it represents some sort of false beauty. A peacock is a gorgeous, colorful creature, but a mechanical one is colorless and dead; it aspires to be what it isn’t. It aspires to be the real thing.
No matter how odd and incomprehensible the film may come off at times, the film is still riddled with a handful of undeniably exciting sequences. The opening sequence of the February Revolution and the closing sequence of the storming of Petrograd are truly electric and have a genuine scale that is hard to come by in the modern age of technology. There’s something so breathtaking about filling your frame with thousands of extras running around storming buildings and causing riots that you can only achieve by practical means.
Eisenstein is also a master of knowing exactly what to focus on amidst all the chaos and destruction. For example, the way he focuses on the woman’s hair as the bridges open up during the February Revolution scene or the way he highlights the shaking chandeliers as the canons and outside ruckus cause trembles in the building are all unforgettable images. It’s decisions like these that make Eisenstein’s films (this film in particular) so cinematic and interesting.
Despite how truly great this film is, October is admittedly an exhausting film to wrap one's head around. It’s no doubt a masterpiece, but it’s a masterpiece in its own realm. The techniques on display are so ahead of their time, yet cinema has moved so far beyond the era of silent films that I wonder if modern filmmaking is capable of catching up. Perhaps some modern filmmakers have lost their way, becoming too reliant on technology and not daring to challenge what makes the moving image so powerful. Maybe conventional sound and dialogue rendered a lot of Eisenstein’s advancements unachievable or useless. It’s as if Eisenstein predicted a future for cinema with this movie, but only about half of his prophecies were fulfilled. Too singular, too incomprehensible, and too experimental, yet an achievement of the grandest scale.