*. One of the first things you have to get out of the way when talking about this film is that it’s not a realistic depiction of Russia’s revolutionary year of 1917. As the famous line has it, more people were injured in the re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace than were in the actual event. The opening scene of the statue of Alexander III being pulled apart refers to an event that happened in Moscow, not Petrograd, years after the events of October 1917. The presence of Trotsky was all but eliminated from the final cut at Stalin’s direction (Trotsky had just been purged). And there are many other examples.
*. This isn’t a real critique of October, however, since Eisenstein never had any intention of making a faithful documentary account of the revolution. As a film (one of several) commissioned by the Bolsheviks to commemorate the tenth anniversary of their taking power, what they were looking for was propaganda.
*. A bigger knock against the movie, in my opinion, is that it isn’t effective propaganda. This was something it was criticized for right away. Too much of Eistenstein’s “intellectual montage,” it was felt, was sailing over proletarian heads. Even Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, got in on the act, saying that much of the film’s symbolism would be unintelligible to the masses (always the target audience in Soviet ideology).
*. It’s a complaint I have sympathy for. This is a film that demands to be read, and to have a correct reading. One has to be fairly knowledgeable in the history being recounted, as well as the various symbols being employed, to understand what is going on. Krupskaya, for example, was complaining about the statues of Napoleon being too difficult, and they are actually some of the more obvious referents in the film (with their meaning underlined by the title cards).
*. Another image Krupskaya singled out for its obscurity is the sea of scythes raised by the peasants in the opening scene of the statue being toppled. This was meant to suggest the common identity of the soldiers with the peasantry. Does it work? Or is it just confusing? I opt for the latter. And I still couldn’t tell you what the significance is of the montage of religious statues, even after reading Eisenstein’s explanation (where I think he says that it’s meant to reduce the idea of god to the absurd by drawing us into different cultural expressions of divinity that the viewer will find alien and ridiculous).
*. Here’s another reading that I came up with: is Kerensky climbing the same flight of stairs over and over a reference to Trotsky’s famous barb that Kerensky’s best speeches were a pounding of water in a mortar, sending up a halo of steam? Perhaps. It might even fit with the statue’s wreath. But I’ve never heard of that connection being made so I may be just imagining it.
*. In all of this Eisenstein was experimenting, and he would later look back on October and judge some of his experiments failures. He called it a baroque film, which suggests (at least to me) a hit-and-miss approach. Some things work. I like the multiple shots of the statue of Alexander III, making him out to be an Ozymandian figure too large to fit in a single frame and prefiguring his imminent dismemberment. Other things, like the machine-gun editing to mimic the action of the man firing the machine gun on the crowd, are strained or otherwise ineffective.
*. Statues were a sort of crutch for Eisenstein, an easy objective correlative. Instead of evoking an idea or emotion through editing or photography — as the lion statues are used at the end of Battleship Potemkin — here they only enable crude or bizarre analogies. Alexander III is a giant, oppressive figure, shot from below. Napoleon (or Napoleon-Kerensky) is a toy-like miniature, a wannabe master of the universe. Rodin’s Le Printemps rebukes the woman soldier. The First Steps shows the birth of a new society. So it goes, a sort of shorthand in marble.
*. The result is to make the movie both obscure and heavy-handed. Montage, even of the intellectual variety, doesn’t have to be this abrupt or dislocating (the peacock! that Buddha!), but Eisenstein wants us to notice what he’s doing. There’s nothing subliminal going on. But at the same time it’s not always obvious what is.
*. I really hope they didn’t kill that horse just for the movie, and found some dead stock to use instead. But given the time and place they may not have given it a thought.
*. Lenin doesn’t actually have much of a role after dramatically appearing at Finland Station. This may have been Stalin’s doing as well, since he wanted Lenin’s part edited so he wouldn’t appear to be too liberal. Stalin, by the way, only appears in the one scene which is also one of the few remaining scenes showing Trotsky. Trotsky is making an argument that is about to be overruled by Lenin, who Stalin is (pointedly) sitting beside. Meanwhile, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko becomes the closest thing to a hero in the movie. He would later be purged (that is, executed) by Stalin in the 1930s.
*. Instead of the big names, who are mainly relegated to cameos, Eisenstein celebrates anonymous heroes and faces. This was one of his trademarks, and also a remarked upon difference between Marxist doctrine (history made by collective action of the masses) and “Western” filmmaking’s focus on the heroic individual. I don’t think it’s a raised-by-Hollywood bias, however, that has me disliking so many of the Bolshevik heroes. The idle stablehand who is meant to represent “neutrality” and the wheedling older comrade who manages to turn the Savage Division’s tide of wrath strike me as particularly unpleasant types.
*. Quite often they weren’t actors. Eisenstein cast by appearance. Lenin, for example, was a then unknown worker. They didn’t have to act much, but only react. Eisenstein rarely shows people thinking but instead has them expressing simple emotions like joy or anger. Violence is either exuberant or vicious, revolutionary or counterrevolutionary (the umbrella-wielding maenads).
*. The (dialectical?) movement of ebb and surge, forward and backward action, revolution and counterrevolution, informs the entire film. The statue comes down, the statue goes up; the blade is drawn from its scabbard, the blade returns to its scabbard.
*. This same back-and-forth movement, only from mass and crowd to face and individual, is also noticeable in Triumph of the Will. It may be characteristic of political filmmaking, where group identity and the image of the leader (or the leader as image) is so important. Come to think of it, Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927) has a similar dialectic.
*. I just don’t think it works that well. As I’ve said, it’s not really successful as history or as propaganda. I don’t think it’s a favourite even among fans of Eisenstein. Individual sequences are great as stand-alones, with their own beginnings, middles and ends, but the film as a whole has a weak narrative structure and without some preliminary grounding in the events depicted I think most viewers will feel lost.