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Sergei Eisenstein vol.1

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Russia In Revolt
September 2007 SITE MAP   SEARCH

cast: Vladimir Popov, Vasili Nikandrov, Layaschenko, Chibisov, and Boris Livanov

director: Sergei Eisenstein

99 minutes (PG) 1927
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jim Steel
Like many of Eisenstein's other films, there are several varieties of October. It is also known as Ten Days That Shook The World, presumably to tie it in with American journalist John Reed's popular book concerning the same events. The core of the film remains essentially unchanged throughout, being resistant to editing no doubt in part due to the confusing nature of the narrative.

The film was commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Russian revolution, and the Stalinist state apparatus was very keen to make sure that its version of history was the one that was presented to the viewer. Lenin is, as expected, presented as a dynamic hero. As is Stalin, which will doubtless have come as a surprise to anyone who was actually present at the events in question. Trotsky is portrayed as a vacillator whose indecisiveness would have put the revolution at risk, and Kerensky is shown as weak and cowardly. The Petrograd naval garrison here become followers instead of instigators. And so on. Much of this can hardly be blamed on Eisenstein, of course.

The film starts with the celebrations of the February 1917 revolution. This was the event that abolished the monarchy and installed Kerensky's provisional government. Celebrations break out between the Russians and the Germans on the eastern front that make the 1914 western front Christmas truce look like total war. However, the provisional government decides to continue the war. It is also implied that they are going to restore the old regime.

The arrival of Lenin changes things, and the people of Petrograd march on the reactionary forces in the summer and this leads to one of the two great set pieces in the film. Eisenstein uses his crowds superbly, and the raising of the Petrograd bridges is loaded with imagery that recalls the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. The falling white horse, symbolic of the Russian people, is the key to it. General Kornilov's counter-revolutionary march is thwarted, and the provisional government is overthrown.

The final, massive set piece is the storming of the Winter Palace. In reality it was nearly undefended and of little strategic consequence but here it is glorious. Some of the few defenders were women soldiers and unfortunately Eisenstein plays them as unfeminine clowns in one of his rare false steps. They are shown, uniformed and coarse, against the idealised women of the Winter Palace artworks.

There is much to admire, but overall it is a mess. Eisenstein has made too much use of his montage technique and it is hard work at times to watch. But there is another problem here and it concerns the DVD. The version that we are presented with is the 50th anniversary edition (of the revolution, and the 40th of the film). It had a new specially commissioned score by Dmitri Shostakovich. Two geniuses for the price of one, you may think, although how Shostakovich felt about having to write for a film that was made at a time when his own work was being suppressed and he was in fear of his life can only be guessed.

October looks as if it was filmed at 16 frames per second, but is here being shown at 24 frames per second. This has led to what is technically known as the 'Benny Hill effect'. Playing the DVD at half speed leads to a much more natural, albeit slightly too slow, form of movement. Unfortunately, Shostakovich's score is paced to fit the fast version and there is no way to match it with the proper speed. It isn't the clearest of soundtracks anyway, and surely the solution would be to issue it on CD along with a re-mastered October. They could then be played separately and enjoyed more easily.

The extra on this disc is Battleship Potemkin, here with a slightly creaky and melodramatic score by Edmund Meisel, and quite frankly, Battleship Potemkin blows October clean out of the water.

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