Starring Vladimir Popov, Vasili Nikandrov, Layaschenko.
Eisenstein’s October by Murray Sperber
Sergei Eisenstein, in the first decade of the Soviet Union and his own first decade in the cinema, was deeply committed to Marxism. This fact, so obvious in Eisenstein’s films of the 1920s, is denied or distorted by most critics of his work.
Politicos often attack or apologize for him in “vulgar Marxist” or “vulgar Free World” terms: e.g., the Stalinist and American Legion charges against him during his lifetime (OCTOBER was considered particularly “deviationist” and “subversive”), and the Soviet Union’s veneration of him in safe death. The majority of writers, including many of the luminaries of film criticism, evaluate Eisenstein mainly for his technical achievements and failures, and his place in film history. That he happened to make movies about political revolution appears in their eyes inconsequential compared to his innovations in film direction and editing.
This aesthete position gained momentum in the West during the Cold War when the safest way to discuss film—or any art—was in formalist terms. And when film came to the academy, film teachers and historians, codifying and clubifying their language and discipline also felt most comfortable discussing the director out of political context and in terms of a mystified film history: e.g., partially influenced by Griffith but little impact upon Hitchcock, etc..
The study of actual history is difficult and the more distant and foreign the period—e.g., the Soviet 1920s—the greater the problems. Also, an idealist approach to film (film as an art object) is generally easier than a materialist one (what actually occurred and why). Thus aesthetic criticism of Eisenstein continues. But denying an artist’s political content is a highly political albeit conservative act. If Eisenstein’s films are art objects, then we can ignore his political—i.e. Marxist—messages. Although in the last half century a number of critics, mainly French, have inquired into the connections between politics and art in his work, their impact upon film criticism, especially British and U.S., has been negligible. (For the best of the French writing, see the special double issue of Cahiers du Cinema, Jan.-Feb., 1971.) The purpose of this essay, therefore, is not to add to the existing criticism on Eisenstein but to shift the discussion, to consider him in terms of his Marxism. Here I will try to understand his use of dialectical materialism and to evaluate whether and how he translated it into cinema. Only in this way do Eisenstein’s triumphs, as well as his failures, become intelligible.
THE CRITICISM OF OCTOBER
Part of the problem for Western critics and viewers is that the subject of Eisenstein’s OCTOBER—the 1917 Russian Revolution—is unfamiliar. Furthermore, the print of the film they see is butchered and far from the director’s intention. In foreign distribution, especially in the United States, the film was cut and even censored in various ways. The usual Western version is both distorted and at least 1,200 meters shorter than the original Moscow print. Even the usual title, TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD, is incorrect: Eisenstein always called his work OCTOBER. The German distributor renamed it TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD after John Reed’s famous eyewitness account of the Revolution, which was one of Eisenstein’s many sources.
In discussing the film, it is important to use the best print available in the West. This is the French S.N.A. version, the closest to the original Moscow print. And to help the reader understand the action better, to retrieve the past, in a sense, it is useful to provide ongoing identifications of the historical persons and events. Although cumbersome at times, this positivist approach supplies the facts of the film, facts upon which any understanding and comment should be—but have not been—based.
OCTOBER has always been a problem film, for Eisenstein, his viewers, and especially critics. From its premiere, the film has served more as a Rorschach for critics’ projections than as a work seen and understood in its own terms. Mordaunt Hall, the reviewer for the New York Times, found it
“clever, but a bore. It is kaleidoscopic... His masters, the Soviet, get their due.”
Then, in complete disregard of the images of the screen, he states:
“Mr. Eisenstein revels in showing the pillaging of Bolshevik troops as they found their hobnailed boots for the first time on the waxed floors of a palace” (Nov. 3, 1928, p. 24).
Even critics predisposed in favor of the Soviet Union and its cinema complain of the film’s “rococo discursiveness and its lack of organized dramatic development” (Alexander Bakshy, The Nation, Dec. 28, 1928, p. 721). Another maintains,
“OCTOBER has no central slant. It is built up out of a collection of what might be called imaginary news reels. It darts about Russia, rushes through time, skips whole pages of history to fasten its frenzied eye in turn on ... etc” (Robert Littell, The New Republic, Nov. 21, 1928, p. 17).
The standard critical line on OCTOBER was soon established:
“The film as a whole is difficult and incoherent” (William Hunter, Scrutiny of Cinema, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1932, p. 31).