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Two films about the Russian Revolution

A powerful image of the Russian Revolution in Sergei Eisenstein's vision in October (1927)

It is interesting to note Russia's leading role in moments of crisis of capitalism. It was the case throughout the 20th century, and now, with the war in Europe and the launch of what appears to be a new multipolar world, the country's strength to change the course of history is evident. It seems that it was up to Russia to rid us of Nazis again. And I'm not just talking about Ukraine.

Because of this, I chose two Soviet films as the subject of my text this week. The two films are about the Russian Revolution, more specifically the final battle that consisted of the taking of the Winter Palace by the Bolsheviks in Saint Petersburg, under the command of Lenin, in 1917.

It is October, directed by Sergei Eisenstein in 1927, and Lenin in October, by Mikhail Romm, released ten years later. Both were government commissions from the Soviet film agency, Mosfilm, to mark the anniversaries of this historic event. Watching them together is an exercise that allows us to understand the paths of the Revolution from how the two filmmakers represent it at different intervals. There is a clash between the two versions in the formal choices.

The plot is practically the same, with the same characters and the same conclusion: in both, the final scene is Lenin's speech celebrating the victory over Kerensky's provisional government. Trotsky appears in both films in the same way: his hesitation in approving the October insurrection, vehemently defended by Lenin and which ends up being the winning proposal, is highlighted.

In 1927, Eisenstein tested the limits of his theories of montage and exercised cinema as a revolutionary form of representation in its essence. For him and many other filmmakers, cinema was the most significant art form of the 20th century.

His film opens with a homage to the heroes of the 1917 events. For him, these heroes were the Russian people. In October, there is not a typically bourgeois hero, in other words, a protagonist in action. On the contrary, Eisenstein chooses ordinary people to represent revolutionary types, creating an effect he calls “typing” in his book Film Form.

Workers, Bolsheviks, revolutionary women, soldiers, bourgeois, and traitors are all in the film. They do not have a name or an individual story. Even though historical characters, such as Lenin, Trotsky, or Kerensky, appear at specific moments, they are not the protagonists. Eisenstein wanted to make the Revolution his main character.

Along with typing, there is also the montage of scenes. Most of them are carefully staged frames carrying symbolic meanings. They seek to break with the illusion of representation of reality, or what the bourgeoisie ideologically defines as reality. They are messages about the revolutionary struggle, whether embedded in gestures or the frantic composition of weapons thrown on the ground. Eisenstein uses conflicting images to expose contradictions.

Lenin in October (1937) places the figure of the Russian leader at the center of the drama

In Lenin in October, Romm merely recreates Eisenstein's plot, modifying the latter's formal choices. As the title implies, the story focuses on the figure of Lenin and extols his heroism in leading the Russian Revolution. The film follows the rules of the bourgeois drama, as analyzed by Peter Zondi. It resembles the commercial cinema produced by Hollywood at that time.

Romm knew what he was doing, and it is possible to infer that he must have talked to Eisenstein about it. In 1937, Stalinism and the state bureaucracy were already persecuting everyone who was against their decisions.

In Arts, what became known as socialist realism began to be implemented. The bureaucracy evaluated the discussions about form, established by filmmakers, playwrights, and artists within Russian modernism after the Revolution, superfluous and difficult to understand, so “enemies to the people.”

Lenin in October has something very American in his approach to the subject. Even so, Romm tries to escape the trap, adding moments of irony and humor to a theme that should have some reverence. Even the figure of Lenin seems stereotyped and superficial. There is a specific scene for the cult of personality.

In another moment, the Bolsheviks inside the Winter Palace come across important statues and works of art. A character warns his comrades: “here are priceless works of art, so we need to protect them like that statue of Apollo." A comrade replies: "And which of them is the statue of Apollo?" To listen: “It does not matter. Use your knives, not gunshots.”

In this context, Romm's film is a symptom of the historical moment and the conditions of its production during the transformations of the Russian Revolution on completing 20 years. The film shows that the path traced was no longer as revolutionary as before. Romm's formal choices have an inverted symbolism and didacticism.

Today, Russia, a capitalist country, turns to its contradictions and its history to defend itself from the harmful impositions of the decadent and dangerous US imperialism. And as a protagonist, it seems to be changing the world again. We'll know for sure where this will take us soon.


October is on YouTube.

Lenin in October is on YouTube.


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