Sergei Eisenstein’s epic film adaptation of the 1917 Revolution was released on the 10th anniversary of the seismic event and has since been etched into the historical memory of Russia and the world
One of the ways to create a unified society is to form a special historical myth that can make people believe that they have something in common—something worth protecting and fighting for. In the Soviet Union, this founding myth was the Great October Revolution. It was the bloody, dramatic, and triumphant genesis of the new working class state. For the myth to become lasting and influential, it had to be nurtured all the time and documented. What better way to do so than by using the great new medium of the time—the motion picture—and it’s pioneer—the internationally renowned film director Sergei Eisenstein?
1927 was the year of the first important anniversary of the October Revolution, and the government of the Soviet Union had to find a way to commemorate it. Apart from pompous state celebrations and street events, the highlight of the 10th anniversary of the revolution was the screening of a new silent film shot by the most famous Soviet director of the period—Sergei Eisenstein. The movie was called October and it provided a grand and epic memorialisation of the foundational myth of the young communist state. The name October was essential for the USSR and was used for naming various organisations and state awards—according to the old Russian calendar, the date of the revolution fell on the night between 25 October and 26 October (6-7 November today).
The film was designed to match the massive scale of the revolution. The epic music, numbers of involved actors, and stirring emotions on screen were all aimed at memorialising the event above all others. Eisenstein’s cinematography in October was revolutionary in itself and continues to inspire filmmakers today. Despite the limitations of silent films, Eisenstein was able to present his ideas by juxtaposing frames in a quick and riveting sequence. His characters couldn’t speak, so their words had to be spelt out in separate shots. A film entirely made up of title cards could have become a tedious affair, so the phrases had to be concise and very easy to grasp. It was especially important for October, as, being an ideological work, its purpose was to praise the Revolution.
Another detail that comes to mind while watching the film is the fact that it doesn’t really have a protagonist. There are some characters who come to attention from time to time, but Sergei Eisenstein doesn’t let them become a primary focus. This detail highlights the importance of the idea of the revolution itself. A viewer would see the revolution as a movement of the masses—not of some people who stand above others.
Although October lacks a protagonist, it definitely has an antagonist. Alexander Kerensky (2nd Minister of the Provisional Government from July to October 1917) is likened to a czar who hadn’t been overthrown. The beginning of the movie shows that the establishment of the Provisional Government did not improve anything. The war, as well as the famine, are still going on. One of the striking ways of showing this stagnation is the scene in which the destroyed monument of Alexander III restores itself piece by piece.
It would be impossible to talk about the Russian Revolution without mentioning Vladimir Lenin. October is notable in the fact that it was the first time that Lenin was shown on screen. The ordinary Soviet worker Nikandrov Nikolaevich, who used to work as a turner before he started his acting career, played the role of the leader of the world proletariat. This detail reinforces the myth of the revolution as an event made by working class people. Moreover, some of the actual participants of the assault on the Winter Palace were included in the main cast and as extras. Nikolai Podvoisky (one of the leaders of the assault) and Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko (one of the leaders of the assault who carried out the arrest of the Provisional Government) relived their feats on screen. The extras wore historical costumes and bore weapons used back in 1917 for a realistic and full immersion.
Considering the era, the film October became what it was supposed to become—an epic memorialisation that would inspire future generations of Soviet citizens. October embodies the myth of the revolution that infused Soviet viewers with a belief in the great magnitude of the glorious event. It serves as a textbook example of the work of Soviet propaganda with all its typical traits—resounding slogans and attempts to convince citizens that a brighter future was imminent.