Sergei Eisenstein’s October (1928)

by thomasmagnahastings

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Sergei Eisenstein found himself in trouble with the Soviet government for an apparent “over-attention” to form in the making of October (1928). According to Stalin’s commissioning arm, the Russian people would not be able to understand the ordering of historical events surrounding the October Revolution of 1917 because Eisenstein’s attention to technique, angle and montage all interpolate too much form into the film’s narrative. Yet one can argue that Eisenstein’s punchy by-lines offer clear directives to the mass audience, who are confronted by the familiar story of the shoring up of Tsarist reserves, the wooing of the Mensheviks, the deposition of the liberal provisional government, and the climactic establishment of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. Again, the figures of General Kerensky, Lenin and Trotsky (who was later excised altogether), are consistently identifiable against the film’s chaotic thrall of demonstrations, speeches, meetings and marches. Against this landscape of landmarks, therefore, Eisenstein’s formal work does not strictly detract from the film’s message and agenda. If anything this “making visible” of technology and the editing process enhances the production of energy that propels the train of historical events forward. What, then, is the problem of form in Eisenstein’s October?

There is one scene in particular, during the final section of the storming of the Winter Palace, which may have captured the Soviet government’s distaste. An unnamed Bolshevik revolutionary breaks open the door of the Princess’ bedroom, runs in to the centre of the chamber, and plunges the tip of his bayonet into an abundance of silken sheets. As he draws his bayonet vertically upwards, revealing the mass of down contained within, Eisenstein’s camera lingers on the revolutionary’s face as it turns in the direction of the Princess’ chest cabinet. The Russian people are invited to gaze upon a series of photographic portraits of Nicholas II, whose stateliness is softened and made familial by the private space of the bedroom.

The revolutionary’s ambiguous gaze is repeatedly broken and refashioned by Eisenstein’s camera, which switches to the ransacking of the Winter Palace’s lower quarters and wine cellar before returning, invigorated and charged. Still, the revolutionary is suspended in time, and the Russian people share in a precious display that is soon to be rendered obsolete. In one sense, this imminent obsolescence makes such a suspension of action desirable because the spectator really feels what it is like to participate in the levelling of value: the revolutionary’s reverie is instated as a moral position to be inhabited and overcome, and it is this recognition that makes such a scene permissible, even necessary, for a defence of Eisenstein’s realism.

However, and this is the crux of the matter as I see it, instead of witnessing the expropriation of the portraits of Nicholas II, the shot is taken over by an unnamed classical sculpture of a young girl that is suspended in a temporally unbounded space. This interval is installed within the gaze of the revolutionary alongside the mise-en-scène of devastation occurring in the other millennial rooms of the Winter Palace. Eisenstein’s camera then performs the connoisseurial movement of ekphrasis, tracking down from the veiled face to the exposed pubis.* Amidst the iconoclastic disarray of the governing action, this purely formalistic attention to the figure of a young girl transports the spectator to a space of contemplation that is, ironically, in the possession of one absconded class.

Did Eisenstein employ ekphrasis, a style of description tied to vision, in order to subvert the senses as well as the standing of the Tsarist elite, or has he redeemed them? Suffice to say, in criticising the excess of form in October, the Soviet government may have been momentarily piqued, by what was thought to have been put to rest.

* Ekphrasis here refers to the rhetorical description of a figure that begins from the head and moves progressively down to the ground. By employing this term, I want to point out how the camera’s movement, so out of keeping with the general ransacking, conjures the image of the connoisseur in his darkened viewing chamber: a subject who has been forcibly removed from the Winter Palace.

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