Like how potential prey must adapt in order to thwart predators, so too did Soviet filmmakers. The works of directors like Sergei Eisenstein had to fluctuate thematically and stylistically to adhere to new cultural demands and political policies. These artists fell under considerable scrutiny, altering their protagonists, stories, and dialectics as a result of oft-changing opinions of Soviet leaders. The Party controlled the artistic landscape and in turn these artists had to accommodate mercurial emotive responses to continue their practices. And in 1928, Eisenstein was met with his harshest criticism yet, upon the release of “October: Ten Days that Shook the World.”
The film itself chronicles the build-up and catharsis of the October Revolution. Beginning in February of 1917, a group of revolutionaries tears down the statue of Tsar Nicholas, the last Emperor of Russia. Chaos ensues as the Bolsheviks and government forces battle back and forth. Lenin is able to return from exile to the obvious cheers of a massive crowd. And despite suffering large losses from the machine guns of Kerensky forces, the proletarians are able to beat them back. The film’s climax is a massive and epic storming of the Winter Palace, whereby control of Russia is wrested from caricatures of aristocratic enemies and placed into the hands of the masses.
Now, it goes without saying that the work of Eisenstein, and of all directors at this time, is propaganda. But what elevates these sorts of films is just how well these auteurs can work within such a tyrannical medium. Eisenstein himself was among the foremost film theorists in the Soviet Union. The reverberations of his style have been felt the world over and it is almost impossible to overstate the impact he has had on cinema. “October” contains such beautiful imagery and jarringly pointed editing it remains a cinematic marvel. It is heavily symbolic and helped to crystallize his notions of intellectual montage, whereby a deeper meaning is created through the collision of shots, going far beyond what is simply appearing onscreen. Keep in mind he is doing so in 1928; the first fully sound film was distributed only one year prior (the Soviet Union did not catch up on sound film until mid 1930s) and sociological and historical depth were a rarity.
But despite the beautiful power of Eisenstein’s montage, he was disparaged domestically. Typage (the choosing of actors based purely on their physical features) became the primary source of the critical vitriol that was hurled Eisenstein’s way. By casting his films based on the appearances necessary to facilitate roles, the director was also placing a larger burden on himself. Acting became subservient to displaying visual truth, for which he was wholly responsible. For “October,” Eisenstein found himself needing to portray Vladimir Lenin. He casted a worker named Visili Nikandrov, who bore the necessary uncanny resemblance. This seemingly innocuous act became the leading point in attacks on the film. Critics, theorists, and filmmakers alike largely denounced him. As director Esfir Shub wrote about the choice, “You must not stage a historical face because the staging distorts the truth.”
It is difficult to convey in words simply how many rules were constantly developing in Soviet filmmaking. Directing was a minefield, simultaneously discovering how film should relate to history, people, and leaders and being chastised for doing it incorrectly. The restrictions were astonishing and the fact that Eisenstein was able to produce such art while handcuffed to such regulation is a testament to his temperament. He would eventually abandon the use of typage for professional actors after the failures of “October” and his next feature, “The Old and the New.” As an aside, the casting of the latter became incredibly problematic in its use of peasant girls. They became convinced after a day of shooting that the camera was capable of seeing through their clothes, though they were eventually convinced otherwise.
Perhaps the term that most plagued Eisenstein throughout is life was “formalist.” In Soviet Cinema it became a stamp of disapproval and a burden that threatened life and livelihood. The goal of these films was to unite the masses, not alienate them through focus on technicalities and theory. The problem, of course, was that Eisenstein remained a frequent experimenter who wrote more about film than any director that has ever lived. Several of his works were deemed too convoluted for Soviet audiences to endure, with “October” being one of them. Critic T. Rokotov stated there were reports of “a loud sound of snoring” during a screening of the film, due to audience’s inability to grasp its intent. It is important to note that in the year 1928, the proletariat of the Soviet Union was not a largely learned citizenry. However, the budding auteurs had already established themselves in the arts. Regarding filmmakers, Pavel Petrov-Bytov wrote in 1929, “The people who make up the Soviet cinema are 95% alien, aesthetes or unprincipled. Generally speaking, none of them has any experience of life.” So being painted as an “intellectual” meant you were incapable of connecting with audiences en masse and therefore more than just a poor filmmaker, you were a threat to the government.
The films of Eisenstein have garnered more respect, admiration, and emulation over time, or course. He indeed left a long legacy to the film industry, as many of his scenes still serve as a basis for sequences in modern cinema. However, his career was wrought with turmoil, mostly due to the near impossible standard of Soviet leaders and critics. But it nonetheless lasted decades, and for very good reason. In a society where thoughts discordant with those of the authorities were punished severely, one must change his or her thoughts to ensure security. Eisenstein changed his theories and films based both on cultural demands and those of the government; however, these demands hinged greatly on the rotating leaders and rapidly evolving opinions found therein. Eisenstein adapted to these provisions, and did so without compromising his creativity, a feat very few were capable of and even fewer accomplished.
Bergan, Ronald. Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 1999. Print.
Taylor, Richard, and Ian Christie. The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896-1939. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.
Taylor, Richard, and Ian Christie. Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema. London: Routledge, 1991. Print.