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  • Production notes - Brief history of the Russian Revolution

October 1917

Force Entertainment/Force Entertainment . R4 . B&W . 104 mins . PG . PAL

  Feature
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Made in 1925 to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 Revolution, Sergei Eisenstein produced one of the greatest films ever made, Battleship Potemkin, and gained international recognition with his extraordinary editing and montage skills.

Nowhere were his formidable talents more apparent than in Potemkin’s Odessa Steps massacre, possibly the most famous sequence in film history. Eisenstein created mounting tension and horror by swiftly cutting to various viewpoints: close-ups of marching jackboots; rattling cutlasses; facial close-ups with terrified expressions; the lone baby carriage as it bounced aimlessly down the steps. According to Eisenstein, his montage technique was similar to the series of “explosions in an internal combustion engine that drove a car forward.” Often considered as his masterpiece, Potemkin continues to enthral, inspire, and provoke; in 1933, it is claimed that the failed mutiny on the Dutch warship De Zeven Provincien was instigated after the crew’s viewing of the film.

As with his previous film Strike, Potemkin was made without any interference from the Soviet government and Eisenstein retained full artistic control of both films; however, the political climate initiated by the Stalin administration ensured that the contents of Eisenstein’s future works would be closely monitored. Although he had not yet experienced censure, Eisenstein’s first encounter with Stalin's post-production tampering would occur with the post-production of his next film, the Revolutionary epic, October.

Authorised by Sovkino, the Soviet film agency, and commissioned by the October Revolution Jubilee Committee, Eisenstein was hired to direct October, a passionate tenth anniversary account of the 1917 Civil War. Much has been discussed concerning the film’s glorified, and somewhat romaticised, depiction of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the martyrdom that prevails the scenes of carnage near the St. Petersburg bridges. However, it should be realised that Eisenstein bore witness to the atrocities that occurred in St. Petersburg on January 9, 1905, when workers, marching peacefully on the Winter Palace “in order to claim redress of grievances from the Tsar himself,” were fired upon. Known as “Bloody Sunday,” this incident provoked the 1905 Revolution.

Just seven years old at the time of “Bloody Sunday,” Eisenstein’s youth was tainted with traumatic memories such as these; as a film correspondent for the Bolshevik cause during the 1917 unrest, his pre-occupation with themes of revolutionary action, social injustice, and repression were solidified with his pre-occupation of history, in particular, Auguste Mignet’s book, History of the French Revolution.

Eisenstein once remarked: “My fascination with revolutions, especially French ones, dates from that tender age. First of all it was because of their romance. Their colour. Their rarity. I greedily devoured book after book. The guillotine enthralled my imagination... I could hear the crack of rifles - the Versailles firing squads - and the peal of the Paris tocsin... Living in Riga, I spoke German better than Russian. But in my thoughts I lived French history.”

Incomparable in its chauvinistic propaganda content to any other film, with the exception of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 epic Triumph of the Will, Eisenstein’s October is a complex, if not always coherent, recreation of the events surrounding the Bolsheviks’ overthrow of the autocratic Imperial monarchy and their armed insurrection against Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government. Spanning the period of the first revolt in February 1917, which stemmed from Russia’s poor involvement in World War I and public discord with government corruption and inefficiency, to October 25, 1917 when armed workers, soldiers, and sailors assaulted the Winter Palace, the headquarters of the provisional government, Eisenstein’s film is an ambitious screen spectacle.

Eisenstein brings his cinematic techniques to the fore with this film, producing dazzling, frightening, and surreal imagery which, for this reviewer at least, is a sumptuous visual feast. His ferocious editing, perfected in his earlier films, is abundant in October; undoubtedly, the film’s showpiece is the beautifully orchestrated massacre near the St. Petersburg bridges and rivals the horror of the Odessa Steps sequence. The interlacing shots are pieced together in a feverish manner: panoramic crowds scenes; rapid alternations between a soldier’s wild grimace and the flashing muzzle of a machine gun; fallen corpses; a dead horse dangling from the raised bridge; and, seemingly in recognition of Potemkin, the crazed descent of a horse carriage.

It is incredible to realise that, 73 years after its initial release, this scene, reminiscent of Bosch or Goya, can still wield immeasurable power. However, Eisenstein’s use of the Kuloshov montage style is a double-sided sword. The deployment of juxtaposed images of animals and objects over his actors to reflect their idiosyncratic nature is more obscure in October than in Strike; for instance, the visage of peacocks are linked to the Menshevik dictator Alexander Kerensky, suggesting arrogance and opulence; to portray his quest for power, close-ups of Kerensky’s face are inter-cut with close-ups of a bust of Napoleon. While those familiar with Eisenstein’s work and political ideas will immediately grasp what the director is asserting within these moments, it should be mentioned that, to the uninitiated, they can create a sense of bewilderment.

Although filming commenced the previous year, October was not released until 1928 due to the Soviet government’s demand that all footage containing Stalin’s political rival Leon Trotsky be removed; the decision resulted in approximately one-third of the film being cut. According to Eisenstein’s collaborator Grigori Alexandrov, Stalin reportedly approached the studio where the film was being re-edited and was shown several sequences, including a fiery speech by Lenin. Stalin’s reaction was terse: “Lenin’s liberalism is no longer valid.” Consequently, the entire sequence, consisting of 3,000 feet of footage, was eliminated.

  Video
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October is presented in its correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio and is not anamorphic. Unlike the previous Eisenstein titles distributed by Force Video, Strike and Battleship Potemkin, the original film negative for October seems to have deteriorated to an extent where, it appears, that not even digital remastering can truly save it. While it is, admittedly, superior to copies on VHS, this transfer is relatively sub-standard in comparison to the quality of the aforementioned titles; however, the problems lie in the source material, and not the authoring process.

Blacks, although solid, are affected by the film’s drastic fluctuation in both brightness and contrast; in several instances, most notably, the storming of the Winter Palace near October’s climax, the picture is immersed in darkness. Granted, this scene occurs between night and dusk, but the screen images are rather murky and obscure. Detail sometimes achieves adequate sharpness, but for the most part, it is quite soft and provides rather poor definition.

There are no evident MPEG artefacts, although there is an abundance of film artefacts, consisting of nicks, scratches and dirt. There is also evidence of print damage, which seem to account for the several periodic jumps witnessed throughout the film; whether or not these noticeable skips are the result of poor editing (remember, October was the subject of severe censure), I cannot determine. Slight grain is also present, but this is associated with the film itself and is not indicative of the transfer itself.

As with the previous Sergei Eisenstein titles released by Force Video, October was filmed in black-and-white. Therefore, there are no issues relating to colour-bleeding and oversaturation.

  Audio
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There is only one audio selection available, that of the English Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track. According to the information in the DVD’s audio selection menu, October’s original mono soundtrack has been digitally remastered. It should be noted that this edition of October is accompanied with sound effects that were not present in the film’s original release; consisting mostly of crowd noise and ambient battle sounds, this new soundtrack’s contributions to the film’s impact are negligible.

Viewed via the Dolby Pro-Logic decoder, October’s dramatic orchestral score, composed by the legendary Dmitri Shostakovich, is firmly located within the front speakers; there is no surround activity from the rear soundstage or the subwoofer. Although there is no apparent distortion, the film’s soundtrack seems to become quite shrill at times.

  Extras
Contract

In order to understand the events depicted in October, those unfamiliar with European history would best be advised to make this series of historical notes their first stop. Presented in a vertical scrolling manner which, one started, cannot be halted, the information is comprehensive, albeit somewhat simplified, and touches on the origins of the Revolution and its major events.

  Overall  
Contract

Eisenstein’s third feature film is, without a doubt, one of the most ambitious and sweeping spectacles ever made, and sits proudly alongside his masterpiece, Potemkin. While not as immediately galvanising as his 1925 classic, it is still an engaging and challenging work of film from a meticulous cinematic master who would reach his artistic zenith with 1938’s Alexander Nevsky and his saga of the tyrannical overlord, Ivan the Terrible.

Eisenstein himself regarded October as “an artistic failure,” perhaps in response to the audiences’ reaction to the perplexing nature of the often vague symbolism that permeates the film. The film’s greatest opponents predictably seize on this argument, proclaiming that October is supposedly difficult to understand, in an attempt to discredit its significance as a landmark in cinema history. Needless to say, I fully disagree with them.

Although the transfer is severely flawed, October is a film that demands respect and should be viewed at least once. Certainly, it is essential viewing for people who harbour strong political ideals, are practicing activists, or, who simply have an deep-rooted interest in classic cinema and European history. As to the question of whether or not this disc is a worthy purchase, it depends on your own personal persuasion; October’s visual presentation will not earn it any major accolades. Unfortunately, without an extensive and costly restoration, this transfer is perhaps the best there will be.


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      And I quote...
    "Vast, sprawling, and audacious, Eisenstein's 1928 classic is a stunning testament to his technical prowess as a cinematic master... Succeeds as a triumph of communist-inspired propaganda and as a masterpiece..."
    - Shaun Bennett
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Panasonic SC-HT80
    • TV:
          Panasonic TX-43P15 109cm Rear Projection
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard Optical
    • Video Cables:
          standard s-video
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