The Russian revolution in black and white

Eisenstein had most of St. Petersburg to use in filming his classic `October'

Baltimore Vivat!

February 22, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein completed only seven films before dying at age 50 in 1948, but they were enough to make him one of the most revered and influential directors the world has ever seen.

Evidence of his genius will be on display tonight at Shriver Hall on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University, with a 7:30 p.m. screening of October, his 1928 dramatization of the Bolshevik Revolution, loosely based on American journalist John Reed's book, Ten Days That Shook the World.

The movie, being shown as part of Baltimore's Vivat! St. Petersburg celebration, includes all the typical Eisenstein touches: a documentary style, emphasis more on actions than actors, a filmic style from which ideas and emotions seemed to gush more than flow and a visual flair that consistently produced images as arresting as any ever committed to celluloid.

Certainly, few silent films spoke as loudly. Made under the strict guidelines of the Soviet government, which demanded that all films further the Marxist-Leninist ideology, October does nothing if not incite.

Ordered to make a movie commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik's coming to power, Eisenstein had practically the entire city of St. Petersburg at his disposal. He shot scenes in the Winter Palace, former home of the Czars and headquarters of the provisional government (which he lampooned as indecisive bureaucrats who spent more time meeting than doing), orchestrated streams of extras moving through the city streets and even used one of the ships that a decade earlier had helped blast the Bolsheviks into power to re-create the naval bombardment.

But more memorable than all the authenticity Eisenstein brought to his work is the visual flair he displayed throughout the film. From the beginning, the theater-trained Eisenstein had been honing a style that would come to be known as montage, the use of conflicting images to elicit an emotional response from his audience. Images of angry faces, toppling statues, chiming clocks, rattling chandeliers, thrusting bayonets, glowing religious icons, smashed glass: By themselves they were striking enough, but taken together, they played on an audience's psyche in ways even the greatest actors struggle to master.

While Eisenstein's most famous creation, the baby carriage careening out-of-control down a huge stairway, is from his 1926 masterpiece The Battleship Potemkin, October contains more than its fair share of memorable images. Any compilation of the director's best work would have to include the dead white horse dangling from a raised drawbridge, adding a punctuation mark to the tragedy of a despoiled city and its people, and the celebratory scene of a cherubic youngster waving his arms madly while sitting on the czar's throne.

Probably none of Eisenstein's films is more purely dedicated to the idea of montage, or used it more effectively. October is also the director's most propagandistic work - even if Stalin and his henchmen were never big fans, and ordered cuts to the film before its release (including just about every sequence that depicted Trotsky, who by this time was being written out of Soviet history as quickly as possible). Potemkin may be Eisenstein's most famous film, the two-part Ivan the Terrible his most accessible. But October may have been his most effective.

Every shot in the movie is made in service to the Communist ideology, carefully planned to both popularize and mythologize the heroes and ideas behind the Bolshevik Revolution. "The time has come," Eisenstein had written during production, "to make films directly from a slogan." (Watching October, it's easy to see where Leni Riefen- stahl got her inspiration for Olympia and Triumph of the Will, her masterfully manipulative paeans to Nazi might and indomitability.)

At a time when being an artistic genius in the Soviet Union tended to leave one either exiled or dead, Eisenstein managed to toe the party line just enough to avoid either of those disastrous fates. While his movies sometimes raised the ire of Stalin and his apparatchiks, who frustrated several of his more ambitious projects (the great director, they kept insisting, was way too abstract in his thinking), Eisenstein never fell totally out of favor. Perhaps it was because his genius was too great to be denied, even by a ham-fisted dictator like Stalin, or maybe because he wasn't so enamored of his own intellect that he wasn't above denying it when practical, penning strongly worded mea culpas that admitted to straying from the party manifesto and promising to do better next time.

Eisenstein scholar Yuri Tsivian will serve as host for tonight's showing of October. Tickets are $10, $5 for students, free for Hopkins students. Information: www.mdfilmfest.com.

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