MAGAZINE
The revolution will be dramatised
08 Aug 2017
BY DAVID AARONOVITCH

Influential Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein is often portrayed as the godfather of propaganda in film. David Aaronovitch argues in the summer 2017 issue of Index on Censorship magazine that historical drama can also be manipulative when it ignores details of the past

A still from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin, portraying a massacre that never happened. Credit: Wikimedia

My friend, a writer, reminded me of the English romantic poet John Keats’s axiom that “we hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us”. You could say, though, that Lenin and Mussolini – at least when it came to the poetry of film – knew differently. “Of all the arts, for us,” said Lenin, “the cinema is the most important”. “For us” meaning, of course, for the ruling Bolsheviks in the aftermath of the October 1917 revolution. When the Italian dictator Mussolini’s new super studios were opened in 1936 a sign was erected over the gate reading “Il cinema è l’arma più forte”, “cinema is the strongest weapon”.

It was George Orwell, not a dictator (though they doubtless would smilingly have agreed with him) who wrote that, “he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” It is pretty obvious that the way the powerful medium of film depicts the “then” has important implications for what people can be brought to believe about the “now”.

I was brought up partly on films made in the Soviet Union and saw some of the most celebrated early movies when I was young. The director Sergei Eisenstein was the most famous name and before I was 12 I’d seen almost all his films, from the silent Strike made in 1924 to the extraordinarily ambivalent and terrifying two-part classic Ivan the Terrible. Every single one of them can be said to have had some kind of agenda that dovetailed – sometimes perfectly, sometimes awkwardly – with that of the Soviet state.

The massacre on the Odessa steps (once seen, never forgotten) from the movie Potemkin didn’t actually happen

The two that were most obviously about Bolshevism and Russia were The Battleship Potemkin, dealing with events in the city of Odessa in 1905, and October, an account of the “ten days that shook the world” – the Bolshevik seizure of power – in Petrograd (St Petersburg) in 1917.

Both deploy Eisenstein’s famous techniques of intercutting, juxtaposition and montage to create mood and drama. Sometimes cutaways of objects or expressions are inserted to refer obliquely to what the viewer is supposed to think of the person or the moment being depicted.

And in both films the actual history is bent for the purposes of the filmmaker. The massacre on the Odessa steps (once seen, never forgotten) from the movie Potemkin didn’t actually happen. The film version of the storming of the Winter Palace in October involved many more actors than the actual event itself. And October was criticised in Keatsian terms by no less a luminary than Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya.

The full article by David Aaronovitch is available with a print or online subscription.

Film and the Soviet state

Sidebar by Margaret Flynn Sapia

Strike (1925)

The Soviet version of Russian history had two goals: to legitimise the rise and rule of the current government, and to instil its values into future generations. Strikethe first film directed by Sergei Eisenstein, undoubtedly does both. The film, set before the revolution, tells the story of a group of factory workers as they rise up against their abusive management. It begins with a quote by Lenin – “The strength of the working class is organisation” – and ends with a violent strike cross cut with the slaughter of animals. From the first frame to the last, the message is clear.

Ivan the Terrible (1944)

It is fitting that Joseph Stalin regarded Tsar Ivan IV as his role model, given that the two men men are renowned as two of Russia’s cruelest and most feared leaders. Directed by Eisenstein and commissioned by Stalin himself, Ivan the Terrible takes a stab at telling Ivan’s story in a way that flatters the Stalin regime. The plot portrays the boyars, the highest of bourgeois aristocracy, as internal enemies seeking to undermine the singular strength of Ivan’s leadership, a less-than-subtle parallel for the one-party Soviet state of the 1940’s.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Like a dozen other Soviet films, The Battleship Potemkin depicts the horrors of the tsarist regime and a subsequent popular revolt. It dramatises the true story of a 1905 mutiny by the crew on a Russian battleship, but its most famous and enduring scene, the massacre on the Odessa steps, was entirely invented. However, unlike many of its comrades, this movie was internationally celebrated for its technical excellence, and was ranked as the 11th best film of all time in a 2017 BFI critics poll. Through the film’s five acts, Eisenstein demonstrates that propaganda and art are not mutually exclusive, and that the confines of oppression can sometimes breed incredible creativity.

October: 10 Days That Shook the World (1928)

A retelling of Russia’s 1917 Revolution, this film creates a fascinatingly skewed representation of the Soviet Union’s rise. While the series of major events in the film is historically accurate, the depictions of Soviet leaders and opposition give the film’s biases away, as key facets of character and decisions are highlighted and hidden. When watching the film, pay special attention to the portrayals of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

Panfilov's 28 Men (2016)

Panfilov’s 28 Men demonstrates how Russian manipulation of history did not end with the Soviet Union. Released in 2016, this film is based on a famous but disputed incident in World War II wherein a small group of Russian soldiers purportedly warded off a wave of Nazi tanks and soldiers, all dying in the process. The events were heavily embellished by Soviet propagandists and later debunked, but the film based on them was partially funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture and is widely advertised as an accurate depiction of historical events. Times change, but the Russian regime continues to use cinema to its benefit.

This article is published in full in the Summer 2017 issue of Index on Censorship magazine. Print copies of the magazine are available on Amazon, or you can find information about print or digital subscriptions here. Copies are also available at the BFI, the Serpentine Gallery, MagCulture, (London), News from Nowhere (Liverpool), and Home (Manchester). Each magazine sale helps Index on Censorship continue its fight for free expression worldwide

100 Years On

Through a range of in-depth reporting, interviews and illustrations, the summer 2017 issue of Index on Censorship magazine explores how the consequences of the 1917 Russian Revolution still affect freedoms today, in Russia and around the world.

With: Andrei ArkhangelskyBG MuhnNina Khrushcheva

100 years on, the summer 2017 issue of Index on Censorship magazine explores the legacy of the Russian revolution. (Illustration: Ben Jennings for Index on Censorship)

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David Aaronovitch

David Aaronovitch is a journalist, author and chair of Index on Censorship

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