Eisenstein and the Bolshevik Ideal

Freedom of expression in a world of control

In a world of free expression, artists are at liberty to do whatever they like, even if at the risk of offending or satirising influential figures. Art can be offensive, but it is vital in its ability to express things about society, and in encouraging others to observe new viewpoints.

Under the young post-revolutionary Soviet Union, things were very different. Instead of art being a space to experiment, it was more restrictive than ever before. The Bolsheviks knew that the arts had to be managed, directed and controlled into the hands of the Revolution and that they could serve as an invaluable form of propaganda to support their movement.

The role of film in the Bolshevik Revolution was particularly significant. Even though cinema was young, its potential was acknowledged by the Bolsheviks as the best way to re-educate the mostly illiterate and ethnically diverse population, and to infiltrate the communist message across society. Even Lenin acknowledged the importance of film, famously saying in 1922 that, ‘of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema.’

Perhaps the most influential pioneer in the emergence of the post-revolutionary film was Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein was born into a bourgeois family in Latvia in 1898, but the events of the 1905 Revolution drove his parents apart. After 1917, he was swept up in enthusiasm for the Revolution, leaving school in 1918 to join the Red Army. Moving to Moscow after the Civil War, Eisenstein was drawn into a career in theatre and then film, when he developed his use of the ingenious technique of montage for which he is so well-known. In his early works, he began to use this as both the basis of narrative and as a technique with a powerful metaphorical force; driven by his Marxist aspiration to radically modify art and create a new aesthetic, heroizing the struggles of the proletariat.

Perhaps Eisenstein’s most famous work is Battleship Potemkin. This silent film told the story of a naval uprising during the 1905 Revolution 20 years earlier, where the inhabitants of Odessa gathered together in rebellion: a criticism of the violence and injustice under Tsarism. Eisenstein makes the classic ‘massacre’ sequence on the Odessa Steps particularly famous, in his depiction of the Tsar’s Cossacks who brutally shoot innocent civilians and sailors. The image of a pram hurtling down the steps with a baby trapped inside, separated from its dying mother, became a moving new icon to promote the Revolution. Ironically Battleship Potemkin was later banned by Stalin due to fears of it inciting rioting against the regime, but Eisenstein had created a major piece of film propaganda, and it was effective.

October: Ten Days That Shook the World, was another of Eisenstein’s films, created in 1927 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. This recreated the Storming of the Winter Palace, which in reality had not been a triumphant success as the events in the film may suggest, but was disorganised and unplanned. With Stalin’s recent emergence as Soviet leader, re-writing history had become more important, yet also more dangerous: he was keen to secure the Revolutionary image, and hence legitimate his rule as a dictator. The exciting, experimental style of October had clashed with everyday socialist realism that Stalin wanted to see, and he also wanted to remove scenes involving Lenin and Trotsky to promote his image. Stalin was acting as cinema’s first overbearing producer, and the restrictions of October were merely a warning of what was to come.

Alexander Nevsky was released in 1938, at a time when foreign politics were unstable and the war was looming in Europe. With an impressive film score by Prokoviev, this showed a thirteenth century German invasion of the Russian principality of Novogorod, in which the Russian people defeated them in a crushing victory. Eisenstein fed off Russian resentment towards Hitler, who was keen to destroy communism and portrayed the German invaders as Hitler’s stormtroopers, even with swastikas on their uniforms. After only six months, only 23 million people had seen the film, and it was heralded as a triumph, winning Eisenstein the ‘Stalin Prize.’

However, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed in August 1939 making peace with Hitler, Alexander Nevsky disappeared from cinemas overnight. It was clear that film was entirely a reflection of Stalin’s prejudices: Eisenstein could never win. This was continued into the 1940s when Eisenstein was commissioned to make three films on the life of Ivan the Terrible. Seeming to have gained Soviet approval, this was Eisenstein’s chance to escape from Stalin’s censorship and truly express his ideas in the film. Though Part 1 was liked by Stalin, who saw a version of himself in Ivan as a strong, ruthless leader, Part 2 portrayed him as indecisive and questioning, characteristics that Stalin took to be reflected in himself. Stalin hated the second film and the third was never made: production ground to a halt.

Ironically, the only film in which Eisenstein tried to tell the truth was the one that destroyed him. Though he had great film-making ambitions and was a pioneer, Eisenstein was never truly at liberty to express his films in the ways he wanted to, as with all artists operating under Stalin’s Russia. Though it has been said ‘art, freedom and creativity will change society faster than politics’, in Eisenstein’s case, his art was being controlled by the quickly changing politics of the time.

Amelia VI