I have an uneasy relationship with using films in my classroom. Since I most often teach early modern history, I tend to avoid the whole genre because I’d prefer to avoid ahistorical images in my classroom. When I teach modern history, however, and particularly Soviet history, I feel film is an important part of its history. I’ve shown various recent films toward the end of class, but I always show something from Eisenstein for the 20s or 30s. I’ve found that students have an easier time understanding Battleship Potemkin, but, for whatever reason, I continue to plod on with October, which is so wondrously problematic for a class of students.
This year, I decided to rethink my use of October following my look at Eisenstein’s own pamphlet from 1939, The Soviet Screen. Eisenstein (or whoever was claiming to be Eisenstein for the purpose of the pamphlet) was clear about the role of film in society, “The virtue and significance of Soviet cinematography is that it gives a true portrayal of life in our country and has really become, of all arts, the closest to the masses, that is actively contributing to the further consolidation of our new system of society, that it has a great formative influence on the minds of the Soviet people” (40).
The main goal for early Soviet cinema, according to Eisenstein, was authenticity and public participation. The pamphlet is filled with examples of this. When the public announcement was made for the beginning of work on Aleksandr Nevskii, “thousands of people wrote to me with helpful suggestions and valuable historical data, besides recommending original sources” (5). During the filming of October, Eisenstein relates a story of a night watchman who destroyed a scene by running on the set. When questioned, the watchman replied “I couldn’t help it. I took a hand when the Winter Palace was really captured” (13).
On one hand, reading Eisenstein’s thoughts on film reminded me of Katerina Clark’s chapter on mass spectacles in her Petersburg or Elizabeth Wood’s Performing Justice. I think there’s many other forms in which participation in public performances was considered a necessary project for the early state. On the other hand, does viewing a film provide a modern audience a sense of Soviet faith in the mass spectacle to mobilize the public?
Generally, I’ve found that the images in the film are still clear and striking to my students. They all note the participation of soldiers and workers in the revolution. They easily spot the villains of the film – the well-dressed elites and officers. Some are more confusing – the role of the women in the movie is generally poor. One woman assists tearing down the statue of the tsar in the first scene, but after women are only problems: the noble woman who is uninterested in the peasant being beaten to death in front of her, and, even worse, the Women’s Death Brigade who incompetently defend the palace (and have their gender questioned).
While it may not be an “authentic” view of Soviet society, it is at least an authentic Bolshevik presentation of the past. What I think is missing from watching the film is the sense of spectacle that was essential to early Soviet life. I’ve decided to pair the film in the future with something by Clark or Wood just to help set the scene. Of course, I could just switch back to Battleship Potemkin, which just does make more narrative sense, but I find the puzzle of October to be a worthwhile challenge.