Saturday, 28 October 2017

Revolution in our heads… October (1928), London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican

October is a remarkable film and tonight we heard its equally outstanding score for the first time in over eight decades. Rarely can music have played such an integral part in a film’s narrative force with Edmund Meisel’s reconstructed original score carrying so much interpretive sentiment for the visuals and propelling Eisenstein’s polyrhythmic editing forward with forceful themes and – spoilers! – the beat of irresistible change.

100 years on from the events themselves and 90 from the filming there’s a lot of hindsight that could be applied to both revolution and film. An IMDB user asked (genuinely) whether the audience of the twenties would have cheered the film less profoundly had they known about Stalin’s ensuing murderous  totalitarianism - Dekulakisation had only just begun when October was filmed and the first five-year plan started in its year of release. The whole idea of a revolution is now regarded by many as a bad idea given how it all turned out… but, the future only judges... it doesn't make revolutions, that is the past and, especially, the present.

Maybe I feel a little protective of the Russian revolutionary spirit after all those hours spent trying to understand the thing and then communicating conclusions that might impress some of the leading – and, as it turned out, patient - historians in the country. That study has left its mark, especially the need to contextualise without the rush to judgement... I hope! October 1917 may have been the beginning of full Bolshevik rule in Russia but it was also the final end of a regime that had routinely left the poor to starve and which had sent thousands of its people into war armed with pics and sickles to fight against the might of the Prussian military machine. Two wrongs don’t make a right nor do three or four but it happened and we need to understand why. Unfashionably, all this involves the study of detail

In this context, October (Октябрь) provides invaluable contemporary documentation of how the new government wanted its achievements to be recognised ten years after the fact.

Tonight’s screening was of a restored version of the film featuring also a reconstruction of the Edmund Meisel’s lost original score by Bernard Thewes which was played with magnificent force by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the energetic Frank Strobe. Meisel’s music had been written for the shorter export version of the film, re-titled October: Ten Days That Shook the World, and so Thewes had to expend and flex the score in sympathy. Not an easy task given the excellence with which the original matched the narrative… but he achieved the perfect meld of action and emotion. The score featured repeated themes – foot-stomping musical dialectic - but also interpretive sounds matching bells ringing, sirens and guns: these were almost like a visual click-track and the band was always on time.

Vasili Nikandrov is Ulanov!
Scoring alongside Eisenstein’s swift cutting and "intellectual montage" is not easy and yet Meisel works so well on and around these moments; sometimes juxtaposing and at others signalling the broader point. Poor old Aleksandr Kerensky, the liberal heading up the provisional government between February and October 1917, is shown no mercy being heavy-handedly, and hilariously, compared first to a mechanical peacock and then to Napoleon. The victors not only write history they also get to set it to music.

The same approach is used for organised religion, the reactionary forces of army and government, the Cossacks, the Bourgeoisie and all the main factors eroding the gains made in February ’17 and thereby necessitating the eventual full Bolshevik revolution on 25th October 2017. At the start of the film a statue in memory of Tsar Alexander II is torn down and half-way through is begins to re-assemble itself… funny, hammer and sickle over-the-head obvious but that’s the business of propaganda-show nyet
Kerenski under pressure...
Grigori Aleksandrov is co-writer and co-director but the style seems to fit with that used by Eisenstein in Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925). There is the same approach to casting, with the players mostly amateur and cast for looks, none more so than Vasili Nikandrov who looks like Vladimir Lenin and the direction is enough to make sure that he acts like him too. There are some ace faces playing Cossacks and the middle classes who turn on a loyal Bolshevik and beat him to death with their parasols… I also liked a scene in which the Cossacks dance balletically on a Persian rug whilst ordinary soldiers jig in a pool of mud: it’s a joyous improvisation which captures the directors’ ability to keep the rough edges even when his editing leaves him in perfect control of the visual end-product.

There’s a magnificent sequence when the authorities call for all the bridges around the centre of Moscow to be lifted so as to isolate the proletariat and prevent their access. It follows on from a riot and as the bridges lift a dead horse goes with one and another gently lifts the flowing locks of an unconscious woman… lives without consequence to an uncaring, conflicted, interim government which – the film says – still wore some of the Tsar’s clothes.

The revoilution was not filmed and so this recreation remains our "view" of the storming of the Winter Palace...
Certainly, the film is propagandist and "un-historical" but it is historic in of itself and this combined restoration of sound and vision cements its position in the cannon. Some compare it with Triumph of the Will but, firstly, whilst Eisenstein and this film are far more worthy and influential, the Soviet experiment was not pre-destined to turn into authoritarianism and mass-slaughter (seriously) whereas, the National Socialists’ had a clear agenda. Any viewing of both films shows the huge difference between the party forcing a single, rigid aesthetic and the other celebrating people power and the chance to build a fairer society for all the people.

“For Bread, For Peace, For the Brotherhood”.

At the end the packed main auditorium at the Barbican exploded with thunderous ovation for the orchestra, conductor, music and film. As so often, tonight was a mix of concert-goers and the cinephiles… no doubt there were differing interpretations of the film but I swear as I left the were the unmistakable vibrations of revolution in the air… When I wake up tomorrow the means of production make well have been seized… such as they remain.

The LSO take a bow.
My bust of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, a present from Moscow in 1981, overlooks tonight's programme.

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