It is said that more people were harmed and more damage done to the Winter Palace in the making of Eisenstein’s film to mark the tenth anniversary of the October 1917 Revolution than during the event itself: in reality about a hundred Bolshevik sailors and soldiers stormed the palace and arrested the half-dozen members of the Provisional Government still left in the building. Eisenstein turned this into an epic with a crowd of thousands. In October: Ten Days That Shook the World Eisenstein creates a mythological portrait of the Revolution which is rousing, shocking and stunningly visualised.
The showing of the film in its original version by Kino Klassika (including footage cut by state censors) was the opportunity for the LSO and Frank Strobel to give the British premiere of the score by Edmund Meisel which had been reconstructed and re-orchestrated by Bernd Thewes for the Berlin Film Festival in 2012.
Edmund Meisel is a fascinating figure in the history of film music. He experimented with new technologies of accompaniment for both stage and screen, wrote fourteen theatres scores, including plays by Bertolt Brecht, and ten compositions for films. Meisel’s approach was to underscore on a shot-by-shot and scene-by-scene basis what was happening to deepen the emotional involvement of the viewer, an approach that would become the norm for films worldwide, especially in Hollywood. He wrote the original score for Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and perhaps his finest work is for Walter Ruttman’s splendidly innovative Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. He died in 1930 at the age of thirty-six.
Meisel was commissioned to write music for the German version of October by the distributor Prometheus. With its strong rhythms and emphasis on almost industrial noise it is seen by many as a forerunner of Punk and Techno. It was unpopular with critics who complained about the relentlessly loud and dissonant hammering by brass and percussion. The classic quip from a critic of the time was “Ten days that shook the world and a thousand bars that shook the eardrums.”
Eisenstein’s film traces developments from the February Revolution until October 1917 and comments on events using montage sequences full of irony and emotion. It is more obviously ideological than his other films and Stalinist in its rewriting of significant events (Trotsky is a marginalised and mocked figure). Crowd-scenes are brilliantly choreographed with a real sense of scale as when government forces fire into the crowd at a Bolshevik demonstration. It has moments of shocking imagery that are difficult to watch – as a dead horse still tethered to its carriage is dropped into the River Neva when the bridge to the Winter Palace is raised. Countless bottles in the wine cellars of the Palace are smashed in an orgy of destructive abandon.
The irony is heavy as Prime Minister Kerensky of the Provisional Government is compared to a mechanical peacock in his posturing vanity. The Church is satirised with a series of crosscuts to Oriental clown masks. The Bolsheviks are characterised as strong, athletic males whilst representatives of the old political order are weak and ineffectual. The Petrograd Women’s Battalion of Death, called upon to defend the Winter Palace, are cruelly mocked as being unfit for military service. The Palace itself is an isolated world of crowns and crystal glass. Interestingly, Eisenstein often seeks to convey sound through graphic means.
Meisel’s music mirrors this with great fidelity. The opening march recurs throughout as a revolutionary theme. Comic music is provided for the lampooned characters and folk-like melodies are given to the Cossacks. A slow syncopated section for strings beautifully accompanies a strange moment when a member of the Women’s Battalion longingly contemplates Rodin’s sculpture Eternal Spring. A harp theme comments on the opportunism of the Mensheviks. Heavy percussion, including thunder- sheets, illustrates shelling from the Battleship Aurora and the storming of the Palace.Strobel guided the LSO through the two-hour-long score with great feeling for rhythmic vitality and perfect synchronisation. In percussion-heavy music he was keen to lighten the texture and there was notable string-playing throughout. The Cossack dances had tremendous élan and he avoided monotony during the final twenty minutes’ pounding rhythms.
Eisenstein’s October has a poster-like graphic quality which is complemented perfectly by Meisel’s work. Whilst its intention may have been ideological its tone is often anarchic and its atmosphere of delirious violence and insurrection is very different from that of Battleship Potemkin. October is a film that both Eisenstein and Meisel would have loved to see in this form, but alas never did.