In 'Doctor Zhivago', Cossacks attack a peaceful demonstration. From the trailer via Wikimedia
To mark one hundred years since Russia's Bolshevik Revolution, which took place on October 24-25 according to the old Russian calendar, but on November 6-7 in the Western calendar subsequently adopted, the editors present a selection of films about those days which “shook the world”, and their aftermath.
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Directed by David Lean
Starring Omar Sharif, Geraldine Chaplin, Julie Christie, Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness
If you are dismayed at the length of David Lean’s epic about the Russian Revolution, try reading the novel. Because of Soviet censorship Doctor Zhivago was published first in Italy in 1957 and quickly became an international best-seller. The author, an eminent poet, Boris Pasternak, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he was forced to renounce it.
The book is greater and gloomier than the film. Lean’s film is a traditional Hollywood romance against the backdrop of the Revolution: a love-triangle with impossibly beautiful people. Zhivago, a young doctor-poet, is torn between two women, his gentle and naïve middle-class wife Tanya, and a poor and big-hearted nurse, Lara, who is married to an idealistic revolutionary.
The novel shows how the Revolution ground people down, turning them into mere cogs in a gigantic machine. It is a story of social and moral disintegration under totalitarianism. Lost in the vortex, Zhivago crumbles, marrying a third woman with whom he has two children — and then abandons her.
Nonetheless, the film is astonishingly good. Lean’s portrait of the vast, snowy Russian landscape is unforgettable; the acting is superb; the sets seem authentic. Maurice Jarre’s score is as touching today at it was 50 years ago.
If English-speaking people today remember anything at all about what happened in Russia between 1917 and 1922, it will be the assault on the Winter Palace or the insurrections in the Czar’s World War I army. But in the ensuing Civil War between the Reds (the Bolsheviks) and the Whites (supporters of the old order), between 7 and 10 million people died. The barbarism and dislocation that brought upon the Russian people is the devastating backdrop to the film.
Although he plays only a supporting role, my favourite character is Pasha, Lara’s husband. Tom Courtenay portrays his transformation from Pasha, a starry-eyed student to Strelnikov, the lean, steely-eyed Bolshevik commander who is now known as “The Executioner”. His short career exemplifies Communism’s ability to wring people dry of their humanity. (MC)
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein
Starring the people of Russia
75 minutes. Silent. Available on YouTube
If you can watch Battleship Potemkin without breaking into “The Internationale” and heading off to the local Bolshevik recruiting office, you must have a heart of stone. This masterpiece by Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein was once voted the greatest film of all time – not because it was powerful propaganda for the fledging Soviet state, but because of its originality and beauty.
The film describes an incident in the failed Revolution of 1905. Sailors aboard the Potemkin, a ship in the Black Sea fleet, revolt when they are served maggoty meat. A priest and the officers are tossed overboard to feed the fish and the revolutionaries sail to Odessa. There they receive a tumultuous welcome from the locals, many of whom gather on the Odessa steps, a wide stairway of 200 steps stretching from the city to the sea.
But then, in the film’s climactic scene, the Czar’s troops arrive, bayonets fixed. The spectators flee in terror down the steps as the troops fire over and over at them. At the bottom are mounted Cossacks who slash and trample women, children, old men and cripples. In a couple of often-copied vignettes, a woman picks up her dying toddler and walks to the soldiers pleading for them to stop. They shoot her dead. And then a baby carriage bounces down, down, down, down the never-ending steps until a Cossack dispatches its burden.
It is immensely inspiring propaganda. No wonder it was banned in Great Britain until 1954 – and then it was given an X-rating for violence. The Czarist regime is depicted as unjust, sadistic and repressive; the Bolsheviks are fiery, warm-hearted souls who respond with just wrath to their oppressors. But as sign of things to come, all the action in the film is collective and instinctive. There is no room for individual decision-making; there are no “stars”, just an anonymous mass in which we sometimes glimpse faces filled with fear, horror or despair. It was a foreshadowing of the terrible suffering of Russia in the years to come. (MC)
Directed by Warren Beatty
Starring Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Maureen Stapleton
Reds is a long, fascinating, historical epic portraying events in Russia and America from just prior to the Bolshevik Revolution and immediately after, through the career of American journalist John Reed. A young radical swept along by the idea of a socialist revolution, Reed was present in Moscow in the heady days around October 17, which he subsequently wrote about in his book, Ten Days That Shook the World.
These events form the first part of the film, in which director Warren Beatty plays Reed, and Diane Keaton the wife, Louise Bryant, who accompanied him to Moscow after leaving another marriage for him. A victory scene with the singing of the Internationale captures the exhilaration of the event.
In the second part Reed is back in the fractious world of American socialists, including leading figures like playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) and anarchist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton). As critic Roger Ebert remarked, there is rather too much of this political squabble, “which never succeeds in convincing us that the feuds between the American socialist parties were much more than personality conflicts and ego brushings.”
Reed returns to Moscow (he is actually wanted at home for sedition), where the grim realities of the revolution are already apparent, and is used there by the Bolshevik politburo as a propagandist. His attempts to escape – with the help of Louise — are doomed, his health is ruined, but he ends up a hero of the revolution.
Though details are tinkered with the film is said to be, by and large, historically accurate. The interpolation of documentary interviews reinforces this impression. However, the film is more about a young man in love with the idea of changing the world than history as such. Ebert called it “the thinking man’s Doctor Zhivago” (a snub to far more popular and poetic film) but in both, the romantic plot (spoiled somewhat by infidelity in this one also) keeps the human factor in the foreground as a foil to the great narrative of history. One hundred years after the American Reed celebrated the Russian Revolution, it is difficult to say where that narrative will take the two countries, given the leadership of both. (CM)
Burnt by the Sun (1994)
Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov
Screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov
Starring Nikita Mikhalkov, Nadia Mikhalkova, Oleg Menshikov, Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė
Made after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and harking back to the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, this is not a great film but it does give a powerful sense of the way Stalinism devoured even its loyal sons. It received the Grand Prix at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1995, but had a mixed reception from critics in the West.
The protagonist, Kotov, played by Mikhalkov himself, is a hero of the Revolution, a former Red Army officer. He has retired to the country with his young wife (who is connected to the old aristocracy) and 6-year-old daughter Nadia (played beautifully by Mikhalkov’s own daughter). The action takes place over a couple of days in midsummer, when an assortment of family and friends is gathered at the dacha, having a pleasant time together. The scene is charming in a Chekhovian way, with an ominous tone gradually building.
The sun burns from a cloudless sky above the wheat fields of the neighbouring collective farm. But perhaps it is too hot, a symbol of the searing power of Stalin that is, “out of a blue sky”, about to scorch and destroy the old Bolshevik. All the photos of himself with his friend Jozef on the walls of his house cannot save him. The instrument of his destruction is the handsome Mitia, a former lover of Marussia and a now member of the NKVD – the secret police. He is motivated by revenge, because his own life has already been wrecked.
This intertwining of the personal and the political makes the film more subtle than a simple denunciation of Stalin. Ordinary human weaknesses play into his hands and contribute to the great terror being loosed on Russia. As the film ends a giant banner showing Stalin’s face rises over the fields attached to a hot-air balloon. Though he is far away, his reach is everywhere, bringing sudden brutality into the lives of countless victims. (CM)