THE RUSSIAN Revolution brought not only a transformation in people’s daily lives but also an explosion of creativity in the fields of art and culture.
Films made during the tumultuous early years following the overthrow of tsarism changed the face of cinema from what had been viewed as light entertainment into a powerful political and artistic phenomenon.
As part of this year’s celebrations around the centenary of the revolution, the Marx Memorial Library and the Russian Revolution Centenary Committee, supported by the London Socialist Film Co-op, are showing cinema classics of the period in two of London’s renowned independent cinemas, the Phoenix and the Rio.
Spark: A Festival of Revolutionary Film, which takes its name from the Russian revolutionary newspaper Iskra, is showing some of the most memorable of those films, made in the crucible of revolution.
Screened on consecutive Sundays, they’re a must-see, not least because the Russian Revolution has become so overlaid and encrusted with distortion, falsehood and confusion that it is difficult to imagine what an earth-shattering experience it was and what hope it gave to millions throughout the world.
These films convey the passion, provide the background and explain the reasons why the Russian people rose up and overthrew an oppressive system and were not afraid to take on the building of utopia.
The festival will feature the great classics — Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother and The End of St Petersburg, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, October and Strike, Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera and Esfir Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty.
It will also include Warren Beatty’s Hollywood-made 1981 film Reds, based on John Reed’s classic Ten Days That Shook the World, a courageous work made at the height of the cold war and Ronald Reagan’s crusade against communism.
The film showings will be followed on November 4 by a whole-day conference at the TUC in London on the revolution, including a workshop on Soviet film led by Professor David Lane.
Mother (1926, Vsevolod Pudovkin) 1pm, September 24 Phoenix Cinema
Set against the backdrop of the 1905 Russian revolution Mother — based on Maxim Gorky’s novel — portrays the political awakening of a mother whose son is imprisoned for leading a strike at a local factory. After unwittingly betraying her son to the police, she takes up his cause and joins the workers demonstrating against the tsarist authorities.
The End of St Petersburg (1927, Vsevolod Pudovkin) 2pm, October 1, Rio Cinema
Pudovkin’s film tells the story of a peasant who migrates to St Petersburg immediately before WWI to escape rural poverty. Desperate for work, he becomes a strikebreaker and inadvertently causes a fellow worker from his village to be arrested. Ashamed, he pleads for the man’s release and is imprisoned. He is then sent to fight for “Mother Russia” in the trenches. Politicised by the experience of war, he leads a mutiny and returns to St Petersburg a revolutionary.
Reds (1981, Warren Beatty) 1.30pm, October 8 Phoenix Cinema
In his epic about the life and times of US left-wing journalist John Reed, Warren Beatty plays Reed, who travelled to Russia to chronicle the October revolution, famously recording his experiences in the book Ten Days That Shook the World and the film stands alone as a bold and sympathetic Hollywood portrayal of revolutionaries.
Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) 2pm, October 15, Rio Cinema
Eisenstein’s drama is based on a historical Black Sea mutiny in 1905, accompanied by a popular uprising in Odessa, where the crew sailed after seizing control of the battleship Potemkin. Now considered one of the greatest films of all time, with the “Odessa steps” sequence ranking as one of the finest moments in cinema, it was censored in Britain at the time of its release.
October (1928, Sergei Eisenstein) 1.15pm, October 22 Phoenix Cinema
Eisenstein’s epic dramatises the historical sequence of 1917, from the February revolution that toppled the tsar to the October revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power. Focusing primarily on ordinary people, the cast includes many who had participated in the events of October 1917, with re-enacted scenes such as the storming of the Winter Palace becoming iconic images of the revolution.
The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927, Esfir Shub) 2pm, October 29, Rio Cinema
Shub’s documentary, compiled from exhaustive archival research, charts the course of the revolution from the pre-war years through the carnage of the trenches to the fall of the tsar and the climactic events of October 1917. Her study is a vivid record of Russian politics and society before 1917, as well as the year that would see the old order swept away forever.
Man With a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov) 1pm, November 5 Phoenix Cinema
In this visual study of everyday life in a Soviet city, the cameraman Kaufma records what is happening around him and also appears on screen as a protagonist. Filmed in Moscow, Kiev and Odessa, Vertov’s film presents the Soviet Union of the 1920s as a modern, industrious and creative society with everyday life transformed by technical innovation.
Strike (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) 2pm, November 12 Rio Cinema
Eisenstein’s film portrays a strike in tsarist Russia where, in the harsh and secretive pre-revolutionary world, Bolsheviks agitate among the workers while police spies infiltrate their ranks as agents provocateurs. The strike is triggered by the suicide of a factory worker, falsely accused of theft by the manager. Actors from the Proletkult Theatre perform alongside real-life Moscow factory workers in what’s regarded as a cinema milestone, with Eisenstein’s pioneering montage theory put into practice for the first time.