History Essays – The Power of Film as Propaganda

The power of filmas propaganda – realityor myth?

Throughout history various persons and administrations inpower have attempted to win the hearts and supports of their constituents,often through reframing or reinterpreting historical events in a lightfavourable to them. This was certainly the case in the Russian Revolution of1917. The Bolsheviks and Lenin, their leader, sought to use film to recastevents of the revolution in such a way as to rally and unify the Russianpeasantry. Filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was one of those recruited for the task,and while many government-sponsored films of the time have disappeared into themassive pile of poor quality filmmaking, two of his works in particular,Battleship Potemkin and October, were powerful in framing the RussianRevolution in the eyes of the world and his own people. These worksdemonstrate the power of film, even those recognised as containing elements ofpropaganda.

Hostility and outbreaks had been building prior to the1917 Revolution, with general dissatisfaction for the Tsarist regime. One suchevent, a naval uprising in Odessa, was chosen by Eisenstein to show theliberation needed by the working class under the csars, which he considered hadbeen subsequently provided by the Bolsheviks.Historically, the event was a mutiny of the seamen against the officers, andhad been a major event in the earlier Revolution of 1905. Commissioned by theSoviet Central Committee to create a film commemorating the twentiethanniversary of the 1905 Revolution, Eisenstein originally planned a sweepingseries of eight films, forming a panoramic view of 1905 events.However, when confronted with the communist definition of a workable budget,he quickly reduced the number to one.

The film included significant license with the actualhistorical events of the incident, as Eisenstein and his government backersboth made changes to portray the situation in a way supportive of thethen-current Bolshevik regime. For example, whilst in reality the sailors werecaptured and incarcerated, Eisenstein ends the movie with the sailors in arallying cry of class solidarity, rather than being herded off to prison.Eisenstein also used a variety of cinematic devices to reinforce his theme,regardless of historical accuracy. He staged the slaughter of civilians by theCossacks on a series of steps in Odessa, undercutting close-ups of guns andfaces with scenes of fleeing civilians and attacking soldiers to depict theslaughter of the populace by the czar’s troops.

Overseas the film was a rousing success.European and American viewers and critics alike were impressed with therealism of the film and its filmmaking firsts. Eisenstein was the first touse editing to juxtapose apparently unrelated images, to create rapid anddynamic shifts in rhythm, and to compress and expand physical action ratherthan function simply as a storytelling device.The newsreel-like style of the film was another innovation praised by foreigncritics. America’s National Board of Review reported at the time the faithfulreproduction of this historical event by adhering as much as possible to aliteral transcription and reproduction of officially documented facts Nothingapproaching the reality of these scenes has ever occurred in cinematicsbefore.Interestingly, most American audiences regarded Potemkin as a celebration offreedom and liberation, rather than a support of a particular political agenda(Browne 182).

Initial critics, with the exception ofGerstein who briefly mentions the propagandistic nature of the final scene,also viewed the film as historically accurate.Given only the partial and fragmentary information about the Soviet Union, theAmerican agencies of interpretation the journalists and the critics soughtto sketch a picture of something very new and unknown and used the figure ofEisenstein and the realism of his film to do so.However, by the late 1920s, critics were reconsidering the propaganda elementsin Soviet films. For example, in his profile on Eisenstein in 1928, AlfredBarr openly explained the Russian government’s involvement in the Potemkin andfilmmaking in general, and the propagandistic elements of the movie.Intellects on both sides of the Atlantic appeared to have been quite taken withthe reality of the movie, enough to overlook such elements of propaganda, andpraise the Soviet filmmaker for his reality, a stark contrast to the to thefictionality and to the vulgar artifice of the Hollywood image so despised bymany of the intellectual elite.

The film was not so well received inRussia. While by the 1930s, the Civil War became something of a focus for therevolutionary myth in Soviet cinema just the way the West was won fulfilled asimilar function in Hollywood, at the time of its release Soviet audiencespreferred lighter and more conventional faire.The problem was that, as long as Soviet audiences had a choice, they preferredthe films that were popular elsewhere in Europe, and were happy with a diet ofHollywood hits or Soviet imitations.In addition, Potemkin featured no central hero with whom audiences couldidentify; the main character of the movie is best described as the collectivemasses.While Eisenstein’s lack of a central character fascinated Western audiences, itdehumanised Soviets, who were uninterested in the Cine-Eyes more perfectvisions of reality.Potemkin had to be taken off after only two weeks, to be replaced with areturn of Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks, the film featured before itsrelease.

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While the power of Potemkin as propagandawas far more convincing, at least initially, abroad, Eisenstein’s next greatwork, October, enjoyed tremendous success at home and was valuable as a way ofreframing the October events for decades. Scholar recognise the inaccuraciesand license of the film. Figes, for example, contends October is Eisenstein’sbrilliant but largely fictional propaganda film.Rosenstone also acknowledges both the initial impact and lasting influence ofthe film. October has become and remains one of the best known andmost enduring accounts of Octoberso well known that it seems no exaggerationto suggest that more people have probably learned about the BolshevikRevolution from the film than from any other single source.

AsOctober had a much stronger impact on the Russian public, both as a movie andas propaganda, it is important to consider the situation in Russia at the timeand how it influenced the film’s creation and support. The Russian peasantry,accounting for eighty percent of the population, was largely hostile andoverwhelmingly illiterate speaking more than a hundred different languages.In addition, peasants as a group were largely politically ignorant, and needed,it was felt by government leaders, to be properly informed. Peasants wereinclined to believe naively in every printed word, and therefore open topersuasion from a variety of sources.Lack of vocabulary amongst the group and misunderstandings with speakers sentby the Bolshevik regime to educate them further compounded the communication problem.

Furthermore, the peasants had notsupported the Bolsheviks coming into power. Immediately after the overthrow inOctober, in November 1917, the Bolsheviks held an election as they hadpromised. Unfortunately for them, they were not the most supported party,although no group received a majority vote.The Bolsheviks lost the November 1917 election to the SocialistRevolutionaries, who received forty-four percent of the vote to the Bolsheviks’twenty-seven percent. Although they lost, the Bolsheviks nonetheless seizedand consolidated power.This left the government as one in need of persuasive means to address itsconstituents. Not having been elected by the people, it depended largely onthe power of the word to establish its authority.The Civil War that occurred following the Revolution necessitated urgent,cheap and effective measures to win over the hearts and minds of the people inwhose name the Bolsheviks claimed to govern.In response, Lenin realised the importance of the dynamic visual propagandathat cinema could offer and set the government on a course of creatingpropaganda films.Films would serve to not only entertain, but to allow the Bolsheviks toconstruct their particular utopia out of the ruins of Tsarist Russia.

However, By the 1930s, the Partyfunctionaries recognized that the films were not useful propaganda instrumentsas long as they could not attract a mass audience.Russians clearly preferred Hollywood-type films, and had similar response togovernment-produced propaganda films as they had to Potemkin, although suchworks had little of its quality or creativity. Government leaders recognisedthat their greatest artists, who made experimental, innovative films, couldnot communicate with the simple people who wanted to be entertained.They developed a new slogan for art in the Soviet Republics, loosely translatedas ‘movies for the masses.’ Experimentation was denounced as ‘formalism,’ assomething alien to Soviet art, and now each film had to be immediatelycomprehensible even to the least educated.

Many artists and writers immediatelyfollowing the 1917 Revolution also recognised the need to enlighten thepeasantry, and the potential for creative media to communicate new life optionsto them, and initially joined in government efforts.Filmmakers such as Eisenstein and Kozintsev, for example, were determined intheir different ways to use their ‘new’ art form to construct a new Sovietman.However, with the increasing and ever more intrusive censorship, in combinationwith limitations on creativity and severe punishments for violations ofgovernment guidelines, many film producers simply stopped making movies.Whilst the cinema became increasingly popular, movie selection decreased. Bythe 1930s, foreign films had been banned; Soviet films also decreased. Whilstin the 1920s over one hundred movies were made annually, but this number haddropped to less than forty by the 1930s.

Content was for the most part centred onthe benefits of the Bolshevik regime and the evils of the Tsarist one.Class consciousness could usually be reduced to an understanding that therewere enemies everywhere, that the Soviet was of life was superior, that it wasthe duty of decent people to participate in the building of socialism, that theprimary allegiance one owes is to Soviet society and not to the family.As Kenez wryly notes, if one judged the world entirely on the basis of Sovietfilms, one might have imagined that the task of Soviet border guards was tokeep out all those who hoped to enter.The Bolshevik government needed to rally illiterate masses to its support,whilst the Soviet Republic spanned a gigantic geographical and culturalplethora, and a number of events leading up to the current regime seizing powerwere morally questionable, at best.

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The question is whether propaganda filmsreally exerted the influence over the public that many have long heldunquestionably that they do. The Soviets certainly committed a surprisingamount of scarce resources, although not as much as the filmmakers would haveliked, to this novel form of propaganda, recognising the apparent potentialof the medium of cinema for powerful, mass, political propaganda.Reeves contends that in many countries, including the UK and Soviet Republic,the power of film propaganda was simply assumed. Through the 1950s,politicians and commentators alike seem to have become only more convincedthat the mass media in general, cinema in particular, provided a weaponuniquely capable of effectively moulding the ideology of the masses.Reeves further contends that empirical studies in Britain between the First andSecond World Wars are primarily supportive of the power of film propaganda andthe media to influence the general populace. Almost without exceptioninter-war studies stressed their enormous power, using metaphors like”hypodermic needle” or “magic bullet” to characterise thatpower in contrast to the weakness of the mass of people who, whether they likedit or not, received the messages which the media generated.While there have been more recent challenges to these findings, Eisenstein’sOctober is widely held to have had a profound impact both on the Russian peopleand foreigners in shaping their perception and understanding of the Bolsheviks’rise to power.

Although October was made before thechanges to filmmaking of the 1930s, it very much followed the type of moviepropaganda scheme the government would later require. The film wascommissioned by the Soviet agency in charge of the production and distributionof films, Sovkino, as part of the tenth anniversary celebration of the 1917events. Ever the visionary, Eisenstein firstplanned to create a heroic epic, spanning from the February 1917 overthrow ofthe Czar to the end of the Civil War in 1921.Pressures of time (both on the screen and in the production process) led to aversion that covered a smaller slice of the past: from February through October1917.

Thestory the movie tells, and the way it tells that story are surely part of along tradition of explaining why and how the Bolsheviks took power. One mighteven argue that Octoberhad a significant role in creating thattradition.The film neither accurately represents what happened nor entirely fictionalisesevents, instead combining the two to create a picture in the minds of many ofthe Revolution. The film opens with the downfall of the Russian Czar inFebruary of 1917.While it overdoes the evilness of the Tsarist regime a bit from an historicalstandpoint, this presents a strong contrast for the following events. Ofparticular note is the handling of the July Days protests in July of 1917.The Bolsheviks had assembled over fifty thousand supporters, had surrounded theTauride Palace, and had taken hostage a representative of the ProvisionalGovernment during the protest.Bolshevik leaders truly did decide not to overthrown the government during thistime, calming the crowd and avoiding bloodshed.Eisenstein is considered by many scholars to be relatively accurate in hisrendition of the July events, although he creates from a decidedly Bolshevikpoint of view. Eisenstein shows us the masses of marching protesters, thebloodshed on the Nevsky Prospekt, the anger of the middle classes against thelower orders, the Bolshevik speakers calming the soldiers, insisting it is nottime to seize power.

Similarly, Rosenstone states thathistorians have little dissent over much of the things that led up to theOctober events, or how Eisenstein handled them. The February Revolution, hecontends, was truly popular and necessary, while the Provisional Government wasinept, inefficient, stupid or criminal in its attempt to continue the war.Eisenstein’s portrayal of Kerensky’s handling of the entire situation is alsosupported by historians. Figes states that during the event, Kerensky beganto strut around with comic self-importance, puffing up his puny chest andstriking the pose of a Bonaparte.’Rosenstone notes Eisenstein shows Kerensky as a would-be Bonaparte, by cuttingfrom a close-up of him directly to a statue of Napoleon, and he is hardly theonly historian to suggest the prime minister saw himself in that kind of heroicrole.

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Figes and Rosenstone both note thatEisenstein used similar techniques to highlight the ineptitude of GeneralKornilov. Eisenstein suggests that the attempt to overthrow the ProvisionalGovernment was really based on a misunderstanding, exacerbated by Kornliov, whoalso saw himself as a Bonaparte figure and did not realise that most of thosesupporting him did so with the hope to use him in the government’s overthrow.Eisenstein presents Kornilov as yet another potential Napoleon by cutting fromhis image to that of the same statue previously linked to Kerensky.The film shows how the general’s march on Petrograd is undermined by Bolshevikagitators, who are able to convince the Cossacks of his Savage Division thatthe Soviet programme of ‘Peace, Land, Bread’ is not meant just for the workersof Petrograd but for everyone, including them.

It is the ending of the movie, as he didin Potemkin, where Eisenstein takes the greatest license. The movie climaxeswith the storming of the Winter Palace, an event that did not actually occur.Indeed the Palace was largely unoccupied by the time of the October events, andany Bolsheviks attacking it would have only had to rebuff a few women andelderly men left to tend to maintenance. While Kerensky’s cabinet was inside,they were cut off from the outside and posed no threat. The Palace was takenpeacefully, with cabinet members arrested.However, Eisenstein realised the film must have a strong climatic event, and asLenin had previously used the Palace as an emblem of the Revolution conqueringold regimes in the name of the masses, he used a dramatic battle to climax hishistorical rendition.

Many Russian critics at the time wereappalled that he had even considered dramatising or reframing such an importantevent in their history.Additional complaints included Eisenstein’s omission of ‘the collapse at thefront’ and ‘the growth of the workers’ movement’ were also directed at thefilm.Rosenstone would counter that a filmmaker can never forget the demands of themedium no matter how much you are committed to putting the past on the screen,and no matter how accurate you wish that past to be, the one thing you cannever do is to mirror a moment – all those moments that have vanished.

Even in contemporary viewing of October,however, Eisenstein’s theme is repeatedly that it was the stupidity andoppression of the Provisional Government, not the political desires of theBolsheviks, that led to the October 1917 Revolution.It was the desires and action of the masses, not Lenin or a few organisingleaders, that led to the government’s overthrow. As propaganda, the film haslong served to reinforce the validity of the Bolsheviks seizure of power, andtherefore to instigate major changes on the Soviet populace. It remains the waymany, both in Russia and in Western countries, view the events of 1917, an assuch speaks to the effective and lasting power of film as a propaganda device.History can be recast, reinterpreted, expressed in film, and many will believewhat they see.Eisenstein’s work reinforces both independent research and policies ofgovernments worldwide that support film propaganda as a convincing tool.


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