PRINT January 1973

Montage “October”: Dialectic of the Shot

While the conventional film directs the emotions, this suggests an opportunity to encourage and direct the whole thought process, as well.

TEN YEARS AFTER THE EVENT, Alexandrov, Eisenstein’s colleague and codirector, wrote about their one audience with Joseph Stalin in the tones of childlike reverence and obedience that reveal the loss of innocence rather than its opposite. “The idea,” his account began, “that we, young Soviet film-makers, were to see the great leader of the people, to talk with him personally, filled us with excitement and joy.” And it ended with, “We were sincerely sorry that the talk with Cde Stalin had not taken place before we made our film. It would have been a very different film. . . .”1

The interview had been held in the spring of 1929, in the interval between the completion and the official release of The General Line, Eisenstein’s fourth film. Stalin had expressed displeasure about the ending of the film which purported to express the official position on the collectivization of agriculture. And his criticism had resonated through the Communist Party ranks to deprive the film of its original release title, substituting instead Old and New, a title that would no longer signal the work as an embodiment of official Soviet directive. During that same meeting, Stalin had said something else. The “great friend of Soviet cinema” had spoken of the weakness of his comrade film makers’ grasp of Marxism. “Cde Stalin spoke heatedly,” reports Alexandrov, “about the slight acquaintance that masters of Soviet film art had with the works of Marx . . . .”

Alexandrov does not describe Eisenstein’s reaction to that remark, and Eisenstein himself did not write about the interview or discuss it with others. So we can only guess at his despair. Eisenstein’s “acquaintance” with the works of Marx was neither “slight” nor superficial. In that same spring, he had written an essay in which he had optimistically connected his passion for film theory with Theory of Historical Materialism. For he had prefaced his own discourse, “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form,” with the following statement:

According to Marx and Engels the dialectic system is only the conscious reproduction of the dialectic course (substance) of the external events of the world.2

In that essay Eisenstein had attempted to tie film—from its most rudimentary physical basis, namely the creation of an impression of movement, to its capacity for the most subtle kind of historical analysis—back into the revolution of consciousness that was dialectical materialism. The most basic of cinematic facts, Eisenstein reasoned, addressed itself to the dialectic. The action of two sequential film frames projected upon the retina was to superimpose a discordance of detail. And out of that discord arose the synthetic concept that was motion. Film was thus a proof of the materialist basis of thought, and if that were true, film could mature into the appropriate the sting ground of the materialist view of history. In his essay, Eisenstein then turns to the film he had made as the great laboratory of that test, to the film that was to have been both drama and explanation, the film that was simultaneously to project the triumph of Marxist history and to act as an exegesis of Marxist thought: October. Eisenstein turns to October as the workshop of his insight into the dialectical foundations of film. It was undoubtedly on the basis of October that Eisenstein announced in 1928 his ambition to film Marx’s Capital.3

He had had one year to make October. It was to be completed by November 7, 1927, for the celebration of the Tenth Anniversary of the Revolution. It had not been finished on time, and was only released several months later, in March of 1928.4 In Russia the film was received with coolness and the disappointment of incomprehension. In the United States it was accused of massive subjectivism,5 a posture of recoil that was to harden by 1931 within the Soviet Union into an official criticism of Eisenstein as a formalist. Eisenstein, it was said, had not been able to understand the internal basis of the Revolution. “No attempt is made to present the Revolution as a link in an historic process.” Eisenstein, thrown back upon his own subjectivism, had remained outside of the events so that “the film which was to have been a history of the October Revolution becomes a horde of dead objects covered with the dust of museums.”6 Ten years after October was shot, the out cry had become so insistent that it had to be answered. The form of the answer was a self-denunciation, a bewildered examination by Eisenstein of his own “mistake.”

The mistake is rooted in one deep-seated intellectual and individualist illusion. . . . It is an illusion which Lenin constantly decried, an illusion which Stalin tirelessly exposes—the illusion that one may accomplish truly revolutionary work ‘on one’s own,’ outside the fold of the collective. . . . This intellectual illusion was the main cause of mistakes and quixotic digressions from the right way of presenting questions and answering them. These individual digressions result in the political distortion of the events portrayed and a wrong political interpretation of the subject.

Unripened revolutionary feelings, which should have been replaced long ago by disciplined Bolshevik consciousness, is the source of errors that, subjectively mistaken, become objectively harmful, despite affirmative intentions and purposes. . . .

By turn of mind I am much given to generalization. But is it that generalization which the Marxist doctrine of realism teaches us to understand? No. For in my work generalization destroys the individual. Instead of being derived through the concrete and the particular, generalization trails off into detached abstraction.7

But the anger and distrust of Eisenstein’s pretensions to being a revolutionary film maker never really abated—neither in the Soviet Union, nor among the Left in the West. In 1955 the critic Robert Warshaw, poured out his anger against Eisenstein’s “glassy and inhuman . . . brilliance,”8 calling his work “vulgar” and “a falsehood,” and accusing him of “playing with corpses.” Disapproving of montage as a weapon to sever into pieces the uninterrupted wholeness of reality, to excise separate details out of the body of an objectively real space and to force them into conjunction within the flow of the film in order to produce concepts or significances, Warshaw inveighs against montage and its “meanings.”9 “If they had got the chance,” Warshaw says of Eisenstein and Pudovkin and Dovzhenko, “they would have made a handsome montage of my corpse too, and given it a meaning—their meaning,” he hisses, “and not mine.”


It is hard to know what it means to be accused of “meaning.” Especially when October was to be about the sudden access to meaning. In showing the events that led up to and culminated in the October Revolution’s storming of the Winter Palace, Eisenstein had no intention to passively reflect a chain of circumstance. As I hope to show, he wanted to project that moment when access to the meaning of History in turn gave access to the meaning of real space, a meaning that was unmistakably couched in the meaning of political power.

The space that his critics loved so much, the great space of documentary, the space unmanipulated by camera or editor, was a space that Eisenstein also respected and understood. Before making October, he and his crew screened thousands of feet of newsreel footage taken during 1917 in St. Petersburg. In passages of October—some of the footage in the trenches, some of the scenes of the demonstrations—the newsreel quality is incredibly convincing, as Jay Leyda notes when he says, “the brilliant photography and ‘newsreel reconstructions’ give October an air of objectivity.”10 The scene where the July demonstrators are fired upon by Kerensky’s soldiers was based on a news photograph that had been taken from a rooftop; and Eisenstein’s filmic resurrection of this event is so convincing that stills from the sequence have been confused with the original documentary photo and have been reproduced in its place.11

October is riddled with “documentary” spaces, not the least of which are the close-ups of faces—as in one of the opening scenes in a church celebrating the founding of the Provisional Government—in which one feels the full thrust of a documentary presentation of the look of a people, the real disarray of the faces of Russia rather than the mediated appearance of actors. Yet Warshaw is right that in October Eisenstein has not left real space alone, has not been content to let it just be itself. For Eisenstein has proposed a profound criticism of documentary or “real” space within October, just as he has proposed the same criticism of its polar opposite—the estheticized space of fiction.

For there are in October, in almost metronomic alternation with the “documentary” spaces, spaces that are rigorously, even fanatically, artificed or formalized. One thinks of that shot which is the narrative bridge between the withdrawal and the reentry of Russia into the World War. Following the scene of the Russian and German soldiers on the Eastern Front, fraternizing in the space of the truce called for by the newly installed Provisional Government, the shot precedes the sudden resumption of hostilities when that same government, yielding to the money and pressure of the Allies, reentered the war against Germany. It is a shot which goes beyond narration and intends instead to be about the formation of an emblem—an emblem which is at the same time palpable and abstract. The space of the shot is the space of a room in the Winter Palace, understood as the seat of power. The action of the shot is an extraordinary substitution of part for the whole. In it a government minister’s gesture, passing a document from one side of the frame to the other, stands for the transmission through intergovernmental space of the impersonal prerogatives of power that result in the individual human agony of a continued war. The arid flatness and abstraction of the shot is guaranteed by the extremely high camera angle. There is no space to see—only the flat ground of a floor which fills the screen with a Roman mosaic, a tesseraed face at its center from which radiate the concentric rings of Baroque ornament. The minister’s dark-suited body fills the right side of the frame. He bows from the waist, extending his left arm so that the document he holds fits into the lower left corner of the image. With that gesture he has become a perfectly formal element. His body splits the screen diagonally from upper right corner to lower left. The lighting and the camera angle flatten it as resolutely as in any painting. The body is a black wedge of obeisance locked into place by the brilliance of the upper left triangle of the screen. And in that formal reciprocity, the mosaic floor, which is his background, arches around his body and is perceived as a mandala of imperial power. An unseen hand relieves the minister of his document. Eisenstein cuts to the trenches where a sudden explosion fills the air with dirt and shrapnel. He cuts back to the minister who begins to stand up and through a jump cut stands up again, the spasm of his gesture reprojecting the force of that explosion.

Those emblematic spaces abound in October. Eisenstein shows us still lifes of the Romanov possessions: symmetrical, frontalized arrangements of china and sterling and crystal shot against the abstract space of a black ground. Or he shows us the choked and airless space of political banners which engulf and finally obliterate the demonstrators during the July Days in a flat array of slogans.

If there is a dialectic in October, two of its terms must be seen in that alternation between a documentary and a formal space. For Eisenstein is drawing a parallel between these two poles of film space and the space of political action. Sergei Eisenstein, October, 1928. Both of those poles, Eisenstein seems to be saying, define the limits of a reality that is given. lnsofar as we accept them as the two possible modes of film, our consciousness is locked inside the space and time of reality as it is given. In the documentary mode it is the space and time of objective events and their seemingly absolute facticity. In the case of an esthetic or formal mode, it is the grip of our present space and time during which we actually perceive the art object and its apparent resistance to change. And as long as those really are the only two alternatives open to consciousness, then the mode of our viewing of film resembles the alternatives of an essentially depoliticized mode of viewing history: in which history is either the record of events passively reflected in the mind (as in the thesis of the documentary); or else it is the contemplated unfolding of a disembodied ideal (as in the antithesis of the film as “art”). But, for historical materialism, these are not really the options.

“The great thing in Hegel’s Phenomenology,” wrote Marx, “is that Hegel conceives the selfcreation of man as a process, regards objectification as . . . alienation and as a transcendence of this alienation; and that he therefore grasps the nature of labor and comprehends objective man . . . as the result of his own labor.”12 Thus, for Marx the logic of history “could be grasped by the intellect and at the same time—since it was the history of man—it was capable of modification as soon as men understood the nature of the process in which they were involved.”13 As Marx made us see, that logic of history stands at an angle of incidence to the objective array of events. It is not given as the surface of objective facts, but embedded within them as their opposite—which is to say, as their negation. He asks us to examine the objective truth that the product of labor is wealth. And then he shows us the opposite, equally true, intangible but perhaps more powerful fact, that in capitalist societies, labor, while it is producing wealth, is at the same time producing its own poverty.

The ambition of the first half of October is to project that lesson: namely that a people functioning through a prerevolutionary consciousness, locked into real space and time, literally has no place to go. In the extraordinary episode of the film which is called “The July Days,” Eisenstein encapsulates the space of Petersburg between the two metaphors, which reflect each other as though in facing mirrors: a blocked-off film space; and a blocked-off consciousness deprived of the possibility of meaningful political action. And these metaphors form the conceptual backdrop of the real city on which the actual historical events were staged. In that space, the demonstrators, caught by the machine-gun fire of the Government troops, are cut off from escape across the River Neva by Kerensky’s order to raise the drawbridges.

The episode opens with a panoramic shot of thousands of demonstrators moving from the extreme distance into the foreground across the bridge that shapes their mass into a wide avenue of humanity. Carrying banners that protest the continuation of the war by the Provisional Government, they move from the horizon of the workers’ quarter, which stretches across the top of the frame, forward into the center of Petersburg. The effect of this shot—with the bird’s-eye perspective of newsreel footage—is documentary in kind. As Eisenstein cuts from the high vantage of this opening shot down to eye level, he shows the workers’ banners as a series of breaking waves, cresting in front of the camera to flatten and close off the space. The treatment of the banners resembles the effect of the minister-with-the-document shot, for the effect of the flattening has the airless quality of filmic artifice. The flattening out of the space recurs within the sequence, when for instance he shows demonstrators, climbing a lamp post to attach a huge banner to the top, who are wiped from view by the superimposition of a moving tram obliterating their space. Into the forward motion of this crowd, Eisenstein inserts a scene in which the demonstrators, many of whom are soldiers, disarm themselves at the directive that “this must be a peaceful demonstration.”

The procession continues against the monumental backdrop of Petersburg’s center, the buildings constantly closing off and coercing the movement of the crowd. As it reaches a particular square—“At the corner of Sadovaya and Nevski . . .”—the demonstrators are fired upon, in that alternation of filmic modes through which Eisenstein projects the limits of perspective. For there is the crosscutting between those “documentary” shots of the event that were based on the news photograph as the frenzied crowd begins to scatter, and the source of the fire projected through a pyrotechnical passage of montage. It is a montage in which, at intervals of two frames each, we see the muzzle of the machine gun (in an image of sharp value contrast) and then the face of the gunner triggering the gun (shot with more generalized lighting). By an extreme synthesis those rapid jolts convey in one image both cause and effect, which is to say, both the machine gun and its fire.

From that passage of pursuer and pursued, Eisenstein centers on a more particularized drama, as he had in the Odessa Steps sequence in Potemkin. As in the earlier image of the woman and her child in the baby carriage, Eisenstein again focuses in on a narrative fragment dramatizing the utter vulnerability of the young. The passage that follows has been condemned for its seemingly perverse eroticism.14 Yet it seems to me that the passion carried by the sensuality of the images throughout the entire last half of the sequence, up to and including the raising of the bridge, is a passion energized by rage. It is Eisenstein’s rage at the futility of political impotence, and it emotionally embodies the lesson of “The July Days.” He shows a young Bolshevik carrying one of the banners. In the boy’s flight back toward the bridge, he is caught by a group of bourgeois men and women who pull him to the ground and begin to stab him to death with the tips of their umbrellas. This is interrupted by a shot from the now empty drawbridge as the workers rush forward and begin to cross it. The montage of the machine-gunner flashes on again briefly, and on the space of the bridge people begin to fall. One of these falls, the skidding forward and down of a white horse that has been shot, is intercut with first, the white-stockinged leg of one of the bourgeois women stamping downward on the body of the young Bolshevik, and then the downward lurch of a white ostrich hat of one of the other women attacking him. Cut together as one single continuous downward motion, the synthetic image of leg, horse, and hat once again connects the space of attackers and attacked. Eisenstein then cuts back to the horse now completely prone but still harnessed to the empty carriage from which its owner has fled. Then there is a shot of a woman in a dark skirt and white blouse lying on the bridge near the horse—her long hair falling along the ground of the bridge. Three titles follow: “The Government orders . . . the raising of the bridges . . . to cut off the workers’ districts from the city.” Cutting back and forth between the truss-work underneath the bridge and the head and hair of the dead woman, Eisenstein gives us the sickening reality of that exercise of power in an agony of repetition that carries with it the effect of a dream. As the two halves of the bridge begin to separate, the woman’s hair which lies across the crack, slips over the edge of the rising half as though it were gently being held and then let fall by the hands of a lover. Six times, at varying angles, that same caress is repeated. In one of the repetitions the camera backs away far enough to include the legs and torsos of men in flight. As the bridge continues to rise, the horse is seen dangling over its edge, prevented from falling into the water by the equal and opposite weight of the carriage to which it is attached. The camera rides upward with the carriage, showing beyond it the horizon lurching off at a strange diagonal—a horizon no longer connected to the possibilities of escape. The sequence is long and painful and punctuated by the impersonal brilliance of light reflections rippling across the trusswork underneath the bridge. Its climax is the image of the bridge at the summit of its rise—an opaque surface of planking—absolutely parallel to the surface of the screen—absolutely blocking off the field of vision—which as Eisenstein has taught us to see, is the field of motion.

In the image of that upended bridge, the modes of documentary and formal (or constructed) film space, between which the preceding Sergei Eisenstein, October, 1928. whole sequence had alternated, are finally collapsed. . . and condemned. To the extent that that field of planking puts one in contact with the actual object, the shot carries the weight of “documentary;” and to the extent that the bridge’s surface is made to appear synonymous with the surface of the screen, the shot’s impact is simultaneously “formal.” But the content of the shot—the bridge as a barricade preventing escape—carries with it Eisenstein’s criticism of both those modes of filmic vision, insofar as they stand for the terms of historical perception. During the July demonstrations, the workers had resorted to peaceful protest. Bound by a belief in the prerogatives of legalized power, they had remained loyal to reality as it was given. Contained by the limits of real space and time, by the raising of the bridge, they found themselves cut off from the horizon of their future which was the possibility of action. The rest of October is a gradual movement toward the realization of the Bolshevik position: that the exercise of power belongs to those who go beyond what is given—who act to seize power and to hold it. And the great filmic equivalent that Eisenstein wanted to draw was between the leap of revolutionary consciousness which transcends the limits of the real to open up access to the future, and the leap of visual consciousness which goes beyond the normal bounds of a film space understood either as the reality of documentary or the reality of “art.”


From the very beginning of October Eisenstein announces his intention to inhabit a space which is not that of reality but is rather its negation. And “negation” here is not meant to imply formal space as the opposite of documentary; instead it is the dialectical third term which arises from and supersedes both of the earlier ones. It is useful to remember Eisenstein’s example of the two discordant single frames of film which through retinal retention are seen as motion. For Eisenstein the single shot—whether its effect was documentary or formal—had an intransigence that had to be surpassed. What he saw in the possibilities of combination—projected by means of montage—was the projection of process, whereby “the dialectic system is only the conscious reproduction of the dialectic course (substance) of the external events of the world.” The act of thinking was thus the act of reflecting the epi-phenomena of history, the grasping of the meaning of events rather than their mute surfaces. In Eisenstein’s hands, montage was to recapitulate the processes of logic. The first shot of the film is an angled close-up of the head of a statue of the Czar. Dark against a black ground, it is lit in such a way that it almost appears to be a photographic negative. The eight shots that follow construct the whole statue through a sequential presentation of its fragments. The effect of this sequence is that Sergei Eisenstein, October, 1928. of an abstraction; neither the documentation of the statue nor the projection of it as an art object. It simply reflects a process of building, so that we see the truth that lies behind the autocratic presence of the statue: that political power is not given by God but is instead created through the acts of men. Eisenstein’s montage, by means of its construction, thus fills out the conceptual space of this creation.

The destruction of the Romanov Dynasty is then portrayed through extreme ellipsis. People rush into the square in which the statue stands. They tie ropes around its various parts and pull the ropes taut. The tense rain of the ropes is intercut with two alternating shots: first a forest of rifles and then of scythes raised in silhouette against the sky. A title announces “February 1917” and in the next 20 shots the statue decomposes and falls from its pedestal.

If historical space is understood as the space of real events, then up to this point in the first moments of October, we have not inhabited historical space. Eisenstein has shown us nothing of “history,” as well as nothing of the space in which actual events occur. Rather, he has immersed us in the space of montage construction, the autonomy of which seems to open onto and fill out the negation of real space and time.

Eisenstein’s commitment to a conceptual, or what he called an “intellectual montage” is at the heart of October. Eisenstein’s filmic imagination in October extends to the storming of the Winter Palace. While the Second Soviet Congress meets inside the Smolny Institute to argue the wisdom of overthrowing legitimate power, the Red Army is being dispatched from the Smolny’s gates. As tanks and trucks full of soldiers draw up to the dispatcher to receive their orders, Eisenstein arranges a reversal of those shots from “The July Days” where the moving tram had wiped out the space of the demonstrators. For now the truck which fills up the screen pulls away to open out a vista beyond it: hundreds of waiting soldiers and behind them the space of Petersburg. Between these shots of the massing army Eisenstein cuts to close-ups of a map over which a hand gripping a pencil moves, marking its surface with the Xs and circles of positions to be seized. The storming of the Winter Palace is thus portrayed through montage as the freedom of access to a vast space, as the forging of a conceptual chain only the links of which were physical.

It might be argued that the image of the map, no matter how dramatic the tempo of Eisenstein’s cutting, is simply too weak to carry as the concretization of a people’s will to action. Just as the final burst of shots in the film—in array of clock faces registering time across the surface of the world—might come as a visual anticlimax to the thought of a new age. But to have gone this far with Eisenstein, is to have followed him to the limits of the real in October. After two and a half hours of living with one of the most rigorous and searching theoretical and filmic imaginations, one finds oneself standing on the threshold of thought, having experienced the concept of process, feeling the compulsion to enter it.

Rosalind Krauss



1. Alexandrov, “Great Friend of Soviet Cinema,” Iskusstvo Kino, December, 1939, as quoted by Jay Leyda in Kino, New York, 1960, pp. 266–9.

2. Sergei Eisenstein, “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form,” Film Form, New York, 1957. The quote Eisenstein uses is from Razumovsky, Theory of Historical Materialism, Moscow, 1928.

3. See Leyda, Kino, p. 246.

4. The lateness of October was in part due to the need, after Trotsky’s expulsion late in 1927, to recut certain scenes in the film to play down Trotsky’s role in the Revolution. See Kino, pp. 237–9; and Marie Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein, London, 1952, p. 101. Outside of the Soviet Union the film was released as Ten Days That Shook the World.

5. Alexander Bakshy, “The Language of Images,” The Nation, December 26, 1928, as quoted in Seton, Eisenstein, p. 103.

6. Ivan Anisimov, “The Films of Eisenstein,” International Literature, No. 3, Moscow, 1931, reprinted in Seton, Eisenstein, pp. 494–503. The above quote is from page 500.

7. Sergei Eisenstein,“ The Mistakes of Bezhin Lug,” International Literature, No. 8, 1937, reprinted in Seton, Eisenstein, pp. 372–7.

8. Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience, New York, 1970, p. 281.

9. In her article “Screen/Surface: the Politics of Illusionism,” Artforum, September, 1972, Annette Michelson, drawing a parallel between War show’s repugnance with the montage of Russian film of the 1920s and the more closely argued but similar rejection of it by Andre Bazin, develops the vi ew of the esthetic and intellectual presuppositions operative for both. Bazin’s reasons appear in “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” What Is Cinema, Berkeley, California, 1968.

10. Leyda, Kino, p. 241.

11. Ibid, p. 231.

12. Marx, Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844, quoted in Lichtheim, Marxism, New York, 1961, p. 41.

13. Lichtheim, Marxism, p. 40.

14. Eric Rhode, “Eisenstein,” Tower of Babel, Philadelphia, 1966.