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Reenactments of 1917 in Film: Conference Recap

In collaboration with NYU’s Department of Comparative Literature and the Department of Cinema Studies, the Jordan Center welcomed speakers and guests November 17-18 for “Reenactments of 1917 in Film.” As...

In collaboration with NYU’s Department of Comparative Literature and the Department of Cinema Studies, the Jordan Center welcomed speakers and guests November 17-18 for “Reenactments of 1917 in Film.” As the title suggests, the conference took a comprehensive look at Soviet films that portray the October Revolution. The conference, organized by Anke Hennig of Freie Universität Berlin and NYU’s Cristina Vatulescu, opened on Sunday evening at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with discussion and screenings of the films Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Padenie Dinastii Romanovykh) and The End of St. Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga).

Director of the Jordan Center Yanni Kotsonis introduced Anke Hennig and thanked her for her organizational efforts. Kotsonis then reflected on the conference’s topic—the year 1917—and its role in Soviet myth making. “None of us can do without 1917,” he said. “We need a narrative.”

Kotsonis emphasized the role of singular events in history and how personal identification with these events are essential to collective memory. “If you couldn’t remember where you were on October 25th, you became irrelevant,” he said.

Soviet citizens’ individual memories of the October Revolution became a necessary piece of the historical narrative, though the events in actuality were decidedly not driven by mass uprisings, fanfare, or visible demonstrations of revolution. The toppling of the provisional government and Bolshevik takeover was hardly an exercise of mass politics as the Soviet films highlighted by the conference suggest.

Anke Hennig assumed the floor and outlined the general inquiry of the conference. How did it come to be that we associate a single event-- the October Revolution of 1917--with all the toppling of Tsarist power and the political and social upheavals that would follow? “The arts have created this event for us,” Hennig said. More specifically cinematic representations of the event, and films documenting interpretive reenactments of the event constructed this historical narrative.

Keith Sandborn of Princeton University spoke before the screening of Fall of the Romanov Dynasty about filmmaker Esther Shub. Sandborn lamented that her work has largely been forgotten but enthusiastically advocated for her restoration to the canon. Sandborn brought to light the peculiarities of Shub’s approach to filmmaking through her feud with Dziga Vertov as it played out both in public, and in private letters between the two directors.

Vertov criticized Fall of the Romanov Dynasty for being “non-edited,” calling it “illiterate.” In response to Vertov’s publication “The Factory of Facts,” Shub published a piece titled “The Fabrication of Facts,” which questioned Vertov’s conviction that his films demonstrated a firm grasp on truth. “In short—” Sandborn said of their relationship, “Vertov was jealous.”

Sandborn described Shub’s approach to filmmaking as the creation of the Kino-Chronicle, and explained this monicker as one that is “deceptively modest.” Shub’s approach to editing was meticulous and unique amongst her contemporaries. Though Shub did compile newsreels and documentary footage, Sandborn noted-- “There is much to be read between the lines.” He argued that Shub’s technique was also a form of montage. As an editor, Sandborn explained, she “was not afraid to use the scalpel instead of the meat cleaver.”

Sandborn then pointed specifically to Shub’s various achievements in Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. Through the creation of an historical narrative from fragmented documentary images, and  the distillation of a variety of newsreels to demonstrate a global overview, Shub allowed the meaning of the Revolution to emerge from the material.

Before the screening, Sandborn cautioned the audience that he had not seen this particular version, and that regardless no complete cut of the film exists, as approximately 12 percent of the film, almost an entire reel, is missing. Also, there is no consensus on a standard projection speed. “We’re really going down the rabbit hole with this one,” Sandborn warned.

Fall of the Romanov Dynasty is a silent film that opens with depictions of the Romanov dynasty in all their glory and excess. Meanwhile the rest of the world prepares for war. Shots of armies from across the globe assembling are juxtaposed with battleships pulling in and out of port-- suddenly war breaks out. By the time 1917 arrives, “the people” have had enough with war. Petrograd workers strike, and they are soon joined by the troops. Under pressure from the people the Tsar abdicates. A caption reads: “the masses came out onto the streets carrying Bolshevik slogans.” One of the most striking moments of the film, and one which takes place at the very end of the available footage, is actual newsreel footage of Lenin waving from the back of a train.

Unfortunately Sandborn was extremely dissatisfied with the version of the film that was screened, and urged the audience not to judge Shub as a filmmaker by the cut that was shown here, which he characterized as “a Readers’ Digest version of the film.”

Anke Hennig introduced the next film, The End of St. Petersburg, directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin. This film was also made in 1927, and after its release was criticized by Pudovkin’s contemporaries as being a “hybrid example of montage” resulting in a “conceptual image of the Revolution,” Hennig explained. Critics argued that Pudovkin’s film misrepresented the story of the Revolution. Anke pointed out that this screening was effectively the premiere of two pieces of footage that had long been separated, the latter of which was recently found in an archive in Sweden.

The End of St. Petersburg was strikingly well restored. Hennig was apt in pointing out that what separates Petersburg from its contemporaries is the “corporeality of the figures.” Indeed, there is a great deal of focus on the bodily experience of the people depicted. A great deal of emphasis is place upon expression and physical experience of the individual characters. The camera often lingers on a single expression, cutting to increasingly detailed shots--sweat on the brow of workers, wrinkles and exhaustion in the face of a woman who has just given birth, are all examples of experience made palpable by Pudovkin.

The first panel on Monday, November 18th opened with Anke Hennig’s introduction, “Save the Date: How Avant-Garde Film Shaped the October Revolution,” a reference to the conference’s original title. This name emphasized the importance of the date in constructing historical narratives, and the roll the avant-garde played in shaping October as the particular temporal location of historical importance. Hennig then outlined the question for today’s panel: “How has the avant-garde helped us to the view the complex historical changes in Russia and the October Revolution?”

Hennig argued that The Storming of the Winter Palace, “presents a textbook example of how fact and fiction become indiscernible.” She pointed to the fact that one of the scenes from the film (actually a shot of dress rehearsal) is still in circulation today as photographic evidence of the October Revolution. Furthermore the film itself represents the reenactment of an event which never occurred-- it’s known that the October Revolution did not play out as an actual mass invasion of the Tsar’s residence in St. Petersburg.

NYU Professor of Comparative Literature, Mikhail Iampolski spoke next and presented his discussion of Eisenstein’s October in a presentation titled, “Revolution as a Dynamic Form.”

Iampolski spoke to Eisenstein’s “very complex film,” which offered a unique, conceptual approach to the depiction of the October Revolution. October is composed of images that individually are merely broken fragments, but when they are reassembled, represent the restoration of bourgeois power. The film is an example of montage that attempts to be deconstructive rather than productive.

Iampolski pointed to Eisenstein’s representation of the monarchy through statues and objects, many of which were taken directly from the Winter Palace, as indicative of something that was already gone. Throughout the film, “Eisenstein is always depicting some kind of displacement,” Iampolski said. Instead depictions of people, it is objects that dominate October. Iampolski compared Eisenstein’s portrayal of “the world of things” to Balzac’s approach to objects. Whereas Balzac understood objects as representations of “a new material reality,” Eisenstein aimed to capture the disappearance of things in October, Iampolski argued, through what he called “proto-hieroglyphic representation.”


But what of dynamism? How do static objects become dynamic, which after all is a central tenet of revolution, because it coincides with change, movement, disruption? Iampolski argued that Eisenstein attempted to realize this sense of movement through “rhythmic montage.” Yet throughout the film, Iampolski pointed out, “there are a lot of orators, but nothing is happening.” He argued that the waving of flags, the wild gesturing of the people depicted in October is “very much forced dynamism” and is “activity without a product.” And this is precisely where Eisenstein fell short in his mission.

Oksana Bulgakova of Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz rounded out the first panel with her discussion of the reenactments of the reenactments: “The Storming of the Winter Palace and its filmic reenactment in 1927,1937, 1957 and 1993: From Oktober to Misfire.”

Bulgakova spoke to the first reenactment of the Revolution portrayed in film, which counted approximately 8,000 participants and over 100,000 spectators.“Nobody knows what a Revolution looks like,” Bulgakova said. “We’re dealing with something unrepresentable, pure dynamics, but not what its was.” The central aspect of these reenactments, Bulgakova argued, was physical movement-- and Party planners at their most ambitious aimed to have the storming of the Winter Palace staged yearly. New participants would take part in each installment, and the reenactment would include citizens from all over the Soviet Union.

Bulgakova described the subsequent reenactments as ever-evolving and “subject to endless historical correction.” For example in 1957, the memory of Lenin was revived, but this time in color. Filmmakers became writers of history, and as such “cinema truly became a collective art,” Bulgakova said.


But in the 1960s the reenactments suddenly fell off. It wasn’t until 1993 that the event made its comeback to the screen. However this time it arrived in Soviet living rooms in the form of an animated cartoon made-for-TV movie, Misfire.

Next up was a screening of The Storming of the Winter Palace. Directed by Nikolai Evreinov, the film was made in 1920, and captured the first mass reenactment of the official historical narrative, which inaccurately recounts a mass uprising in October 1917 and ensuing takeover of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. In fact, there was no storming of the palace at all in 1917. The October Revolution passed largely unnoticed from the perspective of the masses. What was spectacular however was the reenactment captured by Winter Palace, which took place in front of over 100,000 spectators and involved thousands of non-professional actors as participants.

Yuri Tsivian from the University of Chicago introduced the film and explained that Winter Palace is composed of two very distinct parts. The first portion of the film takes place on a stage, and the second captures a much larger event played out on Palace Square, a “reenactment” of the storming of the Winter Palace in October 1917.

The first part of the film satirizes the provisional government and representatives of bourgeois society in a tone that’s almost slapstick—bankers with big bellies waddle about, heaving huge bags of money. There is little narrative, and the film at this point has on operatic quality—actors criss-cross the stage and pantomime wildly. At the closing of the first segment, the Proletarians load up into a truck and drive off into the distance. The second part of the film opens with this truck arriving on Palace Square. What follows are some incredible birds-eye view shots depicting endless streams of thousands of people running toward the palace.

After the screening, guests gathered for a roundtable discussion on the topic of “Art, Memory, and Media,” featuring Oksana Bulgakova from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Nancy Condee from the University of Pittsburgh, Yuri Tsivian, Inke Arns of Hartware MedienKunstVerein, Daria Khitrova from University of Chicago, and Anke Hennig.

Hennig opened up the panel by posing the question: “How far is Storming of the Winter Palace theatre for the sake of theatre? Or is is a precursor of the art form of reenactment?” Hennig noted that the core of participants were not actors. The mass spectacle was an event that took place outside of a defined social space, and was “purely temporal.” Hennig wondered to what extent this event was fictitious, but concluded that “from the poetic perspective, this event was not fictitious at all.”

Inka Ans, who has written extensively about contemporary performance and conceptual art forms that employ the device of reenactment,  followed up Hennig’s introduction by stating that she did not understand Evreinov’s film as a precursor to the art form of reenactment. “There are elements that can be linked, but in no way is it 100 percent a precursor,” she said.

Ans spoke to the role Evreinov’s film had in creating what is taken for historical fact-- Storming of the Winter Palace sought to effectively repair or correct the reality of what took place in October 1917. However Ans was sure to downplay what might have been read as a critical assessment of the film.  She pointed out that, “history is not a given, it has to be constructed or deconstructed.”

Ans then went on to discuss contemporary examples of reenactment many of which take a meta-approach to addressing what Evreinov’s film engaged in—the construction of collective memory. Ans pointed to the work of conceptual artist Jeremy Deller. One of his best known works, Battle of Orgreave (2001), sought to confront the established narrative of an incident by the same name, which involved an epic clash between miners and the police during Thatcher’s  tenure in England. Deller recruited the original participants and organized a restaging of the event as it actually happened. The reenactment that ensued posed a striking contrast to the strike as the media portrayed it in the 1980s. As a result of Deller’s piece, the BBC issued a formal retraction and apologized for having misrepresented the events.

Nancy Condee wondered if Jeremy Deller’s work isn’t “some kind of modernist thirst for the epic.” She then went on to reflect on the roll that physicality plays in Evreinov’s reenactment. “There’s something about this bodily commitment that allows for the following through of consciousness accordingly,” she said.

Yuri Tsivian announced that as the next speaker he would experiment with playing the role of  devil’s advocate in the discussion. “Let us assume for a minute that history exists,” he proposed. He then argued for the possibility that construction of historical mythology is a natural instinct, and not necessarily something sinister or consciously practiced. Tsivian pointed to the human proclivity to performance—“We all slip into mythology when we perform.” He made an example of his behavior as a lecturer. “I lie, whether I want to or not,” he admitted. What really matters, he argued, is that we maintain a careful balance between documentation and performance.

Daria Khitrova spoke of how Evreinov’s task of staging and filming a reenactment inherently open to interpretation. “Because there were so few eyewitnesses, there was no fear of people saying this was wrong,” she said. Evreinov essentially had to reconstruct a story from a non-event, she argued.


Khitrova also noted that it’s important to consider what was not reenacted, in particular the February Revolution, which was in actuality a spectacular event but was “omitted from reenactment of course for political purposes.”

Oksana Bulgakova opened up her contribution to the discussion by looking at Winter Palace from the perspective of the reenactment participants. “The people who were actually participating in the event did not see anything,” she said. Thus the actual participants couldn’t have experienced the event in the same way as the spectators in attendance that day, nor the audience of the film screenings later. “We are dealing with different individual memories that are not captured,” she argued.

Following the end of first roundtable, guests and speakers gathered for a screening of Moscow in October (Moskva v Oktyabre). Anke Hennig introduced the film, which depicts Moscow in 1917, a time and place where “nothing important had happened.” Yet contrary to historical reality, Boris Barnet’s film depicts mass demonstrations that are at once joyous and aggressive, and at times even violent. Shots of disorderly crowds are juxtaposed with organized bread lines. The seemingly static lines suddenly erupt into chaos, hungry women demand bread, smash windows, and drive out shopkeepers.


Moscow in October was an unusual film for Barnet, who mostly made comedies and films aimed at popular appeal. This particular film was a much more artistic endeavor, in fact Alexander Rodchenko designed the set.

After the film, speakers gathered for the final roundtable, “Film, Documentary.” Devin Fore of Princeton University, Yuri Tsivian, Daria Khitrova, Oksana Bulgakova, Anke Hennig, and Yanni Kotsonis led the conference’s closing discussion. Hennig opened with an overview of the concept of fiction in literary studies and the concept of fact in history, to help understand cinematic depictions of the October Revolution.

Devin Fore contributed a discussion of Alfred Barr’s 1927 trip to Moscow. At the time of his visit Barr was a history professor, but he eventually went on to become director of the Museum of Modern Art. He kept a diary during his time in Russia, chronicling his encounters with artists like Eisenstein, Rodchenko, and Ginsburg. Fore pointed out that one artist in particular made a serious impression on Barr—Sergei Tret’iakov. After Barr saw the Eisenstein’s October for the first time, he asked Tret’iakov when it would be possible to portray the Revolution objectively. Tret’iakov replied, “objectivity is bad.”

Fore explained that Tret’iakov’s response was  “startling” for Barr. But, Fore argued, Tret’iakov was on to something—objective portrayals of the Revolution could never be created so long as the Revolution continued. “Tret’iakov understood the Revolution not as a break with the past, as Stalin did, but as a new condition that was still in the process of emergence.” Since objectivity requires a certain distance from the subject on the part of the viewer, an objective portrayal necessitates that the Revolution be complete. Thus Tret’iakov was likely arguing that October was a subjective framing of the Revolution that was presently the possible way of interpreting an event that was still ongoing.

Yuri Tsivian spoke to Hennig’s opening comments, warning of the risk inherent in applying to these films the contemporary definitions of fact/fiction, played/unplayed. He said it’s important to consider how these terms were applied to the films during the historical period in which they were made. Tsivian insisted there’s a need for a “terminological umbrella.”

Yanni Kotsonis brought an historian’s view to the discussion. “I’m actually captivated by the idea that we’re focusing so much on fact and fiction,” he said. “Because it’s not the conversation we’re having today as historians.” Rather, there is a widespread consensus amongst historians that considers history fact-based fiction. “The business of discovering whether or not events took place is the easy part,” Kotsonis said. The more interesting question posed by these films, Kotsonis argued, is the consideration of why some events were included in the narrative and others were not. The answer he explained, is power. Kotsonis wondered why the issue of power had not been discussed even once during the roundtable. “Reenactment is hugely significant as an expression of a particular kind of power,” he noted. What these reenactments, and the films that depicted them were trying to demonstrate is mass participatory politics, he concluded.

Hennig again argued that the word for “fiction” simply did not exist during these historical reenactments. “Fiction is missing in the same sense the fact of the October Revolution is missing,” she said.

Fore spoke to the quarrels within the artistic left about the usefulness of narrative, which necessitates a beginning, middle, and end to a story. These artists eschewed the traditional narrative structure in light of the belief that the goal of the Revolution was as of yet still unknown. “I think negation of the literary plot is a key intervention in this process of writing history as it’s unfolding,” he said.

Bulgakova noted that it was difficult to continue the discussion because of the wide range of different positions. Common ground was proving very hard to come by. Thus she proposed that the differing perspectives be “abandoned” in favor of focusing on a more literal topic—the images portrayed in the films. She argued this would be a more productive focus since the images themselves are not subjective or fictitious, and it was images “that became a part of the canon of collective imagination.”

Daria Khitrova begged the question of the difference between an event and a non-event. She made an example of the events of February 1917, which were in actuality “a big, big spectacle,” yet effectively relegated to the status of non-event, because February 1917 did not become the official story of the Revolution. Whereas October, which was very much a non-event in reality became an event through the process of historical narrative construction.

At the conclusion of the roundtable, questions were relayed to the audience. Mikhail Iampolski brought up a very interesting point about material. He noted that Soviet filmmaker Esfir Shub was praised for not cutting documents, a decision that was also perceived as abstaining from altering reality. In this way, Iampolski argued, there is no real distinction made between reality and film in its physical form. “Documents could be treated as life itself, and fundamentally there is always this loss of distinction,” he said. “When we are dealing with film we never know really what we are dealing with.”

Yanni Kotsonis made closing remarks thanking Anke Hennig and Cristina Vatulescu, who could not attend, for their support in putting the conference together.

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