The Power of Film as Propaganda
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Published: Tue, 19 Dec 2017
The power of film as propaganda – reality or myth?
Throughout history various persons and administrations in power have attempted to win the hearts and supports of their constituents, often through reframing or reinterpreting historical events in a light favourable to them. This was certainly the case in the Russian Revolution of1917. The Bolsheviks and Lenin, their leader, sought to use film to recast events of the revolution in such a way as to rally and unify the Russian peasantry. Filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was one of those recruited for the task, and while many government-sponsored films of the time have disappeared into the massive pile of poor quality filmmaking, two of his works in particular, Battleship Potemkin and October, were powerful in framing the Russian Revolution in the eyes of the world and his own people. These works demonstrate the power of film, even those recognised as containing elements of propaganda.
Hostility and outbreaks had been building prior to the1917 Revolution, with general dissatisfaction for the Tsarist regime. One such event, a naval uprising in Odessa, was chosen by Eisenstein to show the liberation needed by the working class under the csars, which he considered had been subsequently provided by the Bolsheviks. Historically, the event was a mutiny of the seamen against the officers, and had been a major event in the earlier Revolution of 1905. Commissioned by the Soviet Central Committee to create a film commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 Revolution, Eisenstein originally planned a sweeping series 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 actual historical events of the incident, as Eisenstein and his government backers both made changes to portray the situation in a way supportive of the then-current Bolshevik regime. For example, whilst in reality the sailors were captured and incarcerated, Eisenstein ends the movie with the sailors in a rallying 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 the Cossacks on a series of steps in Odessa, undercutting close-ups of guns and faces with scenes of fleeing civilians and attacking soldiers to depict the slaughter 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 the realism of the film and its filmmaking firsts. Eisenstein was the first to use editing to juxtapose apparently unrelated images, to create rapid and dynamic shifts in rhythm, and to compress and expand physical action rather than function simply as a storytelling device. The newsreel-like style of the film was another innovation praised by foreign critics. America’s National Board of Review reported at the time the faithful reproduction of this historical event by adhering as much as possible to a literal transcription and reproduction of officially documented facts Nothing approaching the reality of these scenes has ever occurred in cinematicsbefore. Interestingly, most American audiences regarded Potemkin as a celebration of freedom and liberation, rather than a support of a particular political agenda(Browne 182).
Initial critics, with the exception of Gerstein 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, the American agencies of interpretation the journalists and the critics sought to sketch a picture of something very new and unknown and used the figure of Eisenstein and the realism of his film to do so. However, by the late 1920s, critics were reconsidering the propaganda elements in Soviet films. For example, in his profile on Eisenstein in 1928, Alfred Barr openly explained the Russian government’s involvement in the Potemkin and filmmaking in general, and the propagandistic elements of the movie. Intellects on both sides of the Atlantic appeared to have been quite taken with the reality of the movie, enough to overlook such elements of propaganda, and praise the Soviet filmmaker for his reality, a stark contrast to the to the fictionality and to the vulgar artifice of the Hollywood image so despised by many of the intellectual elite.
The film was not so well received in Russia. While by the 1930s, the Civil War became something of a focus for the revolutionary myth in Soviet cinema just the way the West was won fulfilled a similar function in Hollywood, at the time of its release Soviet audiences preferred lighter and more conventional faire. The problem was that, as long as Soviet audiences had a choice, they preferred the films that were popular elsewhere in Europe, and were happy with a diet of Hollywood hits or Soviet imitations. In addition, Potemkin featured no central hero with whom audiences could identify; the main character of the movie is best described as the collective masses. While Eisenstein’s lack of a central character fascinated Western audiences, it dehumanised Soviets, who were uninterested in the Cine-Eyes more perfect visions of reality. Potemkin had to be taken off after only two weeks, to be replaced with are turn of Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks, the film featured before its release.
While the power of Potemkin as propaganda was far more convincing, at least initially, abroad, Eisenstein’s next great work, October, enjoyed tremendous success at home and was valuable as a way of reframing the October events for decades. Scholar recognise the inaccuracies and license of the film. Figes, for example, contends October is Eisenstein’s brilliant but largely fictional propaganda film. Rosenstone also acknowledges both the initial impact and lasting influence of the film. October has become and remains one of the best known and most enduring accounts of October so well known that it seems no exaggeration to suggest that more people have probably learned about the Bolshevik Revolution from the film than from any other single source.
As October had a much stronger impact on the Russian public, both as a movie and as propaganda, it is important to consider the situation in Russia at the time and how it influenced the film’s creation and support. The Russian peasantry, accounting for eighty percent of the population, was largely hostile and overwhelmingly 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 were inclined to believe naively in every printed word, and therefore open to persuasion from a variety of sources. Lack of vocabulary amongst the group and misunderstandings with speakers sent by the Bolshevik regime to educate them further compounded the communication problem.
Furthermore, the peasants had not supported the Bolsheviks coming into power. Immediately after the overthrow in October, in November 1917, the Bolsheviks held an election as they had promised. 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 Socialist Revolutionaries, who received forty-four percent of the vote to the Bolsheviks ‘twenty-seven percent. Although they lost, the Bolsheviks nonetheless seized and consolidated power. This left the government as one in need of persuasive means to address its constituents. Not having been elected by the people, it depended largely on the 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 in whose name the Bolsheviks claimed to govern. In response, Lenin realised the importance of the dynamic visual propaganda that cinema could offer and set the government on a course of creating propaganda films. Films would serve to not only entertain, but to allow the Bolsheviks to construct their particular utopia out of the ruins of Tsarist Russia.
However, By the 1930s, the Party functionaries recognized that the films were not useful propaganda instruments as long as they could not attract a mass audience. Russians clearly preferred Hollywood-type films, and had similar response to government-produced propaganda films as they had to Potemkin, although such works had little of its quality or creativity. Government leaders recognised that their greatest artists, who made experimental, innovative films, could not communicate with the simple people who wanted to be entertained. They developed a new slogan for art in the Soviet Republics, loosely translated as ‘movies for the masses.’ Experimentation was denounced as ‘formalism,’ as something alien to Soviet art, and now each film had to be immediately comprehensible even to the least educated.
Many artists and writers immediately following the 1917 Revolution also recognised the need to enlighten the peasantry, and the potential for creative media to communicate new life options to them, and initially joined in government efforts. Filmmakers such as Eisenstein and Kozintsev, for example, were determined in their different ways to use their ‘new’ art form to construct a new Sovietman. However, with the increasing and ever more intrusive censorship, in combination with limitations on creativity and severe punishments for violations of government guidelines, many film producers simply stopped making movies. Whilst the cinema became increasingly popular, movie selection decreased. By the 1930s, foreign films had been banned; Soviet films also decreased. Whilst in the 1920s over one hundred movies were made annually, but this number had dropped to less than forty by the 1930s.
Content was for the most part centred on the benefits of the Bolshevik regime and the evils of the Tsarist one. Class consciousness could usually be reduced to an understanding that there were enemies everywhere, that the Soviet was of life was superior, that it was the duty of decent people to participate in the building of socialism, that the primary 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 Soviet films, one might have imagined that the task of Soviet border guards was to keep 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 cultural plethora, and a number of events leading up to the current regime seizing power were morally questionable, at best.
The question is whether propaganda films really exerted the influence over the public that many have long held unquestionably that they do. The Soviets certainly committed a surprising amount of scarce resources, although not as much as the filmmakers would have liked, to this novel form of propaganda, recognising the apparent potential of 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 convinced that the mass media in general, cinema in particular, provided a weapon uniquely capable of effectively moulding the ideology of the masses. Reeves further contends that empirical studies in Britain between the First and Second World Wars are primarily supportive of the power of film propaganda and the media to influence the general populace. Almost without exception inter-war studies stressed their enormous power, using metaphors like “hypodermic needle” or “magic bullet” to characterise that power in contrast to the weakness of the mass of people who, whether they liked it or not, received the messages which the media generated. While there have been more recent challenges to these findings, Eisenstein’s October is widely held to have had a profound impact both on the Russian people and foreigners in shaping their perception and understanding of the Bolsheviks’ rise to power.
Although October was made before the changes to filmmaking of the 1930s, it very much followed the type of movie propaganda scheme the government would later require. The film was commissioned by the Soviet agency in charge of the production and distribution of films, Sovkino, as part of the tenth anniversary celebration of the 1917events. Ever the visionary, Eisenstein first planned to create a heroic epic, spanning from the February 1917 overthrow of the 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.
The story 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 might even argue that October had a significant role in creating that tradition. The film neither accurately represents what happened nor entirely fictionalises events, instead combining the two to create a picture in the minds of many of the Revolution. The film opens with the downfall of the Russian Czar in February of 1917.While it overdoes the evilness of the Tsarist regime a bit from an historical standpoint, this presents a strong contrast for the following events. Of particular note is the handling of the July Days protests in July of 1917.The Bolsheviks had assembled over fifty thousand supporters, had surrounded the Tauride Palace, and had taken hostage a representative of the Provisional Government during the protest. Bolshevik leaders truly did decide not to overthrown the government during this time, calming the crowd and avoiding bloodshed. Eisenstein is considered by many scholars to be relatively accurate in his rendition of the July events, although he creates from a decidedly Bolshevik point of view. Eisenstein shows us the masses of marching protesters, the bloodshed on the Nevsky Prospekt, the anger of the middle classes against the lower orders, the Bolshevik speakers calming the soldiers, insisting it is not time to seize power.
Similarly, Rosenstone states that historians have little dissent over much of the things that led up to the October events, or how Eisenstein handled them. The February Revolution, he contends, was truly popular and necessary, while the Provisional Government was inept, 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 began to strut around with comic self-importance, puffing up his puny chest and striking the pose of a Bonaparte.’Rosenstone notes Eisenstein shows Kerensky as a would-be Bonaparte, by cutting from a close-up of him directly to a statue of Napoleon, and he is hardly the only historian to suggest the prime minister saw himself in that kind of heroic role.
Figes and Rosenstone both note that Eisenstein used similar techniques to highlight the ineptitude of General Kornilov. Eisenstein suggests that the attempt to overthrow the Provisional Government was really based on a misunderstanding, exacerbated by Kornliov, who also saw himself as a Bonaparte figure and did not realise that most of those supporting him did so with the hope to use him in the government’s overthrow .Eisenstein presents Kornilov as yet another potential Napoleon by cutting from his image to that of the same statue previously linked to Kerensky. The film shows how the general’s march on Petrograd is undermined by Bolshevik agitators, who are able to convince the Cossacks of his Savage Division that the Soviet programme of ‘Peace, Land, Bread’ is not meant just for the worker sof Petrograd but for everyone, including them.
It is the ending of the movie, as he did in Potemkin, where Eisenstein takes the greatest license. The movie climaxes with 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, and any Bolsheviks attacking it would have only had to rebuff a few women and elderly 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 taken peacefully, with cabinet members arrested. However, Eisenstein realised the film must have a strong climatic event, and as Lenin had previously used the Palace as an emblem of the Revolution conquering old regimes in the name of the masses, he used a dramatic battle to climax his historical rendition.
Many Russian critics at the time were appalled that he had even considered dramatising or reframing such an important event in their history. Additional complaints included Eisenstein’s omission of ‘the collapse at the front’ and ‘the growth of the workers’ movement’ were also directed at the film.Rosenstone would counter that a filmmaker can never forget the demands of the medium 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 can never 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 and oppression of the Provisional Government, not the political desires of the Bolsheviks, that led to the October 1917 Revolution. It was the desires and action of the masses, not Lenin or a few organising leaders, that led to the government’s overthrow. As propaganda, the film has long served to reinforce the validity of the Bolsheviks seizure of power, and therefore to instigate major changes on the Soviet populace. It remains the way many, both in Russia and in Western countries, view the events of 1917, an as such speaks to the effective and lasting power of film as a propaganda device. History can be recast, reinterpreted, expressed in film, and many will believe what 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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