ACHTUNG BERLIN 2017 Blog: 1917 – Der wahre Oktober

    |    Monday, der 24. April 2017

„The personal stories bring it all home.“

When my son was little, he got it into his head that I was a communist and took great delight in going around saying so. Of course times had changed since I was a kid. Back then, I also took some great delight in bringing a few of my mother’s communist pamphlets to social studies class – much to her horror, I should say, as she, and my father, really had been communists once upon a time, and in the early-to-mid 60s it was still definitely not cool to say so. But this was now the post-Wall 90s and finding it all kind of amusing, I asked him what he thought that meant. As I suspected, being probably less than 10, my son had no concrete idea. So I bought him a comic book that was all about explaining it.

In some sense, you might say that the idea of using the playful medium of an animated film to explain something that had such huge far-reaching effects is just what Katrin Rothe did in her telling of the October Revolution, “1917 – Der Wahre Oktober”. At the same time, you might also be wrong. Rather than try and simplify it, she actually set out to approach it from a very different perspective, one that was both personal and artistic rather than just political. And it was not about interpreting history, rather dealing with the immediacy of events as they happened.

In doing her own research on the subject – seeing as now is the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution – she collected writings by several people, some well known, some not so much, who all chose to record their experiences of these heady times. And being themselves artists – such as writer and activist, Maxim Gorki, art historian and stage designer, Alexander Benois, futurist and visual artist Vladamir Majakowski, and poet and diarist, Sinaida Hippius – they contribute their own versions of unique first-hand commentaries.

The film as animation works on several levels. First it solves the problem of portraying her various characters without falling into the dangerous trap of documentary re-enactments and at the same time it also allows visual twist to the necessary epic sweep to her story without a great deal of expense. It also effectively plays into the idea of events imagined from an artistic sensibility. And finally it’s just great to look at.

The style of the animation does not directly mirror the Soviet aesthetic of the time – if anything it might be a reference to East German animation of 60s and 70s (Rothe herself grew up in the DDR), but it’s main strength is its mix of animation styles that are very diverse, yet all work together like a futurist collage. We have flickering flames made of red crepe paper, trams and warships cut out of black and white photocopies. Surging crowds appear as shadow puppetry while the main figures are portrayed as paper dolls made out of paper or wood, whose clothes are made from felt, fur, wool and bubble wrap, with glasses made of bent wire and corrugated cardboard for Ms Hippius’s marcelled hair. Backgrounds are solid and liquid, painted and printed, or made up of patterns of text. These various “layers” create their own kind of depth out of the flat graphic look that the director refers to as 2.5D.

I think we all know how this story ends, but the film reveals that what we call “The October Revolution” actually started months before and consisted of various revolutions. And if you think the graphic element would have a distancing effect, the personal stories bring it all home.
Andrew Horn

Andrew Horn, Berlin-based filmmaker (The Nomi Song, We Are Twisted Fucking Sister!, The Big Blue), producer (East Side Story) and writer, is on the look out for interesting – and not so interesting – movies at this year’s edition of Achtung Berlin – new berlin film award.

Films from past editions of the festival can be found in the Achtung Berlin channel on realeyz.de

Ahorn