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The films Die Schreckentage von Wien by Rudi Mayer and October by Sergei Eisenstein deal with two similar topics, but seem, at the same time, completely antithetical in their directorial approaches. While in Mayer’s film, in fact, the July Revolt basically shows us how a protest caused significant damage to the city, Eisenstein’s film focuses on the needs of the citizens.

Two films, two nations, two destinies

1927 was a particularly important year in terms of not only Austrian, but world proletarian cinema. During these years, in fact, two films were made that were quite essential and that showed us closely how people react to certain events and when their rights are not properly recognised. While in Austria, in fact, the cameraman Rudi Mayer documented the terrible fire in the Vienna Palace of Justice (which took place on July 15, 1927, remembered as the day of the July Revolt), making the documentary Die Schreckenstage von WIen, in Russia Sergei Eisenstein was commissioned to make a film on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. It was thus that the film October was born.

It is interesting to observe how two films showing similar events can present substantially different approaches and reflect – voluntarily or involuntarily – the political tendencies of the time, anticipating, in some ways, even important historical developments. Let us see, specifically, how.

On January 30, 1927, in Schattendorf, Burgenland, a forty-year-old worker and a six-year-old child were killed by the police during a demonstration in which the Austrian Social Democratic Party and a right-wing alliance formed by industrialists and the Catholic Church clashed. Following the violent clash and the death of the two victims, three members of the nationalist group were remanded for trial in July. On July 14, the three were found innocent and this verdict caused quite a scandal.

The following day – July 15, in fact – the management of the municipal electricity company cut the power to the trams in Vienna, so that the city traffic went haywire. In the meantime, thousands of people crowded onto the Ring and went to the Palace of Justice, breaking in through the windows and starting a fire. When cameraman Rudi Mayer arrived on the scene, the fire had already been set and he, maintaining a certain distance to what was happening, tried to document everything while maintaining a certain objectivity. In his film, the July Revolt is thus shown almost schematically. Initially, the camera devotes all its attention to the burning building and only later does it focus on the people running terrified through the streets of Vienna trying to save themselves. In the last part of the film, however, we are shown the funeral speech by the authorities commemorating the people who lost their lives during this event.

During the July Revolt, on that dramatic day, eighty-four protesters and five policemen died and about a thousand people were injured. This, however, is never mentioned in Mayer’s film. Totals and distant shots give an idea of what happened, but never go into detail. According to the testimony of the writer Elias Canetti (who experienced the revolt first-hand), just before the fire, thousands and thousands of sheets of paper started raining down from the windows of the Palace of Justice. When smoke and flames appeared from the windows, the situation worsened.

The police started shooting at the crowd, even at passers-by who had not taken part in the protest at all. People ran terrified and the ground was full of injured and dead people. Stopping to help an injured person meant risking death. In Die Schreckenstage von Wien, where there are no close-ups or shots at all, none of this is shown.

Quite different, however, is the approach chosen by Eisenstein during the shooting of October. Here, direct footage and archive footage fully render the idea of the October Revolution and, above all, always put the human being in the foreground. The workers’ struggle, the urgent need for everyone’s rights to be finally recognised are, here, immediately evident.

The two films – Die Schreckentage von Wien and October – deal, therefore, with two similar topics, but appear, at the same time, completely antithetical. While in Mayer’s film, in fact, the July Revolt basically shows us how a protest caused great damage to the city, Eisenstein’s film focuses on the needs of the citizens. And this is also particularly significant with regard to the political situation in both countries.

In Austria, the Federal Chancellor – Monseigneur Ignaz Seipel – who had always been anti-Semitic, became even more firmly convinced after the July Revolt that a balance could not be achieved through an alliance with the Social Democratic Party and began to side more and more openly with Adolf Hitler. In Russia, on the other hand, the trend was quite different, but led to another equally dramatic dictatorship: Stalinism. Cinema and politics, therefore, once again go hand in hand and prove to be important historical documents to narrate the past and present of two nations. What happened afterwards is sadly known to all.

Bibliography: Das tägliche Brennen: eine Geschichte des österreichischen Films von den Anfängen bis 1945, Elisabeth Büttner, Christian Dewald, Residenz Verlag
Info: the page of Die Schreckenstage von Wien on the website of the Viennale; the page of October on iMDb