2018 Film Essays

Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Jeremy Carr on Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘Strike’

Few directors have been as devoted to the transition of their theoretic concerns into actual film form as Sergei Eisenstein. And in so doing, few have had their subsequent work so meticulously dissected on the basis of this construction. With this intellectual foundation, though, and a similarly cerebral reception, Eisenstein’s filmography has often been reduced to an objective, systematic analysis, favoring a focus on the methodology while overlooking the psychological resonance of what has been rendered on screen. Part of what drove Eisenstein’s admittedly impressive and groundbreaking formal approach, however, was the essential desire to induce an emotional response, which his films still do. His was a visionary approach toward montage and composition, but it was always grounded in a visceral, meaningful eloquence.

This is certainly the case with Strike, Eisenstein’s dynamic 1925 debut feature. Released less than two years after his first short, the five-minute Dnevnik Glumova (1923), and written by himself, Grigori Aleksandrov, Ilya Kravchunovsky and Valeryan Pletnyov, based on the 1902 general strike in Rostov-on-the-Don, Strike was the opening film in a never completed seven-picture series entitled “Toward the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” Its primary topic (each installment had one) was “How to Organize a Strike,” and as it pivots on a Bolshevik-led revolution over Tsarist reign, the film succinctly and persuasively shows just that. Taking its cue from a 1907 Vladimir Lenin dictum, scrawled across the opening of the picture, Strike’s episodic narrative emphasizes the central components of organization, unity and action, pillars of working class strength and the necessary fundamentals of Eisenstein’s cinema.

As Strike gets underway, unfolding in a succession of six vignettes bound by the overriding themes of unjust treatment and consequent proletarian uprising, conspiratorial murmurs move through the film’s factory setting, an undercurrent of impending conflict, a nascent spark to light the lives of the suppressed public. With little in the way of contextual founding (a firm plotline is of little consequence to Eisenstein’s aim), forlorn figures make plans to usurp those in power, while those on the side of the establishment attempt to sew internal discord. Word of the mounting discontent spreads, and a tragic turning point arrives when one worker commits suicide. Set up to be an apparent thief, the dejected employee is unable to afford the cost of replacing the intentionally misplaced mechanism and would sooner die than face the stigma of being deemed a criminal. As “private operatives” with animal monikers (and equivalent likenesses) gather files on the working-class constituency, a strike is declared and opposing parties assume their positions of fraught stasis. “The Strike Drags On,” a title card declares, and subversive aggression is planted amongst the populace, a community suffering the unemployed perils of poverty, hunger and, eventually, inevitably, provocation.

Rarely is there a period in Strike where Eisenstein employs the overtly sustained montage for which he is chiefly known (see, by comparison, the celebrated Odessa Steps sequence of 1925’s Battleship Potemkin). Rather, the visual emphasis is on the craftsmanship of single images, brute, static and artful arrangements that are seamlessly integrated into relatively stable editing patterns. (An exceptional marriage of compositional flourish and editorial virtuosity would accentuate much of Eisenstein’s immediate work to come, including, again, and most famously, Battleship Potemkin). To this end, the poised cinematography of Eduard Tisse, whose contributions were vital to Eisenstein’s formidable impact, helps complete the director’s assembly of skewed angles, his use of pointed, high contrast lighting, shadows and silhouettes, aerial cameras floating over the workshop floor, recurrent motifs (water, animals) and geometric shapes (ubiquitous circles). Early scenes collect a flurry of bodies and objects in motion, chafing against the mechanical matrix of Strike’s industrial backdrop, and Eisenstein deploys a battery of conspicuous technique: trick photography (still photos emerge animate from the pages of a clandestine folder), the use of reverse motion, superimposition, masks and an indispensable photographic texture. He generates a palpable dissonance and disquiet, and tenacious momentum and release. Perhaps owning to his engineering background, Eisenstein’s formal rigor intensifies and expands, yielding stacks and layers and rows of friction, planes of action that offer up the jarring boldness of his vision: aggressive, detailed, but never overwhelming.

Away from the halted factory, during the film’s brief mid-point lull, the enlivened, emboldened men summon their comrades with song and dance, reveling in the purity of the countryside, a visual and tonal reprieve from the grit and drudgery of industrial oppression. But without work, the bucolic milieu is also dangerously unsustainable. In the ensuing portions of Strike, one sees the film’s fullest realization of those vibrant practices conceived of by Eisenstein and his countrymen, fellow filmmakers and theoreticians like Lev Kuleshov, Vesvolod Pudovkin and Dziga Vertov. As tsarist police enlist unscrupulous rabble, who rise from underground barrel dwellings and penetrate the unsuspecting laborer population, their troublesome presence leads to deceptive unrest and an assault on the innocent province. As loyalties are tested and cruel tactics are enacted (hanging cats is but the least offense), the masses erupt in a chaotic crescendo. The end of Strike is a torrent of escalating violence, terror and madness. And bracketing and padding this sequence, embracing discontinuity for illustration sake and applying dialectical precepts of clashing development, are the film’s most emphatic instances of explicitly demonstrative montage. The examples in Strike are among the more elementary in Eisenstein’s repertoire, though they are effective all the same. When shareholders mock the workers’ modest demands — galling suggestions like an eight-hour workday, six for minors — the juxtaposition of one of the men squeezing down on a juicer heightens the corresponding image of antagonistic police as they apply their own pressure on distressed, subordinate families (the owners then use the demands to wipe up some fallen waste). An even more blatant association is made when ink is split on a map of the workers’ district, the darkened flow a premonition of the bloodletting carnage to come, while unquestionably the most disturbing linkage is envisaged between the massacre of the people and the graphic slaughter of an ox, the gruesome point well taken.

Strike is otherwise replete with images built on marked contrast. The men amongst the machines, for instance, corroborates a physical, oppositional dichotomy of faces and bodies within their environment, yet it stresses at the same time how inexorably linked the two forces are: visually, economically and socially. Periods of sudden action are pit against those of itinerant inertia, a rigid analog to the industrial collision of grinding then silent machinery. Labor and capital are in pervasive contention, just as the women and children, the poor family units of the working class, are weighed against the depiction of affluent solitude, the official realm of Strike’s stuffed shirt superiors. Implementing his casting practice of “typage,” wherein actors are selected on the basis of their expressive appearance rather than their requisite abilities, Eisenstein further distinguishes the archetypally bulbous authority figures (and the menagerie of sniveling, snitch underlings beneath them) from the unaffected, salt of the earth authenticity of the average people; with their sensitive, candid faces and resounding postures of self-assurance, the workers stand arms crossed in stoic defiance, priming the presently contained violence, ratcheting the anxious thrust of a teeming multitude.

As it’s applied to Strike, Eisenstein’s methodology is generally simplified, with an occasional leaning toward crude hyperbole. But as David Bordwell writes, that’s part of the “generality of the lesson.” The depicted strike itself is a “composite of several historical strikes,” while the characters presented represent a “spectrum of stylized types, ranging from the most realistic (the police) through caricature (the capitalists and their staff) and the theatrical grotesque (the animalistic spies) to circus eccentricism (the hobo king and his retinue).” But as the former head of the Proletcult Theatre, where he worked with Strike co-writer Grigori Aleksandrov, who plays the factory foreman and was an assistant on October (1928), the director’s third feature, Eisenstein knew what he was doing, carrying over much of his melodramatic bravura into the filmic sphere. In line with a range of ideological, post-1917 art, keen to produce poignancy through aesthetic “shocks,” a “montage of attractions,” Eisenstein honed a process of confronting spectators with unambiguous (and often quite creative) incitement, making no secret of his intentions or the severity of his message — in Strike, think of the title card reading “Beasts” and the shot that soon follows, of a soldier dropping an infant three stories to its presumed death.

At a time when most of the Russian population was illiterate, here was a modern art form that could impart an instinctive means of communication, a visual language that could transcend conventional methods of rhetorical engagement. So, to dramatize its premise of worker exploitation within a vast capitalist system, heightened gestures move in tandem with the potent prominence of a collective over the individual, a like-minded ensemble over delineated characters: “Any worker developed as a distinct character,” writes Bordwell, “is likely to die soon (the suicide) or to join the bourgeoises (the traitor).” Although Strike ends in defeat, death and depression, this vociferous commitment is a positive, progressive force, moving the film’s thematic considerations forward. Following the title card, “And like bloody unforgettable scars on the body of the proletariat lay the wounds of Lena, Talka, Zlataust, Yaro, Slavl, Tsaritsin and Kosteroma,” Eisenstein inserts a call to arms, or at least a call to action, an appeal to the audience — “Remember … proletarians!”

In his autobiography, Eisenstein described Strike as “awkward, “angular,” and “surprising” — “It contains the seeds of nearly all the elements that, in more mature form, appear in my works of later years. It is a typical ‘first work,’ bristly and pugnacious, as was I in those years.” All of this is true. There is an exploratory exuberance in the film, a sense of the director testing the waters, experimenting without a definite endgame in terms of artistic completion. Yet the picture is easily one of Eisenstein’s more accessible, perhaps the least demanding of all his silent output. With a masterful knack for pace and tempo, and an unmistakable intent, Strike is a product of propaganda to be sure, but it is a palatable one. While such a didactic, avant-garde product usually failed to intrigue the average audience or ignite the Soviet box office, Strike was a notable exception. “The purely instructional bonds of the film’s original aim were (involuntarily?) broken,” writes Jay Leyda, “and the ‘simple record’ exploded into an original dynamic shape of ideas and emotions… Audiences who looked at the film were supposed to study it coldly as a document about the evolution of a strike in pre-revolutionary Russia… But the film failed in this desired effect. It achieved something much greater and more valuable — it moved its audience.”

Although he is a significant figure for anyone who claims an interest in the genesis of film art, Eisenstein is far from being a household name; this despite an oeuvre that is visually striking, exciting, provocative and, in many cases, carries a message (however heavy-handed) that isn’t altogether contrary to what most desire in the nature of their social condition. It’s likely the post-war political connotations of Eisenstein’s homeland that have relegated his early films to, at best, a strictly scholastic sampling of cinematic history (an archaic slice of adversarial history at worst), but there was and remains an exceptionally concentrated energy in the best of his work. One need only compare Strike to such concurrent fare as Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) and The Death Ray (1925), or Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), to see that Eisenstein was initiating a compelling turning point in Soviet filmmaking. He was initiating, for that matter, a seismic shift in all of cinema to come.

Watch ‘Strike’ at FilmStruck.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.