1924 marked the beginning of the Golden Age of Soviet Cinema. No longer following on the heels of American film – mainly Charlie Chaplin and G.W. Griffith – with its emphasis on individual actors or stars, happy endings, standard plots in the genres of comedy, melodrama, and literary adaptations, and editing taking a backseat, i.e., a total disregard for the power of editing film, directors like Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein appeared this year to make their first features, highly motivated by communist politics and ideology. Not to be entirely confused with Soviet propaganda (this is just before Stalin’s wild reign), these two directors, among many others, ushered in a new era of filmmaking. We should note, against any kind of reductionism to propaganda, Eisenstein’s films and their epic quality is precisely due to the state having control of the arts. Eisenstein writes: “If we shoot a film about the sea, the whole navy is at our disposal; if we shoot a battle film, the Red Army joins in the shooting and, if the subject is an economic one, then the commissariats assist” (SW1, 76). State funding helped make great films, simply put.
Eisenstein began working in the Proletkult theatre (literally proletarian culture) as a set designer and moved toward directing productions. In its essence, this form of theatre was concerned with masses rather than lead characters, an attempt to stage the working conditions of everyday life. Eisenstein’s last staging for instance, Gas Works in 1924, was actually performed in a gas factory alongside the workers who constituted the backdrop. While the play was a failure, consisting of only 12 performances, this lead Eisenstein to discard the theatre in favour of making a feature film. (A year earlier he made a 4 minute short called Glumov’s Diary – a sort of vaudeville production.)
Strike was shot in 1924 and released in April of 1925. It was immediately labelled the “first proletarian film” for its unconventional plot, i.e., not a succession of events revolving around a single hero, and further, its “hero” not consisting of an individual star but an entire mass sharing equally their camera-time (SW1, 59). The filmed masses were not professional actors, whom Eisenstein would have nothing to do with, but amateurs withoutpossessing acting talent: what was required of them was a physical appearance that had the energy and force to convey ideology (SW1, 76). It is thus not the content but the form which gives the film a utilitarian quality: the masses, non-professional actors, and as Gilles Deleuze would say their becoming-animal, comprises a form of cinema (on the side of the filmed persons). The ideology of a proletarian mass working in unison was a becoming-pack animal: the choreography of the factory workers sliding in and out of the machines and around the yard, not as individuals but a large and collective unit.
Strike also contains elements of the circus and vaudeville: we witness a fight scene where the two combatants duke it out atop a seesaw and the vanquished flies face first into some muck. It is troublesome perhaps that such slapstick comedy is seen in a serious film about revolution (O’Mahony, 56-66). But what is at issue for Eisenstein is not comedy and seriousness: the laughter of the workers as they roll their bosses into a dirty lake is filmed close-up precisely to develop this dialectic of shifting moods. We have gone from a violent strike to a laughable affair. The tension and filming of the dialectic is working over the audience’s psyche, which is the very function of film. Eisenstein’s “conception a work of art… is first and foremost a tractor ploughing over the audience’s psyche in a particular class context.”
“The mass approach,” says Eisenstein, “produces… the maximum intensification of the emotional seizure of the audience which, for art in general, and revolutionary art in particular, is decisive” (SW1, 61). The goal is to produce a film which is “a socially useful product” and “ideologically valuable.” Eisenstein’s writings from the period focus on this feature of film, i.e., its psychological effects. We have seen one such method in the mass heroes and non-professional actors. We find Eisenstein has also dismantled the plot, its intrigue as an individual chain of events of an individual character; instead we find fragments that comprise a whole, and we understand in watching Strike Eisenstein’s affinity with James Joyce – a literary approach to a fragmented narrative is his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Additionally, Eisenstein does away with the individual shot. “We must look for the essence of cinema not in the shots but in the relationship between the shots just as in history we look not at individuals but at the relationships between individuals, classes, etc.” (SW1, 79). His concern is the montage of attractions, a style of editing and shooting for tendentiousness, putting forth a work with a particular aim.
Thus we should see in the Eisenstein film a production meticulously planned with a calculable effect (SW1, 6, 75) It is not an opposition of forces, presenting a conflict, but a collision between filmed image and audience, a play in the dialectic of the perceived – a violent strike and a boss thrown in the mud. The montage of attractions was the “main element of the theatre” (Raunig, 156). In its calculations the images and relationships between images were to “evoke a maximum psychical effect.” “This effect,” according to Gerald Raunig, “consisted of establishing a process of fragmented excitement contrary to the situation as illusion inviting the audience to take part in an experience in a pseudo-participatory manner” (Raunig, 156-157). (Film scholars will say this is not exactly like Brecht; Roland Barthes sees similarities.) This method is against audience empathy. The editing style necessary to achieve this effect was developed by Kuleshov, thereby named the Kuleshov effect. It is he who discovered that a shot only has meaning with reference to the shots that preceded and come after. The director can manipulate the edits and shots to gain a precise effect on the audience. With Eisenstein we often find two shots that do not at all go together, lack a chronology, a history, but have an undeniable psychological impact. We will come across the most famous of these edits in the final scene of Strike.
“I did this [finale of Strike], on the one hand, to avoid overacting among the extras from the labour exchange ‘in the business of dying’ but mainly to excise from such a serious scene the falseness that the screen will not tolerate but that is unavoidable in even the most brilliant death scene and, on the other hand, to extract to maximum effect of bloody horror. The shooting is shown only in ‘establishing’ long and medium shots of 1,800 workers falling over a precipice, the crowd fleeing, gunfire, etc., and all the close-ups are provided by a demonstration of the real horrors of the slaughterhouse where cattle are slaughtered and skinned.” (SW1, 43)
1924 also gave us Dziga Vertov’s first feature film, Kino-Eye or Cine-Eye. Vertov, known for his 1929 masterpiece Man with a Movie Camera, was perhaps the first to give us feature-length documentary filmmaking. He would wander the streets with his cinematographer/brother Mikhail Kaufman and record the people engaging in their everyday. In the filmic eye catching sight of these ordinary people in action, there results, according to Vertov, a combat against the bourgeoisie mode of living. There are proletariat in Kino-Eye watching a magician, engaging in communist organizing, being victim to an accident, baking, harvesting, eating, and as a point of departure for our discussion of Strike, we see in Kino-Eye the slaughtering of cattle in a slaughterhouse – documented in such a way because this was necessary for the ordinary everyday of work and sustenance. However, according to Eisenstein Vertov does not succeed in transmitting communist ideology with his form: “the abattoir that is [merely] recorded in Cine-Eye… [is rather] gorily effective in Strike.” What is necessary for the revolutionary film is “a conscious and predetermined plan”, as discussed above, calculated to launch a psychological attack on the audience, “to subjugate [them] to the appropriate association with the obvious final ideological motivation” (SW1, 63). Kino-Eye asks for our attention; we observe the images and contemplate their beauty. “But [what] we need,” demands Eisenstein, is “not contemplation but action.” We need not a Kino-Eye, but a mass effect on the audience’s psyche. “Soviet cinema must cut through to the skull!” he shouts from the page. “It is not [quoting Vertov] ‘through the combined vision of millions of eyes that we shall fight the bourgeois world:’ we’d rapidly give them a million black eyes,” Eisenstein replies (SW1, 64). A cine-eye lacks the necessary filmic-ideological motivation – “Make way for the cine-fist!”
What effect will this film have and where do we find ourselves in the worker’s struggle once the film is finished? By the end of Strike we are left in defeat and despair; an answer will have to wait until Eisenstein’s next film in early 1926, The Battleship Potemkin. There we can find proletarian victory.