Once considered one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, and whose Battleship Potemkin (1925) was once judged by critics and directors to be the greatest film ever made, Sergei Eisenstein has seen his canonization come and go. Now merely a film school requirement, the name never attains front rank anymore—on one hand, we may not feel, after the disappearance of Soviet Communism, that there’s a pressing need to take its propagandistic culture seriously and, on the other, tastes in film aesthetics have indisputably moved toward camera-movement poetics à la Murnau and away from the montage pyrotechnics Eisenstein pioneered. Certainly, the last half-century of silent-era discovery and reevaluation—as forgotten films by Asquith, Borzage, L’Herbier, Gance, Leni, et al., are restored and reintroduced—has dimmed the spotlight on Eisenstein’s hectically edited, fiercely Bolshevik smart bombs.
Like advertising, propaganda is made both useless and quaint by its inherent ephemerality; considering it as art years hence means tumbling into the rabbit-hole of kitsch. (Which we do; note the modern popularity of Futurist design and the poster art of Alexander Rodchenko, who, if he were alive, could design my phone bill and I’d pay it twice.) One of the questions regarding Eisenstein today comes down to whether or not he was successful in subverting the state-mandated straitjacket with his extraordinary visual voodoo. Free of historical intents, contexts, or effects, however, Fascist art is usually heartbreaking in its naïveté, but Eisenstein’s movies seem embittered and angry, as if revolutionary discontent unconsciously expressed the artist’s outraged feeling that of all the nations in all the eras for the artist to be born into, it had to be this one.
Eisenstein was once regarded largely as cinema’s most formidable intellectual, but his dialectic-based montage system was a theoretical Comet Kohoutek and his editing symbologies—equating Kerensky with a peacock in October (1927)—don’t necessarily age well (not as salient sociopolitical commentary, anyway). His entire filmmaking philosophy, though responsible for much that is deathless in movie history, supposed a self-deifying cosmos: Eisenstein was the omniscient god, and the audience his easily manipulated minions. (Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg, it could be said, have had similar ideologies and formal approaches.) His most famous agitprop films click and whir like robots; it’s no surprise that some of his most watchable films—Que Viva Mexico! (1932) and Alexander Nevsky (1938)—owe little to Hegelian idealism and everything to full-tilt-boogie expressionism.
Everyone abandons dialectics sooner or later, and as the years and donnybrooks with the heads-of-state went by (Eisenstein was not only gay but rather more passionate about his artistic profile than his role as a propagandist), the filmmaker became entranced more by byzantine compositions than the ability to motivate the masses. Whereas Potemkin and October move like fast rivers of Leninist declamation, Ivan the Terrible (1945–46), coming after the baroque dreamtime of ’30s von Sternberg and the emergence of Welles, slows down to a shadowy, sculptured lurch.
Where does that leave Strike (Stachka), his first feature, for all intents and purposes the film that launched Soviet political filmmaking and the idea that montage was both a uniquely cinematic thrill tool and a formidable instrument for propaganda? If you try and forget everything you know about the Soviet story and its boot-on-the-throat history and instead look at the film as a filmmaker’s zesty freshman attack on the medium itself, then it is revealed as Eisenstein’s most personal film, the one he had the most fun making, the man’s 400 Blows or Citizen Kane. (He was twenty-six when he made it, as old as Welles in 1941.) For one thing, this razor-crisp blast from the past isn’t quite as burdened with grim, commanding Communist purpose as Eisenstein’s subsequent silents. It is, in fact, sprightly, jaunty, ceaselessly inventive and, surprisingly enough if you haven’t seen it in a few decades, witty.
As the title suggests, the story is a deliberately generic template for revolutionary action—Russian factory workers protest ill-treatment and poor wages and are then spurred on to a full-on strike after a framed compatriot hangs himself. Here, a strike is no dull narrative affair—the capitalists (all fat, cigar-smoking, cartoonish gluttons, of course) employ spies and Cossacks and even the fire department, and the espionage runs both ways, at a gallop. As with Eisenstein’s other vintage agitprop classics, there is no single hero or villain, just crowds of collective will, in this case two colliding masses of human self-interest. But the electric pace and visual tumult keep things charged with an almost slapstick disposition. Eisenstein pulls out the stops: multiple exposures employed in an uncountable variety of ways, radical angles, cameras moving with/on top of factory equipment, expressionistically shaped iris ins and outs, even cut-out frames for creating a “fake” split-screen. And of course Strike is edited at a maniacal pace, full of rapid contrapuntal contrasts (dialectic editing may not have been very effective at converting semiconscious minds toward Marxist fervor, but it was terrific at mustering visual excitement), as well as introducing the jump cut (not the Godard jump cut but the Scorsese jump cut), while also taking the time to follow a few pigeons alighting onto the stilled factory equipment, as the battles rage elsewhere.
The plastic thrust of Strike is rascally and comedic—sure, Eisenstein’s juxtapositions can be ponderous (a giant factory wheel slows to a halt as three workers, faded in, cross arms in defiance), but the sheer speed and esprit of the film let him get away with it, in the way that fast comedies can often get away with crude jokes if they keep moving quickly enough. Or is simplistic Communist imagery simply easier to swallow now, so many years after the fact? Indeed, when Eisenstein cuts from Cossacks suppressing a workers’ meeting to four fat-cat stockholders “squeezing juice” for their cocktails, the effect can be groan-worthy if you let it. Or the outrageous hyperbole can seem almost zesty and satirical by now, since the film is not historical but almost fantastical in its stereotypical portrait of social strata. Look at its grotesque villains and backstabbing narrative gambits (a spy secretly photographing a protester with a camera shaped like a pocket-watch) as a retro comic-book saga of good and evil and suddenly the chill over Soviet tactics fades and you have pure grade-A pulp.
The politics, too, emerge as stirring and lovely if you let them, since the film so relentlessly frames the workers’ conflict as one of muscular courage and since the workers were explicitly demanding the same rights—like an eight-hour work day—that workers all over the industrialized world had also been vying for in the pre-Revolutionary decades in which the tale is set. The famous dramatic peaks of the film, particularly the Cossack maliciously dropping an infant three stories to its death, remain powerful (enough so that home video releases have been known to include warnings on the case about “violence” that some “may find disturbing,” a bracing tip of the hat, in the twenty-first century, to Eisenstein’s breathless artistry behind the camera and at the editing table). But the movie is more consistently delighted with its own wicked energy than it is brimming with repulsion and fury. This may be, in toto, the launching pad for what became known as the action movie, the crystallization of cinema as a pulse-quickening visual assault.
Adapted with permission from an article published on the Turner Classic Movies website.
Presented at 2016 A Day of Silents with live music by Alloy Orchestra