Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Reflections on Eisenstein

Last weekend, I watched three of Eisenstein's earliest and most well known films; 'Strike' (1924), 'The Battleship Potemkin' (1925) and 'October' (1927). Commissioned as propaganda pieces, Eisenstein used these opportunities to reinvent the language of the infant cinema, and these three films remain amongst the most important and influential films of all time. I'm taking these films together rather than individually to avoid overlap and duplication of arguments and issues. All three films indicate examples of Eisenstein's talents and ideas about cinema, specifically the montage theory, and how these ideas came to predominate the three films on an increasing level, which resulted in 'October' for instance falling foul of the Communist Party as Eisenstein neglected pure propaganda for an exploration of cinematic techniques.

'Strike' was Eisenstein's first proper feature and meets the criteria of Communist propaganda more so than any of the following two features. It's narrative is that of a struggle at a factory between workers and management. Both classes are one dimensional as you would expect - the management are upper class exploiters and the workers are downtrodden and honest, forced to strike because they have no other options, because their exploitation has reached crisis point. Inspired by the suicide of a colleague who was falsely accused of theft, the workers communally agree to demands for fair treatment, which are dismissed out of hand by the management, represented by a scene in a gentlemen's club, where they arrogantly smoke cigars whilst dressed impeccably. The workers strike peacefully, but the police are typically heavy handed with their response. To catch the ring leaders, the police increase their brutality - in one devastating scene, a baby is thrown from an apartment, which then cuts to the laughter of the management. In one scene that metaphorically summarises this brutality, Eisenstein cuts between the slaughter of cattle and the dead bodies of dozens of workers, which is more powerful (especially considering the audience it was intended to reach) by relying on metaphor rather than showing the actual massacre.

Even at the point, it was possible to see Eisenstein's ambitions as a film maker, using visual techniques to propel a narrative. During the initial unrest at the factory, he shows workers having a conversation in the reflection of a puddle, possibly to indicate that all is not right. Animal metaphors are not just used at the film's climax; there is an ominous scene showing two cats hanging. Eisenstein was developing his montage theory when making 'Strike' - using a linkage of related images to carry the narrative forward but also to manipulate the response of the audience. See how he usually contrasts the distress of the workers with the arrogance of the management. It's not subtle but then it wasn't supposed to be. Only after the success of 'Strike' was Eisenstein able to follow his creative ambitions more.

'The Battleship Potemkin' remains Eisenstein's best known film and the film that most remains in the collective consciousness. It matters not whether it's been widely seen or not because the most famous sequence, the massacre on the Odessa steps, has been borrowed in a number of films, notably Brian de Palma's 'The Untouchables'. Like 'Strike', it's another twist on the class struggle between workers and management; this time set on the eponymous ship of the title. The regular sailors react against poor conditions, notably their diet of rotten meat, which they claim isn't even fit for dogs. Eisenstein then cuts to an extreme close up (seen through the glasses of the ship's doctor) of the meat, which is infested with maggots - though the doctor dismisses the sailor's complaints, suggesting washing the meat with brine and it'll be edible. The sailors mutiny against their poor treatment, summarised in one scene in which the 'leader' of the workers smashes a plate which features a design with the line from the Lord's Prayer "give us this day our daily bread" as if to signify the very basic diet these workers ought to expect.

Typically, this peaceful mutiny receives a heavy handed response from the ship's officials, who ask the petty officers to "string them up", showing the quite obvious class distinctions and animosities. At this point, there's a very startling shot, in which the ship's officials look up the mast and imagine two sailors hanging from there for a brief second. It's an impeccably handled insight into the mindset of the officials, which shows far more than if Eisenstein just showed what happened and ended the scene with their request to the petty officers. The officials then want the mutinous soldiers shot, which results in a scuffle in which Vaklunchuk, the "leader" of the sailors is killed. His death is avenged by the workers seizing control of the ship, with a symbolic shift of power (not just for the ship, but for the future?) with the white Tsarist flag being replaced with a red Communist flag. The locals of Odessa who join in with the public mourning, completely sympathising with the sailor, and uniting in a revolutionary cause. Does this indicate that revolution is incendiary; that it's spreading and can't be tamed and can only be addressed with force? The famous Odessa Steps sequence shows that violence is the only way the bourgeoisie can try to stop revolution; that they have already lost the political argument, and this violence is especially brutal. The army shoot at will, regardless of at whom. A child is shot and then crushed by people trying to escape from the army - almost making him a symbol of Tsarist oppression. Even those locals trying to stop the violence are shot. And then there's the famous pram sequence that was used to great effect in de Palma's 'The Untouchables'.

Whilst 'The Battleship Potemkin' can be seen superficially as a revolutionary propaganda film, reinforcing to its audience that revolution against the oppressive Tsarist regime was necessary, Eisenstein was using the film as a base for his montage theory, just as he did on 'Strike' and would continue to do so in 'October'. The editing is deliberately used to invoke the audience's sympathy on the side of the rebellious sailors, contrasting their virtue with the bloodlust of their officers and the army. Whilst it remains impersonal, devoid of characterisation and relying on symbolic, one dimensional characters, perhaps that's the point - the workers are one being, so injecting a personal element to the film might be to its detriment, 'The Battleship Potemkin' meets the objective Eisenstein set the film - to act as both propaganda and art. The film emotively gets across its message and narrative and allowed Eisenstein to revise the language of cinema.

'October' was commissioned to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. The experimental nature of the film, in which Eisenstein explored his theories of montage to an unprecedented level, led to disapproval from the authorities who expected a film that was pure propaganda. The abstract nature of the film made what narrative existed incohesive amd difficult to follow, which was clearly a problem since the film was devised to reiterate to its audience that the revolution was necessary and successful.

Eisenstein depicts a pre-revolution Russia which is characterised by snow, poverty and people starving. Quoting Lenin, one of the intertitles states "it's the same old story, hunger and war" (Russia was especially suffering from World War One at the time). Lenin's presence in the film was reportedly not as widespread as the authorities wanted, though when he is involved, he's shown to be a man of the people who can engage wide support, as well as a gifted and convincing orator who can win people around to his way of thinking. Whether he's shown as heroic or the great leader of the revolution is another question entirely though.

Whilst Tsarist Russia is shown for its worst features, the Kerensky-led government that ruled Russia after the decline of the Russian Empire and the abdication of Nicholas II is shown as being no better, achieving no peace, no bread and no land. It was just another corrupt bourgeois government that didn't have the people's interests at heart. These counter-revolutionary are bourgeois stereotypes, shown disposing of Communist pamphlets (including its newspaper, Pravda) into the river, to prevent the dispersion of revolutionary literature. Abstract images are used by Eisenstein to particularly depict Kerensky, with associations to Napoleon (short man syndrome?) and a large mechanical peacock, which might relate to vanity or cocksureness. A startling montage of images that seem unrelated but were used by Eisenstein to draw comparisons between them (known as intellectual montage) feature to describe "God and country". The Christian God is associated with deities of other religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Paganism, whilst 'country' is linked to military regalia and medals. The effect is achieved by the rapid cutting between these images and seems to undermine the entire principle of "God and country" where religion and patriotism were used to keep the masses down and prevent them from contemplating revolution.

Working on a larger scope and budget than ever before, Eisenstein was able to recreate the storming of the Winter Palace. This was apparently achieved more easily than the film suggests but for dramatic purposes, it's shown as a victory against the odds with the use of 11,000 extras. Whether it lacks historical accuracy or not is hardly the point as the film was a myth-making exercise designed to serve as propaganda. Interestingly, the film concludes with Lenin's proclamations and decrees on land and peace rather than showing the success of the revolution and its aftermath. Whether this is deliberately ambiguous or not, I'm not sure, but Eisenstein doesn't reflect on post-revolutionary Russia despite offering hope for the future.

The three films in question show a natural development by Eisenstein in revise the visual and technical language of cinema. Where 'Strike' was simple propaganda with hints at montage theory, 'October' almost abandons conventional narrative in favour of full-on experimentalism. In that respect then, 'The Battleship Potemkin' probably acts as the best balance between Eisenstein's twin instincts between narrative and innovation. It's easy to take Eisenstein for granted since his techniques have now become part of mainstream film making, but watching these films and seeing his montage theory develop and reach full effect, it's impossible not to admire how he rapidly cuts between images to drive the narrative. I've still yet to see the likes of 'Alexander Nevsky' and his two films of Ivan The Terrible. He made these films whilst somewhat compromised by the demands of the authorities who had grown to distrust his methods, but these films are still feted by critics nevertheless.

'Strike': 4/5
'The Battleship Potemkin': 4.5/5
'October': 3.5/5


Hopalong EAC said...

A century of cinema is making it clear that Eisenstein was by far the greatest visual mind ever to have commanded the resources to make major films. Only Kubrick comes close, but as a diadochos the gap is wide.

No doubt Potemkin alone would have secured Eisenstein's premier place, and it is familiar in its image-making, as you say, in many other films since.

Gradually I have come to the conclusion that Eisenstein's Ivan The Terrible is even greater than great,especially in terms of montage theory and what it still has to offer.

Let us then call Battleship Potemkin the greatest film of the Twentieth Century and Ivan The Terrible the greatest of the Twenty-First.

tray said...

"Let us then call Battleship Potemkin the greatest film of the Twentieth Century and Ivan The Terrible the greatest of the Twenty-First."

If films were only to be judged on their formal merits, I'd entirely agree. However, there is more to film than formalism, and so, though on some days I too feel that no one can touch Eisenstein (early Lang, not Kubrick, in my view, comes the closest, and after that Hitchcock, and maybe Melville), on other days I worship at the altar of Ford, Ophuls, Sirk, Jacques Becker, Hawks...

Hopalong EAC said...

Eisenstein, Lang--can't leave out Riefenstahl either, who played a pivotal role.

I would not denigrate any that you name--but Hitchcock, for example was a one trick pony, though a great one trick it was.

Ford, Hawks--okay, first class but not first rank or the greatest.

Have you seen Sokurov's The Russian Ark? It takes more than one viewing to realize how great it is--not just for the technical innovation (which Kubrick used in segments in The Shining, for example) but for how its use perfectly fits the theme.

I also have to include Polanski as great, along with DePalma, and also Ford Coppola for Apocalypse Now.

But Kubrick is still first across the board.

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