Monday 16 July 2012

Stachka (1924)

You can watch an early Eisenstein movie for the technical brilliance, as communist propaganda or in a historical context. You will then be well rewarded. If you see it for entertainment you will just get frustrated.

My problem is than as much as I can appreciate the former it is the later that makes me want to watch an entire movie. All those highbrow motivations will only carry me so far and not the 90 minutes of a typical feature. That I force myself to do it is another matter, but even then I have to chop it to pieces to get through it.

The problem with Eisenstein is that his celebrated montage style together with the collective story, the group as the protagonist instead of individuals, makes me lose my focus. One moment we are following the guy with the big hair, then the guy with the moustache, then an older guy. Only the bad guys are vaguely recognizable. Of course it is intended. The workers are us, a group, a unity. The enemies of the group are not a group but individuals that are not US, but traitors or oppressors or the tools of those. But when I am not getting any individuals to root for among the workers I start to get more interested in the villains or simple loose interest.

Thus the three Eisenstein movies in the book are difficult movies to see and Stačka or Strike as it is called in English is no exception.

If we focus on the three former motivations for watching Stačka (and assume it is enough) there is plenty to get. Much have already been written about the montage technic, that is what Eisenstein has become synonymous with, but you have to see it to believe it. In an age of stationary cameras, long and simple shots of an entire stage, Stačka is like watching a modern music video. Rapid cuts, odd angles, extreme zoom, panoramas all at breakneck speed. We get a situation rather than a story, a newsreel rather than a feature. In that sense Eisenstein is way ahead of his time and this is why his movies immediately became an object of study and admiration also in the west.

Stačka tells the story of a strike before WWI and the revolution. There were actual strikes at that time, but this is not a particular one but a representative of these strikes that would eventually lead to the revolution. The historical precision is also long lost as the object of the movie is propagandistic. This is a fable of the oppressed workers, of the heartless capitalist and the cruel police. There is no doubt that life as a factory worker in pre-revolution Russia was miserable and I am sure they had every reason to strike. Also I am confident that the police was brutal and with a tradition from the deeply stratified Russian feudal system the owners of the factories probably did not feel much sympathy with the common worker.

In this presentation however everything is give two extra notches. The workers are heroes, innocent and brave, fighting for the common good, to feed their families and the country and of course their struggle is just and righteous.

The capitalists on the other hand are parasites living off the wealth created by the workers, but have only scorn for them. They look like pigs or predators and their tools, the agents and the police as well as the hoodlums they are recruiting are cold or cruel or just ignorant fools. You cannot see this movie and not be filled with righteous anger at the great unfairness these poor workers are suffering. Which of course is the purpose of propaganda.

In the beginning of the twenties Russia and its dependencies were still full of the fervor of revolution and movies were a means to bring out the message to the common people. And this was certainly something they could understand, this is what they were fighting for. There was also a need to be reminded. The forced collectivization, civil war and foreign embargo combined with a drought had caused a famine in the country killing around 5 million people.

And me, propaganda or not, I am filled with righteous anger at anyone who would deliberately throw an infant down to the street from what looks like fourth floor.


  1. I really agree. Eisenstein is easy to appreciate, but Strike especially is just propaganda. You hit the nail on the head - it's not exactly entertaining. Interesting, yes, but not entertaining.

  2. Thanks. You kind of get the point after half an hour. After that it is uphill.

  3. Like you, I understand why Eisenstein makes a few appearances in the book (I'm surprised the editors who favor auteurs didn't include more): montage and memorable images. The good thing about Eisenstein films today is that you can show them in your history classes as top-notch Soviet propaganda.

    1. Indeed. I suppose you have done that :-)
      Film was such an excellent propaganda medium between the wars. I have lost count on how many propaganda films I have seen by now, but when it comes to those Eisenstein is top of the line.