Historical Rapture: The Old and the New (Sergei Eisenstein, 1929)
Sergei Eisenstein’s fourth silent feature, General Line, which was released under the title Staroye i novoye (The Old and the New, 1929), is arguably the most overlooked in his oeuvre. Focusing on agrarian politics and lacking the dramatic story line and heroic subject matter of Stachka (Strike, 1924), Bronenosets Potemkin (The Battleship Potemkin, 1925), and Oktyabr (October, 1927), The Old and the New is often dismissed as a smaller installment in Eisenstein’s revolutionary tetralogy, a propagandist intervention into Stalin’s politics of collectivisation. Yet Eisenstein’s iconic montage sequences in The Old and the New are on par with montage experiments in his other silent films, while his interest in religion, ritual, myth, and co-existence of historical epochs aligns this film with his unfinished projects of the 1930s – namely, Que viva Mexico! (1931-1932) and Bezhin lug (Bezhin Meadow, 1937). These unfinished projects also marked a significant shift in his theoretical research away from montage theory and toward the exploration of how cinema engages all senses and sensorium – from cognitive and rational to affective, emotional, and embodied.
Eisenstein was commissioned to make The Old and the New in 1926, but his work was interrupted when he was assigned to produce October for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution in 1927. Only after October was released was Eisenstein able to complete his agrarian film. Meanwhile, the changing Soviet governmental politics led to a change in the film’s title and focus. In 1926, Stalin – acknowledging that Russian peasantry were not ready to give up private ownership of the land – was supportive of the operation of private farms and individual farmers (i.e., kulaks) in the countryside. By 1929, Stalin changed his view. The First Five-Year Plan announced at the end of 1929 outlined collectivisation – the concentration of land in the hands of “collectives” – and industrialisation as the main aims of the Communist Party’s agrarian policy. In April 1929, Stalin personally watched The Old and the New and spoke to Eisenstein and his assistant Grigory Akexandrov, outlining his expectations for the film. He asserted that the emphasis should be placed firmly on the transformation of Russian agrarian practices and the peasantry itself into a modern community under the sign of collective, modernised and industrialised forms of operation. The setting for the film was the village Konstantinovo, near Ryazan, the home village of the famous Russian poet Sergei Esenin. This setting was strategically chosen to combat the romanticised, pastoral representation of Russia’s rural areas as archaic and mystical, which Esenin’s poetry powerfully endorsed and was increasingly at odds with the party line.
To dramatise the conflict between the old and the new, Eisenstein chose to focus on the figure of Marfa Lapkina, a destitute peasant woman who transforms herself while transforming her community. Brought to the point of despair by the lack of resources, Marfa declares in the beginning of the film that “it is not possible to live like this anymore.” She then starts the movement to modernise the farming methods in her village, although she is opposed by the kulaks. She urges the villagers to form a dairy cooperative, but they are suspicious and unenthusiastic. Finally, when the backward peasants’ appeals to religious rituals to break the drought fail and the new technologies arrive in the village and prove to be effective, the villagers start to join the cooperative. The collective way of farming starts gaining ground. Although setbacks do occur, such as their first bull, Fomka, being poisoned by the kulaks, by the end of the film the first tractor is triumphantly arriving in the village, proving the success of modernisation and collective farming.
The conflict between the old and the new is dramatised at the narrative level through Marfa’s story, yet it is also staged at the visual level. In the opening shots, the viewers are introduced to dramatic images of old, inadequate ways of living and working on the land in the Russian countryside. The land is divided, according to the inheritance law, into smaller and smaller lots, which are presented in rapid montage sequences and in striking compositional arrangements within the frame that lead from vast expenses of the undivided land to the tight grid of small lots separated by fences. These lots cannot sustain their owners, whose toil is exasperated by the ancient methods of land cultivation. These images are contrasted with the technological innovations that collective ways of farming bring about: A newly built production pavilion – a striking structure made of glass, steel, and cement that houses the mechanized processes of milk sterilization and meat preparation – takes the place of centuries-old huts. The rhythmic operation of the conveyor belt replaces manual labor. One tractor pulls all of the villagers’ carriages uphill at once. Arguably the most famous of these images is the montage sequence focusing on the milk separator, a shiny symbol of the future. The first demonstration of the separator’s work to the astonished peasants, depicted in the intercut images of rapidly rotating wheels, drops of milk, and water jets erupting skyward, visually marks the turning point in the film: the winning of new technology over old, the opening up new ways of collective production, and the equal distribution of wealth.
However, despite the film’s programmatic title and message, the triumph of the new over the old was not the only theme that attracted Eisenstein to this project. As Oleg Gelikman notes, as with his other films, Eisenstein managed to “re-code” the official theme rather than successfully comply with his ideological task.1 Specifically, Eisenstein was inspired to work on his agrarian film by Lenin’s observation that, in Russia in the 1920s, five different social and economic formations co-existed, each defined by a particular combination of the form of property, ways of production and distribution, and relationship between those who owned the land and those who worked the land. Reflecting on Lenin’s ideas in relation to The Old and the New project, Eisenstein wrote in his article published in Pravda, the leading Soviet newspaper, on July 6, 1926, that we could still witness the following formations in the Russian countryside:
- Patriarchal (i.e., to a considerable extent, natural) peasant farming
- Small commodity production (which included the majority of those peasants selling their grain)
- Private capitalism
- State capitalism
- Socialism 2
However, while Lenin urged the eradication of different formations and their subsequent replacements by the socialist way of life, for Eisenstein this multiplicity was of paramount importance in itself. At the level of film construction, Eisenstein saw in the simultaneous presence of different epochs a tremendous dramatic potential: “We construct in all the five epochs at the same time,” he wrote. Indeed, the futuristic farming pavilion, designed by constructivist architect Andrei Burov, who modeled his work on Le Corbusier, contrasts sharply with the film’s imagery featuring traditional Russian culture, orthodox prayers and artefacts, archaic pagan rituals, and the nearly symbiotic co-habitation of people and animals, infusing The Old and the New with the palpable, material traces of Russian history stretching far back into the past. But Eisenstein’s interest in the co-existence of historical layers anticipated something else as well: his big theoretical and practical shift toward the exploration of the deep historical origins of the art forms, social structures, and consciousness that he would pursue through his next film projects, Que viva Mexico! and Bezhin Meadow, as well as his massive study Method (1932-1948).
Departing from his observation that historical stages do not necessarily replace each other in a neat order, but can co-exist, Eisenstein started paying more attention to how rituals, different religious practices, and other forms of archaic or primitive mentality penetrate the consciousness and art production of contemporary societies. In his unfinished film Que viva Mexico! he approached Mexico as a giant living palimpsest and explored how traces of millennia of Mexican history manifest themselves in contemporary Mexican life – from the celebration of the Day of the Dead to the Catholic cathedrals built on the ruin of Aztec pyramids. Similarly, in his lost film Bejin Meadow, Eisenstein tried to mobilize mythological imageries as well as New and Old Testament tropes to construe the drama taking place in a Russian village. At the same time, in his study Method, Eisenstein put forward the idea that art is effective because its formal devices are always based on deep historical mechanisms, developed throughout the cultural history of humankind and its evolutionary prehistory as a species. These mechanisms include such phenomena as synesthesia, the ability to perceive a part as representing the whole, rhythmical repetition, inner speech, and Mutterleibsversenkung (the urge to return to the womb) – forms characterised by their more holistic, non-differentiated mode of operation. However, a work of art is also effective for Eisenstein because it always mobilizes another impulse toward a rational, intellectual insight and enrichment, realised mainly at the level of the content of the work.3
Departing from the central idea of Method, Jacques Rancière recently re-examined The Old and the New as a limit case of Eisenstein’s endeavor to achieve broad-scale emotional engagement of the viewer while simultaneously communicating an ideological message. According to Rancière, an image in Eisenstein’s montage represents an “abstract morpheme” and simultaneously a “sensory stimulus” that “reaches the nervous system directly, without having to rely on the mediation”.4 As Rancière suggests further, cinema for Eisenstein is “the art that guarantees the non-mimetic effect by reducing the communication of ideas and ecstatic explosion of sensory affects to a common unit of measurement” – namely, the viewer’s sensation.5 Reflecting on the paradoxical nature of Eisenstein’s imperative “to reach the nervous system directly,” Rancière diagnoses this intention as madness – yet, it is not certain whether such a verdict is justified.
As for Eisenstein, this split into an ideal form – the content, the message, the logical, and the rational on the one hand and the emotional, sensual, and experiential on the other – that the montage image delivers, works because it addresses different strata in the psyche. Eisenstein hypothesised that the psyche of the contemporary man has a layered structure, where “lower” and earlier strata of psychological functioning lay dormant, but can be reactivated by trauma, existential challenges, or encounters with a work of art. Outlining the complex dynamic of interaction between works of art and the human psyche, Eisenstein particularly emphasised that engagement with art allows us to experience the sense of unity – the unity of our internal psychic make-up, social and historical unity of humankind, and unity with the universe. For Eisenstein, this experience, while clearly defined as transcending limits of actuality and looking forward toward the future, acquires its powerful emotional force because it taps into the vestiges of the sense of primordial social, psychological, and biological unity.
In this context, Eisenstein particularly privileged the archaic stage of classlessness as the embodiment of equality and fairness of participation and distribution. However, the stage of classlessness interested Eisenstein not only in its social aspect, but also because, from his point of view, it correlated with an early psychological functioning, where the non-differentiated character of both came to the forefront. In this sense, Eisenstein argued that the method of art itself should be modelled on the ideal of classlessness: “the method of art as an image of social ideal at all times (classlessness as highest ahead and deepest back).”6 Rancière glosses over this idea: “The formal operations of the cinema assimilate the pure and conscious calculations of the communist project to the unconscious logic governing the deepest layers of the sensory thought and habits of primitive people.”[Rancière, Film Fables, op. cit., p. 28.] Thematically, the idea of classlessness – both in the past, as a primitive communism of archaic community and as a communist utopia of the future – is most directly explored in The Old and the New.
For these reasons, The Old and the New remained a focus of Eisenstein’s intense theoretical reflection long past its completion; he would return to its analysis again and again through the 1930s and well into the 1940s. Far from being a short lived agitprop effort urging collectivisation, the film became Eisenstein’s first practical exploration of historical continuity, which, in its dialectical tension with Eisenstein’s much better known interest in historical rapture, so powerfully encompasses his oeuvre.
- Oleg Gelikman, “Eisenstein’s Line: The Old and the New or Modernism as Meta-Politics”, Film and Literary Modernism, ed. Robert McParland (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013). ↩
- Sergei Eisenstein, “Five Epochs: On the realisation of General Line”, Kinovedcheskie Zapiski, 89-90 (2008-2009): 116. ↩
- Sergei Eisenstein, Method vol. I (Moscow: Museum of Cinema, 2002). ↩
- Jacques Rancière, Film Fables, trans. Emiliano Battista (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 25. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Eisenstein, Method vol. I, op cit., p. 25. ↩