The Master’s Debut: Strike (Sergei Eisenstein, 1924)
As Eisenstein himself described it years later, Stachka (Strike, 1924) had been “Awkward. Angular. Surprising. Bold. It contains the seeds of nearly all the elements that, in more mature form, appear in my works of later years. It is a typical ‘first’ work,’ bristly and pugnacious, as was I in those years. These qualities spill over beyond the limits of the film.”1
Strike was the first instance of Eisenstein chiseling out a film out of a much larger, almost megalomaniac project: in this case, a seven-part series titled “To the Dictatorship”, about the proletariat’s movement towards that endpoint. Each part was supposed to teach the mechanics of class struggle through specific examples, such as setting up and operating an underground printing press. “How to organise a strike” was to be the topic of the fifth installment of the series; in the end, it was the only one made. The plot follows a factory on the verge of unrest, then plunged into a strike after a suicide of one of the workers, and then a gradual suppression of the strike by various means, from economic pressure to provocation to outright violence.
At the same time, it was an experiment in “mass cinema” and a breaking away of an auteur from the collective. Made with the participation of the Proletkult theater troupe, Strike signaled the end of Eisenstein’s active work in theater and the end of this collaboration with this proletarian organisation, which proved to be much more conservative than its young designer and director. The conflict, however, was useful in creating the buzz around the debut, which, for many critics, already heralded the appearance of a new name in Soviet cinema.
On this film, after trying out several cameramen, Eisenstein found his main collaborator for the next two decades, Eduard Tisse. He must have almost immediately endeared himself to Eisenstein, because, after several test shots for the film had failed to impress the studio’s executives, the cameraman personally vouched for the first-time director in writing so that he would be kept on the project. Tisse had already filmed a short documentary piece about a factory, and Eisenstein appreciated the way he had used camera movement and various lenses to explore industrial space. One of the technical novelties introduced was the use of various light reflectors, which were later used to an even greater extent in Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), which made Eisenstein world-famous.2
Strike was released in April 1925, a couple of weeks after Lev Kuleshov’s Luch smerti (The Death Ray, 1925). Eisenstein and Kuleshov had been working on them simultaneously and at the same studio, both inspired by D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance and eager to experiment with showing the masses can on screen. Eisenstein’s combination of the Brownian motion of the masses with the severe geometry of his sets creates the impression of controlled chaos, which differs favorably from Kuleshov’s version, which appeared to descend into chaos. Strike’s opening quote from Lenin about the power of the organised masses was clearly matched by the director’s effort in organising extras.
It was a revolutionary manual – not a manual for the revolution’s new bureaucrats, but one for the revolutionary artists, for the boys that had dreamt of being the heroes of Nat Pinkerton’s and Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, and for the cinephiles who could spend days and nights watching French and American serials.
Thus, Kuleshov’s influence might also be seen in the depiction of the lumpen hooligans and their “king” (played by Boris Iurtsev) and “queen” (played by Iudif Glizer). Their eccentric costumes, make-up, and acting manner are reminiscent of the gang of “false Bolsheviks” from Kuleshov’s Neobychainye prikliucheniia mistera Vesta v strane bolshevikov (The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, 1924), which had just come out at this point, and Glizer looks almost like a sister to Aleksandra Khokhlova in Mr. West.
The scenes with the hooligans are the film’s most exuberant and playful ones. In fact, Strike is an almost never-ending string of “attractions,” in their more primary sense of circus entertainment. Eisenstein plays on the contrast between light and dark (especially in the scenes with spraying water); on relative volumes and sizes (in the scene with the dancing midgets); and on visible and invisible, providing commentary on the process of making and watching a film. He created several “intermissions” showing, instead of the technique of striking, the technique of spying, which gave him an opportunity to use mattes, irises, extreme close-ups of eyes and photo cameras, and the ultimate cinematic trick of a static image coming to life.
Playwright Sergei Tretyakov, Eisenstein’s good friend and collaborator, went as far as to complain that the film suffered from too many attractions crammed into it, creating one giant attraction without the “connective, neutral tissue of the plot development.”3
Naturally enough, Eisenstein was interested less in connecting scenes than in connecting shots, with the montage tour-de-force in the film’s finale: “the slaughter”. Eisenstein created a massacre scene, editing together the police crackdown on striking workers with shots taken in a real slaughterhouse, but discovered that working-class viewers were not affected by it even half as much as the Moscow artistic community was. He explained this phenomenon by ascribing it to the workers’ strong existing association of the slaughterhouse on the screen with real animal slaughter, and predicted that peasant viewers would be even less impressed by the sight of animal blood. Eisenstein concluded that viewers of different professions and social milieus reacted differently to the same stimulus chains.4 The possibility that workers and peasants were simply untutored in the art of watching a movie to such an extent that two different realistic shots could combine for them in a single metaphor remained unaddressed at the time. And yet, already by the end of the decade, Eisenstein, just like Kuleshov, was to discover that his formal experiments were unacceptable for the officially sanctioned policy of making “movies for the millions”.
- Sergei Eisenstein, Immoral Memories. An Autobiography by Sergei M. Eisenstein. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1982), p. 81. ↩
- (Eduard Tisse), “Vystuplenie E.K. Tisse na vechere vo VGIKe, posviashchennom 25-letiiu ego tvorcheskoi deiatel’nosti (fevral’ 1940 g.)”, Kinovedcheskie zapiski 32 (1996/97): 176. ↩
- Sergei Tretyakov, Kinematograficheskoe nasledie (Moscow: Nestor-Istoriia, 2010), p. 61. ↩
- Sergei Eisenstein, “The Method of Making a Workers’ Film”, in Richard Taylor (ed.), S.M. Eisenstein, Selected Works vol. 1 (London: BFI Publishing; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), p. 65. ↩