Sergei Eisenstein was a brilliant and original film-maker and theorist, but his reputation has been eroded over the years. Yet as Ronald Bergan points out in his study of the director, A Life in Conflict, he was much more than a “cold-blooded montage maniac of the Russian Revolution who regarded the people as more important than individuals”.
Eisenstein was an intensely cultivated man who preferred art and philosophy to political theory, and adored the best of Disney and Chaplin as much as he hated the worst of Stalin. But the fact that Bergan feels it necessary to defend him tells its own story.
The films do lack a certain humanity. Battleship Potemkin and October were masterpieces of technique, to which film-makers still bow today. Alexander Nevsky and the two parts of Ivan the Terrible were operatic and often grotesque, but classics too. Only Strike, his first feature, showed his basic humanity, and it is arguably his best because of it.
The film, which some people persist in thinking was only a rough sketch for Potemkin, but which has the freshness and audacity of something more than that, is the story of a strike by factory workers in the Tsarist Russia of 1912 and its brutal suppression. It was supposed to be the first of a series of films on the development of the workers’ struggle but was the only one actually to be made.
It was shot almost entirely on location so that it seems like a reconstruction of genuine events, though its theatrical origins are obvious and its caricatures of the factory bosses are hardly realist – especially when dwarfs do a tango for them on a table groaning under caviar and champagne. But, though it was about “the workers” rather than individuals, and opens with a worthy quote from Lenin, several characters stand out, like the two young leaders of the strike and the worker who hangs himself when falsely accused of theft.
The film is as angry as any Eisenstein made. “I don’t make films to be watched by an impassive eye,” he once said. “I prefer to hit people hard on the nose.” It doesn’t always work: the intercutting of the final massacre with shots of cattle being slaughtered in an abattoir now seems far too blatant. But sequence after sequence does hit us pretty hard, including another cross-cut between the police moving into action against the strikers and one of the factory owners casually manipulating a lemon squeezer. Time and again the film achieves an emotional level that can be found nowhere else in Eisenstein’s work, except perhaps in the extant sequences of Que Viva Mexico!.
Eisenstein remains an extraordinary figure in the history of the cinema because of his passionate belief in the justice of the revolution and the techniques he developed to promote it on film. That this made for wonderfully exciting movies is beyond question. But cinema has by and large gone in a different direction.
As Bergan says in his final chapter: “Eisenstein, in his writings and films, led the storming of the palaces of bourgeois culture, only to find himself trampled underfoot in the manner of his beloved Charlie the tramp.”
Yet he always retained both his irreverent sense of humour and his dream of creating “an unheard-of form of cinema that inculcates the revolution into the general history of culture, creating a synthesis of science, art and militant class consciousness”.