Eisenstein: Strike

I saw Eisenstein’s film Strike last night. Some friends were saying farewell to a piano, and marked the occasion by showing silent films with (exceptionally good) improvised accompaniment.

I’ve never watched Eisenstein before, and hadn’t known what to expect. Certainly not this. Strike is clever, dense, fast-paced and incredibly passionate. Filmed in 1924, it fictionalises a workers’ protest from Tsarist Russia of 12 years earlier. The communists organize in a factory, stir up trouble with their extreme demands (an 8-hour work day! 6 hours for children!), and bring production to a standstill until they are eventually slaughtered by government forces.

What really affected me were the individual stories, told economically along the way. Not only is it emotionally powerful, but I’m boggled by the skill required to recount a biography in a silent minute. Take this section (up until about 1:15). A worker has been wrongly blamed for the loss of equipment, falsely branded a thief:

You can tell this worker is a craftsman. What he values is what he sees all around him: skillful absorption in technical work. He’s excluded from his work, his community, his self-respect: the three are identical if you base your identity on what you create. So, craftsman to the last, he creates a neat noose and kills himself. Character, tragedy and plot development, all in 60 seconds. And that’s just one of many, scattered throughout the film between the grander (and less interesting) mob scenes.

I’ve read some complaints that it’s too black-and-white, heroic workers under attack from the evil capitalists. Partly true — and I thoroughly approve of making points through caricature. But only the upper echelon are demonised. The immediate boss comes over as a scapegoat (with the help of an actual goat — Eisenstein is very fond of animals). A quartet of police spies are sleek, strong, capable — they’re caged animals (see?), who would almost be heroic if they weren’t working for the enemy. There’s the makings of a caper film here: the stealthy pursuit (first ever spy hiding behind a newspaper?); the camera concealed in a watch; the talented team of skilled infiltrators.

Conversely the proletariat lose their shine when they down tools. The strike may be needed, but it robs the workers of their identities; muscular labourers quickly become slack and foul-tempered. The protestant work ethic is hiding right behind the revolutionary fervour.

And the cinematography! It’s not that there are a few clever shots. Almost every moment, the camera is doing something surprising. Eisenstein was shooting this film at the age of 25, doing things few had even attempted before, inventing the techniques as he went along. And he never indulges himself by lingering on some novel device: shots that must have taken massive preparation are over in a couple of seconds, and we move on to the next marvel.

To quote one of surprisingly few reviews which appreciate Strike as more than a sterile piece of film history:

In only the film’s first minute, Eisenstein had already put together four incredible shots. First, there’s a dissolve from a closeup of an evil capitalist to the scurrying workers providing his wealth and back again. Then a gorgeous crane shot of the enormous factory where much of the film is set (did they have cranes in 1925?). Then we watch some factory workers go about their business from behind a lighted screen, rendering them faceless silhouettes, part and parcel of the machinery of the factory. Finally, our first introduction to the strikers is shot as an upside down reflection from a puddle, so that we start by seeing the reflection of the factories smokestacks, then see the conspirators’ feet appear upside down in the shot as they walk through the puddle, only to reappear rightside up in the reflection. And these are all in the first minute of the film, in Eisenstein’s first feature film.

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