Thoughts On: Strike (Stachka, 1925)
Workers rise up against their oppressive superiors in Russia, just before its Bolshevik Revolution.
If you are in need of an introduction to Sergei Eisenstein and Soviet Montage, don’t start with Battleship Potemkin, start with Strike. I myself saw Potemkin first, but the principals, narrative structure and aesthetics of Soviet Montage did not really pronounce themselves through this film; it was, instead, Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera, Dovzhenko’s Earth and Eisenstein’s Strike that made this clear. This is because Potemkin has a focus on story and only really captures montage in certain stand-out sequences – the most famous of these being the Odessa Steps and the chase sequence. As a result Battleship Potemkin is actually a difficult watch as it is so stale and, ironically, lacking rhythm for much of its run-time. So, whilst Battleship Potemkin is a must see, it isn’t the best place to start looking at Soviet montage in my opinion. Strike is a far superior introduction to this class of film as it is, visually and narratively, so much more striking (no pun intended).
What then becomes very obvious when watching Strike is that Soviet Montage has one fundamental basis; its distinction of cinema from theatre and the stage. What you will, of course, find in the vast majority of early silent films – and this aesthetic even lasted deep into the 30s and 40s in a more muted fashion – is a flat staging that mimics the look of a play or vaudeville show.
Early silent films are then characterised by a static, long wide-shot. Moving into the nineteen-teens there were numerous directors, most famously D.W Griffith, who began to better utilise the cut and different shot sizes into narrative films, developing more complex cinematic language and plots that spanned numerous locations and times. This was an art and form that began in the early 1900s with chase films (e.g A Daring Daylight Robbery or The Great Train Robbery). But, these basic principals of the cut, both through time and space, would be developed for about 20 years, until Soviet film theorists took cinema of this class to its utmost extreme.
There are then two really significant and basic elements of Soviet cinema’s form that stems from its distinction of cinema from the theatre, and they both concern the language of a cut. A cut can communicate both form and content. Another way in which this can be, and was, articulate would be with the terms ‘fabula’ and ‘syuzhet’. Fabula can be thought of as just ‘content’, and so was defined to be the ‘raw content of a film’. You will then ‘see’ the fabula of a film if you were the screenwriter imagining the story or a person on set seeing it acted out. The fabula is then this:
The fabula is a stage that your eye must scan, or ‘film’, itself. Conversely, the syuzhet describes how a film is organised; it is the form. What this means is that the syuzhet describes what you see represented on screen; it is the varying shots all edited together.
So, keeping these concepts in mind, we can begin to better understand the two fundamental ideas of Soviet cinema. The first concerns syuzhet, or form. The best and most concise way I could communicate the form of films such as Strike, Battleship Potemkin, Man With A Movie Camera and Earth, is that they are a broken stage. If early silent films were just stages viewed by a camera, Soviet cinema directors took that stage and broke it into the pieces they pleased as to communicate a point. And this is what montage defines; montage is the process and the product of cutting up space and time. The purpose of this is control – and we will later find this to be a contradiction of sorts from Soviet cinema. As the French impressionists theorised also in the 1920s, when you point a camera at a scene, it is immediately altered; this is photogénie. A cut, as the Soviets truly exploited, is then a director telling you where to look and how to look at a scene. Thus, Eisenstein will not just shoot his various scenes of revolt in Strike from a wide angle, capturing the general body of movement. He will insert into his wider angles important details that emphasise the purpose of the film; a woman pulling on a horse, workers trying to scramble through a door, feet moving, horse’s hooves stomping, pain on a man’s face, water pelting bodies, children playing, bodies falling. Eisenstein does this to literally say “look” and then “listen”.
When we consider what Eisenstein is telling us to “listen” to, we come to the fabula and the second fundamental element of Soviet cinema. One of the most significant attributes the Soviets gave cinema was the idea of juxtaposition and the meaning of a cut. This is defined most precisely by the Kuleshov effect. Because I assume most will know what this is, I’ll leave a link here to Hitchcock’s explanation of this just in case there are a few who don’t. But, that aside, the Kuleshov effect defined the artistic implication of montage; it suggested that meaning and intricate emotional detail can all be captured by the flow and collision of information. And using this very powerful idea, the Soviets created some of the greatest propaganda ever conceived; propaganda that will often transcend its political attributes thanks to the implications of its form and how the philosophy of montage impacted our understanding of cinema.
But, whilst it is true that this propaganda will likely be water off of a duck’s back for most people looking at Soviet films in the modern day, it cannot be ignored that these films had a clear, designed agenda. And again, this is why Strike is a much better place to start your exploration of Soviet cinema; the Marxist-Leninist implications of this narrative are incredibly overt. Strike is then akin to The Eternal Jew (a Nazi propaganda film) in respect to its lack of subtly, whilst films such as Battleship Potemkin are a little more like Triumph Of The Will where, though you see clear Nazi imagery, the Nazi ideology isn’t put on display like it is in The Eternal Jew. So, the content of Strike, much like most Soviet propaganda, concerns the recent revolutionary history of the USSR and the rise of communism. What you will thus see in these films is quite antithetical to most classic Western hero narratives. American films, for example, will often involve groups of people fighting for a cause, but, within this group are distinct individuals – if these individuals aren’t already lone wolves. A perfect example of this would be Reservoir Dogs. It carries on the Western tradition of individualism in crime films through Mr. Pink, Mr. Brown, Orange, White, Blonde and so on. You see nicknames of this sort in Strike, but, these characters all dissolve very quickly as the revolutionary uprising occurs. In such, what you will find in Soviet films is the group representing a collective hero. There will thus be a celebration of collective industrial living, agricultural revolution, military uprisings or working class revolt; there is no knight in shining armour defeating a dragon alone.
The purpose of this is what defines it to be propaganda; it embodied the political interests of a radical and rapidly changing state. In Strike, this is most evident and I will attempt to explain this with my weak understanding of political history, communism and Soviet Russia. As communicated by this film, communism is centred on the recognition and the support of the working class. In certain senses, the re-shaping of society in Soviet Russia can then be considered symbolically. Western civilisation is, by and large, founded by a philosophy bound to the image of the the triangle…
The triangle represents a patriarchal hierarchy; and this is not meant in the same negative capacity as some political entities will use it. The patriarchal hierarchy is bound to the idea of a king (a tsar) or a god; to an archetypal leading male figure as supported by the archetypal feminine presence – God and Mother Nature for example. This, to my understanding and as primarily picked up from various talks by Jordan Peterson, has its foundations far back into even Egyptian society and the image of the pyramid with Horus’ eye above it.
However, without delving too deep into this subject, communists, or Marx, essentially saw this hierarchy as unjust as he thought that capital should not lead to surplus as this constitutes the exploitation of the working class. The manner in which this concept revealed itself, as documented by this film, was attempts to turn our above triangle upside down.
The symbolic implication of this is that the majority working class (proletariat) revolt against the minority ruling class (bourgeoisie), essentially turning the tables, hence, the triangle and hierarchy is turned upside down. We could go further with this line of thought to imply that a communist system, or at least, one that purports to allow the majority rule in respects more literal then representative democracy, is destined to fail as a triangle stood on its tip only stands precariously. Thus, there is danger. Some may argue that the upside triangle can remain balanced, but it is evident that this precarious structure can be tipped over, hence, dictatorships, the re-emergence of a ruling class, and the mass murder of 100 million people. This would then imply that the triangle is, metaphorically and literally, the strongest structure in the world for good reason and maybe shouldn’t be messed with and turned on its head so lightly as it has a tendency to slam back down with a new hierarchical structure.
However, as said, my opinion on such a subject is not really a valid one – and we are getting off-track. But, the point of this line of inquiry was to explore what Soviet cinema’s narrative structure implies through its fabula or content. We see this quite precisely in Strike and it is supported by the guiding frame of Eisenstein. Now, as mentioned, this can be considered a contradiction of Soviet cinema. After all, the realism advocated by, for example, Bazin is one that better aligns with the communal ideals of a Marxist as the frame is more ambiguous and open to an audience’s exploration when it is not static and staccato – as will be seen with Soviet Montage. Then again, a Soviet aesthetic is based on everyone looking in the same direction and with the same ideal – another element of Marxism; one that, paradoxically, seems to imply a hierarchy of guidance (at least through cinema with our formally individual and unique artist – who would later go on to be censored and have his films repossessed by the state).
The topic of Soviet Cinema is not a simple one, and I haven’t done it much justice with this essay, but, if anything of substance came from this, I hope it is the assertion that Strike is a brilliant representative of Soviet Montage and Sergei Eisenstein’s work. So, it’s at this point that I’ll leave things with you. Have you seen Strike? What are your thoughts on all we’ve covered today?
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