Strike (1925, Sergei Eisenstein)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet propaganda features are perhaps best known today as film school staples; his name is invoked as often in a reflection of pure film theory as among those who’ve actually seen his work, so it’s natural to assume that these movies are tied to their moment. For instance, is it possible that his first feature Strike, a vicious attack on capitalism promoting solidarity and organization among workers, has any modern interest or entertainment value beyond the technical? In fact, even if one approaches it purely as an accidental documentary of attitudes within Russia in the 1920s, it’s more than valuable; it’s a masterpiece of boldly expressed political conscience, mindbendingly chaotic you-are-there realism and pointed satire. If one considers didactic, instructive storytelling potentially as crafty as any form of narrative, this is as immediate and harrowing as films can get, busting out of its frame as though everything it documents is happening right now (and in some sense, it always is). If one must ignore all concerns of slant and attempt to address the movie simply as cinema divorced from its ideological motivations, it’s still a massive, only faintly aged landmark. An overwhelming percentage of the images it presents — perhaps more than in any other film, even the iconic Battleship Potemkin — are indelible, unforgettable; and the techniques used to splice them together remain staggering.
Pared down and mostly free of nuanced characterization as befits its origins and purpose, Strike finds uses for Eisenstein’s immense imagination elsewhere, mostly in purely visual terms; aesthetically, his film is as exciting and unique as any of the major avant garde pictures of the ’20s. With an almost sickening quickness and absence of sentiment, the film tells the story of a workers’ uprising at a manufacturing plant in pre-Bolshevik Russia. The cause is just, a battle for a strict 40-hour work week, better wages and an end to the tension between the proletariat and their decadent overlords. Things come to a head when a worker commits suicide after being falsely accused of theft by his bosses, which causes a series of riots at the factory and then a full-on strike; their scoffing over the workers’ terms and suspicion by law enforcement colliding with the principled stubbornness of the workers leads to much strife in the weeks to follow, including a liquor store looting covertly staged by authorities to turn sentiment against the employees, and eventually a violent massacre ensues. This is where Eisenstein most infamously “stacks the decks,” with a horrific shot of a cop throwing a baby down into a courtyard several stories below and a forceful, influential cross-cutting of a cow being slaughtered with the systematic murder of the workers by the police. If anything, this bears no more of a commitment to realism than D.W. Griffith did when he used contemporary political cartoons as a point of reference for a biased compression of Reconstruction. And much like Birth of a Nation, Strike obviously uses the power of its medium to influence the audience’s emotions in a manner that’s not always responsible, even if Eisenstein’s pro-union ideas are far less reprehensible today than Griffith’s.
The emphasis on caricature and broad strokes here has dual purposes. When we see the police, the shareholders and a group of spies for the company rendered as comical oafs in a living picture frame, compared with animals and gathered together, luxuriating gluttonously in easy chairs, it puts us in key with the time, perversely reinforcing the sensation that Strike presents a slice of life as it was then lived and felt. Additionally, the reeling in of the viewer with elements of surprisingly cynical humor only serves to make the subsequent explosion more of a devastating shock. The sheer frenetic beauty and power of Eisenstein’s artful compositions and editing is almost a Utopian ideal of pure cinema, emotions delivered firmly on their own basis without the adornment of the dream with specifics. And this is the poetry of reality rendered as no other artform can. It feels often as though this silent film is itself shouting, running, forcing us to become a complicit actor in it. Only a handful of subsequent movies have so beautifully captured the sensation of sheer mobility. As the film runs, the screen envelops us and cannot be ignored. That’s beautiful, and terrifying, and speaks to the immense power of cinema perhaps more concisely than any other motion picture.
The crux, then, is not the abilities of the person holding this potentially anarchic or fascistic paintbrush but what specifically one does with such power; this is not the space to debate the sociopolitical merits of Eisenstein, whose work and ideas (and those of his government) were often problematic even to those on the left hand of the spectrum. However, one would have to be isolated indeed not to notice the parallels between Strike and our own world of action against the common people, of police harassment and murder of civilians; the evil comes not at all in the expression of these events but in said expression being a state-sanctioned event. There are elements of righteousness in what Eisenstein manages to convey here, but there are also aspects of this film’s existence that render it impossible to fully trust, borne out fully by the unmentioned darkness in Russia in the years after the revolution. In that sense, Strike benefits from being taken at face value, without a complete awareness of its full context; for this reason, it may be a more meaningful experience today because we’re able to see it as a pure expression of its ideas. (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, another film about factory workers and a battle against those in charge clearly influenced by this one, has now outlived a lot of its baggage for similar reasons.) Removing things from their surrounding conditions is in its own way equally dangerous, of course, but it is possible to look upon Strike now as a magnificent rallying cry for justice — and, more to the point, as an indescribably persuasive and rousing experience, as visceral an experience as the movies have given us.