High flying, visual acrobatics, visceral shocks – Russia’s greatest director used the tricks of the circus to captivate the crowds. Owen Hatherley takes a seat in Eisenstein’s big top
October, Sergei Eisenstein’s epic film of the Russian Revolution, should have been released 80 years ago this month. Yet the film was immediately caught up in the politics it tried to mythologise. Although finished in time for the insurrection’s tenth anniversary (November 7, after the changeover to the Gregorian calendar), its hero was Leon Trotsky – whose Left Opposition was defeated in its power struggle with Stalin that month. The film was released six months later, missing around a third of the original footage.
This little fact exemplifies part of the received image of this filmmaker – out of his depth in politics, complicit with Stalinism, his films cut to ribbons by the bureaucracy. Yet there is so much more to Eisenstein, and on the release of a series of boxsets of his work (Silent Classics, out now, with Eisenstein in Mexico and Historical Epics to come), it’s the perfect time for a reappraisal of him as a thinker and film director, terms which he regarded as intimately linked.
Eisenstein has suffered from both too much influence and not enough. His opening salvo of “silent classics”, made in close collaboration with Grigori Alexandrov and Eduard Tisse – Strike (1925), Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928) – resonate throughout film even now. If you’ve ever seen a fast-cut battle sequence in an action film or watched the barrage of fraction-of-a-second images in a music video then you’ve experienced at least something of Eisenstein’s legacy. But as much as being the director of rabble-rousing agitprop, he was a prolific teacher and theorist. His writings include everything from Disney to Piranesi, Chaplin to Hegel, in their all-encompassing erudition, recognising no division between “high” and “low” art forms.
In a sense, he wanted to be to cinema what his heroes – Leonardo da Vinci, Marx, Freud – were in their fields, and a vaulting overambitiousness is as evident in his theoretical works as in the end product. His outlines for the films he wanted to make but couldn’t, such as adaptations of Das Kapital and Ulysses (Stalin dismissed his plan to make the former with a curt “you’re crazy”), have a philosophical depth that Eisenstein’s alleged descendants would never approach. In “Notes on Capital”, he wrote that “what we want to film is Marx’s method… to teach the worker how to think dialectically.” This is what he called “intellectual montage”, that could explain a notoriously complex methodology to an uneducated moviegoer simply by the juxtaposition of images, “a montage of any old trivia”.
The theories of Eisenstein are a reminder of a peculiar, discredited or forgotten branch of humanism, one that owed as much to Pavlov as to Freud – that is, what his mentor Vsevelod Meyerhold called “biomechanics”, a study of the reactions and abilities of both the human body and technology. Eisenstein once wanted to install small electric shocks in the seats, in one of many ideas that imply a technofied version of the circus: his most famous essay, “The Montage of Attractions” (1923), calls for the use of circus techniques by the artistic avant-garde. At the same time, his humanism was intimately naturalist, associated with the animal world and man’s treatment of it – as in the climax of Strike, where the massacre of protesting workers is intercut with scenes of a slaughterhouse. Eisenstein’s largest, most ambitious theoretical work was titled Nonindifferent Nature, yet nature in his films is both idyllic and mutable by man.
This is seen most clearly in a film that isn’t in the current reissue series – The General Line (1929). This extraordinary film was a depiction of the collectivisation of agriculture, a classic bit of “girl meets tractor” agitprop. While it was being made, collectivisation was voluntary. Soon after it was finished, it was being violently enforced, leading to the deaths of millions in the Ukrainian famine of 1931-32. It’s hard to watch the film without this in mind, and perhaps this is why it is now being excised from the canon. However, Eisenstein always returned to it in his theoretical works, and it’s perhaps the greatest encapsulation of his ideas about film form, politics, sexuality and technology.
The General Line is especially intriguing in the context of recent liberal attacks on “political religion” – those of the historian and Catholic apologist Michael Burleigh, but also John Gray in Black Mass – where Communism is a mere inversion of Christianity. In these theories, the fetishism of technology and man’s manipulation of nature are evidence of an ultimately destructive and obscurantist philosophy. On the face of it, The General Line is so glaring an example of this that it’s a wonder Gray didn’t devote a chapter to it.
The film has two great set pieces, attempts to rival the overwhelming, cataclysmic emotional effect of Battleship Potemkin’s massacre on the Odessa Steps. The first depicts an Easter procession in a village facing drought. This develops the satire on religion begun in October’s “For God and Country” montage, where the most sophisticated Christian art is conflated with stone idols. Here, the villagers beg, supplicate and howl for rain, egged on by the priests. This ridiculous, tragic parade is treated by Eisenstein with blasphemous imagery, mockingly using Orthodox Christian iconography and intercutting footage of sheep. Eventually the villagers give up, chastened and despondent. The sequence that follows refers again to an imagery of ecstasy and supplication, but in a very different form.
The heroine, Marfa Lapkina (played by a peasant non-actor, who gives an astonishingly passionate performance), who wants to collectivise her village, has obtained a cream separator from the local Communist Party. The villagers skulk around it, sceptical of this alien bit of technology that can allegedly turn milk into cream in seconds. The tension rises as the machine moves in fits and starts and the villagers look askance. Then, the anticipation builds and builds until – out of the phallic spigot – the white liquid spurts out, showering the ecstatic villagers in cream, as the montage escalates into delirious, fast-cut images of joy and satisfaction.
This sequence is, of course, rich in orgasmic, sexual symbolism, a reminder that “intellectual montage” was intended to be “a cinema with the utmost commitment to sensuality as well as investigation”. Yet isn’t it the case that the miracles being awaited vainly in the earlier sequences are here fulfilled, that technology is depicted with an ecstatic awe previously reserved for the unearthly?
Of course, the short answer to this accusation is that praying for rain won’t make it rain, but a cream separator will make cream out of milk. Eisenstein’s film has a primitive joy and wonder in technology which we’ve managed to lose: that it can make miracles, can save huge amounts of drudgery and repetitive labour, can transform lives that had remained static for millennia. But rather than strictly separate it from the natural world, the imagery of The General Line suffuses nature with technology and vice versa, whether in the dream sequence of the new collective farm, the “wedding” of a bull and a cow, or, in the film’s climax, the heroine’s use of her petticoat to repair a tractor.
Tractors and cream separators didn’t stop the human disaster that forced collectivisation would become. And the film itself had its ending censored by a state rapidly turning puritan: its name was changed to The Old and The New to disassociate it from Party policy, or for its satirical jibes at the “red bureaucracy” and Stalinist ritual. It wasn’t banned, unlike the later Bezhin Meadow (1937) or Ivan the Terrible Part Two (1946), but was still politically risky.
The second part of the biopic of the fearful Tsar Ivan, the director’s last film, contained an even bolder attack on absolute power. In a Disneyesque colour sequence, the Tsar’s secret police dance wildly, with garish colours and Prokofiev’s music turning state intrigue into a grotesque circus. Even at the end, Eisenstein was never just a Party hack. His works, though from a very different context to our own, are more important than superior action-film agitprop.
Within them is a Marxist-humanist vision of benign technology, collective solidarity, mass education, and an ecstasy and joy that do not need religion as their justification – all of which we could do with more of today.