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Sergei Eisenstein's
Savant Blu-ray Review

Kino Classics
1925 / B&W / 1:33 full frame / 89 min. / Stachka / Street Date August 30, 2011 / 34.95
Vasili Khvatov, Vladimir Popov, Eduard Tisse
Written by Grigori Aleksandrov, Sergei M. Eisenstein, Ilya Kravchunovsky, Valeryan Pletnyov
Produced by Boris Mikhin
Directed by Sergei M. Eisenstein

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Quick, name Sergei Eisenstein's five methods of montage!  1 It is doubtful that one out of ten trained feature editors are aware of Eisenstein's theories of film expounded in Film Form and Film Sense, although a number have filtered down into modern cutting practices. The theories often read like abstractions inapplicable to conventional film work, yet we see the influence in montages and sequences cut to music. In Eisenstein's teachings, shots cut together to form and resolve thematic concepts the same way that the dialectical process supposedly resolves social disputes: thesis / antithesis / synthesis.

Eisenstein's first feature, the 1925 silent Strike was planned to be the first of seven in a series. The first inter-title calls the series Towards Dictatorship but should add "of the Proletariat". The Soviets encouraged their brightest film theorists to make movies, with the idea that the revolution would free artists from the yoke of commercial restraints: money, budgets, content approval. Attention-getting directors instead found themselves closely monitored. The success that came with Battleship Potemkin and October had the drawback of making Eisenstein famous and therefore suspect. The filmmaker did well when his produced stunning pictures were deemed to be in line with party policies, which could shift radically without warning. But when Stalin's bureaucrats insisted on socialist realism as the only approved film style, Eisenstein's ideas of form and structure placed him in serious disfavor. Such unorthodoxy was not to be taken lightly, At least one Soviet film executive was executed in the Stalin purges, simply for bureaucratic fumblings and political missteps.

But Strike comes at the very beginning, when Eisenstein was permitted to use his stage design experience and theories of film to create an ideologically-aligned masterwork for the revolution. The story is of a major strike during the Tsarist days. Intolerable conditions in a large factory build, and the middle managers report the growing restlessness to their superiors. The bosses react by hiring spies, informers and agent-provocateurs to infiltrate the workshop. When an expensive tool is stolen a worker is accused of stealing it. He commits suicide in protest, initiating a strike that shuts the factory down. To break the stalemate, the bosses' provocateurs cause incidents to justify a crackdown on the strikers. The workers are blamed when these agents burn and loot a liquor warehouse, and troops move in, first beating and then killing the strikers. Pursued to their homes and driven into the river, the strikers are all slaughtered.

Strike is a symphony of conflict and violence, told entirely through stereotyped collective characters. There is no individual hero, and even the leaders act only as representatives of their class. The workers are all solid factory men with starving families. The factory bosses are fat cats that drink champagne and smoke cigars while plotting the defeat of the rabble under their control. In one scene, their decadence is illustrated by a party in which a pair of midgets dances on the banquet table.

Eisenstein's famed stylization does not simply construct frenetically edited montages -- he creates meaning by his juxtaposition of content across film cuts. These mini-messages are highly effective, if often simplistic. The most notable cutting theme compares people and groups of people to animals. Calm in the worker's homes is represented by happy young ducks, kittens. The nefarious company spies are each aligned with a specific animal -- a fox, a bulldog, an owl, etc. Eisenstein isolates the spies in portrait shots and and dissolves back and forth to their animal counterparts, creating 'instant characterizations'. The most famous (and most crude) of Eisenstein's animal metaphors is the intercutting of the slaughter of a cow with the killing of the strikers. The "overtone" is meant to synthesize in the viewer's mind the conviction that the bosses treat workers no better than beasts for the butcher. Today many of these sequences seem crudely manipulative. The actual gore of the abbatoir material substitutes for graphic details in the killing of the noble strikers.

Almost every shot in the film is a masterful composition, often with eccentric or downright crazy visual elements. Dead cats are shown hanging from wires -- are the striking workers eating them? A group of crooks aiding the strikebreakers lives in an odd field of barrels buried in the ground, like moles. Old film books overflow with frame reproductions of workers in silhouette, and swordsmen on horseback assaulting strikers on narrow apartment catwalks. The camera swoops down long lines of factory workstations, their power tools driven by long leather belts. Groups of strikers and families lined up for food are always artfully arranged. And the assault by the mounted soldiers is treated with great formality. Long lines of horsemen clash with mobs of people fleeing in terror. The film is effective government sponsored propaganda willing to use whatever visuals will be effective. Just before the attack, a child is put in jeopardy under the hooves of the cavalrymen. Eisenstein falls back on a familiar propagandistic atrocity to ensure the outrage of his audience: a sadistic trooper throws a baby to its death from a high apartment balcony. The scene is identical to a WW1 propaganda film in which a German officer played by Erich von Stroheim also kills a baby, as a ploy to generate hate against the Hun. Strike is revolutionary filmmaking but also a high point in manipulative propaganda.

Strike may not be as glorious as Eisenstein's more positive Battleship Potemkin, but it is an impressive milestone in Soviet cinema. It is an extreme work and one committed to the transference of Marxist dialectical materialism to film art. Eisenstein belongs with the Russian artists and intellectuals that had more faith in the science of the revolution than did the revolutionary leaders. The director worked far beyond the cramped imaginations of his Soviet masters.

Kino Classics' Blu-ray of Strike comes from 35mm film materials restored by the French Cinematheque of Toulouse. The quality is excellent and the film is intact, which puts this presentation way beyond old film school 16mm prints. Kino has accompanied the show with a new score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. As is Kino's usual practice, the original Russian inter-titles have been dropped in favor of English translations.

Two films serve as extras on Kino's new Blu-ray release. Glumov's Diary is a short (four-minute) subject filmed by Eisenstein in 1923, to be screened during performances of a stage show. The odd piece shows a number of clowns making merry -- in architecturally-composed shots, of course. 2008's Eisenstein and the Revolutionary Spirit is a lightly illustrated lecture by Natacha Laurent, covering the whole of Soviet filmmaking in the 1920s.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Strike Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio: Music track by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Subtitles: English
Supplements: Short film by Eisenstein from 1923; illustrated lecture on 20's Soviet filmmaking by Natacha Laurent.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 27 , 2011


1. In Theories of Film (Cinema One, Viking, 1973) Andrew Tudor names the five Eisensteinian methods of montage: Metric (the 'beat' of the cutting pattern apart from shot content), Rhythmic (the pattern of movement within the shot) , Tonal ("movement perceived in a wider sense"), Overtonal ("filmic fourth dimension") and Intellectual (specific play with meaning between shots, as with the people-animals comparisons). Tudor's chapter on Eisenstein neatly distills a wealth of filmic analysis.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2011 Glenn Erickson

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