Sergei Eisenstein, Film Theorist: The Revolutionary Collection Reviewed

Sergei Eisenstein

An appraisal of one of the fathers of cinematic arts and analysis of his ideas

The Eisenstein Collection (special centenary edition)

Tartan Video, Faber & Faber, £39.99

Sergei Eisenstein reviewed by Anna Chen 1998

An early version of this film theory essay appeared in the International Socialism Journal, July 1998

Sergei Eisenstein review Odessa Steps Battleship Potemkin
The Odessa Steps scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin

Introduction to Sergei Eisenstein

The movies directed by Sergei Eisenstein during the 1920s provided much of the defining imagery of the Russian Revolution. Described as the father of film montage, he was certainly the first major theorist of cinema. The year 1998 marks the centenary of his birth. It is also 50 years since he died, leaving behind an invaluable legacy of writings but with very few of his scripts actually produced. A boxed set of videos of his Revolution trilogy –StrikeThe Battleship Potemkin and October [1], which includes his first collection of essays and articles, The Film Sense, published in 1943 – has been released to commemorate Eisenstein’s centenary.

A prolific writer yet an underproduced film maker with only eight mostly monochrome epics completed, why is this director considered so important even today? What power was the that he unleashed in The Battleship Potemkin which led UK authorities to ban it until 1954? Why do mainstream Hollywood directors pay him homage through direct reference, pastiche and even parody? In Spielberg’s black and white feature film Schindler’s List a small girl is picked out in red as she tries to escape her Nazi persecutors, the same device also finding its way into a TV ad for Peugeot. It was first seen, however, in The Battleship Potemkin, wherein the director himself painstakingly hand tinted the flag, frame by frame, a flaming revolutionary red. Coppola’s powerful use in Apocalypse Now, of the bull’s slaughter from the end of Strike signifies, not the victim’s pain – as with the 1,800 strikers killed at the end of the Russian film – but the horror that has fed the megalomania of Brando’s Kurtz, extinguished only when he is hacked to death by Martin Sheen’s Marlow.

Ken Russell filches Alexander Nevsky’s knights on ice battle spectacular for Billion Dollar Brain, whilst De Palma shamelessly and thoroughly pastiches the Odessa Steps sequence from The Battleship Potemkin in The UntouchablesNaked Gun is by no means the silliest of many other screen references: the cliché of the baby carriage careering down the Odessa Steps (of which there were only 120, not the hundreds of the cinematic illusion Eisenstein created through rapid repetitive intercutting) is now instantly recognisable even to people who have never watched an Eisenstein movie.

When reading Eisenstein’s own words, what strikes you is how driven he was as an artist. Possessed of a dazzling intellect that drew from sources as diverse as da Vinci, Dickens, Disney, Shakespeare, Goethe and Haiku poetry, Eisenstein’s eclectic interests fuelled his search for a definitive theory of cinema. Pursuing his obsession in the early years of the Russian Revolution, when cinema was barely crawling from the womb and the creative possibilities of the first generation of Russian artists were seemingly without limit, Eisenstein turned pioneer and hunted down evidence for his theories, trawling western and eastern culture for clues. He called on Marx for support, quoting his ‘definition of the course of genuine investigation’ [2] in The Film Sense: ‘Not only the result, but the road to it also, is a part of truth. The investigation of truth must itself be true, true investigation is unfolded truth, the disjuncted members of which unite in the result’. [3]

Sergei Eisenstein review by Anna Chen

Transcending a bourgeois background

Sergei Eisenstein was born in Riga in 1898 to ‘a tyrannical Papa’, the architect and civil engineer Mikhail Osipovich, who fought for the White Russians during the civil war and died in Berlin in 1920. In the latest attempt to reclaim Eisenstein for liberals everywhere, his biographer, Ronald Bergan, attempts to rescue him from his claim ‘to be a Marxist all his life’ [4] by seizing on the oedipal nature of Sergei’s relationship with this small minded philistine. Bergan’s psychologism denies Eisenstein’s capacity to transcend his own personal interests. His case seems to be sustained by Eisenstein’s own account of his conflict with his father: ‘The reason why I came to support social protest had little to do with the real miseries of social injustice, or material privations, or the zigzags of the struggle for life, but directly and completely from what is surely the prototype of every social tyranny – the father’s despotism in a family, which is also a survival of the basic despotism of the head of the “tribe” in every primitive society’. [5]

But, as for many people from a similar background who joined the international revolutionary movement, claustrophobia and rebellion against the middle class family were only the beginning of a profound transformation. Eisenstein had, after all, witnessed government troops brutally clearing demonstrators from Nevsky Prospect in 1917. Even Bergan himself produces evidence which contradicts his case, quoting Eisenstein’s foreword to his 1946 memoirs, Beyond the Stars:

‘The revolution gave me the most precious thing in life – it made an artist out of me. If it had not been for the revolution I would never have broken the tradition, handed down from father to son, of becoming an engineer … The revolution introduced me to art, and art, in its own turn, brought me to the revolution … ‘[6]

It was Yulia Ivanovna, his mother, who grounded Sergei in bourgeois culture. She surrounded him with books, bought him a camera, took him to the theatre and, in 1907, treated him to a memorable trip to Paris. But, according to Peter Wollen, it was the extraordinary upheavals of the 1917 revolution, when Sergei was 19, that brought his interest in art to fruition. At a time when ‘authentic intelligentsia’ was ousting ‘academic hierarchy’:

‘He was not prepared for the overthrow of the existing order of society, the collapse of his ideology and the dissolution of his family … The revolution destroyed him, smashed the co-ordinates of his life, but it also gave him the opportunity to produce himself anew … he was compelled to become an intellectual, to construct for himself a new world-view, a new ideological conception both of society and art … we cannot separate the ideas which he developed from the matrix in which they were formed, the matrix of the Bolshevik Revolution.’ [7]

Sergei Eisenstein Nevsky Prospect October
Recreation of the massacre by the provisional government on Nevsky Prospect, 4 July 2017, for October. It was an earlier one at the Winter Palace by the Tsar’s troops in 1905 that had inspired Sergei Eisenstein.

Early exposure to the Russian Revolution

Eisenstein was steeped in accounts of the 1905 Revolution, and in particular ‘Bloody Sunday’, when troops opened fire upon a peaceful demonstration at the Tsar’s Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Because of ‘the wild outburst of reaction and repression … the brutality in my pictures is indissolubly tied up with the theme of social injustice, and revolt against it …’ [8] His early working years included stints with the Petrograd militia, as a cartoonist for the Petersburgskaya Gazeta, decorating the agitprop trains leaving for the front, and as an engineer in the Red Army during the civil war, serving on the Eastern Front. ‘The melting pot of the civil war and military engineering work at the front …’ gave him ‘… a fascinating sense of history in the making, which had made a deep impression with the broad canvas of the fates of nations and epic ambitions, and was then realised in the thematics of future films of monumental scale’. [9]

Eisenstein’s studies at the Institute of Civil Engineering in Petrograd were disrupted by the 1917 revolution. Any thoughts of renewing them were rapidly eclipsed by his fascination with theatre, especially that of his future mentor, the actor and theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who ran the Proletkult Theatre in Moscow. Along with the poet Mayakovsky, and the artists Malevich and Tatlin, Meyerhold reassessed the Futurist and Symbolist movements in the pre-revolution years and came up with Constructivism, which would ‘be a branch of production, in the service of the revolution’ rather than ‘pure’ art. [10] Meyerhold had rejected the naturalism of Stanislavsky’s acting methods at the ‘monolithic’ Moscow Arts Theatre, which would later be ‘enshrined as the apogee of Stalinist art’. [11] He sought instead to prove the ‘primacy of physiological gesture over psychological emotion’ [12] (as Pavlov was attempting to establish through his experiments concerning reflex conditioning at the time). Subscribing to William James’s dictum that ‘we weep not because we are sad; we are sad because we weep,’ Meyerhold used circus spectacular and body mechanics and drew from commedia dell’arte in order to produce a ‘non-verbal, stylised, conventional theatre’.

Even F.W. Taylor, whose time and motion studies in American factories led directly to the deepening of workers’ exploitation, exerted an influence. Theoretical faultlines cracked wide open as Stanislavsky sank deeper into mysticism, exploring the Hindu concept of ‘prana’ and trying to get people to feel radiation rays emitted from his actors’ fingertips, provoking an attack by Meyerhold for being ‘out of key with the epoch of the machine, the mass, urbanism and Americanism’. [13]

Resisting the cultural purism of Proletkult

However, the Proletkult movement was hardly beyond criticism itself. One of the chief aims of the revolution according to Trotsky was the ‘awakening of human personality in the masses – who were supposed to possess no personality’. [14] The passionate cultural debates in post-war revolutionary Russia centred around raising the masses out of the quagmire of illiteracy, giving them the confidence that would prevent the growth of a cultured bureaucracy. Otherwise ‘this would push the masses back into passivity and and lead to the degeneration of the revolution’. [15] The adherents of Proletkult wanted to cut free from the existing culture, rather than bring it to the masses, because they thought it ‘was the last refuge of the bourgeoisie in retreat’. [16] (The Italian Formalists had similarly cast off their cultural roots, but were absorbed into the ideology of fascism.) In 1919 Lenin was scathing:

‘Proletarian culture is something that suddenly springs from nobody knows where, and is not invented by people who set up as specialists in proletarian culture. Proletarian culture is the regular development of those stores of knowledge which mankind has worked out for itself under the yoke of capitalist society, of feudal society, of bureaucratic society.’ [17]

Trotsky acknowledged that because the bourgeoisie ‘owned both physical and mental means of production … they possessed the comfort and abundance necessary for art to grow and become subtle’. [18] But Proletkult’s ideology demanded both the rejection of this wellspring and the fetishisation of an imagined proletarian culture that would replace it. Trotsky also asserted that ‘the proletarian regime is temporary and transient,’ and not a permanent edifice, its purpose being to lay ‘the foundations of a culture which is above classes and which will be the first culture that is truly human’. [19] Besides, there was little point in cutting the umbilical cord to a bourgeois culture to which the tiny Russian proletariat was not even attached in the first place.

Against the background of this controversy and attracted by the freeing up of artistic experimentation, the young Eisenstein set out to join Meyerhold’s avant-garde group. Starting work as a set designer for the Proletkult Theatre in 1920, he rapidly progressed to directing stage productions, which gave him the preparation he needed for his first foray into film.

Early development of film art

Although Eisenstein is widely credited as the ‘father of montage’ – a form of editing technique – he wasn’t strictly the first director to cut film in order to construct scenes. Early film makers such as George Méliès and the Lumière brothers had lifted existing theatrical methods for the screen wholesale, with little or no adaptation to the new medium. A stationary camera, the equivalent of a static audience, was placed at a fixed distance from the actors, where it passively recorded the basic mise-en-scène (literally, ‘putting into the scene’ [20], the composition of all the elements within the individual frame). Scenes were shot in their entirety with no zooming or tracking of camera and no close ups of the actors, rendering them completely self contained in time and space.

Life of an American Fireman Porter Eisenstein review
The Life of an American Fireman by Edwin S Porter, 1903. Stationary camera, one long shot, no cuts.

One of Thomas Edison’s cameramen, Edwin S. Porter, then revolutionised film narrative by constructing a story film, The Life of an American Fireman, from previously shot material in 1902. By cutting from one scene of incomplete action to another – from the firemen arriving at an actual burning building to the studio scene of the mother and child trapped inside – Porter was able to create the illusion of continuous story development. ‘It implied that the meaning of a shot was not necessarily self-contained but could be modified by joining the shot to others’. [21] Eisenstein insisted that the shot was the basic unit of montage and not, as director Lev Kuleshov had insisted, merely an element of it. Because these units were small and manageable, directors were freed from the tyranny of theatricality.

However, Porter still filmed everything in long shot, maintaining a constant distance from the object. The American director D.W. Griffith, considered by Eisenstein to be (despite his politics) the first great storyteller in film, took Porter’s parallel montage technique and introduced different camera lengths, giving us the close up and the extreme long shot. Instead of Porter’s objective distancing from the action, Griffith pulled the spectator into the scene through the subjective close up and different viewpoints, controlling what the spectator saw and manipulating their emotional and intellectual response. In his seminal films, Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation, Griffith not only utilised close ups for emotional emphasis, he also used flashbacks and dissolves, maximising tension and excitement by increasing the pace of cutting towards the climax. Eisenstein traced the origins of montage back to literature. Parallel montage – cutting away to simultaneous action – can be summed up simply by the literary device, ‘Meanwhile, back at the ranch …’ As for the close up, Eisenstein cites Dickens, who opened The Cricket on the Hearth with a Griffith-esque close up: ‘The kettle began it …’ [22]

Lillian Gish DW Griffith Eisenstein review
An early extreme close-up of Lillian Gish in Intolerance (1916) by DW Griffith who revolutionised story telling in film

Despite his admiration, Sergei Eisenstein’s appreciation of Griffith was not uncritical. Eisenstein took him to task for political and ideological reasons. The notorious racist depiction of the Blacks and the heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan in The Birth of a Nation made Griffith ‘an open apologist for racism’. [23] Neither did Griffith’s support for the Dry Law (alcohol prohibition) in The Struggle or ‘the metaphysical philosophy of the eternal origins of Good and Evil’ [24] in Intolerance go down well. Eisenstein detected:

… the inseparable link between the cinema and the industrial development of America. We know how production, art and literature reflect the capitalist breadth and construction of the United States of America. And we also know that American capitalism finds its sharpest and most expressive reflection in the American cinema. [25]

Meanwhile, back in Russia, the young revolutionary directors – including V.I. Pudovkin, Lev Kuleshov and Eisenstein – studied the old masters and then resolved to step up the director’s degree of control over his material:

They planned, by means of new editing methods, not only to tell stories but to interpret and draw intellectual conclusions from them … [they] saw themselves as propagandists and teachers rather than as conventional entertainers. As such, their task was twofold: to use the film medium as a means of instructing the masses in the history and theory of their political movement; and to train a young generation of film-makers to fulfil this task. [26]

Pudovkin rationalised Griffith’s practical work and then developed his theoretical explanation further. The close ups of significant details that Griffith used to heighten the drama were, to Pudovkin, the very stuff of the film story. His contention, that each new shot must make a new and specific point rather than merely punctuating long shots of actors acting, was supported by Kuleshov whose experiments found that juxtaposition gave meaning to hitherto neutral shots. Depending on whether the same neutral close up of the actor Mosjukhin was joined with shots of a plate of soup, a shot of a dead woman in a coffin, or a child playing, the audience:

‘… raved about the acting of the artist. They pointed out the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead woman, and admired the light, happy smile with which he surveyed the girl at play. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same.’ [27]

Montage: collision or linkage?

The Russians had discovered that emotions and ideas could be stimulated simply through the juxtaposition of pieces of film. Pudovkin wrote that ‘Kuleshov maintained that the material in filmwork consists of pieces of film, and that the composition method is their joining together in a particular, creatively discovered order’. [28]

Eisenstein took the process a crucial stage further so that conventional narrative was all but abandoned, and individual characters and their motivation left undeveloped. He wanted to lead ‘towards a purely intellectual film, freed from traditional limitations, achieving direct forms for ideas, systems and concepts, without any need for transitions and paraphrases’. [29] But whereas Pudovkin argued that the most effective scene is made through linkage – smoothly linking a series of selected details from the scene’s action – Eisenstein insisted that film continuity should progress through collision – a series of shocks arising out of conflict between spliced shots: ‘… the juxtaposition of two shots by splicing them together resembles not so much the simple sum of one shot plus another – as it does a creation’. [30]

In his essay, A Dialectic Approach to Film Form, Eisenstein sets out his stall with a quote from Goethe: ‘In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it’. [31] Eisenstein cites Marx and Engels, for whom the dialectical method was only the conscious reproduction of the dialectic of the external events of the world. He then explains that existence is in a state of constant evolution resulting from the interaction of two contradictory opposites. For Eisenstein, the basis of every art is this sort of dialectical conflict, ‘an “imagist” transformation of the dialectical principle’ [32], dynamically yielding new concepts in the form of a constantly developing argument of opposites. ‘In the realm of art this dialectic principle of dynamics is embodied in CONFLICT as the fundamental principle for the existence of every work and art form’. [33]

Eisenstein developed his cinematographic theory which he would put into practice in making his films. Not only should there be conflict between shots, there should also be conflict within the frame at every level: conflict of graphic directions (lines – either static or dynamic: e.g. calming horizons broken by energised verticals of trees or walls; the dead boy lying 90 degrees against the strong diagonals of the steps in The Battleship Potemkin Odessa Steps sequence), scales (large and small), volumes (e.g. the full sails of the Odessa flotilla greeting the Potemkin), masses (volumes filled with various intensities of light) and depths. Also necessary was conflict of close and long shots; conflict of tempo (activity within the frame); light conflict (pieces of darkness and pieces of lightness). And ‘conflicts between an object and its dimension – and conflicts between an event and its duration’ [34], and so on. Eisenstein was building a cinematic art with a painter’s eye and the method of an engineer. In him, music, literature, painting and science all converged.

Sergei Eisenstein’s Revolution Trilogy

Eisenstein’s three great films about the Russian Revolution – StrikeThe Battleship Potemkin and October – were all made between 1924 and 1928, before Stalin had consolidated his power and gained an iron grip on the arts. During this period the Communist Party initially favoured Proletkult artists. Strike, made in 1924, Eisenstein’s second film and the first of the trilogy, was originally planned as the first of a series of films documenting the pre-revolutionary working class. It turned out to be an artistic success as well as an educational aid and it won an award at the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, as well as being commercially exhibited in Germany.

Strike barrels Sergei Eisenstein review by Anna Chen
Strike, the first film in Eisenstein’s revolution trilogy

In this fictionalised account of a factory strike, a highly stylised collection of capitalist exploiters do battle with the striking workers of a factory in a surreal series of set pieces. Miniature bourgeoisie tango on table tops amid the detritus of excessive consumption; three identical top-hatted bosses make up a single composite capitalist; spies metamorphose into animals; a panorama of barrels sunk into the ground spews out troglodyte lumpenproletarians. Against this backdrop, the film presents the workers as a single group protagonist instead of as individual heroes. Eisenstein maintained that this was the first time collective and mass action had been seen on the screen in contrast to individualism and the ‘triangle’ drama of bourgeois cinema (which distils down to boy meets girl and then has to overcome obstacles – invariably in the form of a rival – in order to keep girl and resolve drama). Years later he criticised his ‘beginner’s piece’ for its tricksiness and overuse of effects such as the cross-dissolve which proved ‘the “infant malady of leftism” existing in these first steps of cinema’ [35], and also because the development of the individual within the collective, ‘a conception irreconcilably opposed to bourgeois individualism’, had been neglected. [36]

Strike bourgeoisie Sergei Eisenstein review

On its release in 1925, Strike was poorly received by the Russian public, whose imagination had already been gripped by American films and the comfy folkloric familiarity of their conventional questing heroes and tightly developed narratives. The Battleship Potemkin, however, proved more successful. David O. Selznick, then an MGM associate producer, wrote to one of his executives in 1926:

‘It was my privilege a few months ago to be present at two private screenings of what is unquestionably one of the greatest of motion pictures ever made, The Armoured Cruiser Potemkin … the film is a superb piece of craftsmanship. It possesses a technique entirely new to the screen … The film has no characters in an individual sense; it has not one studio set; yet it is gripping beyond words – its vivid and realistic reproduction of a bit of history being far more interesting than any film of fiction … Notable, incidentally, are its types and their lack of make-up, and the exquisite pieces of photography.’ [37]

Battleship Potemkin wins in Hollywood

Running one of the major Hollywood studios, Selznick might also have been impressed that The Battleship Potemkin was made for a fraction of the hit German movie Metropolis’s budget of five million marks. A domestic flop in the Soviet Union, Potemkin was loved by German audiences, although the armed forces were forbidden to see it for fear of mutiny, as were Pennsylvanian audiences on the grounds that it gave American sailors ‘a blueprint as to how to conduct a mutiny’. [38] When it was eventually screened in the US in 1926, Chaplin declared it to be ‘the best film in the world’. In France the authorities burnt all copies they could find – it received only a limited art house screening at Paris film clubs. Despite being banned in the UK until 1954, The Battleship Potemkin has rarely been out of the annual BFI critics’ top ten list, and only then when another Eisenstein film has been voted in.

It is easy to see why. The Odessa Steps sequence has even now the power to move and excite: ‘… Eisenstein, in forcing the spectator to create the image by putting together all the relationships between attractions (relationships existing because of the interpenetrating theme), gives to the spectator not a completed image, but the “experience of completing an image”.’ [39] All Eisenstein’s elements come together in this perfect piece of cinema and the audience participates in the process of producing meaning.

The cinematic arts find full expression

The film documents an event that helped precipitate the 1905 Revolution which shook the Tsarist regime. The battleship Potemkin is a microcosm of Russian society. The ship’s officers, doctor and priest – all representing the ruling power structure – pile abuse on top of abuse until maggot infested meat and a threatened mass execution push the sailors to mutiny. The mutineers eventually find sanctuary at the Black Sea port of Odessa, the setting for the film’s penultimate sequence, showing Odessa’s population supporting the Potemkin mutineers anchored in the bay. The sudden appearance of Tsarist soldiers abruptly reverses the joyous mood as the troops mercilessly advance, shooting everything that moves. Rhythm (cutting) builds with tempo (the pace of action within the frame) as the soldiers descend the steps in relentless solid formation behind the chaotically scattering crowd. This descending action travels left to right across the screen for rapidity (because we read left to right, top to bottom in English, our brains process screen information better in this direction, enabling us to read the images faster). [40]

Strong diagonals in Battleship Potemkin

Furthermore, Eisenstein plays with the planes of the shot so that we are not simply looking through a window at staged action, but also at a flat surface where the picture is composed, like a painting on a canvas. The film is not so much a substitute for the real world as ‘an image existing for significant perception’. [41] Every visual and musical element is an aspect of a composition specifically designed to elicit the audience’s participation in the construction of the scene in their minds. When the mother carries her murdered son towards the troops, she travels right to left against graphic lines formed by the edges of the steps and the fleeing crowd. Trudging up the steps and against the descending mass, she occupies her own distinct emotional space. At the point where she stands in front of the rank of anonymous soldiers, her figure is caged in by the diagonal lines of the steps; the prison bar like shadows of the soldiers and their rifles below her; and, foregrounded nearest the camera, the actual figures of the soldiers pointing their rifles straight at her.

Mother, Battleship Potemkin Sergei Eisenstein review by Anna Chen
Strong diagonals build energy within the frame while depth is increased by brightly lit uniforms placed close to the camera and dark clothing in the distance

Eisenstein increases the illusion of depth in this shot by clothing the many small far off dead bodies in dark shadings which recede into the distance; and foregrounding three soldiers and their officer in brightly lit white uniform, utilising conflict of mass and volume to locate the power in this scene. This is where this sequence’s central idea reaches its peak, expressed in the graphic representation. With the corpses of the townsfolk behind her, the agents of death in front of her and their shadows falling across her, the mother is now the sole point of humanity within the frame. In the shot, she occupies the point of maximum tension – about two thirds towards the right and a little above centre, conforming to the proportions of the classical composition: compelling evidence of the virtuosity with which Eisenstein applied lessons learned from the study of centuries of classical painting to the new medium.

Mother, Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein review by Anna Chen

The full exploitation of suspense and tension highlights Hitchcock’s artistic debt to Eisenstein. Will the nanny be shot? For how long can the baby carriage teeter on the top step before it begins its fall? The tracking camera shot which introduces the runaway pram increases the scene’s tempo so that the pram runs at double time against the march of the soldiers, also raising the dramatic stakes. The final climactic destruction of innocence – the death of the baby and the attack on the conciliatory, bespectacled old woman by the sabre wielding cossack to whose better nature she vainly appeals – puts paid to any notion that verbal persuasion in powerless isolation can ever be an effective part of any revolutionary’s armoury against monstrous reactionary forces.

Storming of the Winter Palace, Oktober in Sergei Eisenstein review by Anna Chen
The storming of the Winter Palace in October

October stretches story-telling to breaking point

Eisenstein’s next film, October, was based on Ten Days that Shook the World, journalist John Reed’s eyewitness account of the period leading up to the 1917 revolution. Released in 1928, the film takes the director’s experiments in juxtaposition to new heights. October reconstructs the critical period between the revolutions of February and October 1917, when prime minister Kerensky’s Provisional Government clung to power. (Incidentally, Bergan quotes Grigori Alexandrov, the assistant director on October, as saying, ‘… it has long been a joke in the Soviet film industry that more casualties were caused by Eisenstein’s storming of the Winter Palace in June 1927 than by the attack of the original Bolsheviks in October 1917.’ He attributed this to enthusiastic extras who had served at the front bringing along their ancient live cartridges. The original storming had ended in a peaceful surrender.) [42] 

Influenced by the climate of the rising bureaucracy and its conflict with Trotsky, the film shows Trotsky arguing for postponement of an armed uprising, finally voting reluctantly with Lenin on 10 October for immediate action. Once the counter-revolutionary forces are repelled, Kerensky escapes. At the election of the Second Congress presidium, the Bolsheviks win an overwhelming vote against the Mensheviks on the eve of the storming of the Winter Palace. As a result of their victory, the new revolutionary government under Lenin wins peace and grants bread and land to the masses.

Some critics have observed that in making October Eisenstein displayed a ‘lack of interest in the simple mechanics of storytelling and … ruthless suppression of any footage not directly relevant to his thesis’. [43] The lack of a conventional bourgeois hero means that there is no emotional door into the story; the group protagonist – the revolutionaries and working class – is fragmented across the film. However, the mostly episodic narrative still contains a few vestigial plot points such as the entrance of the Tsarist general Kornilov, which presents a major moment of crisis: a short lived turning point maximising both jeopardy and opportunity for the revolutionaries before the resolution.

Trotsky’s role in these events – head of the Military Revolutionary Committee based in Petrograd – is reduced to a single appearance as a craven weakling pitted against Lenin, warning against immediate action and nearly wrecking the revolution. According to John Reed’s absorbing account, Trotsky was operating at full revolutionary throttle, urging the Bolsheviks to yield no ground to their detractors: ‘All these so-called Socialist compromisers, these frightened Mensheviki, Social Revolutionaries, Bund – let them go! They are just so much refuse which will be swept away into the garbage heap of history!’ [44] All other scenes featuring Trotsky were cut from the film. At the time of the film’s production, there was a major power struggle in part over Trotsky’s opposition to, among other matters, Stalin’s directive that the Chinese communists should unite with the Kuomintang nationalists in the First United Front against the warlords. Although this led the communists to their slaughter, Stalin was still able to win total power in the Soviet Union. Bergan notes that after Stalin’s interference with October, ‘Eisenstein did confide to his diary his disgust at “the barbarism of Stalin”.’ [45]

Technically, October was Eisenstein’s most ambitious project. It places excessive reliance on cross-cutting between the story and shots of details commenting on and shaping the main action. However, Eisenstein uses these details chiefly within the realm of symbol – where an image is juxtaposed with another, unconnected, image which has no subtext and therefore can sustain only a single interpretation. For example, relatively lengthy screen time is given up to crosscut shots of Kornilov and Kerensky with plaster busts of Napoleon, ‘… a juxtaposition of purely symbolic significance’ [46], which draws obvious parallels and underlines their ambition. Elsewhere shots of Kerensky enjoying the opulence of the Tsar’s Winter Palace are matched with shots of a gilded mechanical peacock, suggesting his vanity. Such heavy handed symbolism would not work for a modern cinema literate audience, who would get the point way ahead of the film. Even Eisenstein was aware of potential pitfalls: ‘As soon as the film-maker loses sight of this essence [emotional dynamism of the subject] the means ossifies into lifeless literary symbolism and stylistic mannerism’. [47] He is critical of his own work:

‘… the sugary chants of the Mensheviki at the Second Congress of Soviets – during the storming of the Winter Palace – are intercut with hands playing harps. This was a purely literary parallelism that by no means dynamised the subject matter.’ [48]

Eisenstein has been taken to task for frequent obscurity. In the scene that introduces Kornilov:

‘In illustrating the monarchist putsch attempted by General Kornilov, it occurred to me that his militarist tendency could be shown in a montage that would employ religious details for its material … So we intercut shots of a Baroque Christ (apparently exploding in the radiant beams of his halo) with shots of an egg-shaped mask of Uzume, Goddess of Mirth, completely self-contained. The temporal conflict between the closed egg-form and the graphic star-form produced the effect of an instantaneous burst – of a bomb or shrapnel.’ [49]

It is unlikely that many viewers would follow Sergei Eisenstein’s exact line of logic, making the connection between Kornilov’s militarism and what the film maker reads as an explosion.

Sergei Eisenstein proscribed

When Eisenstein went to Hollywood in 1928 he was feted by movie moguls and powerbrokers like Douglas Fairbanks, Chaplin and Paramount’s Jesse Lasky, all hailing him as the genius who would teach the philistines who populated this commercial hell how to make film. Eistenstein churned out scripts by the cartload, but Paramount failed to green light any of them for actual production. Eventually Eisenstein accepted the financial backing of novelist Upton Sinclair and commenced filming Que Viva Mexico! but Sinclair pulled the plug following one too many interventions by Stalin. Eisenstein’s near complete work was sold to studios for use as stock footage.

He returned to the Soviet Union in 1932, finding a vastly different climate to the one he had left. Proletkult had petered out. Few of his friends remained active. Many of them had been purged. The 1932 edition of the Soviet Encyclopaedia accused him, regarding October and The General Line, of giving ‘no deep analysis of the decisive stages of the Socialist Revolution’ and stated that he ‘made a diversion to formal experiments. Eisenstein is a representative of the ideology of the revolutionary section of the petty bourgeois intelligentsia which is following in the path of the proletariat.’

So, years after making October, Sergei Eisenstein was denounced as a Formalist. The Formalism movement used the method of defamiliarisation – making objects strange in order to make them seem more real. Eisenstein’s technique expressed their idea that mere reproduction is never valid unless it is a deviation from the norm, a risky thing to do under Stalin. Subsequently he directed Old And New, which advanced the arguments of Stalin’s collectivisation policy. Toeing Stalin’s nationalistic line with Alexander Nevsky (1938) at a time when the Soviet state was gearing up for war with Germany, Eisenstein portrayed medieval Russian knights as heroic defenders of the motherland. Ivan The Terrible I (1944) depicts a tough but misunderstood tyrant battling single handed against the evil Boyar conspiracy, the enemy within. Eisenstein’s brilliant earlier technique has congealed: the storytelling is stolid and turgid; the performances verge on self parody. The 1,376 editing cuts of The Battleship Potemkin, double that of the average film, give way to long, repetitive shots of actors mugging to camera. In 1946, with Eisenstein recovering from a near fatal heart attack, his work print of Ivan the Terrible II was screened and critically mauled. Finally released in 1958, during Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’ and ten years after Eisenstein’s death, its antiquated style rendered it an ill received dinosaur.

Sergei Eisenstein threw in the towel shortly before he died in 1948, weakened by poor health and the stultifying political climate in which he was trying to work. Bergan quotes a magazine article published in 1947 in which he wrote:

‘In the light of the resolutions of the Central Committee, all workers in art must … fully subordinate our creative work to the interests of the education of the Soviet people. From this aim we must not take one step aside nor deviate a single iota. We must master the Lenin-Stalin method of perceiving reality and history … This is a guarantee that our cinematography will be able to surmount all the ideological and artistic failures … and will again begin to create pictures of high quality, worthy of the Stalinist epoch.’ [50]

What, then, remains of Eisenstein’s legacy? Without the Russian Revolution we might never have heard of him at all. He was at his most inventive and innovative during the initial throes of the revolution, in unprecedented conditions of mass creative liberation. In the early days state finance allowed him to pursue his ideas to their limits, whereas even Griffith encountered great difficulty in securing backing for his films in the US. Griffith and his successors eventually defined the art of film for the mass market, if not for the masses; but whilst little of Eisenstein’s work transcended brilliant experimentation, it was nevertheless Eisenstein who embodied the promise of the fulfilment of human potential under socialism.

Watch the full movie of Sergei Eisenstin’s Battleship Potemkin


1. As there is no definite article in the Russian language, Strike and Battleship Potemkin are sometimes translated with definite articles attached. I have used the Tartan Video titles as stated on the box throughout this piece.
 S. Eisenstein, Word and ImageThe Film Sense (Faber 1943), p. 35.
 K Marx, Werke und Schriften bis Anfang 1844, nebst Briefen und Dokumenten (Berlin, Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, section 1, vol 1, semi-volume 1). Bemerkungen über die neueste preussische Zensurinstruktion, von ein Rheinlander (quoted in The Film Senseop. cit., p. 35).
 Eisenstein quoted in R. Bergan, Eisenstein: A Life In Conflict (Little, Brown & Company 1997), p. 28.
 Ibid., p. 28.
 S. Eisenstein, Beyond the Stars: The Memoirs of Sergei Eisenstein (BFI Publishing 1995), p. 45.
 P. Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (Secker & Warburg 1969), p. 19.
 Eisenstein Archives at TsGALI (State Archives of Literature and Arts), Moscow. Quoted in R. Bergan, op. cit., p. 27.
 P Wollen, op. cit., p. 21.
 Ibid., p. 21.
 Ibid., p. 21.
 Ibid., p. 28.
 Ibid., p. 27.
 T. Cliff, Trotsky 1923–1927: Fighting the Rising Stalinist Bureaucracy (Bookmarks 1991), p. 98.
 Ibid., p. 99.
 Ibid., p. 113.
 Quoted ibid, p. 115.
 Ibid., p. 115.
 Quoted ibid, p. 115.
 I. Konigsberg, The Complete Film Dictionary (Bloomsbury 1988), p. 213.
 K. Reisz and G. Millar, The Technique of Film Editing (Focal Press 1953), p. 19.
 S. Eisenstein, Dickens, Griffith, and the Film TodayFilm Form (Dennis Dobson 1951), p. 195.
 Ibid., p. 234.
 Ibid., p. 234.
 Ibid., p. 196.
 K. Reisz and G. Millar, op. cit., pp. 27–28.
 V.I. Pudovkin, Film Technique (Newnes 1929), p. 140.
 Ibid., pp. 138–139.
 S. Eisenstein, Film Form (Dobson 1951), p. 63.
 S. Eisenstein, The Film Sense (Faber & Faber, 1943), p. 17.
 Goethe in Conversations with Eckermann (5 June 1825) translated by John Oxenford, quoted in S. Eisenstein, Film Formop. cit., p. 45.
 S. Eisenstein, Film Formop. cit., p. 38.
 Ibid., p. 46.
 Ibid., p. 39.35. Ibid., p. 15.
 Ibid., p. 16.
 Memo from David O. Selznick (Viking Press 1972), quoted in R. Bergan, op. cit., p. 118.
 Ibid., p. 117.
 J.D. Andrew, The Major Film Theories (Oxford 1976), p. 73.
 More on the subject of the physiology of perception can be read in The Language of Film: Signs and Syntax, in James Monaco’s How To Read A Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History, and Theory of Film and Media (Oxford University Press 1981).
 J.D. Andrew, op. cit., p. 81.
 R. Bergan, op. cit., p. 131.
 K. Reisz and G. Millar, op. cit., p. 36.
 J. Reed, Ten Days That Shook The World: The Illustrated Edition (Sutton Publishing 1997), p. 78.
 R. Bergan, op. cit., p. 21.
 S. Eisenstein, A Dialectic Approach to Film FormFilm Formop. cit., p. 59.
 Ibid., p. 58.
 Ibid., p. 58.
 Ibid., p. 56.
 R. Bergan, op. cit., p. 347.

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