Legendary Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein is one of the most influential creative minds in the history of the medium. A philosopher of cinema, Eisenstein did not invent montage, but certainly explored the vast parameters of its possibilities without precedent.
Thus, a high definition release of one of his central works is understandably something of an event, and the good people at Kino have packaged a pristine new reissue of Eisenstein’s debut feature film Strike (1925) from its restoration by Cinematheque de Toulouse.
Strike is essential viewing for anybody who is seriously invested in the evolution, history and potential aesthetic and political power of cinema, and this new DVD and Blu-ray version is likely the best viewing experience available.
Eisenstein’s silent cinema is perhaps best characterized by three connective traits: portraying pre-revolutionary history, collective storytelling, and collision montage.
Like his later (and more famous) Battleship Potemkin (also 1925) and (to an extent) October (1928), Strike takes place in the final days of the Tsarist era before the Bolshevik-led revolution and the establishment of a Communist Russia that Eisenstein did most of his life’s work in. The film, as its title implies, concerns the organization of a massive strike at a large factory led by a group of insurgent laborers, and portrays the tensions, hardships, and ultimately tragedy endured by the strikers at the hands of the controlling class and the strong arm of the Russian government. Taking place in 1903, the film serves as a demonstration of proletarian sacrifice. However, Eisenstein’s work is far more than government-sponsored propaganda. It’s a beautiful work of art manifested through an expertly crafted narrative, a film that exhibits an incredible understanding of cinema’s unique visual language.
In an effort to establish a uniquely non-Western form of cinematic expression, Eisenstein’s films are told through collective rather than individual experience. This approach reinforces the proletarian values of organization and fighting for the good of the many, but it also provides an audaciously original means of storytelling. Rather than follow an individual protagonist through a series of events, Strike instead provides a cast of hundreds, giving us a labyrinthine mosaic of all factors involved in the motivation for the strike, the struggle to enact the strike, and the violence that follows. Eisenstein’s films are far from conventional narratives and thus can be difficult to follow, but rarely is state-sponsored filmmaking thus unique and artistically ambitious. While vast and frenetic, Strike is never chaotic, and manages to depict the proletarian campaign with incredible detail across its six episodes.
But Eisenstein’s major contribution to cinema in the silent era is no doubt his implementation of collision montage, or his theory that cinema never speaks through a single image, but the juxtaposition of several (like a word versus a sentence). Eisenstein’s application of this technique often draws forth abstract metaphors that violate what we think of as conventional time-space boundaries in cinematic storytelling: images of foreign objects or incidents come out of seemingly nowhere not to contribute to a stable and cohesive narrative, but to illustrate an idea being purported by the filmmaker. When considering that 80% of the Russian people at this time were illiterate, it makes sense that Eisenstein attempted to convey political messages through a strictly and singularly visual language.
Strike is perhaps the most accessible of Eisenstein’s silent work, as it eases the spectator into what would become the filmmaker’s signature employment of collective storytelling and collision montage. The film’s first episode introduces the viewer to a band of would-be revolutionary laborers by their signifying nicknames. As most of these characters are nominated as animals, Eisenstein here quite directly establishes his use of montage as visual metaphor by displaying a shot of an animal immediately followed by the corresponding laborer/striker (i.e., and owl followed by “The Owl” mimicking an owl movement). The animal, of course, doesn’t exist in the film’s narrative universe, but is a means to illustrate a point, and thus Eisenstein has prepared his audience for the payoff of this technique at the film’s end, when the killing of the laborers at the hands of the army is juxtaposed with graphic images of the slaughter of cattle. The meaning is blatantly apparent and shocking in its affect, delivered distinctly through cinematic expression.
Strike, then, is not just an Eisenstein film, but a film perfectly demonstrative of his signature stylistic process and his contribution to the language of the medium. It’s less abstract than his later work, but just as powerful and accomplished. That the “Odessa Steps” sequence from Battleship Potemkin is more famous than the slaughtering of the bulls at the end of Strike is purely arbitrary, for they are each powerful sequences. Unlike many feature debuts, Strike doesn’t show us a talented young filmmaker getting his bearings before his later masterpieces, but rather an assured artist who knows what he must contribute to the still-nascent medium.
Obviously, I highly recommend the Blu-ray version of Strike over the DVD, simply because it is the perhaps the best possible way to see this film as it exists today. The crispness of the high definition transfer provides a reminder that because Eisenstein valued the montage doesn’t mean each individual image wasn’t masterfully stunning. Watching Strike in HD I first realized how complex Eisenstein’s individual images are. But they aren’t mount-it-on-the-wall beautiful as much as they are arresting in their movement and architecture, which gives greater credence to Eisenstein’s exclusively cinematic aesthetic.
Of course, any transfer of a film this old is never without the visible wear of history, but this isn’t a discredit to the transfer as much as it further cements the reality of Eisenstein’s films as products of a long and fascinating history. The years in between are visible, and they should be.
The extras here are a bonus as well. The disc provides the four-minute comic short Glumov’s Diary (1923), Eisenstein’s very first film. But the real added value here is Eisenstein and the Revolutionary Spirit (2008), an interview with French film scholar Natacha Laurent. Laurent provides an accessible, succinct, and compelling history of Eisenstein, his fellow revolutionary 1920s filmmakers, and the Soviet Union in the first half of the twentieth century. Accompanied with a bevy of clips and archive materials, Laurent adeptly traverses through Eisenstein’s sound years, experiences abroad, conflicts with the Soviet government and censorship, and the tragedy of his later life. This feature provides an essential context for viewing any of Eisenstein’s work.
For the Eisenstein aficionado or the neophyte looking for a greater understanding of the essential episodes of cinematic history, Kino’s release of the new transfer of Strike indispensable viewing. Because of the glorious HD transfer and the fact that Strike is Eisenstein’s most accessible silent work, I especially recommend this disc to anybody heretofore uninitiated to the world of Eisenstein.
You can purchase Strike from Amazon here.