Using Eisenstein’s Strike (1925), How Did the Russian Revolution Influence Russian Cinema?
For this group blog post we have been give the task called “Doing film history” which included, deciding as a group what type of historical theme we wanted. The choices were endless. However, we settled on a study on Post-Revolution Russian Cinema, particularly looking at the work by Sergei Eisenstein. Once we came to a decision on our theme, we chose to research one film in particular as an example, as a beneficial link for our group work, this film was Strike (1925). Fortunately, we have been lucky enough to have access to the online Bill Douglas Museum to gather some artefacts and some research sources. The most important things that we wanted to include in this work was; the editing side of Russian film in that point in history, which genres were most dominant and what the typical roles were for each genre, what the mise en scène was like back then and the role of women in Russian Cinema. We have also picked three main sources of research from the theme that we choose, so we could elaborate on our individual findings as much as possible while continuing to have a coherent flow through this post. These sources were gathered from multiple credible online archives, much like the BDCM, such as a photographic example of ‘The Kuleshov Effect’, an authentic poster for our focus film Strike, and an article on ‘The Motion Picture in Russia’ written in 1915.
With aid from the article source above that suggests how the industry was different before the revolution, I will focus on how pre-revolutionary Russia saw drastic impacts of impoverishment, with population in major Russian city’s nearly doubling, leading to rise of poor living conditions, this led to Russia becoming one of the most impoverished countries in Europe. Pre-soviet conventions for filmmaking involved the heavy reliance of western Europe and the USA for the import of film technology (such as cameras and film stock). At the time of early Russian cinema, one of the three production companies in Russia were foreign, and the first of many native film production companies were not founded until 1907. Alexander Drankov’s opening of his film company: “A. Drankovs Atelier” at St Petersburg was one of the major film companies founded in 1907, presenting films with an authentic view of Russia. The major reliance in the Russian film industry on other countries meant that 90% of the films shown before world war 1 were imported. The dependency on Europe and the USA encouraged the influence of Russian cinema in imitating European styles of filmmaking (e.g. Film d’art). Once the revolution came, the impact of the Bolsheviks success lead to Czarist workers in the film industry to leave, leading to everything being in short supply; on top of that, the imposed western blockade on Russia meant that their supply of new film equipment was cut off. Under the leftist government of Vladimir Lenin, amongst many industries, the film industry was nationalised in August 1919: – “of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important”-V.I Lenin. Under nationalisation, the cinema committee was then co-founded by Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, in which the Moscow film school was born from, which provided a more fleshed out, established dynamic into the Russian film industry. The Moscow film school provided a foundation in which soviet filmmakers could promote the Marxist ideology intended for a new propaganda, anti-Tsarist approach to Russian cinema in which stemmed out of the revolution. The school also created many revolutionary techniques into the art of cinema, in which we can see its influence today, such as the works of combining narrative and emotional effects with soviet montage; Lev Kuleshov was co-founder of the Moscow film school and a key artist in the works of soviet montage, blending editing with cut shots to evoke an emotional response within the audience. Eisenstein’s ‘Strike’ (1925) stands as an example of a promotion via propaganda in which the soviet film industry was steering towards after the revolution, using the new founded techniques of montage editing to suggest a relation between shots in order to depict the hardship of pre-revolutionary factory workers striking in the film, highlighting the themes of revolutionary subjects by presenting uprisings and physical conflict; It made the film stand out as an iconic piece of post revolution influenced cinema, displaying clearly the profound new approach to the Russian film industry.
As mentioned above, the Russian revolution had a significant impact on Russian film history since it brought about a number of experimental editing techniques. For example, prior to the revolution, according to Source A ‘Russian initiative in film producing was lacking’. Historians like Cavendish support this notion suggesting that films were ‘underpinned’ by ‘theatrical conventions’ because ‘film-making sought cultural respectability, away from its origins as a…fairground attraction’ (211). Efforts to legitimise film as a variation on theatre, can be seen in Twilight of a Women’s Soul where Bauer uses slow-paced continuity editing and ‘traditional metaphor’s like mirrors symbolising introspection (Kovalova). In contrast, post-revolutionary films, according to Bordwell, featured ‘fresh’ ‘eclectic experimentation’ (50). Arguably, source B arguably demonstrates the principles underlying intellectual montage by juxtaposing and combining the connotations of imagery of machinery and a mouth to allude to a greater political message such that the worker’s voice must be heard. This technique is repeated in Strike when shots of the bourgeoise are juxtaposed with animals (fox- signifying slyness, bulldog- symbolising ruthless violence) to indicate capitalist inherent immorality. Importantly, these montage methods interrupt temporal continuity to convey meaning, unlike pre-revolutionary editing which disguises the artificial production of screen instance using slow-paced, continuity editing as to imitate theatre’s performative melodramatic elements. Soviet commitment to invent radical editing techniques is further emphasised by the Moscow film school’s invented methods like rhythmic montage and the Kuleshov effect (Bordwell 139).
On the other hand, Bordwell’s notions, suggests that perhaps, the Soviets’ experimental editing techniques were not particularly ‘fresh’ and had rather been developed prior to the revolution. Perhaps, as part of an American film magazine, Source A had a vested interest in downplaying the Russian film industry’s sophistication to emphasise the supremacy of American filmmakers. This bias can be is suggested by the authors’ claims that Russian films ‘went into the psychology of things to an extent which could not be portrayed on screen’. This is arguably not the case in Twilight of A Woman’s Soul whereby Bauer creates a compelling portrayal of Vera’s inner turmoil using double exposure to depict ghost-like imaginings from her dream sequence. This highlights that on occasion, pre-revolutionary Russian filmmakers did show ‘initiative’ using experimental editing techniques. Nevertheless, overall, given Soviet commitment to invent radical montage techniques it can be said that the Russian revolution had a significant impact on Russian film history.
Though perhaps not as researched or focused upon as editing in Soviet Montage film, mise en scène also plays an interesting role in post-revolution impact. Revolutionary Russian cinema guided the audience away from a melodramatic mise en scène that they had become equated to in the 1910’s that could be seen in works by directors such as Yevgeni Bauer. The pre-revolutionary cinema presented mise en scène as something deeply aesthetic, with use of spacing, height, set design and symbolism. This could all be seen in the Revolutionary filmmaking that followed it, though the political ideology behind the style becomes evident through the use of mise en scène unlike its predecessors. The Soviet Montage style that can be seen in films such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike was revolutionary in all aspects of subject matter, including the mise en scène, which was vital for adding to the ideology that is represented. It is everything within the shot, and therefore, is part of the inherently political message. Eisenstein was seen to be more eager to educate and change the proletariat rather than to simply identify with them and his work mixed realism with strange and evocative imagery which couldn’t be possible without the mise en scène of the shot. Examples of this especially seen in Strike could be the continuous patterns of people, shot like herds or stream rather than as individuals as characters, or the use of expressive locations (also seen as symbolic pictorial expression). All of this is used to stimulate responses from the audience, aiding the powerful editing and juxtaposition of emotions in each image. To show this use of mise en scène in more detail, we can look more deeply at a particular scene of Strike, where workers seem to be fleeing from soldiers with strange and short cuts. Everything in this scene suggests they are running from danger, though we see no shots and no one falling. Instead this scene is replaced by a cut straight to death with shots of a bull being slaughtered in the abattoir. This mise en scène does not explicitly say what is happening, but the blending of the two vastly different images forces the viewer to see the slaughter as comparable between the people and the bull, thus creating an evocative and powerful sequence.
The final aspect of Russian cinema that intrigued us as a group was the impact on the role of women. Before the soviet revolution, the population of Russia was living in impoverished provinces where women were seen as nothing more than the property of a man. Women were being looked at and treated as slaves for the pleasure of men which was due to the flexibility the public got given by the Russian law. However, this soon changed in 1914 due to the onset of war. As Rachel Morley states in “Gender Relations in the Films of Yevgeni Bauer”, a noticeable change was taking place in the early 20thcentury, within all layers of Russian society, specifically within the social roles of women. (Morley, 2003) This is where the acceleration of women entering the industrialised workforce took place. The presence of women within the textile and metal industry increased majorly as they became the main workers of the factories. The rise of the creation of ‘New Woman’ took place, which was aimed at removing women from the idea that a woman’s role is being a domestic housewife. However, specifically focusing on Yevgeni Bauer’s work, directing within film pre-revolutionary, one could argue that films were not being influenced by realistic events. This is since women in his films were being portrayed as being powerful and taking action even if they had to pay the price and suffer from consequences, whereas, women pre-revolution were simply just seen as a man’s property meaning such power wasn’t available. This type of portrayal is seen within Bauer’s 1913 first directed film of “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul”. Morley, also suggest that women within Bauer’s films are portrayed as demanding and standing by their rights to build a new image and role for themselves, within both, society and intimate relations, which again isn’t what women were like pre-revolution (Morley, 2003). On the other hand, one could argue that when looking at films post-revolution, it is clear that the soviet revolution has influenced the Russian cinema, specifically, when looking at Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 “Strike”. Even though throughout the film there are a few occasions where women are playing the roles of domestic housewives, being the mum and the wife, there are far more scenes within the film where women are being portrayed as equals to men. To show this, we can look at the scene where the women are striking alongside the men and taking part in the violent protest against their factory bosses. This is a clear depiction of women during the revolution time as women were working alongside men within many factories. Overall, it is clear to see that the Russian revolution has influenced Russian cinema, as the portrayal of women pre-revolution and post-revolution are hugely different.
Though this project was difficult to navigate through the lack of access we had to The University of Exeter due to COVID-19, and the impact it had on the ability to work in complete coherence as a group we still made it work effectively in a way that suited us all. We found this topic interesting to study individually as well as to come together and discuss through various platforms, and we believe we were able to create a blog to a high quality that touched on the impact that revolution had on Russian Cinema.
- Thompson, Kristin. Bordwell, David. “Soviet Cinema in the 1920’s”. Film History: An Introduction. McGraw-Hill Education. Pp, 105-125. 1994.
- David Bordwell. “Eisenstein’s aesthetics”, Harvard university press’ . p51. 1993.
- Bordwell, David, Film History: An Introduction, McGraw-Hill College, 1994. pp-120-140
- Bordwell, David. “The cinema of Eisenstein”. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1993. pp.50-62
- Cavendish, Philip. “The hand that turns the handle: camera operators and the poetics of the camera in pre-revolutionary Russian film”. Slavonic and East European Review, 82 (2). 2004. pp. 201-245.
- Kovalova, Anna. World War I and pre-Revolutionary Russian cinema, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema, (2017) pp.96-117, DOI: 10.1080/17503132.2017.1300425
- Frederiksen, Marie “Women before, during and after the Russian Revolution” 1917 In Defence of October. 08. 2020.
- Weeks, Andrew Glen “Depiction of Women in Stalinist Soviet Films, 1934 – 1953” 2012.
- Morley, Rachel. “The Slavonic and East European Review”. Gender Relations in the films of Evgenii Bauer (2003): 32-69. JSTOR. Web. JAN. 2003.