Agitprop as festivity more than hoosegow, Sergei Eisenstein’s first film is also his most disarmingly pure and innocent in its desire to agitate not only society but cinema, a film thoroughly unmitigated by its own weight and purpose. The perpetual penitentiary many modern viewers discover when viewing Eisenstein’s unmistakably political films is replaced with a kindled carousel of motion and action, reaction and consequence, that feels not only undated but more progressive and alive with possibility than any film released in the 2010s. A freedom-fighting film that, in a fit of art imitating the dreams of a life that never came to exist, feels palpably liberated from the cinematic status quo. Rather than merely political critique, Strike is a filmmaking polemic, a hustle-and-bustle strike of inventive cinematic mechanisms enlivening the passé “historical cinema” genre that was often as inept and anonymous then as it is now.
In an ironic twist of fate, Eisenstein’s montage technique – much like the Soviet Empire itself – would become codified and compartmentalized until its energy and new possibility of burgeoning life was downplayed in favor of classification and arch-composure. But, much like the early flickers of ebullient rampage and fugitive social disruption at the heart of the Soviet Revolution, Eisenstein’s earliest film, Strike, is a harried, restive, gloriously liberated and uninhibited dismissal of the status quo not yet mitigated or mediated by the soon-to-be-ossification of the style and the politics. Soviet governance, and to a lesser extent, Eisenstein’s early cinema, would become stillwater once they transitioned from disrupting edicts to implementing their own, but this first film is a breathless rush of freedom from the rules of cinema that perfectly mirrors the askew euphoria of communal rebellion.
Most films about history are cartoonishly benign, unwilling to weaponize their cinematic style to accomplish anything with history rather than merely depicting it. With Strike, a loose account of a failed Russian workers’ rebellion in the early 1900s, cinematic style is malignant, metastasizing in a flurry of volatile technique that turns Soviet rebellion and worker camaraderie into a razzamatazz of free-spirited, neck-snapping fury. Marxist in a literal, formal sense, Strike extends beyond a superficial narrative paean to revolution and into a cinematic encapsulation of the conflict dialectic that Marx inscribed in thought and that Eisenstein writes with the lightning-fire of editing.
What does this mean? Every image rattles forward metronomically even as it hums by scraping against its contrast. The first plane of hell is the opening image, a pair of strutting towers of maximal volition overpowering the screen on the left contrasted with an emaciated emptiness of space on the right, both cut against the billowing tower of a capitalist fat cat’s black hat against his rounded white face in the next shot. Man and machine are contradicted here, but the top hat also mimics the smokestack from the previous image, establishing connection even as it invokes difference. Almost immediately after, literally abstracted white circles crumble into black lines and spokes, like the non-corporeal version of the former shot. Water then washes away the smokestack and it reappears in reverse this time, contrasted and equated with its former self even as the flat water is itself counterpoised with the tall terror of the smokestacks. On their own, the shots carry some meaning, but together they crack open a swirling symphony of simultaneous similarity and difference.
All images are compared and contradicted in heated discontent and dialectical tension as Eisenstein enkindles his Soviet montage style into a fire for igniting not only the audience’s spirit but the friction between thoughts, objects, ideas, and motions. The edits, the space between shots, are the governing principle and the riddle-to-be-unpacked of Strike, a direct refutation of the Western cinematic ideal where the shots were the crux, and the edits were simply invisible transitions to move from one image to the next. Each image is no longer safe; they’re all hunted, reformed, stabbed, and reimagined by the editing that displaces their meaning onto other shots around each one, allowing no image to exist in a self-contained bubble. The single shot, like the single person in Marxist philosophy, is a part of a whole and fundamentally in tension with that whole.
Rather than cutting on narrative momentum within continuous space to minimize conflict between images (like the bourgeois, Enlightenment cinema of the Western elite that favors individual characters and individual volition), Eisenstein edits on metaphysical connection or difference, shifting on conceptual and visual ideas rather than narrative ones. In doing so, he evolves cinema to the realm of rhythmic clockwork that is also centrifugal and unstable, establishing the interconnection of the people and their machines, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, all of whom are connected but only in heated, fundamental tension with and resistance to that connection as the editing erects and destroys partitions like a hurricane and a construction crew in one. Organization and fluctuating, out-of-control pandemonium coexist as alternates in the way Eisenstein orders his film like an authoritarian machine yet constantly fractures and ruptures his order with editing bedlam, like a harmony of disharmony.
This monstrously hybrid style – both harmony and disharmony – evokes simultaneous connection and disconnect in the editing, perching each shot on a precipice where previous or successive images can either buttress the shot’s scaffolding or topple it to the ground (indeed, the core of the Marxist film is the coexistence of connection and disconnect, of simultaneity and conflict in one). Visualizing the chaos of life for the Soviet proletariat without organized unity, Strike’s friction-filled edits damn near start a fire that burns down not only the celluloid but the whole medium in a rhapsody of simultaneous liberation from the norm and the obliteration of worldly sense.
As with all truly great cinema, Strike embodies its theme in the rawest of girders, the edits that for Eisenstein were the filmmaker’s tool for reorienting our understanding how space and time function altogether. Preferring horizontal motion (the outward spreading of events to connect different people’s actions at the same time) rather than bourgeois vertical storytelling (one person from one event to the next, without any breathing space), he visualizes new ideas of rattling around in an inferno of pure cinema. The Soviet ideal of “collective being” is splayed onto the screen in cross-cutting that suggests people acting in harmony even with no nominal idea of the others’ actions, visualizing Marx’s vision of a world that functions along conflict and connection that both perpetuate in spite of the individual consciousnesses at play. New ideas on being, becoming, existence, and possibility emanate from every shot via their direct relationship to previous and forthcoming images, constructing the platonic ideal of cinema as symphony of space and mind rather than a vessel for individual character stories. Images fight for control of the mind and thematically within the film as an expression of a work where conflict, the tension between ideas and themes, the conflict between images, is the fundamental theme.
Not simply conflict though, but conflict that perforates the mind of stagnant cinema for the middlebrows and induces a disease of possibility and purpose on the path to actual cinematic revolution. Nominally, this means that the antithetical ideas conveyed by the film’s editing must be synthesized. For instance, “workers” and “work”, “human” and “machine” enter into tentative but electrifying harmony in superimpositions that partially foreclose the difference between the two and reimagine them in unison, not unlike Eisenstein as a worker joining the electrons in covalent, superimposed bonds that mitigate the throttling of the editing. A dialectic of terrifying difference or opposition becomes a dialectic of possibility to, if not absolve the difference, turn it into a strength or a flash-flood that can at least devour the status quo.
But the more unheralded, less intellectual, and indeed more populist factor of Strike’s galvanizing success is its gilded, unimpeachable function as breathless blockbuster, pop-cinema at its most unabashed and most voluminous. For Eisenstein, cinema was a medium of the masses not only because it could superimpose and edit the masses in ways that devoured assumptions about traditional, single-subject art (with the intrusion of editing innately predisposing cinema toward the medium of contrasts Eisenstein so desired). Cinema was also a collective geyser of imagination and arousing motion though, and the need to dress up Eisenstein’s achievement in intellectual airs somewhat belies its ultimate worth as a cinematic object of cathartic momentum and vicious visual poetry as entertainment. If a machine, it is a disco-ball and a flamethrower in one, a rabble-rousing, muckraking, party-going gong of destruction as a well of new possibility to be erected in place of the old cinematic ways.
Eisenstein’s contrasts are intellectual treatises but also white-hot social screeds and pools of surrealistic joie de vivre. Off-center modernist geometry ricochets into off-kilter humankind as the collective effervescence of imbibing in the honorable work that constructed the geometry rushes across the screen as we traverse the hot coals of rebellion. D.W. Griffith’s mechanically-perfectionist modulation of action and reaction (the progenitor for Eisenstein) is disrupted and discombobulated by pre-Buñuelean intrusions of avant-garde chaos. Karl Marx meets his comrade in arms and in name Graucho in anarchic, socially-uprooting rib-stickers that greasepaint not simply a mustache but a full face on people, enkindling the tools of the workers into astringent instigators of conflict, confusion, and low-brow comedy as a weapon of the masses.
Certain pairings are obvious gut punches (the workers retaking the lateral land in a pre-union proposition to strike in the forest, edited against longitudinal shaft of the factory halls now enervated of activity and life). But others are more volatile precisely because of how unhinged and nearly illogical they are, with the swirl of the movement and activity sometimes tipping over into madcap entropy that even Chuck Jones might have appreciated. The restfulness of the capitalist elite is unclotted by the imbalance of the film itself, a work that throbs with agency and volition and the renegade raffishness of a pirate film. Not simply a philosophical tract, Strike is also a more buoyant, in-the-moment, present-tense act of sticking it to the man. The scaffolding of capitalism is his film’s to dislodge, not only by mounting an intellectual attack but by reclaiming the anti-Enlightenment potency and provocation of spasmodic commotion, the invasive beauty of a pot-shot.
Rather than merely playing on “their” level, the ejaculating-euphoria of this film finds ecstasy in its own way. Smokestacks reverse before our eyes, people walking backwards after the frame dips them in water as if cleansing them of their rationalist temporal motion forward and bourgeois assumptions of normal motion. Crystal balls outside windows invert the world for us in a fracas of momentous disorder and exultation that rejects the principle that a mass rebellion must be a dour, sour affair rather than a triumph of human will. Eisenstein doesn’t erode the world but implode it in a dynamite-blast of visual uproar, the rules of bourgeoisie cinema denounced, mocked, and ultimately attacked with a camera now a washing machine. The film never once exhales, but it’ll sure bellow the whirlygust of change all over your face.
Not simply cinema of insurrection but insurrectionist cinema, Strike is a plea not for investigation but disconcerting agitation in not only work but in life and art that ultimately overflows into the realm of play, comedy, and human motion as it ruffles not only capital but the film medium itself. This isn’t a film about conflict or confrontation or agitation, but a work that is – in its cinematic bones – conflict, confrontation, and agitation. No mere formalist scab, Strike whoops and hollers the urban squalor around it into a bracing rave-up of maniacal invention. “Work and Disturbance” become not only the subject of the film, but embodied in the cinematic frame itself, with the filmmakers pulling triple-duty to suffuse the screen with dissolves, cross-cuts, delectably violent montage, stimulating angles, and any technique in the book to characterize the actual work of film production – the tactile mechanics of it – as a beacon of human capability to rebel against the regulations of any medium or structure it is confronted with. While Eisenstein’s second film, Battleship Potemkin (released in the same year as Strike), carries the badge of historical significance, wearing it startling composition and calibration like a fine-tuned gold medal, it is the more unhinged, uninterrupted, free-form liberation of Strike, released when Eisenstein’s style could simply erupt full-force rather than having to answer to any higher power, that feels the freshest today. Bustling with charisma, Strike is an effervescent ode to the effervescence of communal activity, a powder-keg of pure cinema.