Most people in most times and places, have derived their identity from their agreements with others. This is the case with church-goers and patriots. Others create a sort of artificial fraternity with sports loyalties or ethnic identity. It is only in our belated post-Romantic era that differences tend to be more highly prized. In the eighties I knew a critic who championed Night of the Living Dead as the greatest modern movie, proud of his singular favorite. Even a conspicuously individualist twentieth century critic, however, can enjoy assenting in a common judgment. With just such a pleasure in aligning myself with a widespread opinion, I regard Sergei Eisenstein as a very great filmmaker indeed. The work of this intensely original and idiosyncratic artist under a system where the collective received official endorsement when opposed to the individual poses aesthetic problems as well as the personal ones Eisenstein spent his life negotiating.
I recently watched Strike for the first time in decades and found it as rewarding, frame by frame, as I had in the past. Above all else, Eisenstein is a great master of montage, the most purely cinematic of techniques. His dazzling sense of composition satisfies the viewer in nearly every shot. What other director provides his audience with such an array of fascinating faces, each photographed with light and angle cunningly arranged to display every expressive irregularity? If Ivan the Terrible is operatic in its grand spectacle, Strike is a dramatic, intricately worked sonata, in which waves of formal beauty succeed each other one after another.
Curiously, Eisenstein’s formalism, which has brought such delight to cinephiles, would have been proof of its degenerate corruption for the Stalinist enforcers of Zhdanov-style socialist realism who oversaw his projects. Finding himself in the position of a medieval stained glass artist confined to Christian motifs, he, like they, produced work of captivating power. Though forbidden the pursuit of themes other than those prescribed by bureaucrats, he worked out his own dialectic between the generalizations of a vulgar Marxist vision and the myriad and unpredictable details of observed reality. The tension is encoded in the film’s casting, plotting, and montage.
The idea of “socialist realism,” while based in the precise and nuanced realism of Flaubert, Zola, and Balzac, avoided the chaos, ambiguity, and obscurity of experience in favor of simple didacticism. Thus, while insisting that the work was true to life in a way unprecedented in earlier art, Eisenstein substituted a flat morality tale for the complexity of life, all the while claiming to be more “real.” While the result is considerably more palatable than the brilliant Nazi films of Leni Riefenstahl, its plot-lines are as unconvincing as the “eight model plays” of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
For instance, Eisenstein’s fondness for selecting non-actors for many roles might seem to narrow the gap between the art work and observed reality. Instead of Hollywood-style stars, one sees “real people.” In practice, though, the director selected people who most strongly suggested stereotypes -- the strong young worker, the capitalist, the priest – as little “real” as glamorous actors. Again, the pretense of heightened realism leads in fact to stylized convention as tight as that of the commedia dell’arte.
The concluding massacre of the workers, unforgettably presented with slaughterhouse images, belies the “optimism” that was prescribed for socialist realism. The intertitle listing places where such repression had in fact occurred reinforces the fidelity to lived experience. Yet the viewer experiences the denouement as a tragic ritual, a sacrifice which expands the worker’s suicide earlier in the story and presents death as redemptive ritual, very much resembling the passion of Christ.
Is Strike realistic? Of course, a film is a series of images on cellulose acetate with virtually no resemblance to life, just as a novel is ink marks on two-dimensional pages. The degree of realistic illusion differs from one work to another, but it is always dialectic, conflicted, and ambiguous. In Eisenstein’s great film, the pretense of reproducing data from lived experience allowed the artist to produce great formalist works. (His colleague Dziga Vertov, with his kino pravda, illustrates one further possibility of the aesthetics, less monumental and dramatic, more lyrical and loose, of claiming to reproduce reality.) At the same time in America, one might note Dos Passos’ USA trilogy for its combination of modernist technique and representation of documentary truth. Art is always art; reality, reality. The implicit claim of realism is simply one of a variety of artistic techniques. The difference between realists and formalists resembles the medieval one between Realists and Nominalists, or one might trace it back to Plato and Aristotle. In the end, surely, both and neither are correct. Struggling with these oppositions is our truth. In Eisenstein’s case, the contradictions between style and content, worked out by an individual artist operating under a murderous philistine tyranny resulted in some of the world’s most memorable movies