Sunday, January 27, 2019

On The 120th Anniversary Of His Birthday- Films To While Away The Class Struggle By- With Serge Eisenstein’s “Strike” (1925) In Mind

On The 120th Anniversary Of His Birthday-  Films To While Away The Class Struggle By- With Serge Eisenstein’s “Strike” (1925) In Mind

Films To While Away The Class Struggle By- With Serge Eisenstein’s “Strike” (1925) In Mind

DVD Review  

By Political Commentator  Frank Jackman

Strike, starring a cast of hundreds of working people and others, directed by Serge Eisenstein, 1925

No question, no question at all that some political films whether they were intended as propaganda for a certain viewpoint as with the film under review, Russian mad man filmmaker Serge Eisenstein’s 1925 classic Strike, or because as the story line developed everybody was compelled to think through the implications of the cover-up and preclude to coup in a film like Costa-Garvas’ Z remain in our consciousness long after mere entertainment films have faded from view. Here is the beauty of Eisenstein’s work whether with Strike or in an effort like Potemkin, the one with the famous baby carriage scene on the Odessa Steps. The medium is the message to steal a phrase from an old-time social media commentator like Marshall McLuhan. The whole thing is done, powerfully done, with nothing but absolutely stunning cinematography, a few signboards (in Russian with English subtitles), and some very interesting and varied mood music which if I am not mistaken included some jazz theme stuff from Duke Ellington, and if not him then definitely some jazz riffs along with that inevitable classical music that one would have expected from a Russian filmmaker who grabbed what he could from the Russian Five.        

Now the question of who a film is directed at is usually pretty much just to lure in general audiences, maybe if it is cartoonish then kids but usually general audiences. Eisenstein in this film though is directing his efforts to working people in order for them to draw some important lessons about the class struggle. Of course Eisenstein was working shortly after the October Revolution of 1917 in his country and so he probably was more or less committed to this type of film in the interests of the Soviet government and of the world revolution that was still formally what the Bolsheviks and their international allies were all about. (I might add though that a later film about Ivan the Terrible had the same fine cinematic qualities and that was not particularly directed at the world’s working classes but to ancient Russian patriotic fervor as the smell of war, war on the doorstep became apparent.) That drawing of lessons about what happened during the strike is the force that drives the film.

Here is how this one played out in all its glory and infamy. The workers at a Russian factory of unknown location and for that matter of unknown production had been beaten down by the greedy capitalists and stockholders, had had no say in what they made and how much dough they made. (The scenes with the greedy capitalists are a treasure, something out of any leftist’s caricature of the old time robber barons complete with fat bellies, cigars and top hats). Like any situation where tensions are strung out to the limit it did not take a lot to produce a reason for a strike for a better shake in this wicked old world. Here it was an honest workman’s being accused of a theft which he couldn’t defend himself against and so in shame he committed suicide. After have previously spent several weeks talking about taking an action to better their conditions the leaders of the underground “strike committee” decided to have everybody “down tools.” (The scene of this action with a rolling shutdown as section after section left their benches was breathtaking.)      

Of course in turn of the century (20th century) Russia (and elsewhere) the capitalists were as vicious as one would expect of a new class of exploiters dealing here with people, men and women, just off the farm and so in no mood to grant such things as an eight-hour day (a struggle that we in America are very familiar with from the Haymarket Martyrs whose chief demand a couple of decades before the time of this film was for that same eight hour day) and a big wage increase. So the committee of capitalists and their hangers-on gave a blanket “no.” Said the hell with you to the strikers.
The aftermath of this refusal is where the real lessons of this film are to drawn. Needless to say the capitalists were willing, more than willing to starve the workers into submission (the scenes of some workers pawning off their worldly possession for food for the kids, for themselves are quite moving).But not only were they willing to starve the mass of workers back to the factory but did everything in their power to break the strike by other means. First and foremost to send spies out to stir up trouble in order to get the class unity broken, then tried to get some weak-links to betray the movement from within, and if that didn’t work then try might and main to round up by any way possible the leaders of the strike in order to behead the movement. In the end though they were not above using their “Pharaohs,” their mounted cops and troops to suppress the whole thing. In the final scene after the cops and troops have done their murderous assaults on unarmed strikers the corpses spread out widely on the massacre field tell anybody who wasn’t sure about the role of the cops and troops in preserving the social order of the rulers all they need to know about the way the strike was defeated. 

From what I could gather from the last signboard (one which mentioned the Lena gold strike which was I believe was suppressed in 1912) the time period of this strike was between the 1905 revolution that went down in flames and the victorious revolution in 1917. The implications of the failure of the strike, of the need to take the state power, were thus through Eisenstein’s big lenses there for all to see. Hey, even if you don’t draw any political conclusions from this film just watch to see what they mean they say a picture sometimes is worth a thousand words. Eisenstein has a thousand such pictures that will fascinate and repel you.  

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