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Pete Green

Fire and passion

(October 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 113, October 1988.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Battleship Potemkin and October are probably the two most famous films ever to come out of Russia. Sergei Eisenstein directed both and is one of the greatest directors in the history of film. An exhibition of his work is currently on in London. Pete Green writes about the life and work of Eisenstein.

“THE NEW art must set a limit to the dualism of the spheres of ‘emotion’ and ‘reason’.
It must restore to science its sensuality.
To the intellectual process its fire and passion.
It must plunge the abstract process of thought into the cauldron of practical activity.”
(From Perspectives, S.M. Eisenstein, 2 March 1929)

In 1926 a film made in Russia about the 1905 Revolution was a smash hit in Berlin, running for a year. The German war office declared the cinemas where it was showing off limits for all military personnel.

In Britain and France the film was banned by the censors, but shown widely to much enthusiasm in private film clubs. Many British Communist Party members saw and enjoyed the film.

In 1933 there was a mutiny aboard the Dutch battleship De Zeven Provincien. According to Yon Barna’s biography of the film’s director Sergei Eisenstein, the crew claimed at their court martial to have been inspired by seeing Battleship Potemkin.

In the same year Eisenstein wrote an article entitled Through the Revolution to Art: Through Art to the Revolution.

In 1927 the left opposition led by Trotsky suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Stalin, Bukharin, and the new bureaucracy. The poet of the revolution, Mayakovsky (who detested bureaucrats, and would commit suicide in 1930), denounced the directors of the Soviet film organisation for only showing Potemkin in second class cinemas until they heard about its foreign success.

In Russia the film played to half empty cinemas. It would be interesting to know if it is being shown there this year, and what the audience’s reaction is.

In Britain there is an exhibition overflowing with documents, drawings, photographs and video extracts to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Eisenstein’s death in 1948 at the age of fifty. It is currently in London and is moving to Manchester in December. No socialist interested in movies or art should miss it.

There are unconfirmed rumours that all the films are to be shown on television over the next two months.

There could have been no Eisenstein without the Revolution. Never a Bolshevik, he volunteered for the Red Army in 1918 at the age of 19 as a draftsman and engineer. In 1920 he became a designer for a front line theatre troupe. In 1921 returning to Moscow he joined the experimental theatre workshop under the direction of Meyerhold, plunging into the furious arguments about art and politics which raged under the benign eye of Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar for Enlightenment.

Much later, in 1945, Eisenstein remembered:

“we were young and had plenty of time. The whole of the future. The daring creative ideas of the twenties were bubbling all around. They manifested themselves in exuberant young sprouts of crazy imagination, mad inventions, infinite boldness.

“And all this was prompted by a burning desire to find some new, unknown means of expressing new experiences.

“But in defiance of the banished term ‘creation’ (substituted by ‘work’), in spite of ‘construction’ whose bony tentacles were spread out to strangle the image, the exciting epoch gave birth to one creative (yes,creative) achievement after another.”

Eisenstein’s first full length film, Strike, made in 1925, teems with images and beats with political passion. When I first saw it in 1984 during the miners’ strike, my immediate response was that we should take it on tour and show it at meetings. Close friends told me I was mad – show a silent movie, at a meeting, about a strike which ends in bloody defeat? I saw it again recently and only regret that I lacked the conviction of my own emotion.

I laughed at the caricatures of the spies; was gutted by the family without food; thumped my fist down at the sight of the fat, smug bosses; reeled in horror at the final scenes, but left a more convinced revolutionary.

Eisenstein’s own view was that, “in The Strike we have the first instance of revolutionary art where the form has turned out to be more revolutionary than the content”.

It was a provocative statement, designed to shock as much as any collision of images (Eisenstein’s principle of montage) in the films themselves.

This arrogance, coming from the man who in 1928 described Ulysses by James Joyce as “the bible of the new film making”, would lay Eisenstein open to many attacks for his “formalism” in the 1930s.

The critics showed less feeling for dialectics than Eisenstein, who wanted to make a film of Capital, and who understood that Marxism is both a science and an art. His aim was to achieve the same synthesis in the cinema.

But Eisenstein capitulated to Stalinism. That is already evident in the film October. There are brilliant visual sequences in the film. It is particularly effective on the July days and the defeat of Kornilov’s attempted coup. But by 1927 it was no longer possible to make an honest film about the revolution.

The fault is not simply that scenes were cut and the only reference to Trotsky is a lie. One can blame that on Stalin’s direct intervention.

The climactic storming of die winter palace is overblown and historically inaccurate. But it can still inspire. Eisenstein himself quoted Goethe. “For the sake of truthfulness one can afford to defy the truth.”

The film fails because Eisenstein, unable to reproduce the political arguments which decisively affected the result, resorts instead to self-conscious experimentation. The content strains against the form. The imagery obscures the significance of the events, as one of Eisenstein’s former associates, Osip Brik, argued at the time.

Real debate could still happen in 1928. Far worse “abasement” (the word is Eisenstein’s own in his Immoral Memories) was to come. I will not attempt to tell the grim story of Eisenstein’s career after 1928.

If you already know something about the Revolution, and why it was lost, you can learn much from visiting the exhibition.

The films themselves (those that survive) tell the story. We move from the daring imagery of Strike and Potemkin to the manipulations of October, through to the gross patriotism of Alexander Nevsky, and the dark, ponderous, operatic tones of Ivan the Terrible Part One (1944).

Ivan the Terrible Part Two wasn’t allowed to be shown until the 1960s. The film portrays the descent of a strong ruler into a paranoid maniac. Ivan the Terrible Part Three was never made. Eisenstein suffered a heart attack in 1946 whilst dancing vigorously during the wait for Stalin’s verdict on Part Two.

Immoral Memories, written while he was bedridden in the remaining years before his death, never mentions Stalin’s name. It reveals that for all his cowardice Eisenstein remained loyal to many of the ideas and the friends banished from history.

He had acquired a sense of bitter irony. He had lost his optimism.

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