A Cine-Fist to the Solar Plexus

David Trotter

  • Beyond the Stars, Vol.1: The Boy from Riga by Sergei Eisenstein, translated by William Powell
    Seagull, 558 pp, £16.99, June 2018, ISBN 978 0 85742 488 4
  • On the Detective Story by Sergei Eisenstein, translated by Alan Upchurch
    Seagull, 229 pp, £16.99, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 85742 490 7
  • On Disney by Sergei Eisenstein, translated by Alan Upchurch
    Seagull, 208 pp, £16.99, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 85742 491 4
  • The Short-Fiction Scenario by Sergei Eisenstein, translated by Alan Upchurch
    Seagull, 115 pp, £16.99, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 85742 489 1
  • Movement, Action, Image, Montage: Sergei Eisenstein and the Cinema in Crisis by Luka Arsenjuk
    Minnesota, 249 pp, £19.99, February 2018, ISBN 978 1 5179 0320 6

‘But where does the Potemkin go?’ That, according to Sergei Eisenstein, was what the people who had just seen his most famous film really wanted to know. At the climax of the film, the battleship’s mutinous crew, having got rid of all its officers and intervened decisively in the first stirrings of revolt in the Black Sea town of Odessa, head out of harbour to confront the rest of the imperial fleet, which has assembled to block their escape. Engines throb, guns swivel, lookouts peer into the blackness. And then, just as it seems that all hell is about to break loose, the opposition folds. The Potemkin glides unharmed through the fleet, to the accompaniment of rousing huzzahs and declarations of eternal brotherhood. The rapturous welcome received by the mutineers confirms that already, in June 1905, momentum was starting to build towards the triumph of October 1917. But where did the Potemkin go? To the neutral Romanian port of Constanza. There, after several futile attempts to refuel and resupply the ship, the crew surrendered to the authorities. Whatever, was Eisenstein’s feeling about that ignominious endgame. He said he had lost all interest in the ‘wandering ship’ the minute it ceased to be a revolutionary ‘asset’. Battleship Potemkin does not play by the narrative rules.

Born in 1898 in Riga, then an outpost of the Russian Empire, Eisenstein enjoyed a comfortable, bookish, cosmopolitan childhood, broken only – and to lasting effect – when his parents split up in 1909. In 1915 he left Riga to embark on the career his stuffy, autocratic father had planned for him, starting as a student at the St Petersburg Institute of Civil Engineering. During this period, he lived with his mother in an apartment notable chiefly for its semi-transparent pink curtains and the rich variety of outré library books crammed down the backs of sofas: the Marquis de Sade, Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, Octave Mirbeau’s Torture Garden. The 1917 revolutions, staged conveniently on his doorstep, caught him unawares. On 25 October, the night the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, he was at home with his mother sorting through articles on 18th-century engravers. The ensuing civil war had a more decisive effect. It brought the Eisenstein family romance nicely to the boil. His father joined the White Army, he the Red.

One thing not in short supply in the Red Army was theatre troupes (more than two thousand of them by 1920). Eisenstein had a great time in the Corps of Engineers building pontoon bridges – he never forgot the perpetuum mobile of the construction process – but his already indisputable talent for graphic and theatrical design earned him more productive employment as an agit-warrior. Cultural revolution became his metier. At the end of the war, he established himself as a stalwart of the Proletkult Theatre in Moscow, making up for his lack of class credentials by sheer virtuosity. He studied for a year with Vsevolod Meyerhold, the most innovative theatrical director of the time. The ‘material’ he sought to stretch and reshape in his own productions was the audience: in one production, an actor swayed precariously on a tightrope strung across the auditorium; in another, firecrackers were set off beneath the seats. He thought of theatre as a wind tunnel in which revolutionary consciousness could be tested almost to destruction. In the spring of 1924, he staged what was to be his final Proletkult production in the Moscow Gasworks (no firecrackers, presumably). A previous production had incorporated a short film, crude but brilliant, now known as Glumov’s Diary (if only all Dada was this much fun). It was clearly time to jump medium. Before very long – things happened fast to Eisenstein, in ways good and bad – he was directing a film about a pre-revolutionary industrial dispute in a factory making heavy equipment.

The film crew of ‘Battleship Potemkin’ with Sergei Eisenstein eighth from left.
The film crew of ‘Battleship Potemkin’ with Sergei Eisenstein eighth from left.

This was from the outset fully weaponised filmmaking. Declaring that Strike (1925) was the first Soviet film to handle its ‘revolutionary-historical’ subject from the ‘correct point of view’ (his italics), Eisenstein laid into rival claimants to a ‘materialist approach to form’ such as the Cine-Eye group led by Dziga Vertov. He complained that Vertov’s documentaries took from their surroundings ‘the things that impress him rather than the things with which, by impressing the audience, he will plough its psyche’. Documentary just wasn’t aggressive enough: ‘It is not a “Cine-Eye” that we need, but a “Cine-Fist”.’ Eisenstein’s nuclear option was what he had called in seminal essays of 1923 and 1924 the ‘montage of attractions’. In theatre, an attraction was a ‘direct reality’ calculated to shock: the tightrope, the firecracker beneath the seat; or, perhaps, a visit to Mirbeau’s torture garden. He had a soft spot for the sort of Grand Guignol drama in which ‘eyes are gouged out or arms and legs amputated on stage.’ Cinema boasted direct realities of its own. What’s more, it could combine them more explosively than even the most in-your-face theatrical production by the systematic use of montage. Montage involves the editing of individual shots into a sequence of some kind. Most directors of the time aimed to link one shot to the next in such a way as to generate a coherent, psychologically-motivated narrative (they would have told us where the Potemkin went). Eisenstein preferred collisions to linkage. In his view, it was the violence with which one image met another that provoked in the viewer an otherwise inconceivable new thought or feeling. Montage had in effect been set the task of overcoming alienation.

Battleship Potemkin, which premiered in December 1925, was a surprise international hit. The ‘boy from Riga’, as Eisenstein put it in his autobiography, became a ‘celebrity’: a boutique director as fervently admired by Hollywood royalty – Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin – as he was in the European salons and cine-clubs. October (1928), which begins with the abdication of Nicolas II and concludes with the storming of the Winter Palace, followed; and then The General Line (1929), about agricultural reform, a hymn to tractors. Eisenstein’s project for a montage-based revolutionary cinema was from the outset quixotic. In the late 1920s, it became increasingly hard to know which windmills to tilt at. Leon Trotsky, fallen from grace, had to be airbrushed out of October. Eisenstein was permitted to undertake a grand tour of European and American studio facilities, to learn about the techniques of sound cinema. In Hollywood, he met Chaplin and Walt Disney (an evocative photograph shows them admiring a cardboard Mickey Mouse). He ended up in Mexico, on a creative high. But his Mexican film never got made. Bezhin Meadow, his next commission, from a story by Turgenev, had very nearly reached completion before someone found a reason to ban it. By the mid-1930s, Socialist Realism, hostile to montage, was in the ascendancy. Rather amazingly, Eisenstein survived the Purges with little damage done apart from the occasional public recantation. In fact, he flourished, for a while, producing epic films about the sort of medieval warrior-patriarch Stalin could be relied on to identify with. Alexander Nevsky (1938) earned him the Order of Lenin. But it’s the ratio of input to output established by the three parts of Ivan the Terrible that best summarises his career as a whole: three complete screenplays, two complete films, one complete critical success (Part I).

Still, Quixote rides again, his armour buffed up to a superior sheen, on the high-stepping nag of academic film theory. And that’s entirely appropriate. ‘Though too weak in his last two years of life to resume film work,’ Jay Leyda reported, ‘Eisenstein was too strong to relax his theoretical activity.’ Leyda’s judicious selection from the fruits of that activity, published in 1949 as Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, became essential reading for generations of film students, and some influential philosophers. According to Luka Arsenjuk, the ‘great philosophical value’ of Eisenstein’s work – written, drawn and screened – lies in the unquenchable ‘dialectic of division’ driving its theoretical activity. The orthodox view of dialectical theory and practice favoured synthesis. Eisenstein understood that division is thought’s ‘primary and irreducible moment’. It isn’t just that montage was his key concept. It’s that all concepts are made by montage. The result, Arsenjuk proposes, was a cinema constitutively ‘in crisis’: a permanent radical departure, even, or especially, from itself.

When the Lumière brothers gave the first commercial showing of the films they had made with their new invention – the Cinématographe, a combined camera and projector – in December 1895, their aim was to present figures in motion: an image springing to life. Their stock in trade was the non-fiction ‘actuality’ taken in long shot, almost invariably from a fixed camera, and lasting about fifty seconds. A train arrives in a crowded station, and passengers alight; some courageous (or handsomely paid) pedestrians cross the Champs-Elysées during rush hour; fire engines clamour down a city street; a small boat heads out to sea. Meyerhold, who despised the cinematographic ‘naturalism’ of the actualities, and of the newsreels that succeeded them, taught Eisenstein to disrupt the moving figure by the extraction of a ‘gesture of movement that does not properly belong to it’: a gesture – of pathos, or ecstasy – that lifts the figure out of itself, converting mere motion into an intelligible symptom. Only when the moving figure’s significance is ‘no longer accessible’ by sight alone, Arsenjuk concludes, do we enter the ‘domain of cinema’.

That’s why Eisenstein was so enraptured by Disney’s animations, about which he wrote an incomplete, but nonetheless substantial and thoroughly revealing essay. He couldn’t get enough of the riot of malleability these films let loose: their ‘dissection’, as he put it, of the ‘unity of an object and the form of its representation’. That dissection begins when the line describing a character’s neck extends beyond the neck itself. The graphic ‘gesture’ which thus escapes the contour of the figure we initially supposed it to represent (duck, mouse, octopus, elephant) can be ‘read’, he thought, as an ‘embodiment’ of the ‘formula of pathos and ecstasy’. But Disney’s was a lyrical cinema. Eisenstein, by contrast, had the actuality of historical and contemporary event to reckon with. In an elegantly succinct chapter on the films, Arsenjuk anatomises their dialectical self-division between an ‘epic-heroic’ and a ‘theatrical-grotesque’ mode: on one hand, the epochal pathos and ecstasy of the dictatorship of the proletariat; on the other, a wily guerrilla tactic of explosion, caricature and Grand Guignol. Further chapters make excellent use of Eisenstein’s drawings and sketches to explore his understanding of the dialectical basis of the concepts of ‘image’ and ‘montage’.

Arsenjuk’s argument is highly persuasive on its own terms. But it does leave the odd loose end dangling. The most troubling of these arises from his determination to find the dialectic of division as rigorously at work in the later films as in the early ones. Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible may belong unequivocally to the Socialist Realist epic-heroic mode. But, Arsenjuk argues, they transform that mode from within by frequent recourse to the theatrical-grotesque, thus ‘putting into crisis’ its ‘ideological function’. The climax of Alexander Nevsky is a decisive battle on a frozen lake, in which Alexander defeats the invading army of Teutonic Knights by means of an ingenious pincer-movement, or, as Arsenjuk puts it, a ‘V-shaped trap’. The idea of the trap had supposedly come to him the previous night after overhearing a ‘vulgar joke’ told around the ‘military campfire’. The ‘joke’ is in fact an elaborate parable: a hare lures the vixen pursuing him into a forest, where she gets stuck in the cleft between two birch trees, through which he has just passed. Alexander’s disposition of his army in the form of a cleft or ‘V-shaped trap’ could thus be said to represent a theatrical-grotesque deconstruction of the ‘masculine figure of heroic action’ relentlessly promoted by Socialist Realism. The problem lies in the parable’s final act, which Arsenjuk neglects to mention: the hare, having trapped the vixen between the two trees, unceremoniously rapes her. This conclusion resonates, for the teller of the tale is not some anonymous spear-carrier sweating Dutch courage, but the blacksmith Ignat, whose subsequent death in battle will exemplify the redemption of the artisanal class through sacrifice. Alexander hangs around long enough to confirm the brutal outcome of the parable in a final sardonic exchange with Ignat. ‘And raped her?’ ‘And raped her.’ Such are the tactical niceties of Alexander’s plan for the Teutonic Knights (and, by implication, Stalin’s for Hitler). The film’s endorsement of unreconstructed masculinity is about as dialectical as a Cine-Fist to the solar plexus.

Where misogyny is concerned, Eisenstein had form. He once described the Bolshevik assault on the Winter Palace as a ‘rape’, apparently with approval, adding that he had got himself in the mood to shoot the relevant scenes in October by rereading Zola’s department-store novel Au Bonheur des dames. He wasn’t a creep, but he could certainly behave like one when it suited his purposes. As an ambiguously self-identifying gay man in Soviet Russia, he knew all about homophobia. That didn’t prevent him from lampooning the Palace’s female defenders as lesbians. The truth is that he wasn’t too choosy when it came to making an impression on an audience. His strength and his weakness as a theorist was the extraordinary zest and imagination he consistently displayed in seizing on absolutely anything that might come in handy as an instrument of mass persuasion. There’s plenty of evidence of this in the fragments of memoir he began to assemble after suffering a serious heart attack in February 1946 – Seagull is publishing a translation in four volumes together with other writings on an irrepressible variety of topics.

Eisenstein was a rhetorician who happened to make films. He had a soft spot for humanist eloquence, and if he’d ever come across Erasmus’s handbook De Copia, he would surely have enjoyed the account it gives of Cicero pitting his own verbal dexterity against the gestural prowess of the actor Roscius. When Eisenstein wrote about detective fiction, it was in order to establish that its plots proceed by means of the rhetorical figure of metonymy: the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant. Generic convention dictates that the detective reconstruct the identity of the criminal from the material scatterings of attribute and adjunct left at the scene of the crime. A device that had worked in one context, he believed, could almost always be made to work in another. The two remarkable lectures he gave in September 1941 at the Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, since collected as The Short-Fiction Scenario, have to do with the lessons film-makers operating in wartime conditions might learn from the technique of a story by the late-19th-century American writer Ambrose Bierce.

But rhetoric doesn’t quite cover the extent of the bricolage. What may be of most use to us now, as inhabitants of a hyperconnected world in which remote contact is rapidly becoming the norm, is Eisenstein’s willingness to explore the pathologies of instantaneous real-time communication at a distance. On Disney includes an astonishing meditation on the idea of fire, not as a figure for the metamorphic lyricism of animated film (the essay’s ostensible topic), but as the source of an irresistible urge to set light to stuff. Incendiarism galvanises mob violence in Strike; as it would also have done on two separate occasions in the Gold Rush movie Eisenstein never quite got to make for Paramount while he was in Hollywood. The mesmeric influence or ‘attraction’ of fire, he suggests, resides in its promise of power to the powerless. If only the montage of attractions could compel as fire compels. The thought makes him a theorist not so much of film as of media in general. In 1923, he argued that ‘the moulding of the audience in a desired direction (or mood) is the task of every utilitarian theatre (agitation, advertising, health education etc).’ The advertising industry had been an early exponent of media theory. In Crystallising Public Opinion (also 1923), the public relations guru Edward Bernays described the motion pictures as just one ‘medium’ or ‘channel’ through which to reach and mould a target audience. Eisenstein, perhaps, was less a belated Erasmus than a proto-McLuhan.

To be sure, Eisenstein’s rhetoric of inflammatory attractions was framed by revolution, where today it is turbo-capitalism that has done most to test the social and political limits of new media: Twitter aggro, Instagram ‘influencers’, Facebook’s monetisation of narcissism, the whole dismal spectrum of data-driven psychographic messaging. But early 20th-century Russian history had more twists and turns to it than revolution right or wrong. The conditions under which Eisenstein made his first films were those created by Lenin’s decision, in March 1921, to replace War Communism by a New Economic Policy (NEP). The reinstallation of a market economy at once reduced state support for cultural organisations and put the onus on the film industry to earn hard currency abroad. By Arsenjuk’s account, pathos articulates the dialectic of division. But Eisenstein himself said that his reliance on ‘doubt, tears, sentiment’ in Battleship Potemkin, as a departure from the explosion-crammed Strike, was a ‘first step’ in the NEP phase of the struggle. That’s the context in which his reflections on an ‘attractiveness’ unknown to the manuals of rhetoric are worth revisiting. Of course, it’s hard to imagine him running a Moscow troll factory. Still, he did describe montage as a chain or ‘schema’ of attractions ‘mathematically calculated’ to produce specific ‘emotional shocks’ in the spectator in a ‘proper order’. It sounds as though the word he needed was ‘algorithm’ rather than ‘dialectic’.

Film was not, in 1921, a new medium. Eisenstein renewed it by exploiting a dimension of the first cinematographic actualities that no longer receives a great deal of scrutiny. One kind of actuality that proved reliably popular was a view of crowds pouring out through factory gates at the end of the day, or leaving church after the Sunday service. These scenes contain little of any interest to anyone not present at the time. But that didn’t matter, because the participants were themselves the audience. They paid good money to watch it all again the next day on a screen in a music hall or fairground booth. The church and factory-gate actualities function as what we would call a social medium. They enabled a group of ‘friends’ to make contact with each other – and, in a sense, with themselves – remotely, at a certain distance, rather than in the flesh. No doubt they ‘liked’ what they saw. The content of these actualities wasn’t, of course, self-generated. But in other respects there isn’t a whole lot to distinguish them from the first video ever uploaded to YouTube, by one of the company’s founders, Jawed Karim, on 23 April 2005. Jawed stands in front of the elephant cage at San Diego zoo. It’s just possible to make out the animals themselves in the background. But he’s not interested in them. He offers a wry-juvenile remark about the length of their trunks, and is gone. Eisenstein wasn’t above the wry-juvenile. While he was still in Mexico, he sent the British director Ivor Montagu a photograph of himself straddling a gigantic curved cactus. On the back of it, he’d written: ‘Speaks for itself and makes people jealous!’ The difference is that he had spent the previous ten years trying to make revolution attractive. Revolution required a media campaign. Lenin’s celebrated plan for the electrification of the Soviet Union put as much emphasis on radio masts as it did on lightbulbs. Film, too, had a part to play.

Battleship Potemkin imagines social and political solidarity – mutiny engendering revolt – as a form of remote contact as mesmeric in its effects as pyromania. It does so by improvisation. For Eisenstein had to gloss over much of what actually happened during and as a consequence of the events in Odessa. Historical research has shown that the uprising was premature. Kirill Orlov, one of the few Bolsheviks to take part in it, condemned it as an anarchist stunt. The battleship’s crew blew hot and cold throughout. During their few days in the harbour at Odessa, they turned down several requests to support strikes and demonstrations occurring in the town. They did indeed receive supplies from a flotilla of small boats, as the film indicates, but soon lost patience with the resulting horde of sightseers. A few women remained on board, whom they fought over, with the result that a further approach had to be made to the long-suffering townsfolk, this time for medicine and bandages. Eisenstein’s solution to the lack of any real evidence of communal spirit was to imagine solidarity as something that happens not in the flesh, but at a remove, telegraphically. The crowd gathered on the steps connecting the port to the centre of the town semaphores its approval by waving. A lookout in a crow’s nest relays news of the gesture to the men on the deck below, who reciprocate lustily. Something comparable happens at the climax of the film, as the Potemkin encounters the massed Imperial fleet. Since it was at that time by some way the fastest and most heavily armed battleship in the Russian navy, the admiral commanding the fleet had little incentive to engage with it. The resulting stand-off enables Eisenstein to mount a further display of semaphore, as messages are transmitted by various means from the Potemkin (‘Join us!’) to the other ships and back again (‘Brothers!’). Solidarity happens best at a certain distance.

One other lacuna in heroic legend encouraged Eisenstein, resourceful as ever, to devise a mock-interactive moment of his own. Before leaving harbour, the mutineers had, after much debate, loosed off a couple of live rounds in the general direction of the military garrison’s headquarters in the Odessa Theatre. This was in retaliation for the massacre of the crowd gathered on the steps by Imperial troops. Although fired virtually at point-blank range, neither shot hit the target. Untroubled, Eisenstein briskly declares the fusillade a great success, and inserts an ingenious attraction. Shots of three statues of lions at the Palace Museum in the Crimean city of Alupka have been cut together so as to create the image of a beast aroused. What is the image’s function? Eisenstein’s explanation doesn’t really help. ‘The marble lion leaps up, surrounded by the thunder of the Potemkin’s guns firing in protest against the bloodbath on the Odessa steps.’ The lion leaping up is a signal sent from outside the film’s fictional world in response to one sent from inside. It’s a kind of solidarity gif, or emoji (Eisenstein learned a great deal from Japanese culture). In Battleship Potemkin, solidarity is the pathos and ecstasy of remote contact.