Visualizing revolution

Revisiting Sergei Eisenstein

Among Marxist writers on film and film theory, Sergei Eisenstein stands alone. There have been other Marxist filmmakers of equal talent (Dziga Vertov, Gillo Pontecorvo, Costa-Gavras, Roberto Rossellini), but none who wrote as much about the intersection of Marxism and filmmaking. And there have been other Marxists who have explored the intersections between Marxism and art—notably Berthold Brecht, Leon Trotsky, Fredric Jameson, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Bloch—but with the exception of Benjamin, few of their writings treat film in any depth, and aside from Brecht, none of them were practicing artists. Perhaps because of this, Marxists and non-Marxists alike have taken Eisenstein’s writings as the final word on the relationship between classical Marxism and film.

While there is near universal regard for Eisenstein’s formal experiments—particularly his editorial techniques—there is equal criticism of his films as one-dimensional propaganda. Film critic Pauline Kael once described Battleship Potemkin in an otherwise favorable review as “a cartoon.” These critiques of Eisenstein are part of a larger objection to “political film.” Even the (generally liberal) film critic Roger Ebert went so far as to argue that political film—and certainly Marxist film—is a fool’s errand because the more deeply a film explores its politics, the more universal and less specifically political it becomes. The deeper a film delves into the lives of its characters, he believed, the less it is able to convey a political point. Conversely, the more it tries to convey a political point (as a “message film”), the more it suffers as art.1 If Marxism continues to have an influence at all, it is only in discussions of film criticism, where it sits uneasily alongside feminist, psychoanalytical, Jungian, deconstructionist, postmodernist, and structuralist readings of “film as text.”

Eisenstein imagined a richer convergence between Marxism and film, informing not just the analysis of films, but also how they were made. Unfortunately, his early writings are usually taken at face value as representing a Marxist theory of film form, while his later writings are rarely discussed despite major shifts in his underlying theory.2 Marxists should be more critical of Eisenstein’s earlier theories and, while his later work is complicated by his response to the rise of Stalinism, it points toward a richer potential for how Marxism can influence both the study and making of films.

The origins of montage
Marx once noted that radicalism appeared in Germany first as philosophy because, given Germany’s economic and political backwardness, it could not appear in reality. Similarly, the Russian film industry began in peculiar circumstances: early Russian filmmakers had no film. World War I had decimated Russia’s already weak economy and halted the importation of foreign film stock (mostly from Germany). So initially early Russian filmmakers spent a lot more time writing and thinking about movies, as opposed to actually making them. Without film stock of their own, they recycled found footage and took scenes from old prerevolutionary films, newsreels, and foreign imports, recutting and rearranging them as part of a unique experiment to apply a scientific method to the exploration of this new art form.3

In an early test, the influential film theorist Lev Kuleshov intercut three shots: a woman walking down a street in St. Petersburg, then up the famous Odessa steps (four hundred miles away), before finally looking out on the White House. To an audience, it appeared as if the woman had started her morning walk in Russia and ended up in Washington, DC.

In what was to become his most famous experiment, Kuleshov took a short clip of a famous Russian actor looking directly at the camera, which he then alternated with three different images:

When audiences saw the sequence, they commented on the subtly of the actor’s performance: the way he was able to convey hunger, or sadness, or lust, with such naturalism. Of course, the shot of the actor had been the same piece of footage each time. It was the audience who made the mental connection between the image of the actor and the image of the object he appeared to be looking at and then projected an emotional response onto him. These discoveries had a revolutionary affect on film editing: simply through the construction of a sequence of shots a filmmaker could manipulate the experience of space, time, even create a performance. Soviet filmmakers called this juxtaposition of shots montage.

To understand the revolutionary impact this had on movies, compare these two action sequences, both made in 1925:

Strike (1925)
Fleeing from attacking soldiers, striking workers attempt to take refuge in a locked shed. In the melee, his comrades crush a worker to death. Note the way Eisenstein shifts point of view from wide, objective shots to the perspective of the crowd, to the struggle of the individual soldier. He also uses abrupt shifts in composition and light/dark to add to the violence of the scene.

Tumbleweeds (1925)
The hero of the movie attempts to escape a makeshift jail. Here, both the composition and shot selection are largely presentational, chosen less for dramatic effect, than as a way to best frame the action on-screen.

Whereas even the most action-packed scenes in early silent films play out theatrically in front of the camera, in the work of early Soviet filmmakers edits hurtle us across space, time, and point of view in a way that should feel familiar even to a modern audience. The exploration of montage by early Soviet filmmakers, along with its influence on early American directors, established most of the editorial conventions of modern cinema.

Today, Eisenstein is often misidentified as the originator of montage, but montage was the framework used by virtually all early Soviet filmmakers. However, Eisenstein, who had joined the group around Kuleshov after a brief career in the theater, quickly distinguished himself both in his particular interpretation of montage, as well as his theoretical defense of it.

The dialectic of a falling horse
Other Soviet filmmakers had approached montage as the additive accumulation of edits, dividing a scene into a multitude of discrete shots but generally maintaining a continuity of action, with each edit building on the last like individual words in a sentence. Take for instance this scene from Vsevelod Pudovkin’s Mother, in which a drunken worker returns home to pawn the last remaining object of value in the house, the family’s cuckoo clock:

Mother (1926)
The camera singles out particular expressions and objects each meant to convey a piece of the story, but the camera remains confined to the linear experience of the three characters in this scene.

Eisenstein’s early work was marked by a particular emphasis on the juxtaposition of images. He shattered action across multiple points of view before recombining them in a violent collision of imagery. If Pudovkin’s montage was built like a well-crafted sentence, Eisenstein’s was the chaos of an insurrectionary crowd.

His approach resulted in some of the most viscerally powerful scenes in film history. Nearly one hundred years later, the scene of the massacre on the Odessa steps in The Battleship Potemkin remains one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed:

Battleship Potemkin (1925)
In this nearly six-minute tour de force of filmmaking, Eisenstein uses a full range of juxtapositions—individual/collective, composition and direction of motion, light/dark, and wide/close—as soldiers fire on the revolutionary crowd.

Eisenstein captures the chaos and terror of the massacre, alternating between wide shots of the masses and close-ups of a series of individuals, culminating in the iconic fall of the baby carriage down the blood-soaked steps. His ability to single out images from a mass of individuals remains one of his hallmarks.

In his masterpiece October, commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, Eisenstein captured the brutal crushing of the abortive July Days in a chilling and beautiful scene on the Egyptian bridge. As the Provisional Government raises the bridge in a last-ditch attempt to isolate revolutionary workers, a group of ravenous bourgeoisie beat a young revolutionary to death as a lone horse and carriage (a symbolic image of the bourgeois regime) are hoisted into the air, before falling to earth:

October (1927)
Eisenstein intercuts three scenes: the shooting of a crowd of workers, a horse killed in the crossfire, and the beating death of a young worker by a crowd of bourgeoisie. The bodies of the workers are then juxtaposed against the dead horse as the rising drawbridge lifts it.

Eisenstein expanded his theory of montage beyond just editing to encompass every aspect of filmmaking: composition, light, rhythm, music, color, and (later) even sound. At his best, Eisenstein’s approach to montage was able to capture the surging energy and chaotic power of mass historical events and crystalize them into singular, iconic images. Montage became a total system for joining contradictory and opposing parts into a single work with the aim of arousing the passions of his audience.

But it was also Eisenstein’s theoretical writings that distinguished him from his Russian contemporaries. To my knowledge, none of the other early Soviet directors equated montage directly with the Marxist dialectic. Eisenstein was alone in drawing a direct parallel between Marx’s philosophical writings and his own particular interpretation of montage, arguing that the technique of montage was a practical example of Marx and Engels’ understanding of Hegel’s dialectic: the revolutionary synthesis of two conflicting opposites. By joining two seemingly unrelated pieces of film, he could create a third idea in the mind of the viewer. For instance, by combining images of advancing revolutionary workers with the image of a horse falling to its death, he could create the idea of a new power replacing the fall of the old.

It is impossible to overestimate the impact of Eisenstein’s work. But we should treat his theoretical justifications with some skepticism and his claims for integrating Marxism with film form should be judged with a critical eye. Eisenstein was a theoretical omnivore. His knowledge of Marxism was eclectic at best and he tended to draw on whomever and whatever he thought would justify his own artistic opinions: Japanese Kabuki theater, a somewhat inaccurate reading of Japanese iconography and calligraphy, the work of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov and psychologist Lev Vygotsky, Marx, Lenin, Freud. There is little doubt that Eisenstein revolutionized how stories could be told in movies. But by linking the theory of montage with the theory of the dialectic, Eisenstein made an even greater claim for his work: that beyond simply being a radical new technique in filmmaking, montage was the formal expression of Marx’s method in film.

Epic cinema
Eisenstein believed montage was the technique that would give birth to a new, revolutionary cinema. It could liberate film from the theater, and with it, the limitations of bourgeois art. Filmmakers were no longer restricted to fixed positions, recording dramatic scenes between handfuls of people. Films could be shot on location using real people. Montage could depict the struggles of ordinary working people and, by freeing filmmakers from conventional stories that were restricted to the point of view of a single individual, it allowed for the rise of a new type of protagonist: the mass hero. Looking back on his work in the immediate post-revolutionary period, Eisenstein later wrote:

The peak of achievement in the blossoming of the silent cinema was attained under the broadly expansive slogan of mass, the “mass-hero” and methods of cinematographic portrayal directly derivative therefrom, rejecting narrowly dramaturgical conceptions in favor of epos and lyricism, with “type” and episodic protagonists in place of individual heroes and the consequently inevitable principle of montage as the guiding principle of film expressiveness.4

The individual hero of classical literature and drama would be replaced with a new, collective hero of the working and oppressed masses.

Eisenstein (along with many other revolutionary artists of the time) argued that bourgeois art had created a cult of the individual, focusing on the trials and tribulations of atomized individuals struggling against the world. Influenced by the Futurists and his time in the Proletkult Theater, Eisenstein insisted that the role of socialist art was to represent the collective. In an otherwise critical attack on Eisenstein in 1931, Ivan Anisimov of the State Union of Revolutionary Writers, spoke of Eisenstein’s contribution,

Rejecting the individualistic stagnation inherent in bourgeois art, Eisenstein has made rapid strides along the road to social monumental art. Of primary significance is the fact that he has constantly stressed the importance of the mass rather than that of the individual.5

Film could finally liberate itself. It could reproduce not drama but direct experience.

There are, however, a number of criticisms that must be made of the way Eisenstein theorizes the relationship between Marxism and film. Some echo broader criticisms of the early Soviet avant-garde and some are distinct to Eisenstein himself.

The individual in history
Marx and Engels didn’t see the individual and the collective as counterpoised, but as two distinct and contradictory halves of the same whole. The individual is both shaped and limited by the group. We live and breathe as part of a collective whole, but we experience that reality as individuals. Ultimately it is the accumulation of individual experiences and actions that create collective consciousness and action. Marx wrote, “The real spiritual richness of the individual entirely depends on the richness of his real relations.”

The historic strength of bourgeois art is precisely the way it has deepened our understanding of and ability to convey individual experience, even as it has often cut that experience off from wider society. In Literature and Revolution, Leon Trotsky writes,

What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoyevsky will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and profounder understanding of its psychic forces and of the role of the subconscious, etc.6

The goal of Marxism is not to deny individualism, but to reintegrate it into an emancipatory social process.

Writing in the mid-1920s, Trotsky (whose insights into art and literature are, all too often, criminally neglected) wrote of the dangers of seeing the “individualism” of bourgeois art as something to be discarded by the revolution:

When the futurists propose to throw overboard the old literature of individualism, not only because it has become antiquated in form, but also because it contradicts the collectivist nature of the proletariat, they reveal a very inadequate understanding of the dialectic nature of the contradiction between individualism and collectivism . . . It is just such heightening of the objective quality and the subjective consciousness of individuality that is the most valuable contribution of the cultural advance at the threshold of which we stand today.7

One of the formal challenges that a Marxist aesthetics has to address is precisely the relationship between the individual and the collective, and montage is far from being the only technique for exploring this relationship. In each of the following movies, filmmakers experimented with different ways to represent the relationship between individual and collective experience.

Vselvelod Pudovkin’s masterpiece The End of St. Petersburg takes an almost classical, novelistic approach to telling the story of the Russian Revolution, introducing us to a range of characters that we follow through the course of the revolution as their stories diverge and reunite. It begins by introducing us to a young peasant, who has just moved to St. Petersburg looking for work. The only person he knows in the city turns out to be a Bolshevik agitator. In this scene, the young peasant waits for the worker to return home with the worker’s wife, who already resents his presence:

The End of St. Petersburg (1927)
The young peasant and an old woman from his village wait for the worker to return. As they wait, the worker’s wife serves old potatoes to her children, refusing to share with the waiting peasant.

The young peasant, desperate for work, becomes a spy and leads to the agitator’s capture by the secret police. The agitator’s wife initially rejects the revolution because it has cost her husband and left her supporting her children alone. And yet, they are all caught up in the revolution until the final scene, where the wife, having heard rumors that her husband is free and fighting on the barricades, sets out to bring him food and finds the young peasant who is now fighting on the side of the revolution:

The End of St. Petersburg (1927)
The wife, carrying a bucket of potatoes, finds a group of wounded revolutionaries, including the young peasant. The hungry workers ask if they can have one of the potatoes. She relents and offers them to the workers, emptying the last of the potatoes into the hands of the young peasant.

In a simple act of charity, she joins the collective struggle.

In Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, the story begins with a single protagonist before dissolving that story into larger historical, collective events. We begin following Ali Le Pointe, a street kid caught up in the revolutionary movement against French colonialism:

The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Ali Le Point runs a game of Three-card Monte on the streets and is chased off by the police before being beaten by a group of French teenagers.

The end, in what has become the iconic image of the movie, takes the story over by the collective struggle of the Algerian people:

The Battle of Algiers (1966)
The colonial authorities call out to the insurgent crowds to disperse. Their defiant response echoes through the smoke as they dance and chant in protest against the French. The narrator informs us this marks the beginning of the end of French colonialism in Algeria.

Finally, in a more recent example, Alfonso Cuarón uses a unique strategy in Y Tu Mamá También to suggest that just outside the fun and frivolous sexual escapades of the two bourgeois teens at the center of the movie is the social reality of Mexican society:

Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
As the two teens try to outdo each other with dueling farts, the camera pans away to focus on the cause of the traffic jam that the teens are oblivious to. An unseen narrator informs us that a bus hit a poor bricklayer from rural Mexico because he could not afford to walk the three extra miles required to reach the pedestrian bridge.

All these examples point to the need for a richer understanding than Eisenstein allows of the ways in which Marxism can aid a study of film form.

Is juxtaposition dialectical?
A second weakness is that Eisenstein identified a particular technique—the unique juxtaposition of conflicting shots—as the crystallization of the Marxist dialectic and, by extension, the most appropriate form for modern film.

Eisenstein highlighted two aspects of the dialectic for special attention: the juxtaposition of opposites and the transformation of quality into quantity. The juxtaposition of opposites was a means of capturing the contradictions between necessarily partial views of a total reality to show how those changes drive forward the whole. Those contradictions give rise to a new synthesis. As we’ve seen, the juxtaposition of two images could give rise to a third idea in the mind of the viewer.

Yet even in Eisenstein’s own terms, the juxtaposition of two opposing shots is far from the only way in which to draw in and generate a third set of images and ideas in the mind of an audience. Take a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (a director heavily influenced by Eisenstein). Earlier in the movie we’ve watched as the same serial killer brutally murders a young woman in full, unflinching view of the audience. In this scene, we watch as he brings home a new victim:

Frenzy (1972)
The young woman enters the killer’s apartment and, in a single unbroken shot, the camera tracks back down the stairs and out into the street.

The juxtaposition between what we know is happening behind a closed door and the pedestrian indifference of the world outside is heightened precisely by the lack of edits and the camera’s slow descent down the stairs, as if retreating in horror. As Gilles Deleuze has commented on this shot, “She went in free, but cannot expect any help—the murder is inexorable.”

In the opening scene of Rome, Open City, the Italian Neorealist director, Roberto Rossellini presents a thoroughly naturalistic scene with a minimum of edits as he guides us through the streets of Rome during the Nazi occupation:

Rome, Open City (1945)
Hungry residents who find the baker has been hoarding, loot the local bakery. The local police officer and a priest complain to each other that neither can participate in the looting because they are both on-duty and are being chided by looters. Pina, escorted home by the officer, offers him some bread. He asks if she believes the rumors about the American soldiers being nearby. She looks at a ruined building (one assumes by American bombs) before responding.

Nothing could be further from Eisenstein’s work, and yet, Rossellini manages to create an image in the mind of the audience of the national and class lines (even the contradictions of international politics) that cut through the early morning pleasantries of the city that will ultimately erupt with the pursuit of a single resistance fighter.

At his best, Eisenstein’s collisions produce powerful effects that work on a metaphorical, poetic level, as in this sequence from Strike, depicting the slaughter of striking workers at the hands of the tzarist military:

Strike (1925)
Eisenstein intercuts the graphic slaughter of a bull with the massacre of the workers.

But as Eisenstein’s construction of montage became ever more encompassing, it expanded beyond composition and editing to incorporate abstract images and symbols. Eisenstein imagined the possibility of a future “montage of ideas,” even going so far as to imagine a cinematic version of Marx’s Capital. In one of the least successful passages from October, Eisenstein intercuts the introduction of the Kerensky government with marble statues from the Winter Palace, suggesting not so subtly that the new government is a vestige of the old order, and Kerensky himself is intercut with a bizarre mechanical peacock:

October (1927)
Kerensky and his ministers arrive at the Winter Palace.

The effect is clumsy and forced. Severed from any subjective connection to the points of view of individual men and women or the audience, it risks turning montage into didactic symbolism. But at his best, Eisenstein is unmatched in his ability to visualize the energy of revolution.

There is simply no other director who more viscerally captured the anger, energy, and hope of mass struggle. But in severing the connection between individual and mass experience and jettisoning the subjective perspective of the individual, his use of montage is able to visualize the collective but often without capturing the individual acts of sacrifice, heroism, cowardice, betrayal, even love, that together make up the revolution. This is perhaps one reason why Eisenstein’s techniques have been appropriated most readily in action films, rather than dramas. He too often captured the how of revolution but little of the why.

Modernism and Stalinism
Tragically, the attempts of Eisenstein and other early Soviet filmmakers to draw together Marxism and cinema and tie it to a mass revolutionary movement were cut brutally short by the rise of counterrevolution from within. Stalin’s rise to power was paralleled by an all-out assault on the traditions of the revolution, including the experimentation of the Russian avant-garde.

Modernist experimentation was denounced as “bourgeois decadence” and in 1934, Socialist Realism was proclaimed the official artistic style of the Soviet Union. The experimentation that had defined the revolutionary period was reigned in or forcibly cut short. Art was to be simple, clear, and accessible. It should glorify the nobility of the workers, peasants, and most importantly, Stalin.

Artists who refused to bend faced the full weight of the growing regime. Artists like Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin found themselves censored and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide in 1930, symbolizing the growing dispair. When Eisenstein returned from the West after a series of failed film projects in the United States and Mexico, he found his work denounced for formalist excess.

Eisenstein’s theoretic defense and his later work in general are much less frequently discussed today, being seen as self-serving and not altogether honest attempts to defend montage without contradicting the constraints of official Stalinist policy. And there is some truth to this. The films he made at the end of his career are leaden and cold. Alexander Nevsky is a less than thinly veiled glorification of Russian nationalism in the run-up to World War II. The two-part biopic of Ivan the Terrible is an ambiguous but generally sympathetic allegory of the rise of Stalin’s internal security regime, show trials, and purges.8 In this scene, Ivan, believing he is close to death, entreats the nobles to swear allegiance to his son, cementing their loyalty to a Greater Russia:

Ivan the Terrible, Pt. 1 (1945)
But even these apologies for the nationalist project of the Stalinist bureaucracy were unable to protect Eisenstein from the censors. Part II of Ivan the Terrible was banned for failing to show Ivan as an irresolute leader. But while Eisenstein no doubt used his intellectual dexterity in a failed attempt to fit his artistic ambitions into the contortionist box of Stalinist falsification, his later writings go beyond simple self-defense.

When Eisenstein mounted a rebuttal to his critics, he did so by justifying his formal experimentation within a broadly realist framework. Drawing on the literature of Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy, he countered the Stalinists who counterpoised formal experimentation to Socialist Realism, arguing that technique grows out of an attempt to capture realistic events as experienced by subjective individuals:

The pages of literature offer us models of completely unexpected compositional structures, in which are presented phenomena that “in themselves” are quite ordinary. These structures are not in the least determined, nourished, or brought into being by formalist excesses or extravagant researches.9

He notes the way in which Tolstoy juxtaposes images of physical violence with the consummation of the affair at the center of Anna Karenina:

He felt what a murderer must feel when looking at the body he has deprived of life. The body he had deprived of life was their love, the first period of their love. There was something frightful and revolting in the recollection of what had been paid for with this terrible price of shame. The shame she felt at her spiritual nakedness communicated itself to him.

But in spite of the murderer’s horror of the body of his victim, that body must be cut in pieces and hidden away, and he must make use of what he has obtained by the murder. Then, as the murderer desperately throws himself on the body, as though with passion, and drags and hacks it, so Vronsky covered her face and shoulders with kisses.10

Eisenstein used the concept of inner speech—a concept developed by Soviet psychologists Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria, but appropriated largely according to Eisenstein’s own devices—to illustrate that the way we experience and remember realistic details are very rarely thought of in realistic ways.11 Our subjective experience of events, and even more so our memories of those events, are layered with all kinds of associations: tastes, smells, related images, further memories (flashbacks), etc.:

The forms of sensorial, pre-logical thinking, which are preserved in the shape of inner speech… turns out to be at the same time precisely what we employ as “artistic methods” and “technique of embodiment” in our art-works.12

Eisenstein argues that film attempts to recreate visually, through various formal experiments, the subjective way individuals and groups experience reality—an idea captured a generation later by Federico Fellini calling film, “a dream we dreamt with our eyes open.”

Unfortunately, this theoretical shift in Eisenstein’s work largely jettisons any reference back to his earlier attempts to connect film form to the wider conception of a historical materialist conception of history or an attempt to find new formal techniques that could give voice to the experiences of this new historical moment. From a defense of montage as the only appropriate form, Eisenstein now finds montage everywhere: in the work of Zola, DaVinci, Milton, Dickens, and Tolstoy, without accounting for what is unique in the way it is applied in each, or how that might express something about the time in which it was conceived.

A Marxist aesthetic must be historical as well as dialectical. There is nothing inherently revolutionary or even rebellious about particular formal techniques. Everything can eventually—either through malice or praise—be incorporated into the mainstream. Each new formal innovation will eventually become an impediment to the ability to viscerally convey a new and changing experience. Every cliché once expressed something true, but upon repetition it ceases to express that same vibrant truth of unique experience. “The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet,” said Salvador Dalí sarcastically, “the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.” Formal innovations are needed to experience things anew.

This defense of realism, without confusing experiential realism for formal realism, echoes the path taken by Leon Trotsky. In one of his best discussions on technique, Trotsky connects the broadly realist aims of Marxist art with the need to defend formal experimentation:

Naturalism transcended itself and became Impressionism, which did not at all give up its fidelity to nature and its truth to life, but on the contrary, precisely in the name of this truth, in its eternally changing forms, and demanded freedom for the truth of subjective perception. Whilst the old academic style said ‘here are the rules (or images) according to which nature must be depicted’, and naturalism said ‘here is nature’, then Impressionism said ‘here is how I see nature’. But this ‘I’ of Impressionism is a new personality in new circumstances, but with a new nervous system, with new eyes, a modern person, and that is why this painting is modernism, not fashionable painting, but modern, contemporary, emerging from contemporary perception.13

Though incomplete and tainted by his accommodation with Stalinism, what Eisenstein suggests, and Trotsky develops further, is a Marxist approach to art that is agnostic on particular artistic techniques, that can encompass both realist and experimental practices—from the Russian avant-garde to Italian Neorealism to the Third Cinema of Latin America. Unlike his earlier writings, this isn’t just a manifesto of a particular school of art but a useful addition to a Marxist method for understanding all art.

But whatever the tantalizing insights of Eisenstein’s writings, they are difficult to separate from the crushing weight of the rise of Stalinism, and coincide with a tremendous retreat in Eisenstein’s work. Instead of emphasizing the collision of opposites, he now stresses the need for organic unity. The dazzling energy of Battleship Potemkin is replaced with the plodding gloom of Ivan the Terrible.

An appreciation guided by Marxism
Eisenstein’s stature as one of the towering directors of the early years of film is without question. But Marxist and non-Marxist writers have too often taken his claims about the relationship between montage and the dialectic at face value. By not examining the weaknesses in Eisenstein’s work, it has been easy to dismiss both Eisenstein and the classical Marxist tradition’s influence on filmmaking as the product of a bygone historical moment with little relevance today.

If Marxism is useful in understanding how movies are made, it is not because the editing process is a celluloid representation of the dialectic but because Marxism can make us aware of the contradictory, dialectical relationships between the particular and the general, the individual and society, and between experience and perception. It has a distinct understanding of the relationship between what is represented, how it is adapted by the artist, the social means by which it is reproduced, and how audiences interpret it. And most important for readers of this journal, Marxism has always been at the center of attempts to fuse artistic expression with revolutionary social transformation.

A reassessment of Eisenstein is important at this moment of renewed interest in both social struggle and socialism, and when there is an increased audience for films that can give expression to those hopes and struggles. The world will not be changed by art but by the actions of men and women struggling to transform the world around them. Art at its best is able to evoke in us the reasons why we fight. As Alan Wald has written,

Art in all its forms makes us lift up our eyes, if only for a fleeting moment, above the dreary everyday existence, and makes us feel that there is something more to life than this, that we can be better than we are, that the relations between people can be human, that the world could be a better place than it is. Art is thus the collective dream of humanity, the expression of a deep-seated feeling that our lives are not what they ought to be, and a passionate if unconscious striving for something different.14

A reassessment of Eisenstein and, more importantly, the works that might flow from it, is a small contribution to that project.


Suggested Marxist filmography

This is by no means a complete list but a good starting point for films written and/or directed by Marxist filmmakers. I’ve tried to include a wide range of formal approaches from within a broad socialist framework. I have not included documentaries, as they are somewhat outside the scope of this article.

Arsenal (1929), written and directed by Alexander Dovzhenko.

Battle of Algiers (1966), directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, written by Gillo Pontecorvo and  Franco Solinas.

Battleship Potemkin (1925), directed by Sergei Eisenstein, written by Nina Agadzhanova.

Burn! (1969), directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, written by Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas and  Giorgio Arlorio.

Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (1973), directed by Kuang-Chi Tu (as Doo Kwang Gee), and René Viénet, written by Kuang Ni.

Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, written by Alfredo L. Del Cueto, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Ramón F. Suárez. A rare Marxist slapstick comedy.

The End of St. Petersburg (1927), directed by Vsevelod Pudovkin, written by Nathan Zarkhi.

Weekend (1967), written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Note: Godard is difficult to place, because his best films were made before becoming a Marxist. His “Marxist” films suffer all the worst excesses of late-60s Maoism. Weekend is a truly bizarre exception.

The Leopard (1963), directed by Luchino Visconti, written by Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Luchino Visconti.

Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, written by Edmundo Desnoes and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), directed by Maya Deren, written by Maya Deren.

Missing (1982), directed by Costa-Gavras, written by Costa-Gavras and Donald Stewart.

Mother (1926), directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin, written by Maxim Gorky and Nathan Zarkhi.

October (1928), directed by Sergei Eisenstein, written by Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov.

Rome, Open City (1945), directed by Roberto Rossellini, written by Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini.

Salt of the Earth (1954), directed by Herbert J. Biberman, written by Michael Wilson.

Spartacus (1960), directed by Stanley Kubrick, written Dalton Trumbo.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), directed by Ken Loach, written by Paul Laverty.

Z (1969), directed by Costa-Gavras, written by Jorge Semprún.


  1. Roger Ebert, “Foreword,” The Cineaste Interviews: Art, Politics, Cinema (London: Pluto, 1985), xi–xii.
  2. he major exception to this is the always-illuminating work of film theorist and historian, David Bordwell, although his description of the nature of the shift is quite different from what is presented here. See David Bordwell, “Eisenstein’s Epistemological Shift,” Screen 15, 4 (Winter 1974–75), 29–46. “Eisenstein’s Epistemology: A Response,” Screen 16, 1 (Spring 1975), 142–143. David Bordwell, The Cinema of Eisenstein (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).
  3. At the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, motion pictures as a storytelling medium had been in existence for barely twenty years.
  4. Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1977), 122.
  5. “Literature of the World Revolution,” No. 3, 1931, Central Organ of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers, State Publishing House, Moscow. Translated from the Russian by H.P.J. Marshall, http://revolutionarydemocracy.org/rdv5n1/eisenst.htm.
  6. Leon Trotsky, “Communist Policy Toward Art (1923),” transcribed for the internet by Andy Blunden, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1923/art/tia23.htm.
  7. Ibid.
  8. There has always been a great deal of debate about just how subversive Eisenstein intended the films to be. The character of Ivan is beset by doubts and ultimately consumed by his own regime. Yet on first viewing, what comes across is largely an apology for the growing repressive state.
  9. Eisenstein, Film Form, 154.
  10. Eisenstein, 154–55.
  11. For a discussion of Vygotsky’s theory of inner speech see Jeremy Sawyer, “Vygotsky’s revolutionary theory of psychological development,” ISR 93, http://isreview.org/issue/93/vygotskys-r....
  12. Eisenstein, 130–31.
  13. “Culture and Revolution in the Thought of Leon Trotsky,” Revolutionary History, vol. 7, No. 2 (London: Porcupine Press, 1999), 102. Quoted in Alan Wald, “Marxism and art. Introduction to Trotsky’s writings on Art and Culture,” http://www.marxist.com/marxism-art-trotsky.htm.
  14. Wald, “Marxism and art.”

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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