The films of Eisenstein, created during the epoch of the social revolution, attempt to epitomize its content and record its movements. They constitute a form of revolutionary practice in which the genius of the artist works hand in hand with the socialist offensive of the proletariat.
In order to understand and evaluate the art of Eisenstein, we must point out his individual characteristics, and determine his attitude towards the social revolution.
Eisenstein followed a definite path of development. His four films:- Strike, Potemkin, October and The General Line represent links in this process. We must seek the driving forces of this development, lay bare the contradictions through which it passed and reveal the relation between the progress of the revolution and this artist's creative growth.
In outlining the main features of Eisenstein's creativeness, we must first of all point out his tendency to break with the traditions of bourgeois art. His works are a thoroughly consistent exposure of bourgeois art, and herein lies the revolutionary character of his films, and their close connection with the "attacking class." 1
First of all we observe a decisive and merciless criticism of bourgeois individualism and its esoteric character, and the successful overcoming of the conservatism of psychological intimate drama. A striking characteristic of Eisenstein's films is their non-individualistic tendency. This does not mean however that he immediately changes his world-outlook to that of the proletariat, or that once having destroyed the fetish of bourgeois individualist art he arrives on the "virgin shores" of a new proletarian style. No - despite their revolutionary tendency the cinematographic creations of Eisenstein still retain traces of the very bourgeois limitations denounced by him. But although the artist has not as yet fully succeeded in creating an altogether new form, in place of the discarded traditions of individualist art - which as a proletarian artist he should have found - nevertheless his films have for us a very great significance.
In his endeavours to overcome the individualist limitations of bourgeois art, Eisenstein arrives at an original form of social monumental art. 2 Embracing certain great historical processes not as they might have been reflected through individual experiences, but with a conception expressed by social movements, Eisenstein strives to show social revolutionary progress in a general, non-individualistic way.
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. In the conceptions expressed in images of the revolutionary epoch, we distinguish not only their positive content but also a characteristic narrowness, a conservatism, despite the fact that these conceptions have arisen during the overcoming of the individual limitations of bourgeois art. Realizing the necessity of the revolutionary negating of bourgeois practise Eisenstein completely denies individualistic principles and thereby transforms himself into a poet of the abstract mass. Indeed one might Say that he has moved from one extreme to the other without really finding a true solution of the problem, which he can only learn from the class with whom now lies his destiny. Eisenstein does not think dialectically, and therefore the historic monumentalism of his films often becomes too abstract.
If Eisenstein in throwing over traditions of bourgeois individualism attempted to embrace the immense content of social processes and to find a new epic form, and if in his struggles with the ossifying petty-bourgeois-art he appears as a revolutionary artist of our day, it is nevertheless true that certain traits in his work tend to distinguish it from real proletarian art, and reveal his connection with certain forms of petty-bourgeois thoughts. The films of Eisenstein are revolutionary works, but they contain inner contradictions showing the conflict between the old and the new.
The film Potemkin is of especial significance with regard to the genius of Eisenstein. It is distinguished by its rich content and its completeness.
Here we have a profound interpretation of the Odessa episode of the 1905 Revolution. Refusing to portray the social content through the use of individual drama Eisenstein expresses the social conflict in a form that has all the appearance of an historical document. Potemkin presents an extremely interesting solution of the problem of social monumental art, overthrowing individualistic traditions of the past.
The revolutionary rise and fall are portrayed by Eisenstein as profoundly dramatic actuality, with a vast content. The revolutionary rise, expressed basically as a drama of the ship and a drama of the steps, is on the one hand extremely simple and concrete, and on the other, receives a monumental interpretation.
The moment of climax (crescendo) and the moment of fall (diminuendo) are the culminations determining the new drama. And by the destruction of the old dramatic construction, based on individual psychological content, new and wider horizons are revealed. Eisenstein very originally realizes his drama in the spirit of social monumentalism. Battleship and stone-steps are given as two opposing images concentrating all the grandiose content of that historical event. This transforms the whole structure into a living, clear conception, sufficiently deep to hold the vast content of the social conflict, and yet concrete enough to form a system of images, 3 and present historical events in a design of representative art. Ship and steps are the main images through which the historical moments of the revolutionary development are reproduced with exceptional clearness. The monumental art of Eisenstein is expressed nowhere so successfully as in this very simple rigid construction of Potemkin. It is the greatest attainment of revolutionary art. Here not only were bourgeois traditions negated, but also a new quality appeared in contradistinction to bourgeois art practice.
Potemkin has as its subject an episode from history. Understanding of history is determined by the class nature of the artist. One cannot say that an artist of one epoch cannot understand the history of another, but it must not be forgotten that an adequate historical perception is directly related to the class nature of the perceiver. An artist of the revolutionary proletariat, whose world-outlook is dialectical materialism, which consequently conditions his creative power, is of course able to give an adequate historical picture. But the contemporary bourgeoisie are quite unable to portray their own history in a true light. This class limitation is revealed most clearly in the creative work of a declining class. In all petty-bourgeois interpretations of any historic process we find many limitations. They are retained even where we have to do with those fellow-travellers of the revolution who have linked their fate with the working class and are re-educating themselves in the common fight. In Potemkin we can distinguish traces of such limitations, notwithstanding the fact that this work constitutes an event of first importance in revolutionary art and is connected so closely with the socialist offensive of the proletariat.
In his understanding of the part played by the bourgeois revolution in overthrowing the feudal-landlord regime, Eisenstein is completely logical. His film gives in many ways an adequate reproduction of the historical process. His creation contains some petty-bourgeois features but such a production as -Potemkin would have been impossible if these petty-bourgeois tendencies had completely dominated the outlook of its author. A sluggish mentality could never have risen to such a height nor would it have been so daring and monumental. The artist's closeness to the revolutionary struggle of the working class broadens his horizons. It allows him to base himself upon the revolutionary world-outlook, and arms him for creative victories which would be impossible under conditions of bourgeois conservatism. The positive significance of this film is determined by the fact that the artist himself is closely connected in his creative activity with the revolutionary offensive of the working class. And herein lies the measure of its achievements. Yet the work contains features akin to traditions of petty-bourgeois mentality which continue to weigh heavily upon the artist. He has shaken off a considerable portion of them, but has not overcome them completely, and to that extent his world-outlook is limited. To reveal the contrasts in Eisenstein's greatest work, means not only to understand the real content of this production but also to find the underlying contradiction in all his creative work.
Let us examine the opposing contrast of the ship and the steps, and their concrete content. It is not difficult to see that individual distinction could be established only on the steps and not on the battleship. The sailors are presented in specific aspect - they are envisaged as a scheme of non-psychological phenomena. In essence they are indistinguishable. They are synonyms. We perceive them always as in relation to the mechanism and the ship. These external circumstances unite them. This mass is put together mechanically and represents a purely quantitative formation. By this, individualism is cast aside, and Eisenstein in trying to find his expression, turns to the mass, and overthrows the fetishism of bourgeois individual art. He wants to show the mass in its collective movement. And here appears a very important obstacle. Collectivism includes, of course, individual features. This new art reveals extraordinary possibilities for individual expression, but it proposes in principle a new dialectical approach to the personal. Eisenstein solves the problem by completely doing away with individuality. His mass therefore exists as a scheme which does not find concrete fulfillment. The artist, then, is faced with the necessity of creating some exterior form emphasizing the unity of this broken-up mass. In the film the battleship serves as this central form. The people on the ship are always related to the technical system. The ship is objectively expressed in broad dramatic sequences. Here is necessary to note not only the traits of technical fetishism but also the fact that the movement of the human masses, and the social content of the drama are to a certain extent subordinated to this exterior formation.
If the men on the ship were without individuality, the people on the steps are to be considered in an essentially different way. They are distinguished in their individual peculiarities, they are conceived as part of a psychological drama. Before us are images that are saturated with meaning, nothing superfluous, given in a series of actual incidents. Imagine a long flight of stone steps up a hill, and on them the developing drama: a mother carrying her shot child, or the old wounded grandmother - all these separate expressions of the crushing of the bourgeois democratic revolution are pieced together in a very complete picture. Here it is necessary to note the psychological content of the portrayal. All of it is the opposite of that on the ship. The drama of the democratic revolution that failed to materialize receives in the picture of the martyrdom on the steps, a convincing and concrete expression. The steps scene is pathetic. The men on the ship are so related to the people on the steps that they become merely a projection of this drama of suffering. Their external similarity and lack of individuality is in clear opposition to the drama of the individually expressed people shot down on the steps.
Why does the artist thus denying individualism, at the same time revert to it? Eisenstein deprives the sailors on the ship of their individuality because he is unable to give a dialectical exposition of the mass or to understand the unity of the general and the particular. Hence - his schematisation and de-personalisation. The individualistic portrayal of the people on the steps testifies to Eisenstein's adherence to the principle of individual psychological exposition. The democratic aspect of the 1905 Revolution is particularly accessible to him and receives a deep interpretation. Petty bourgeois traditions are expressed in the handling of the people on the steps and in the depersonalisation and non-psychological treatment of the sailor mass. In these contrasts is revealed the underlying unity of the class content - here is not only a revolutionary affirmation arising during the revolutionary practice of a petty-bourgeois fellow-traveller but also indications that his class limitations are being overcome, but are as yet not fully conquered.
The drama on the battleship has one very characteristic distinction, shown in representing the world opposed to the revolutionary seamen - by means of a physician, a commander and a priest. Here again are images retaining an individualistic colouring. We have the following arrangement: on one side a drama of the martyred petty-bourgeois radicals given in sequences really understood, and on the other side the Tsarist reaction, expressed very concretely. These circumstances are essential for they show wherein lie the roots of Eisenstein's historical conceptions. The film portrays above all the drama of petty bourgeois radicalism.
The revolution of 1905 was a bourgeois democratic revolution, but it was at the same time a proletarian revolution, for the rising proletariat was the main moving force; it was an essential link in the development of proletarian struggle on the threshold of the great social revolution.
Did Eisenstein have a wider understanding of the Odessa episode than of the whole bourgeois-democratic episode? Is it conceived as a link in the historical process leading to the October Revolution, to the victory of the revolutionary proletariat? No. The Odessa incident is considered only from the "democratic" point of view. This is why the steps serve as a key to the film, why the tragedy of petty bourgeois radicalism, overcome by Tsarist reaction, finds so profound an illumination in contrast to the depersonalisation and levelling of the social movement just where it was able to get into direct touch with the proletarian tendencies in the 1905 revolution.
The film gives a very striking reproduction of historic events; not without reason did it rise during the revolutionary practice of a co-worker from another class, connected now in his development with the proletariat. There is no getting around the fact that besides the revolutionary richness of the film, it has certain traits which do not belong to proletarian art. To tear the Odessa episode away from the whole proletarian movement meant fetishism of its democratic character.
The Odessa episode is portrayed in an isolated and limited manner. It is understood in terms of things. A trace of reticence, a peculiar inertness, is inherent in Eisenstein's whole historical conception. The main historical event is separated from its necessary connections with historical progress. It is taken as such for itself alone.
The conservatism of things is shown in the film's scenery. We have in it whole series of sea scenes reproduced along a plan of deep statics as opposed to dynamics. Sunset, the ships that are wafted through the fog past the tent where lay the body of Vakulinchuk - all these are pictures of a purely contemplative character. However paradoxical and unexpected, Eisenstein, the destroyer of bourgeois esthetic traditions, has in his films traces of estheticism. Static pictures, the quietude of sea scenery with a sparse background of developing drama, serve as a means of stabilizing the picture. Thus it forms a definite circle, which is as it were removed from the chain of historical process.
There is true pathos in Eisenstein's portrayal of the 1905 revolution yet it is not fully conceived as it should have been by a proletarian artist. The events are estranged from the historical development of the proletarian struggle and considered as sufficient in themselves. A characteristic contradiction arises: the event is taken as a monumental historical picture which the artist endeavours to represent as something "individual-less" - gigantic - and at the very same time the film is given a limited "esoteric" character. The Odessa episode contains in its treatment traces of esoteric reticence, even renunciation.
It may be affirmed that the style of Potemkin represents that stage when the petty-bourgeoisie, collaborating in the revolution, merge with the proletariat and are beginning to lose their class character.
Hence the cogency of the bourgeois-democratic episode.
Hence the specific esoteric features and underlying passivity of its exposition.
Strike was the forerunner of Potemkin and Eisenstein's first film, and in it will be found confirmation of our deductions. The film deals with the class-struggle in an atmosphere of victorious reaction. Factory and proletariat on one hand, and capitalists and Czarist State on the other. Let us consider these opposing forces, which are the basic factors in the film. First of all we see the capitalist-bourgeoisie represented merely as fiction. They are without content, comprehensible only as a plan of genuine caricatures. The artist's extreme radicalism is thus shown in caricaturing the enemy of the working-class. Yet, as a matter of fact, this testifies only to the petty-bourgeois limitations of the picture, to the fact of its being torn away from the revolutionary practise of the working class. Such a falsification of actuality, such an underestimation of the forces of the class enemy, is not at all natural to the proletarian world-outlook.
In Strike external aspects of the factory receive full expression. Machines fascinate Eisenstein, they come before everything else. The problem of handling people is dealt with very characteristically - like the sailors of Potemkin they are not individualised, but are mechanically united around objects. Therefore the workers are constantly shown in relation to mechanism: men at the anchor, people on the farms, workers on the crane, etc. Things come first of all. Workers and machines are not shown in their productive relationships, hut in a scheme of technical fetishism. When it is necessary to represent a meeting, Eisenstein places his men in most exotic situations, which instead of expressing the social content, appears as a decorative mechanical setting for some purely external happening. Machines and things are constantly being "starred" in Strike.
In picturing the working masses the same characteristics are revealed. As in Potemkin individualism is cast aside and the mass denied its own psychology. For petty-bourgeois thought striving to surmount individualist limitations, this was a peculiar necessity. The struggle with individualism resulted in the elimination of the individual.
Yet there is in Strike one aspect of individualism, which discloses the inability of tile artist to solve dialectically the problem of the general and the particular. Individualization is accomplished by complete isolation from the general. If the mass with Eisenstein is depersonalised then any individual can only be portrayed outside the mass - that is, conceived in the light of petty-bourgeois individualism. As for instance the workers, forced away from the factory during the strike, are considered in terms of: interiors, birds, janitors etc. True unity of general and particular proves impossible for the creator of this film.
He is able to conceive the general, but in no way connected with the particular or to present the particular in no way connected with the general.
Petty-bourgeois individualism and the depriving of personality: - within the confines of these extreme contradictions moves Eisenstein's mentality, still subject to a certain mechanical inertness. He gave in Strike the essential characteristics of the proletariat it but one must be aware that these have inherent limitations.
Technical-fetishism, the subordination of the social content of the film has here a special significance. We have already seen traces of it in Potemkin. In Strike it is shown more clearly. Undoubtedly there is here the closest connection between technical-fetish mentality and the negating of individuality and psychology. This introduces a new phase into the work of the artist, expressing the idealogy of the petty-bourgeois re-educating itself by co-operation with the working class. This we shall observe also in all Eisenstein's subsequent works. The nature of this class-limitation is clearly expressed in the traces of technical-fetishism.
The film has for its purpose the portrayal of the proletarian movement. But in many ways it is superficial and far removed from the real content of the events reproduced. The external very often appears as the basic and sole content. Even the spies in Strike appear more eccentric than real, thus showing that what is more important to the artist is not the social meaning of the scene but rather its external accidental expression. The lumpen-proletariat participating in the pogrom (one of the culminating scenes in the film) are made into a fetish while taking part in events which should have been natural to them. This rabble is presented as something self-sufficient whose meaning is external to the developing basic movement. The artist accomplishes an original and exotic interlude. The dispersal of the demonstration by firemen using hosepipes is also presented as something outré and self-sufficient. This episode drags through an appreciable portion of the film, by no means commensurate with the unity of the whole conception
In Strike the artist shows the nature of his connections with the practice of the revolutionary class. It is an attempt to find a new content. An indispensable condition for a real understanding of the revolutionary history of the proletariat is liberation from petty-bourgeois narrowness. In Eisenstein this limitation is still inherent, as is shown in his inability to solve the problem of the general and the particular, not only in the predominance of the external, often misconstrued, characteristics, but also in the technical fetishism of the artist's mentality, in the depersonalisation and non-psychological representation of the working class. He approaches reality with very marked mechanistic convictions. Essentially he remains a passive contemplator of reality, always limiting himself to the external: thus Eisenstein's first picture showed that his creative method has a basic bourgeois inclination.
These first films show the artist's point of departure. The revolutionary character of his creative power, manifest in his destruction of bourgeois art traditions, and his attempts to find a new form of expression does not remove the question of the inner contradictions. We have here a revolutionary fellow-traveller who must re-arm and re-educate himself in order to attain the world-outlook of the proletariat. The process of overcoming petty-bourgeois limitations is very complex and strenuous - a fact which must not be overlooked in an appraisal of Eisenstein's creative work.
The development of the artist is accomplished through sharpened contradictions. Strike and Potemkin show that the tasks which the artist set himself, connecting his work with the socialist offensive of the proletariat, - are not entirely accomplished. His aspirations go much further than his actual achievements. His class limitations have not yet been overcome. The development of Eisenstein took place under very unfavourable circumstances. His first two films were not subjected to any serious Marxian criticism. He was highly praised and rightly so, but the essential questions concerning the inner contradictions of his creative power were never raised. Eisenstein, like all our cinematography, developed without real criticism. This without doubt hampered and complicated the growth of his creative power.
Strike and Potemkin are historical films. They deal with the past With them Eisenstein began - later he found it necessary to turn from history to contemporary reality. There is a logical process of development leading from Potemkin to October. The artist sets himself ever more serious tasks, he aspires to raise his creative power to the level of the high demands imposed upon art by the working class. Here is charted the growth of the revolutionary artist. He does not remain stationery, he develops with the times. One cannot accuse Eisenstein of lagging behind the impetuous tempo of this epoch, he always keeps abreast of it. If his films are examined from the point of view of their general direction, it will be seen that they are in close keeping with the demands of the socialist offensive.
October is an attempt to epitomize that revolutionary upheaval which opened up the socialist reconstruction of society. A film with such a purpose can be produced only by an artist of the proletariat. Only such an interpreter can understand events in their entirety, only he has the requisite flexibility, depth, clarity and fullness of historical knowledge. The method of dialectical materialism is an indispensable requisite for an adequate reproduction of such a gigantic revolutionary upheaval.
Eisenstein took upon himself an exceptionally difficult problem. October is for him a step closer to the world-outlook of the proletariat. This was to be a transition revealing new horizons. Why then is this film representing such a daring attempt to express the events of October in social monumental art - such a pallid work?
The contradictions inherent in Eisenstein's first films are now repeated even more sharply. His production is still characterized by petty- bourgeois limitations. The measure of his re-education does not satisfy the demands made by the epoch on a revolutionary artist. The very fact of October's appearance testifies to the artist's advance, but together with this we may observe the superficial character of his development. Eisenstein is still subject to mechanical thinking, a form of class-limitation, and is unable to represent the October events in their real content. It proves to be external and formal. Facts are given but without an exposition of their essence. The coldness, stiffness and pomposity of the film prevent the events from appearing in their right relationships and essential content, notwithstanding their documentary reproduction. The film deals with a multitude of external appearances registered with the exactness of an historical document, yet they remain a lifeless mass of phenomena.
We see moving masses, armoured cars tearing along, we see the streets of Petrograd, we see a man photographically resembling Lenin, we witness a multitude of events exactly reproduced, but all of this fails to provide the inner qualities which such a film as October should have brought out.
The mass is treated not only in an individual-less aspect, but is often considered allegorically: in other words it is ineffectively emphasized. The artist, powerless to master the movements of the masses - the real heroes of the October epic - finally deprives his picture of concreteness. Depriving reality of its real content he presents merely allegorical schemes.
The masses are taken arithmetically - as a simple sum of separate items. The artist thinks quantitatively, or as Feuerbach liked to say - insipidly. He cannot understand that the sum of hundreds and thousands of men produces a whole greater than its parts, that out of the added quantities a new quality arises.
The masses in October are reproduced purely externally, that is why they do not become the chief figures in the film, but are transformed into a sort of decoration. They are presented as something elemental which cannot be made concrete. The artist cannot perceive individual distinction; before us is a gray torrent in which it is impossible to distinguish anything clearly.
The external characteristics become of extreme importance - the raising of the draw-bridge across the River Neva, the artillery galloping across the court-yard of the Winter Palace - many similar episodes stand out clearly against the dull background of non-individuality. This reveals the nature of his whole conception; incomprehension of the real content of developing events and a purely superficial manner of approaching them.
Objects pour down upon the heads of the spectators in enormous quantities - porcelain, cut-glass, chandeliers, statues, columns, architectural ensemble of the Winter Palace - all these, not conforming to the basic content of the film, are transformed into a real deluge of objects; we might say an "objective deluge!" The film which was to have been a history of the October Revolution becomes a horde of dead objects covered with the dust of museums. A curious paradox results: the museum objects are individualized and pictured with great exactitude, while the movement of the masses appear drab, deprived of individuality and reduced to mere allegory. This failure to understand essentials leads to a perversion of the content of the film. This deficiency is further brought out in the main contrasts of the film: the Smolny Institute versus the Winter Palace. Externally we have in the Winter Palace - the Provisional government, in Smolny the revolution. But Eisenstein proves powerless to reveal the content of this antithesis. He makes the contrast absolute. The Winter Palace is conceived as a consistent whole, whose elements are architectural, material, external. Here the objective mentality of Eisenstein triumphs overcoming all obstacles.
The purely external treatment of the Winter Palace accentuates its feudal aspects. The objects in the Palace are those of feudalism. Making this antithesis absolute there arises a paradoxical perversion: the essential point that the Palace was the residence of bourgeois ministers and that the feudal form had already been replaced by bourgeois content, is forgotten. Here we have a purely quantitative estimation of the form, while the real content of the antithesis remain unrevealed. The bourgeoisie who were overthrown by the October Revolution are not shown in the film. Instead we have a substitution of the feudal emblems of Petersburg. One may say that the artist understands the proletarian revolution within the limits of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. This is an echo of the historical conception of Potemkin. But if there the "democratic" limitations corresponded in some measure to reality, here, in the interpretation of the October events, it appears monstrous and paradoxical. Historic aberrations result from the artist's limited world-outlook. His deep sincerity is unquestionable, but even the most sincere narrowness cannot compensate for inability to understand what is essential.
Eisenstein in his attempt to portray the October events monumentally is restricted by those identical limitations which characterised Potemkin. Externally we have dynamic movement, impetuosity, bustle, abstract dynamics; internally it is static. No attempt is made to present the Revolution as a link in a historic process. Eisenstein limits himself to documental facts, not understanding how to combine them into an integral whole.
Potemkin presents a deeper interpretation of historic reality than was attained in October, in spite of the traces of petty-bourgeois limitations. If Eisenstein gave us a profound characterization of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, the movements of the proletarian revolution proved inaccessible to him. He did not develop quickly enough to interpret the complex problem involved. This circumstance was responsible for the failure of October and for its mechanical and external character. The contrast between his external striving and the actual extent of his re-education become clearer. If superficially Eisenstein became more logical and coherent, in the revolutionary sense, by attempting ever more necessary problems - the essence of his films tenaciously retain traces of class limitation. Their resistance is not yet broken.
Eisenstein's latest work The General Line proved to be such a spineless composition that it became necessary to rename it very unpretentiously "The Old and the New." It points to an accentuation of the crisis. After October the artist should have produced a film solving the contradictions in that unsatisfactory work. This was the only way out. There remained only the alternative of a mere retreat: the artist could have renounced the huge scale of his creations, - but it was clear that such a retreat would be for Eisenstein equivalent to creative death.
The General Line in its general tendency is a big step forward. The artist approaches closer to the concrete working of the socialist revolution, aspiring to grasp one of its most important aspects - the reconstruction of the village by socialising the pigmy, individualist farms. Eisenstein addresses himself to the solution of this new problem with great enthusiasm. Yet the result is very poor.
If we examine the images which Eisenstein gives in his new film it will be seen that they are all on an immense, immeasurable scale. Concrete co-relations are violated. Aiming to give prominence to the contemporary village the artist attains breadth instead of depth, making the images hyperbolic instead of concrete, resulting in a purely quantitative presentation. Consideration above all of external appearances is inherent in Eisenstein. In this is shown his incomprehension of the content. But in The General Line even the external character of the images are limited by their pure quantitativeness, and abstraction. Eisenstein's rich peasant is fabulously rich, extremely tall, monstrously stout. The poor peasantry are similarly expressed in extremes. The pauper's hut reminds one of Dante's Hell. Eisenstein shows swarms of bed-bugs, men at tillage, a hut broken in two. All these pictures are not generalized, they do not become concrete images. They are taken beyond all measure. The cream-separator is conceived as something resembling a turbine of Volkhovstroi (technical fetishism flourishes in full bloom in picturing this modest machine). Addressing himself to cattle-breeding, Eisenstein gives an episode of a "bull's marriage" which not only takes up a large part of the film but also serves as a most characteristic expression of the boundlessness and excess of his images. All is conceived not in its real contours, but in a scheme of hyperbolization. All becomes abstract, the external torn away from living reality. Immensity serves to express the fact that the artist has not found the essence of phenomena, that he sees them only as accidental, superficial expressions.
Immensity and abstraction distinguish the images of The General Line although its method is documentation. The rich peasants and poor peasantry are not actors but real rich peasants and real poor peasantry. They portray themselves - yet the real becomes unreal. The peasants are taken, almost bodily removed, from reality, but they appear to be archly unreal. Why is this so? Because the artist takes the village outside of its real relations, outside of living connections he thinks in terms of things. He disintegrates reality into disconnected, unrelated pieces. This makes quite illusory Eisenstein's construction which is proclaimed in principal as arch-realistic. This film, arising from a desire to express a most urgent page of living reality, full of throbbing interest, proves to be a production torn away from reality itself.
The social movements of the contemporary village do not find in this film any deep revelation. So, paradoxical as it may be, the film dealing with the socialist reconstruction of the village is least of all interested in its social content! The class struggle in the village is here examined so narrowly and falsely that one is surprised that such crude misconstruction of reality was permitted. If in the relations between the rich peasant and poor peasantry (both sides are understood abstractly and in extremes) there still arises some schematic resemblance of the class struggle, yet such an essential figure as the middle-peasant - he who is the knot in the struggle taking place in the villages - is completely forgotten. And this is not accidental. Given that abstract, external and limited approach which is characteristic of the film, there arose a necessity for representing the village as a mere scheme, and consequently without the middle-peasant with whom it was absolutely imperative that connections be made.
Phenomena are conceived of as isolated. Eisenstein's village has no connection with the process of socialist reconstruction. It represents a conservative, self-sufficient nucleus. The "conservative" limitations, ever inherent in the external monumentalism of his scenes, are here very sharply brought out. The village is reconstructed surreptitiously. The whole process of internal regeneration is a local process, not connected with the surrounding reality. All is represented as the sum of mechanical accidents. The regularity, the necessity of the given process is not revealed; therefore we have a film distinguished by its disintegration. It exists as a piling up of unconnected happenings, related only by their proximity. The film is extremely mechanistic, and lacks internal development.
The triumph of the external is here just as great as in October. Whole portions of this drama represent a mechanical juxtaposition and enumeration of disconnected objects. This explains the peculiar apathy of the film. Dante's Hell of the poor peasantry, and the satiety of the rich peasant, are portrayed by the artist with equal refinement. A lustre and a sparkle cover everything. All becomes peculiarly esthetic. The poor peasant's hut of the background of the sunset becomes a fact not without a certain elegance. The external approach to phenomena is expressed by levelling them. Indifference, apathy, a peculiar esthetic reproduction, all testify that the quality of actuality is inaccessible to the artist. He is in the captivity of poor empty abstractions.
The consequent result of all the creative work of Eisenstein is "technicism." The village that is reconstructing itself is perceived under the onslaught of technical progress. The problem of the class struggle is considered secondary and not very essential. The social meaning of the deploying events is alienated. The biggest revolutionary change in the village is perceived as a technical revolution. So the tractor is transformed into the cause, the base of socialist construction, instead of changing class content.
Reducing all events to a purely technical organisation is expressed by one of the more substantial images of the film - the agronomist. This person always appears when it is necessary to turn the development into one or another direction. Agronomy is given above all. All the threads of the village's development are in his hands. Here we have a very characteristic perversion of real relations: the technical organizer appears as the essence of the evolving process.
The film is permeated with technical fetishism. If in the previous works of Eisenstein we have seen but traces, in The General Line they become quite definite. Their domination hinders the artist from perceiving socialist reconstruction in its essential meaning.
The gigantic social process is represented only in its technical-organizational aspect.
People in the film are deprived of personality and presented in a scheme of "non-psychological" characteristics. The connection of this treatment with the false, limited perception of the social process is now clear. Not the social but the technical organisational substance is regarded as essential. The lack of social concreteness in The General Line is the corollary of its technical-fetish essence. We have before us a world-outlook logically materialising. It becomes a whole system. By it the human-element in the social process is deprived of personality, and reduced to the role of a simple mechanical unity.
In The General Line all these features receive a logical development. What is their class meaning? We know that the ideology of the technical intellectuals is permeated with technical fetishism, which plays a specific role in the formation of their world-outlook. Here we always meet with a tendency towards fetishising the technical covering of reality, a tendency to take it for the whole that implies misunderstanding of the real content of the social process. The last film of Eisenstein testifies convincingly to his relations with the technical intellectuals.
It reveals the essence of his development, and of those errors in which he still persists. His petty-bourgeois limitation is not overcome during his collaboration with the proletariat but instead passes over into a new quality, becoming a "technical" limitation. In the initial stages of his development Eisenstein's work is a form of petty-bourgeois practice changing its class nature through participation in the proletarian struggle - but in the actual course of this development it becomes permeated with the ideology of the technical intelligentsia. Such is the concrete character of the history of Eisenstein's genius. Such is his real essence.
We have often to deal with a group of the petty-bourgeoisie who pass into a new quality, providing forces for its technical intelligentsia. This takes place continually in the contemporary development of the petty-bourgeoisie under conditions of the proletarian revolution. This peculiar crystallization becomes for them a form of co-operation with the working class. We have a social group retaining a petty-bourgeois spirit and traces of organisational-fetishism. This technical-intelligentsia finds its expression in ideological creative work, of which Eisenstein's cinematographic style is a vivid example. This explains why, in spite of an external revolution, his limitations are so obstinately retained, thus hampering the real revolutionary growth of his genius. It is clear that the revolutionary cinema conceptions of Eisenstein are only external. The artist does not surmount his psychological contradictions by social re-education, by merciless criticism of class conservatism, but attempts to do this through a technical-organisational collaboration with the working-class. This keeps him in the captivity of many illusions and hampers him in becoming a dialectical materialist, in becoming one of the greatest artists of our epoch. The crisis of Eisenstein's development has such deep roots that its solution is possible only through a complete revaluation of values.
As is known Eisenstein made a series of attempts to prove theoretically his views on art. In his remarks, eccentric and fractional in character, there is one very interesting assertion. Theory is always a generalization of practice. However cursorily the formulations are stated, the mechanical quality of Eisenstein's thinking is clearly seen in them. Before us is the philosophy of objective limitation so logically expressed in his films. Of particular interest is the theory of the "intellectual cinema" which Eisenstein advances as the basis of his method and as a "perspective" for the development of all revolutionary cinematography. This theory is an expression of organisational-technical fetishism. It is simplicity in the extreme, this theory of new rationalism. It is reduced to fetishising the primacy of reason as against the psychological "elementals." It is well to remember here how Eisenstein, denying bourgeois individualism attempted to do away with personality. This very same limitation is manifested also in preaching intellectualism. Eisenstein thinks within the limits of mechanical stagnancy, and this brings him to very poor illusions.
For the creative development of Eisenstein, his theoretical reasoning has a negative significance. It not only proves that the artist has moved very little in the direction of re-education but also shows militancy and obstinacy in his defence of these limitations, which serve as a stumbling-block in his revolutionary growth. The theory of the "intellectual cinema" represents, for him, a peculiar defensive device justifying his limitations. This theory will disappear when he overcomes that inertness in thinking which hinders this great artist from rising to his full height.
What are the perspectives? We have no reason for doubting that Eisenstein can surmount the contradictions of his creative growth and that he will be able to give his work far more completeness and depth than he did in October or the General Line. If he turns to decisive re-arming, overcoming his traits of class limitation, making closer relationships with the "attacking class," Eisenstein can create real revolutionary cinema productions. But we must on no account minimize the difficulties confronting him. The way out of this crisis is possible only through a stubborn campaign for re-education, through merciless exposure and criticism of his first films. The method of dialectical materialism is a necessary condition for the creative growth of the artist. Only by mastering it, only by conquering the mechanical limitations of his thought will he produce films worthy of this gigantic epoch. Then will be the authentic achievement of social monumental art.
1 'Attacking Class'. A quotation from the revolutionary poet Vladimir Maiakovski - a figure in his particular poetic sphere comparable to Eisenstein. The whole line is: "All my ringing power of song I give to you, attacking class."
2 'Social monumental art" as distinguished from "differential intimate art" of an individualist bourgeois society. Friche, the leading modern Marxian critic on Art writes: "In the history of art there are two regularly recurring types: sometimes the arts - architecture, sculpture, painting - develop as a single united whole, as for instance in Egypt and Greece (V cent. B.C.) or else the opposite takes place, this synthesis is disintegrated and each of these arts exist and evolve independently, as in Greece (IV-III B.C., Italy XV cent., Europe XIX cent. Architecture is the basic nucleus of synthetic art. (Now of course we have a new, even more synthetic art - the cinema.) Social monumental art is that which fulfills a great social demand, in contradistinction to that made for a particular individual or patron.
3 'System of Images.' This means the complex of image-units that make up the whole of a work of art.By "image" is meant that minimum unit in which is expressed an idea. An image may be anything, living or material, actual or imaginary. In the "General Line" for example we have the image of the cream-separator which expresses the whole of the technical revolution that is taking place. Or the more complex images as the ship and the steps in 'Potemkin" the first representing the solidarity of the proletariat and the other the individualism of the petty-bourgeoisie. All the images of a piece are part of a whole system which is the work of art.
From: '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.
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