Eisenstein’s celebrated use of montage, fast cutting, and odd abstract counterpoints to brutal action have guaranteed him lasting fame and respect. The abattoir scene intercut with the slaughter of innocent workers in Strike is still bold and nasty. Perhaps his most famous shot of all is the baby’s buggy trundling disastrously down the Odessa Steps as advancing lines of infantry indifferently mow down unarmed workers, women and children alike (Battleship Potemkin). It is a remarkable scene in its casual cruelty, and remains a benchmark in spectatorial helplessness. It even survives Brian De Palma’s ‘homage’ in The Untouchables. Indeed, the very banality and irrelevance of De Palma’s use of the scene rests on its fundamentally cinematic quality, its irresponsibility as spectacle.
To be honest, I probably first heard of Eisenstein through De Palma; either that or thanks to a reproduction photo of Eisenstein himself shaking hands with Mickey Mouse given away with the Glasgow magazine The List in the mid-80s. In either case, it is a curious consequence of frenetic cutting that a director should be largely remembered through a number of brilliant stand-out shots and scenes. For a long time before I had seen a single second of moving footage, I knew Eisenstein through stills of weeping women in crowds, and the back-tilted head of a man with an extremely pointy beard in which Roland Barthes sees his enigmatic ‘third sense’. I have never been able to work out what this is supposed to be: I think it has something to do with the beard. But the proof of the power of the image lies in its ability to suggest something just beyond our understanding is taking place.
Coming to view the full chaos of the films can, then, be an unsettling experience. There are many moments of lyrical beauty and weirdness, but they are caught up in the rush of events and there is never much time to dwell on them. In October, as the bridges are raised to cut off the workers’ quarter, the still-warm body of a woman rests on the brink, her hair briefly raised in a last moment of animation after death; a dead white horse slides slowly over the edge, dangling from its harness, held poised by the counterweight of the carriage it was pulling, before finally falling like a gravity-afflicted ghost into the water of the Neva. One is left divided, between the surge of narrative and the desire to capture the moment.
These are also odd moments of pity, punctuating an otherwise remorseless march of history that divides up humanity with the moral subtlety of a run-of-the-mill Western. The lackeys of the state jeer uncontrollably as they stick the boot into vigorous but defenceless workers. Reactionary ladies are particularly dangerous, whether in the form of the Women’s Death Battalion, or merely the frilly pleasure-cruising creatures who butcher an insurgent with parasols. Political moderates, whether Kerensky cowering by a telephone in the Winter Palace, or the Mensheviks with their ridiculous call to avoid bloodshed, are met with scorn. The triumph of the workers is a glorious if indecorous affair: a proletarian child grins uncontrollably as he rolls around in the vacant throne in the Winter Palace. The absent royal family are, indeed, represented only by their vacant thrones: the Csarina’s toilet, the Csar’s bidet. These crude devices are often funny, but they suggest montage is not always very clever.
This has at least as much to do with the propagandistic nature of these three films í¢â‚¬â€ commemorating events in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 í¢â‚¬â€ as with the formal matter of montage. The standard critical response has generally been to cast Eisenstein as an experimentalist forced to adapt his art to the demands of the revolution. Yet this underplays a degree of complicity between technique and subject. The films were indeed criticised by the authorities for not telling the story straight. But the frenetic succession of spinning machinery, marching feet, a statesman’s cowardly retreat seen as the diplomatic flag on his speeding car, crowds teeming over ceremonial architecture, and (dis)heartening slogans í¢â‚¬â€ ‘Down with the lackeys of the bourgeoisie!’ í¢â‚¬â€ also mark the point where modernism and propaganda meet. As with the Futurists, the shoutiness of Eisenstein is a direct consequence of montage. What Eisenstein might have done with the technique had he been left a free hand remains a moot point.
Watching these films again, I was constantly led back to Fritz Lang. In Strike, the leering secret policeman with his wide-brimmed hat and spectacles, skulking through the city, peering into the window of a café, reflected upside down in a glass ball as a carriage rolls past; the marking out of districts on a map in October; the constant themes of pursuit and struggle for the territory of the city; all bring to mind the differently political M. Lang’s film holds itself in troubled pity before an individual psychosis, and asks, what is to become of our children? Eisenstein’s films are already quite sure that our children are being butchered by a senseless administration devoid of psychology. The future in these films is identical to the present of their making: ‘the revolution’, a period as well as a sudden event, paradoxically holds history in suspension, answers all its questions.
As I suggested earlier, the abiding fascination of Eisenstein lies in weird moments that escape this rationalism-run-riot, and suggest something more like the unease of the world of The Testament of Dr Mabuse. The eerie self-reassembly of the statue of Alexander III in October may ‘represent’ the betrayal of the Provisional Government, but it is the sheer strangeness of the lighting and the teetering of the head back onto its socket that command attention. Likewise, in Potemkin, once the mutinous sailors have fled execution by firing squad, the sheet used to cover them lies empty, billowing ominously on the deck. As with the woman’s hair and the dead horse caught on the bridge in October, it is left to the uncanny animation of the dead and the inhuman to introduce a pity alien to the bug-eyed belief in humanity’s ability to determine its progress.
The most bizarre scene in Strike has to be where the secret policeman mounts a hill crowned with a gibbet for dead cats before his rendezvous with the king of the slums, who summons his ramshackle Lumpenproletariat out of a ‘cemetery of barrels’. What they are all doing there, other than uncannily anticipating Samuel Beckett and Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, is never explained. These moments belong neither with the square-jawed determination of the workers, nor with the weaselly perfidy of the bourgeoisie. They haunt the films with a sense of a properly cinematic phantasmagoria that ‘the revolution’ cannot control, and indeed scarcely thinks of, unless in its nightmares.