Sunday, 29 June 2014

Strike (1925) with Wendy Hiscocks, BFI

“I don’t make films to be watched by an impassive eye, I prefer to hit people hard on the nose…”


Strike (Стачка or Stachka) was Eisenstein's first full-length feature film, his second being The Battleship Potemkin and it is as packed full of ultra-quick cuts and brutal montage as you’d expect but also comedy – who knew the dialectic featured so many laughs? So, anyone who doesn’t think communists have a sense of humour better look away now…

Some modern commentators seem to struggle with the politics but this is history as cinema as cinematic history: a deliberate political statement that says much about the state of Russia when it was made: there’s nothing to agree or disagree with. That is, unless, you’re looking for a fight…

The workers and the managers
Eisenstein wanted to demonstrate the importance of solidarity in the face of capitalist and state oppression and if this language sounds old fangled then imagine you’re living in Tsarist Russia in 1912 when the strike in question took place. At times the American influence is so marked that I kept on thinking how this would all feel if the story was set in the Wild West or mob-dominated Chicago… people need hero-leaders to turn the tables on bullying of all kinds and the moral force remains whatever the injustice confronted.

Of course in the mid-twenties, the Revolution was still being consolidated and part of this process was the establishment of the mythology of the new regime – no different from France and the USA in the early nineteenth century. So, yes, Strike is propaganda: history being written by the victors.

The factory
Leading up to the First World War, there had been a number of large-scale industrial disputes which had been ruthlessly crushed by the old regime: a political system far behind Western Europe in most respects.

In the film there is no trades union and the workers are shown to have almost no rights in the face of a cruel management. Eisenstein’s workers are heroic figures whilst the businessmen, police and agitators are comically ruthless.

Grigori V. Alexandrov
The villainous foreman (Grigori V. Alexandrov) is hyper-actively cruel whilst the pompous, over-fed Director (B.I. Charuev) and his shareholders drink wine and eat caviar as their employees starve.

The spies leap off the page...
The Chief of Security Police (I. Ivanov) pulls together an evil bunch of agents to spy on the workers and disrupt their unity and focus. The Chief looks at a page in his book of spies and the chracters suddenly move into life: a neat device as well as a sophisticated edit.

They are a marvellous collection all gurning away like the animals they are named after; Owl (P.I. Malek), Fox (A.P. Kurbatov), Monkey (A.P. Yanichevski) and Bulldog (Maksim Straukh).

Fox and Monkey
This casting is the result of Eisenstein’s idea of “typage” – the casting of actors by their physical attributes as much as their acting ability per se. He would often spend months looking for the right person or rather the person with the right look. Here it works exceptionally well – were you watching Tod Browning (not that Lon couldn’t have managed them all on his own…)?

The standout “actors” tend to be those playing the leading workers especially Aleksandr Antonov as the organiser of the strike committee, Mikhail Gomorov and Ivan Klyukvin. They’re all tall, strapping and good looking - they would have made excellent cowboys.

Ivan Klyukvin and Aleksandr Antonov
There is already much unrest at the factory as the film begins, with management nervous about agitation: conditions are poor and the workforce is running out of options but they are not yet decided.

The spark for the conflict is the theft of a micrometre from the factory. Yakov, the worker whose tool it was reports the incident to the Foreman who refuses to believe him. Completely innocent but faced with humiliation and the loss of his livelihood, he hangs himself in spite of the desperate efforts of his co-workers to save him. He leaves a note explaining his plight and this leads to the men walking out.

The death of Yakov
The management try to retain control but are thrown into the sludge a suitably slapstick coup de grace for such Keystone Capitalists.

The factory falls silent and the workers decide on a list of demands… an eight hour working day, six for children, a 30% pay rise and a call to be treated fairly… we know it’s too much.
The orders start to pile up and the directors seek help from the Chief of Police who sets his secret agents onto the strikers… they set off to identify the ring leaders and to lay traps.

A day in the country...
The workers are shown in bucolic unity – discussing the way forward in countryside meetings, it’s an idealised vision and one that is rudely interrupted by the arrival of mounted police. Before the panicked proletariat are routed their leader gets them to sit down and the horses back off instinctively.

Subterfuge begins to reap rewards as one of the strike’s leaders (Mikhail Gomorov) is captured, badly beaten and then blackmailed into offering information. The key discussion takes place with the Police Chief as behind them two dwarfs dance on a table covered with champagne and caviar: a deca-dance (sorry).

David Lynch or Sergei Eisenstein?
The strike wears on and the workers begin to suffer depravation as the money runs out: the decision to fight for their rights has cost them dear and there will be worse to come.

The narrative progresses with more Hollywood tonality as the Monkey goes off to recruit the King of Thieves (Boris Yurtsev) to help entrap the strikers. His men sleep in huge barrels and emerge into the daylight in one of the film’s most memorable scenes: clearly their baddies.

The King and the Monkey
The King’s man, led by his Queen (Yudif Glizer) set fire to a shop building and try to get the workers to join them in the loot. The workers are too canny and manage to set off the alarm for the fire brigade to put out the fire but they ignore the flames and are told to turn their hoses on the workers instead.

Spoilers… The subsequent suppression of the workers is relentless and still harrowing: they are battered by the force of the fire hoses and run to ground by mounted police who even invade their tenements.

Their leader is half-drowned before being captured and then the army is sent in to not just finish the job but to eradicate the “problem” once and for all…

The rout of the workers
“Remember Proletarians!” is the film’s final call… although I’m not sure how much room there was for any complacency in the early Stalinist years?

The film tries to entertain as it informs and there were many examples of the brutal oppression it describes in the years leading up to the 1917: the revolution didn’t come from nowhere. In 1924-25 the “dream” of a new world was still very much alive… the incalculable damage of the Stalinist years was yet to fully unfold.

Eisenstein’s film has therefore to be taken at face value: a work of a conviction and of good faith in the Communist project.

The director used performers from the Proletcult Theatre and there’s a raw edge to the acting accentuated by the quick-fire editing. His direction is inventive from first to last including the usual trick shots along with lovely moments such as a workers meeting seen reflected from a puddle. The cinematography from Eduard Tisse also deserves mention.

The film was presented with live accompaniment from Wendy Hiscocks, an experienced silent specialist I’ve not seen before. She wove some lovely lines around the revolutionary themes and clearly enjoyed the communistic carry on too. More evidence if it was ever required of the impact live performance has on our connection to and enjoyment of silent film.

More details of Wendy are available on her website.

Strike is available in DVD from Movie Mail or Bluray from a flying start to one of cinema's most influential directorial careers.

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