Red Century: the Russian Revolution and Its Powerful Imprint on Language and Aesthetics in Films

From Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, there is little doubt that the filmmakers of the time literally took the world by storm.

The posters for Battleship PotemkinIvan the Terrible 1 and October: Ten Days That Shook the World. Credit: IMDB/Wikipedia

Epic historical events have a way of leaving their powerful imprint on artistic works. The Russian Revolution of 1917 remains, for the 20th century, a moment of great utopian force that changed not just the geopolitical landscape of the world but crucially transformed theatre, film, art and literature. While the political culture of the revolution, its subsequent transformation into a powerful bureaucratic apparatus, and its afterlife following the collapse of socialist regimes in Eastern Europe, has been a much debated subject, the creative flowering of ideas in the immediate aftermath of the revolution has continued to remain an enduring legacy.

The rise of the Russian avant-garde is now a well documented story in the histories of European modernism. This emerged in the period just before and after the revolution of 1917 and became one of the great art movements of the last century. The philosophical and aesthetic dimension of this movement influenced painting, theatre, sculpture, film, photography, the decorative arts, architecture, literature and poster design.

With a future oriented vision, a boldness of purpose, a disdain for the past and an attraction for the machine age, the Russian avant-garde inserted itself firmly in the revolutionary fervour of the moment. Experimentation, formal innovation, and a graphic portrayal of rebellion to aid in the new society’s break with the past was the favoured mode. This rejection of classical, traditional art was viewed as essential for an understanding of reality and the building of a political and revolutionary future.

The artistic spectrum generated by this revolutionary moment was diverse but there is little doubt that the filmmakers of this time literally took the world by storm. Some of the well-known filmmakers of this period are Lev Kuleshov, Alexander Dovzhenko, Vsvevold Pudovkin, Sergei Eisenstein, and Dziga Vertov. Two of these filmmakers stand out for the different tendencies in their work and the impact they had on film language and aesthetics. The first is the figure of Sergei Eisenstein, son of an architect who trained first as an architect himself, and then worked as an engineer. The second is the documentary and newsreel filmmaker, Dziga Vertov.

Eisenstein abandoned his pursuit of engineering and architecture to join the theatre in Moscow as a painter and designer. He directed plays for the city’s avant-garde theatre Proletkult which was known for its opposition to the method of naturalistic acting associated with Konstantin Stanislavsky, the legendary Russian actor, director and teacher of theatre. Eisenstein himself was inclined more to the creative possibilities inherent in the instinctive behavioural reactions to external stimuli studied and captured by Ian Pavlov in what became known as the Pavlovian school of psychological conditioning. These ideas led to Eisenstein’s lifelong preoccupation with the response audiences had to theatre and film, which he saw as a combination of the muscular, the psychic and the sensory.

With a commitment to this dynamic framework, Eisenstein developed his most important concept of montage – a technique of editing where the juxtaposition and collision of two shots not necessarily related to each other would lead to the birth of a third idea in the mind of the spectator. The assembling of a bridge had fascinated him for its fusion of men and nature and the invocation of a rhythmic symphony of human activity. Knowledge of explosions gathered during his work as an engineer led him to conclude that an emotional explosion in art is produced by the same method. All these impressions became crucial to his development of montage.

Battleship Potemkin was planned as a film to commemorate the uprising of 1905 when a large crowd of protesting industrial workers in St Petersburg were shot at by the Czar’s forces. This aborted revolutionary upsurge sparked a series of other rebellions but it took another 12 years for the dismantling of Czarism with the revolution of 1917. Battleship focuses on one part of the revolt that takes place on a ship named Potemkin. Structured around five episodes, the film dramatises a mutiny that is triggered by the use of rotten meat in the soup made for the sailors. The movement of the ship’s machinic elements, the tension writ large on the sailor’s faces and the many moods of the sea are woven into an evocative and powerful rhythm of great force. This is the film that includes the famous Odessa Steps sequence with its masterful orchestration of the conflictual elements of montage.

Odessa Steps.

In the sequence we see a juxtaposition of ordinary lives with a mass of soldiers marching down the steps, presented to the audience in graphic pattern. Shadows, lines, body types, architectural forms and statues collide with each other to express the violence of the massacre shown here. This single sequence has been hailed as one of the greatest moments in the history of world cinema and cited endlessly in several films from across the world.

October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928) was commissioned by the government to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the revolution. The film documented the last ten days of intense mobilisation before Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government is overthrown by the Bolsheviks. One of the hallmarks of Eisenstein’s oeuvre was to capture the movement of intense affect across the facial features of ordinary people – a quality that took on a fever pitch in October. Close ups of a facial twitch, an ear lobe, the eyes, forehead, the nose, mouth – all these elements were highlighted to make the face a mobile surface of intense activity.

October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928).

Eisenstein saw revolutionary fervour as a force that travelled through individual bodies to a swarming crowd on screen and finally to the spectator watching the film. Film scholar Jane Gaines has famously argued that political mimesis begins with the body placed in two locations – on screen and in the audience. The sensate body on screen connects with the body of the spectator, making struggle into a visceral form of “bodily swelling”.

This is masterfully shown in one of the sequences in October where a large crowd of peaceful protestors in St Petersburg is transformed into a militant force after they are shot at by the provisional government militia. The agitated crowd is captured from various angles and woven into a revolutionary multitude to generate the desired response from the audience watching the film. This approach to the creation of a sensorial communication between the crowd on screen and the audience in the theatre, remained a hallmark of Eisenstein’s form in most of his films.

The masterful St Petersburg sequence from October: Ten Days that Shook the World.

In Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible 1 (1944) and 2 (1958), we see a departure from the energetic style associated with the director’s earlier work. All these films were made after socialist realism emerged as something of a national style since the 1930s. Socialist realism was dedicated to the projection of the Soviet Union’s achievements through a form of heroic and psychological representation. The pressure from the state to conform to this style affected a large number of artists, writers and filmmakers.

This new cultural context of socialist realism affected Eisenstein’s work in muted and contradictory ways. Alexander Nevsky drew on a historical reference to a war between the Russian’s and the Teutonic knights of Germany. Staged as a heroic battle from Russia’s past, the film provides the enemy with a distinctly Nazi air, clearly trying to address the deepening crisis in Europe at that time. The film was withdrawn after the Soviets signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939. But following the German invasion of Soviet occupied Poland in 1941, Alexander Nevsky was released again to rousing success. Though spectacular in its visual virtuosity and with an outstanding battle on the ice sequence, the film was unable to hide its jingoistic nationalism and racist overtones.

Ivan the Terrible 1 and 2 were also seen as capitulating to the mounting bureaucratisation and authoritarianism of the Soviet State even as some believed the acting style in the two films was not in consonance with the tenets of socialist realism. The contorted faces, the sinister shadows, the majestic use of production design, and the stylised mise-en-scene ubiquitous in both parts of Ivan the Terrible certainly did not carry the vision favoured by socialist realism.

Ivan the Terrible 1 and 2

Yet these are films that remain ambivalent in relation to Soviet Union’s growing nationalist identity since the 1930s. If the crowd and visceral affect were crucial in Eisenstein’s early work, a shift occurs in these later films where the focus moves to individual heroism and psychological worlds. In many ways these films remain contradictory testaments to the hard battles artists had to negotiate at this point with the Soviet state.

Despite his fascination for attractions, sensation, and the visceral, Eisenstein organised his cinematic material into dramatic fictional accounts that were equally influenced by avant-garde theatrical elements. Dziga Vertov, the other great filmmaker, saw film as a unique form that had to be drawn away from narrative and theatrical influences. He believed cinema’s primary relationship had to be with the impulse and rhythm of machines located in the frenetic industrial landscape of the period. Vertov’s famous dictum, “the camera can see better than the human eye” is a point that was emphasised in his writings about cinema as well as in the experimental documentaries he made.

Dziga Vertov believed cinema’s primary relationship had to be with the impulse and rhythm of machines located in the frenetic industrial landscape of the period.

Vertov’s films – The Eleventh Year (1928) and Enthusiasm (1931) forged ahead to celebrate the industrialisation process in the Ukraine region. Enthusiasm used documentary images of coal, trains, electricity, industrialisation of agriculture and workers in action to frame the expressive quality of the film. Some of this imagery was also deployed in Eleventh Year made to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the revolution. Both films were shot in the Ukraine region and foregrounded the utopian drive that the Soviets identified with large scale production. Steel, electricity, and the railways appear as powerful agents of change when they are combined with the poetic energy of labouring bodies.

Vertov’s imagery makes us aware of the hybrid combination of human and non-human forces. Both films are non-narrative and mobilise documentary images for an aesthetically stunning account of the transformation of landscape through machines and labour. It’s another matter that only a few years since the making of these two films, Ukraine experienced a famine that many have connected to the accelerated industrial developments forced on the region. Thus these two poetic films, despite their aesthetic quality, have often been referred to as propaganda for the achievements of the Soviet State.

Vertov’s imagery makes us aware of the hybrid combination of human and non-human forces.

Vertov’s most well-known film Man with a Movie Camera departs from this propaganda style to present us with a playful account of one day in the life of Moscow, Odessa, Kharkov and Kiev. Both the cinematographer and the director move across the city to capture its daily rhythm made possible by the invention of the movie camera.

This experimental documentary continues to resonate even today as a deeply philosophical engagement with the nature of human perception and consciousness. We see the cameraman in daring situations, recording the images we are seeing.

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Navigating the new thrills generated by speed and industrial production, Vertov shows how the movie camera gave us a dizzying form of perception and creation. Annette Michelson who translated Vertov’s writings has famously referred to Man With a Movie Camera as a film that moves from a dialectical view of the world to an exploration of human consciousness itself. The camera is placed as an extension of the human eye to make us see beyond what is possible for the naked eye. Seeing these images generates for the spectator a new form of perception. Man with a Movie Camera remains a philosophical engagement with the transformation of vision after the arrival of the movie camera.

Like many European and American filmmakers of the early twentieth century for whom the urban crowd was an object of fascination, Eisenstein and Vertov too used the crowd as an important force in their cinematic ventures but to achieve something distinctly unique. In Eisenstein’s oeuvre, the crowd held the key to a possible future. In Battleship Potemkin, we see peaceful bystanders suddenly run helter skelter to escape the bullets of an advancing militia. In October, the crowd turns into a swarm of agitated bodies, masterfully captured from different points of view. In Strike the crowd appears as protesting workers at a factory site in pre-revolutionary Russia. In each of these situations, Eisenstein identified the crowd as a collective utopian force and the harbinger of a revolutionary era.

Dziga Vertov on the other hand recognised the mysterious and complex nature of the crowd. In Man With A Movie Camera, the crowd turns into an urban mass of working people who follow the rhythms of city life, its work cultures, leisure spaces and its transport economy. The crowd remains energetic, yet opaque, playful and deceptive. The camera makes sense of the chaotic world of fleeting impressions, but it also wields its desire to operate as a surveillance eye.

In a surreal sequence of the film, we see the cinematographer standing as a giant superimposition high above a massive crowd. The desire to have an all seeing eye gets encoded here even as the film disallows the spectator from accessing the actual density of the crowd. In many ways Man With A Movie Camera literally prefigures a world to come when the camera becomes ubiquitously attached to various gadgets that we possess. This is a crowd holding the all-seeing mechanical eye on its body.

In many ways Man With A Movie Camera literally prefigures a world to come when the camera becomes ubiquitously attached to various gadgets that we possess.

Though quite different in their form, style and philosophical vision, both Eisenstein and Vertov recognised how our sensory engagement with the world had changed with the “effects of technology”. They embraced this new force not through uncritical celebration nor through the political paranoia that seeped through much of post war debates on mass culture.

Rather, this hybrid entanglement of the human and the technological was seen as the site for a reworking of the aesthetic question in the modern world. From Marshal Mcluhan’s evocative theories of the media to Lev Manovich’s thoughts on digital new media, the human-technological ensemble as embodied vision has continued to be a topic of major debate. Perhaps more than ever before, these ideas have acquired a renewed philosophical charge in the multimedia context of our contemporary times when the past, the present and the future appear intensely interlocked in the infinite and borderless territory of the digital.

Ranjani Mazumdar is a professor in the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU.