Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Eisenstein, Vertov and the Rise of Soviet Cinema

My latest film essay, where I take on early silent cinema for the first time. Enjoy!

Eisenstein, Vertov and the Rise of Soviet Cinema

During the 1920’s, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, a new form of cinema began to emerge in the newly-formed Soviet Union. Lenin’s oft-cited comment that “Cinema is the most important art form” shows the degree to which the Soviets utilized film for ideological purposes. Early Soviet cinema, based at the Moscow Film School, functioned as an arm of the state, influencing and “educating” the masses about Communism through cinema. As such, Soviet Cinema quickly developed its own distinctive style and film language, which would soon revolutionize cinema as whole. The use of editing and montage in particular made an important mark of film history, creating a story through a montage of images intercut with one another. Soviet filmmakers differed in how they utilized such tools, but the ends – the education of the proletariat through film – were the same.

Two of the most prominent filmmakers in post-revolutionary Russia were Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. Both men were passionate Bolsheviks, but disagreed how to construct films. Eisenstein emphasized an artistic approach to cinema, utilizing the art for depictions of historical events, expression of ideology, and education of the masses. Vertov, meanwhile, advocated a documentary depiction of Russia, not devoid of style or interest but free of fictionalization, to emphasize the reality of his message. Though their methods and types of films differed, both left an indelible mark on film language through their effots.

The Soviet filmmakers came onto the scene at a critical time. In the United States, D.W. Griffith had solidified the importance and prominence of cinematic narrative through the 1900’s and 1910’s, while also introducing a number of stylistic innovations – close-ups, cross-cutting – which established a distinct cinematic language. Unlike the Americans’ thriving industry, however, the Russian film industry had collapsed during the Revolution, and the Soviet Union had to recreate the industry using extremely limited resources of film and equipment (indeed, the necessity of reusing film may explain Soviet cinema’s reliance on editing). Moreover, to a degree exceeding that of their Western counterparts, early Soviet filmmakers were driven by ideological concerns, as they functioned as an arm of the Soviet state, shaping the nation’s ideas through art. It was a combination of these factors that shaped Soviet montage theory and the development of Soviet cinema.

Eisenstein’s films, including Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928), are a dramatized depiction of Russian history seen through a Bolshevik lense. His films served not only as a dramatic depiction of historical events, but as propaganda pieces advocating the superiority and righteousness of the Bolshevik Revolution and their program of Communism. Through these films – not only their subject matter, but their techniques of direction and editing - Eisenstein hoped to educate the Russian people of the Bolshevik idea of history and create a visceral experience that would shape the minds of viewers – achieving, in other words, “Intellectual dynamization” (Eisenstein 40).

In his essays “Beyond the Shot” and “The Dramaturgy of Film Form”, Eisenstein argued for the importance of montage in film language. The goal, in Eisenstein’s view, was to distinguish the films from the strict realism (or formalism) of other art forms such as painting, sculpture and theatre, recognizing the ability of a filmmaker to shape and change his art in a way a painter could not. And the key to this was editing. Lev Kuleshov and Vsevolod Pudovkin had already argued for editing’s importance to an extent, but Eisenstein took this idea even further, arguing that “Cinema is, first and foremost, montage” (Eisenstein 14) – that not only was editing important, but the way the images were used and arranged.

Montage is used throughout Eisenstein’s works. The most famous example is the Odessa Steps massacre in Potemkin, intercutting shots of mechanical Tsarist troops marching down the stairs shooting civilians, panicked demonstrators being shot and trampled, and a baby carriage careening down the steps towards destruction. October uses similar montage structures: A cannon being lowered onto soldiers in trenches, a dying horse and cart falling off an opening bridge, and a machine gunner aiming his weapon and the barrel firing, creating a “rattling montage effect” (Eisenstein 35) through such rapid editing. The effect is overwhelmingly of violence; realism is not necessarily what is arrived at, but a visceral emotional effect on the viewer. By combining depictions of real events such as the Potemkin Mutiny and the October Revolution with dramatically striking editing styles, Eisenstein hoped to not just “direct and develop the emotions... (but) developing and directing the entire thought process” (40).

Vertov, on the other hand, opted for a documentarian approach, using his films to depict “the communist decoding of world relations” (Vertov 66). Films such as Man With a Movie Camera (1929) depict day-to-day life in the Soviet state, showing how ordinary, working-class Russians went about their lives. His films did not lack for style or interest, nor were they above using cinematic elements. Overall, however, they were more concerned with documenting reality than Eisenstein’s dramatized efforts, focusing on the real, the mundane and the everyday rather than dramatized, fictional or extraordinary events.

Vertov’s primary motive was to connect with the average Russian, the peasant or proletariat who had little time for ideology and desired a realistic depiction of life. During the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921, he had seen the reactions of uneducated Russian peasants to Russian propaganda, noting they were more likely to criticize artistry and realism than its political importance: “The more remote the place, the less the peasants grasped the general, urgent, agitational meaning of the drawings” (Vertov 60). He argued that the plot of a film was not as important for education purposes as its images. Unlike Eisenstein, he felt that people would be persuaded only if they could believe what they saw was real. Vertov hoped to create a cinema completely divorced from Western narrative cinema, which he felt promoted bourgeois values and seduced viewers into idleness. In his view, narrative cinema “act(s) on the viewer’s subconscious, completely circumventing his protesting consciousness” (65), and thus Vertov avoids narrative as such in his work. However, his images tell a story of their own.

Man With a Movie Camera is a prime example of Vertov’s “revolutionary” documentary cinema. Vertov’s film depicts an average day on the streets of Moscow. The film depicts a variety of Russians engaging in routine activities, from shoppers to workers to children and students on the beach, eating, riding in cars, exercising, or working. It shows Soviet Russia as a well-off, content, prosperous place, its people efficient, friendly, content and happy – the “real”, everyday Russia, not Eisenstein’s intricate construct. To underscore his point, Vertov repeatedly draws attention to the film’s artificiality: repeatedly showing the director and his camera filming, as well as animations of a camera dancing, crayfish grouping together, and theatre seats opening for an as-yet unseen audience. Unlike Eisenstein, who used these tools to create narrative cinema, Vertov is capturing the reality of Soviet life. This is a statement in and of itself, convincing unsophisticated peasants and workers of the righteousness of Soviet ideology by presenting an idealized portrait of life in the new Russia.

Although their methods and ideas differed, both Eisenstein and Vertov were very much products of their time. Their historical context shaped their films, taking pre-existing ideas of film and fusing them with ideology and their technical limitations to create a new and interesting form of cinema, completely separate from its Western predecessors. Ultimately, their ideology and purpose was rendered obsolete by the tides of history, but their revolutionary techniques in film editing, montage, and expression of ideas changed cinema forever.

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