41. Spione

March 22, 1928
Directed by Fritz Lang

Spione is effectively a Mabuse reboot for 1928. Germany has a level of social and economic stability that 1922 Germany did not. The world has gotten better in the intervening years. The currency is stable again. And so instead of a mysterious all-powerful magician who wants to rule the world simply to play with his victims out of cruelty, Spione’s mastermind is attempting to manipulate the international political situation and threat of Soviet Russia to acquire more money.

It’s a more realistic image of a supervillain that reflects that in 1928, instead of abject terror and chaos, there was a political situation where people knew what to be afraid of. While Stalin’s “communism in one country” already acknowledged that the World Revolution was not going to happen, there were still many in Europe and America who hoped or feared that it could. Germany had beaten Russia ten years ago, and now that the Reds had won their civil war and were rapidly modernizing, they might be harboring some thoughts of revenge.

Lang’s filmmaking has grown more sophisticated, but this movie is missing something crucial that Mabuse had. Maybe it’s that after seeing Murnau’s astonishing growth in the last six years, from Nosferatu to Letzte Mann to Faust to Sunrise, a Mabuse reboot that does little more than clean up the details and slightly update the story isn’t enough. It could also be that Mabuse’s power was mysterious and supernatural, as if the world was so confusing and inexplicable that it must be controlled by a superhuman magician. Haghi is a mundane villain – he’s merely rich and has a capable staff.

You didn’t need to be a magician to see that the Silent Age was coming to an end. Metropolis had almost bankrupted UFA and so Lang was not able to develop on that movie’s wonders. If it had been a success, he may have been able to make another masterpiece of that scale. But there’s little in this movie that hadn’t been done already by Lang or someone else. Spione is a tactical retreat into safe territory.


40. Oktyabr


March 14, 1928
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein & Grigori Aleksandrov

As a socialist who loves silent movies, I really want to like this movie more. After all, this is the one where we win. What happened in October 1917 was the unthinkable – a rupture in history that the ruling class never got over. Even after 1990, it’s still embarrassing for them to acknowledge.

Yet I find this one the most difficult to sit through of the first three Eisenstein features. Strike is a story of workers banding together. Potemkin is a story of men recognizing each other as brothers. October is the story of the founding myth of the young nation, but this historical event is too complex to be portrayed in a way that could satisfy all of the demands made on this movie at this time.

It was commissioned to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the great feat, but it’s too didactic to be entertaining and too avant garde to stir the hearts of the proletarians and peasants. His style is too abstract to feel a melodramatic rush of victory at the end, while the climactic scene of Potemkin, where the sailors recognize each other as brothers, is a wonder.

The most striking moment is the scene of the July Days. The protest is suppressed and the people defeated, and a dead horse is caught on the drawbridge as it raises, cutting off the center of Petrograd and temporarily extinguishing the hopes for revolution. It’s easier for Eisenstein to move me with tragedy than with triumph.

And there was little for international communists in 1928 to feel triumph about. People were losing hope of a permanent revolution that would spread eastward to the major economies of Europe. Leon Trotsky was removed from the government and the party in 1927 and in January 1928 was exiled to the Kazakh Republic. Agriculture production had recovered from the civil war, but growth had now stalled. The New Economic Policy, which had been passed as a truce with the rural peasants, was ended. Congress now implemented extraordinary measures to seize grain from the countryside.

Joseph Stalin introduced his five-year plan to rapidly collectivize and industrialize. Stalinism was now in full effect. Eisenstein would soon find himself in self-exile, to wander the world in search of a new direction for his art.

29. Bronenosets Potyomkin

Battleship Potemkin

January 18, 1926
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Stachka demonstrated the power of revolutionary cinema by showing the effect workers can have when they organize. Yes, the strike itself ended in annihilation, but it was punctuated by a final command, addressed directly to the audience: Remember, proletarians!

Sergei Eisenstein and his comrades gave them little time to forget. Within a year’s time Bronenosets Potyomkin brought the cinema into its next dialectical stage, demonstrating what can happen when proletarian power is joined by military power. We saw in the German Revolution how the military, which normally operates as the repressive apparatus of state power, has within its organization its own version of proletarian industrial workers, namely sailors. In 1905, when the Russians were being obliterated by the Japanese, a non-Western industrial upstart, the sailors of the ship Potemkin decided to join the revolution their were hearing rumors about and stage a mutiny. The events of this mutiny, largely fictionalized to suit the needs of cinematic narrative, were depicted here as part of a 20-year celebration of the Revolution of 1905.

The film wasn’t a big hit in the Soviet Union, but news spread, and it scared the shit out of foreign governments. Industrial nations were experiencing worker unrest of their own, and it was a very real possibility that they would see their own Bolshevik moment in the months ahead. To those in power, this movie was a manual of how to stage a real revolution. Britain and France banned all public showings. The German censorship office made substantial cuts, including the entirety of the most-famous pram sequence, but ultimately approved the censored version (military personnel were still prohibited from seeing it).

The movie premiered in Berlin two days before Mayday and was an overwhelming critical success. Douglas Fairbanks declared it “the most powerful and the most profound emotional experience in my life.” Bertolt Brecht composed a poem about it. Potyomkin was a bold display of the power of revolutionary political art and an example of the potential for superior cinema in a socialist economy.

The power of a movie that presented all filmmaking under the capitalist mode of production with an artistic challenge presents modern viewers with a different challenge. Potyomkin is almost exclusively watched as a technical exercise. The emotional centerpiece, the famous Odessa Steps sequence, which exploded onto the Berlin screen as a consummate vision of war-as-chaos, has been so institutionalized and academized by countless shot by shot analyses that it can be hard to feel anything when watching it. John Waters, that master of screen chaos, recalls a screening of the Odessa Steps as the moment he decided film school was unnecessary bullshit.

Is it possible to see in this movie with its original revolutionary thrill? Possible for it to excite us with its picture of a new way to live, showing us what is greatest and most important in life, and filling us with solidarity and the courage to defend our brothers and sisters against the dread force of Capital?

Sound may be the key that unlocks this silent film.

Eisenstein himself saw his masterpiece as a sound film. All of his montage tricks, gross or subtle, were to be matched in unison or counterpoint by similar moves in the soundtrack. But the versions I’ve seen on video use those standard orchestra or piano scores that tend to make silent movies a dull, academic experience. A Film 101 class to fall asleep in. A great silent movie is timeless, but the soundtrack is usually not. Many composers and ensembles have re-scored Potemkin, and you should never pass up the opportunity to see it this way. For those playing the home game, I can personally recommend the Pet Shop Boys version, which as of this writing is available here in what is apparently a fan edit. Chris and Neil’s synthesizer melodies soar in solidarity as the skiffs meeting the battleship and sing an understated dirge during the great Steps scene. As the tension of the final showdown mounts, they go into full Hi-NRG. We are your brothers! As we move into our own version of 1926, prospects for World Revolution are once again starting to look up.

26. Stachka

April 28, 1925
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Work sucks.
Work isn’t working.

It’s Sunday night and my opinion is that work sucks. I’ve been working at the same office job for seven years, where within a three meter radius of my chair sit four other people. Three of whom are in competition for a promotion with me. Even though I’ve been there longer, I think that two of them will beat me, if not all three. I can see how it plays out, and I think I am okay with not getting the job. I am fine with my wife being disappointed in me not getting it, even as I accuse her of not respecting my current job.

Advancing in my career as a means of getting more respect hasn’t been working for me, but I don’t know what else to do to get out of the trap I feel I’ve fallen into. I tried the “get good at a thing” line. I did it – I wrote four chapters for a book that was actually published this year and is now available in three different libraries. But writing is no way to a prosperous career. I know that. My favorite living writers have careers that are uncertain or unlucrative, if they have a job at all. No, my best chance is to win a promotion to a job that is only slightly different from the one I have now.

Because I know my job’s not all that bad. I work in an office, at a computer, and while I sometimes work 9, 10, 11, or even 12 hour days, those days are always punctuated by plenty of food – swordfish, salmon, tilapia, filet mignon, truffle aioli, fresh vegetables cooked and raw and a variety of fruits, not just oranges and apples but  even in the darkest depth of winter. Eggs, sausage, and potatoes every morning for breakfast. Hot dark coffee available at all times. High quality green tea. Beer and wine. Occasional travel to New York or San Francisco where I can dine at any restaurant I want.

None of this changes the fact that work sucks, but I can only barely imagine how much work must have sucked for factory workers in St. Petersburg before the revolution. Seriously, what do I know? I’m frustrated working the same job without promotion for seven years. But for workers to consider a strike in 1890’s or 1900’s Russia, things must have been a total dead end with conditions continually getting worse. You can’t just quit and find a new job. This same factory is where you work forever.

If you must work until you die, then the working conditions must change.

Finally, after all these years, there is a movie about work, for the workers. Their struggle – not man vs nature, man vs man, or man vs self, but man vs Capital. A struggle against a social relation.

But what does it matter? This movie about a radical irruption of the production of Capital is now just a DVD for your personal collection of movies on plastic or instant stream and it’s been cataloged and assigned its due place in the canon of commodities. Except that the processes of commodity production have neither neutered or assimilated it. Of all the movies in this story so far, this one presents the most problems in watching and understanding. I had been waiting to watch it with pleasurable anticipation, but I wasn’t ready for it. I had to restart the movie a few times before I could get even the most rudimentary grip on what I was seeing, and I had to watch the whole thing three times to make any sense of it. It’s maybe the most modern movie yet created. Fuck that. This is most modern thing yet created. It’s utterly bizarre.

We immediately depart from the standard of bourgeois fiction, as first exemplified by the novel, wherein the reader learns about an individual and her problems, conflicts, and journey, and then relates that journey to the reader’s own life. These are the stories you will find in every netflix queue. Here, the characters are always archetypes, and the story is mythic.

The workers work, and it sucks. But they have opportunity to talk, write, and even distribute newspapers among themselves. They share their grievances and discuss their scant options. But the micrometer is stolen and the machinist is blamed. Since Capital holds all the cards and can make whatever demand it wants, he loses his wages for the last three weeks and is fired. Facing his and his family’s immediate starvation, he commits suicide. His fellow workers decide to strike and seize the foundry.

Life on the strike begins to approach the happy state of nature. Men and women reunite. Animals and people coexist. The workers make their demands for a return to production, but the owners are determined to ignore them even as they lose money with each passing day. Neither side moves, and it wears down the solidarity of the workers. The police hires provocateurs from the lumpen-proletariat to start a fire and set off the workers. The fire department arrives to attack them with the firehose. The striking workers are blamed for this incident, and Capital calls in the army.

The ending is not a happy one. The strike is brutally crushed. The final slaughter performed by the military in the interest of preserving property and order is intercut with the slaughter of a cow – a scene of unsimulated carnage with no narrative connection to the story. After a sweeping pan of the bodies in the field, there is a quick close-up on a pair of eyes, and the words “Remember, Proletarians!”

Their action may appear to be a failure, but we must look at it more broadly than the immediate bloodbath. The strike activates the class struggle and makes a claim for power, however unsuccessful. The movie is one step forward. Eisenstein has more to show us. The thesis awaits its antithesis.

The successful one is a prophet of the next generation. The trick is to get the Lord to speak directly to you. Sometimes to do that, you must create a rule, and then break that rule.

5. Intolerance

September 5, 1916
directed by D.W. Griffith

Two entire societies, in distinct epochs, shown side by side. One in an American town 1916 AD, the other in Babylon 539 BC, the year the great city fell to Persia. The characters have generic names, like “the Dear One” and “the Mountain Girl.” Ancient scene and modern scene follow each other, and the editing accelerates as the movie progresses, until it is as if we experience them simultaneously. As the various plots develop, the motivations of these generic individuals shrink from us, leaving only the impression that they must obey a common logic, a horrible logic of accumulation and annihilation.

For 1916 so far was nothing but horror. In Europe, after two winters of stalemate, both sides exploded again in new offensives: Verdun, the Somme, and Brusilov. Intolerance traces this still unnameable, unaccountable horror back through history to ancient Babylon. Both stories, ancient and modern, are fractured again with two additional stories – the story of Christ, enemy of intolerance, and the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris 1572, the ultimate act of intolerance. But what is intolerance?

Tolerance is the Enlightenment idea that people of different religions should not kill each other. Tolerance condemns the violence between people of differing religions whose cultures are otherwise similar, and thus does not cover violence against a colonized, deported, or exterminated people. Intolerance is the great crime to liberal bourgeois society, because it utterly negates the right of the individual, but can only come into existence through the acknowledgment of the individual. The victim of intolerance is always seen as a full person, but his individual ideas that are so dangerous as to the invalidate the person’s right to existence.

In the modern story, what is not tolerated is the right of the worker to a fair wage and his enjoyment of social gathering. Our modern story is unambiguously progressive, depicting the class struggle between mill workers and Capital. David Wark Griffith remained a staunch Democrat in 1916 and basically made a propaganda film for his party in that year’s presidential election. The Democrats were the party of the South. They were resolutely anti-industrial, patriarchal, anti-black, anti-woman.

But this election would not be as easy for the Democrats. 1916 had many more women voters than 1912. Against Woodrow Wilson’s re-election bid, the Republicans put up Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who had spent the last six years outside the campaign world and appealed to Conservative and Progressive Republicans alike. The election was close, being finally decided by California, where suffrage had been won. Woodrow Wilson won a second term.

The activist women of Intolerance, who are fighting for inclusion in the public sphere of bourgeois society, are as much the villain of the modern story as the head capitalist himself. Women have allied with Capital, whose ugly representation, the mill boss, sees the fun the workers have with alcohol – their genuine social experience, their dancing – and joins in the temperance movement. Intolerance of youth itself. The class struggle climaxes in the brutal suppression of the striking workers and the individual calamities that follow from the disobedience. A mother has her baby taken from her. An innocent man is condemned to death for a murder he didn’t commit.

This story starts as the dominant narrative, forcing all three other plots into a supporting role, but as the movie develops, the modern story becomes too intricate to merit attention to each detail, and the stately Babylon story takes the greater role. There is not nearly as much plot in Babylon. There is only splendor and opulence. The Babylonian Courtyard is the greatest set the cinema has yet seen, dwarfing even the ancient Semitic film sets of Carthage in Cabiria. At the center of this enormous city on the Euphrates, the citizens swarm about, buying food, dancing, and worshiping Ishtar, the Babylonian Venus. This scene makes so much more sense than anything in the modern story, because in 2014, this is our true home. The modern world has become Babylon, and we sit behind our walls, indulging in pleasure and increase, waiting our doom. The Courtyard is the very center of imperial capital.

Intolerance was very popular upon its release in 1916, which was a very good year for progressives, but as 1917 began American Capital found that despite all it had spent in the Battle of the Somme, not to mention the entire generation killed or completely fucked up, the Allies had only won back 50 square miles of France. For the capital to be recouped, a total Allied victory was necessary. America would have to join the war. The causus belli of a Germany/Mexico alliance was easily established, the American public began to turn against the Germans, and war fever set in. The pacifist and the progressive cause were both lost. The movies turned to anti-german propaganda.

The film, reflecting its progressive socialist impulse, failed to reproduce the capital required to produce it. Griffith had pushed his idea of film as far as he could, and created an artistic masterpiece for the Progressive Democratic party, even securing the Presidential election. The war however, severed the Progressives in the United States as it had severed the socialists in Europe. Griffith eventually cut Intolerance into two separate films, abandoning the film’s crucial formal logic. The ruins of the enormous set remained at the lot, decaying over the next four years, until the set had sustained enough decay to be affordably dismantled.

The fortunes of the left were much different in the East. Everything in Russia was much worse. More casualties. More disaster. More famine. A more authoritarian government with a secret police. Tsar Nicholas assumed commander-in-chief role to rally his army, leaving Rasputin and the Tsarina in charge. In February the workers at Putilov in Petrograd went on strike, and in the next few days were joined by other workers, women, and teachers. They continued to protest and amass. There were few soldiers available to contain the riot, and those who were summoned for that task soon defected to the protest. The tsar was forced to abdicate and handed the crown to his brother, who declined. The government had fallen, and two competing bodies sprung up in its place.

The Petrograd Soviet was formed representing the workers, soldiers, and teachers, and wrestled partial control from the Provisional Government. Russia experienced eight months of liberal democracy, but the war continued on, along with famine and countless other sufferings. Moreover, the peasant population already lived in communes and had little understanding or respect for bourgeois civic institutions. The Bolshevik party agitated for full Soviet control of the state, and in October carried out a coup d’etat. Having won in the name of the Soviets, they consolidated power into one-party rule. They made peace with Germany, who ordered harsh terms of land and grain. Before 1918 was over, Germany lost the war, and the Allies could now support the White Army in its civil war against the Red Army.

Intolerance was smuggled into Petrograd in the midst of this civil war, and Lenin, upon seeing it, declared cinema the great modern revolutionary art. The Soviets studied Intolerance and began to develop its logic into one of their own. Griffith’s influence now towers above cinema on both sides of the world and is beyond any ideology or system of economic relations.


  • Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon. Straight Arrow Books, 1975.
  • Drew, William M. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Its Genesis and Vision. McFarland, 1986.
  • The Griffith Project, Volume 9: Films Produced in 1916-1918. British Film Institute, 2005.
  • Habermas, Jürgen. Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Polity, 1962.
  • Hansen, Miriam. Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film. Harvard University Press, 1991.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Second Edition. Frankfurt, 1844.