29. Bronenosets Potyomkin

Battleship Potemkin

January 18, 1926
Goskino
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.

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26. Stachka

Strike
April 28, 1925
Goskino
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.