Psychology of the Aesthetic:
Eisenstein as a Silent Auteur
When Sergei Eisenstein passed away in 1948, the auteur theory was still in its infancy. It would be almost a decade before the ideas of several French critics would find their way to an American named Andrew Sarris. It would be Sarris who would create the rules of the auteur theory, applying it to many of his generations greatest filmmakers. Yet it is possible to take these rules and use them to look back in time at some of the earlier cinema masters, of which Eisenstein was among the greatest. When Andrew Sarris three rules of the auteur theory are applied to Sergei Eisenstein, it is easy to see that he was among cinemas earliest and most influential auteurs, even before he had ever made a sound film (Kolker 164).
The purpose of this research paper is to examine how the methods and ideology of Sergei Eisenstein during his silent period allow him to fit into the auteur category created by Andrew Sarris. First, the reasons why Eisenstein was capable of creating expressionistic films will be discussed. Next, the personal style behind his pictures will be dissected. In particular, Eisensteins theories of montage will be discussed as a tool that he developed to bring a new style to the screen and to storytelling. The ideology that links his films will then be discussed. It will be shown how many of Eisensteins early themes revolved around the collective versus the individual and examples will be given. This paper also intends to discuss how the Russian national culture affected both the filmmaking techniques and the ideals and politics that ran throughout Eisensteins productions. Eisensteins sound pictured will not be discussed, due to the fact that Eisenstein accomplished so much in his short life that covering his entire career would be too large a topic for this format.
During the golden era of cinema when the studios ruled all of Hollywood, many times directors of films were little more than pawns put in place to call out orders from above. The real power lay in the hands of the producers, people like Samuel Goldwyn or David O. Selznick (Cook 299). Since the money to make the films was coming from the producers, all of the risk involved also lay with them. They felt that because it was their risk, they should have control over how the film would turn out.
This is how the business of filmmaking ran in America for many years. In other countries, however, directors were gaining more independence and more control. In the mid fifties, French critics were starting to take note that many directors there had most of the power with their productions and their films would contain a certain style or theme that connected them each together. The idea first started in an article in the famous French film journal, Cahiers du cinema. Written by the influential director and critic Francois Truffaut and entitled Une certaine tendance di cinema francias, the article spoke of the tendency of French filmmakers to have more control and authorship of their films than directors in the Hollywood system (Cook 971). An American critic by the name of Andrew Sarris heard this idea and dubbed it the auteur theory (Kolker 164). For Sarris, this theory included three important factors, each of which are demonstrated by Eisensteins early career. Although his silent films have several differences, they are similar (and unique) enough to satisfy the requirements set forth by Andrew Sarris.
The first of these factors for auteurism introduced by Sarris claimed that the director had to possess the ability (and practice that ability) to to make films in an expressive way (Kolker 164). This meant that an auteur did not just set the camera down and shoot everything head on, but instead used the camera to suggest certain meanings to the audience. This also implied that they knew and used dramatic lighting and production designs in their films. If Eisenstein is to be seen as an auteur, how and where did he learn the ability to make films in an expressive way that would meet Sarris criteria?
Born in 1898 in Riga, Latvia, and raised by a city engineer, Eisensteins early love for art was put on hold so that he could study engineering like his father. In February of 1917 the countrys Tsarist regime began to fall, and Eisenstein joined the Red Army, where he was given the task of designing fortifications during the following civil war. After a year of working for the army, Eisenstein began to turn back to the arts (Cook 141).
In 1920, Eisenstein joined the Moscow Proletkult Theater. Here, modernist and avant-garde thinking was abound and prominent figures in theater and film taught eager young students new ideas and movements. Although some may think that Russian national culture leads its citizens to be liberal and forward thinking, instead, as Yale Richmond puts it, they are more likely to be cautious and conservative defenders of the status quo (Richmond 38). For Eisenstein, the Proletkult Theater was a very exciting place to be because it went against this conservative nature of the mainstream Russian society. He was particularly intrigued by the teaching of an already established director named Vsevolod Meyerhold. Meyerhold was strongly influenced himself by the studies of Pavlovian reflexes, and liked to combine different styles of theater together to create new genres (Cook 144). Here Eisenstein would begin to develop his life-long fascination with the psychology behind aesthetic devices like film and theater. He wanted to know what made people react the way they did to certain films and images, and he wanted to know how he could control their reactions.
Eisenstein would later write about an experience at the Proletkult in which a young boy came to watch a show.
I looked at him and was struck by the expression on his face. It reflected not only the facial expressions or actions of some of the characters, but all that was happening on the stage at the time. It was the simultaneousness that struck me most... but gradually I began to think less of the simultaneousness of the reflection of what the boy saw - the thing that had impressed me at first - than of the nature of this reflection (Eisenstein 12).
Here it is evident that Eisensteins intrigue of the nature of aesthetic reaction was developed at the Proletkult Theater. The school had given him the ability to theorize about the possibilities of expressive filmmaking, and now all that Eisenstein had to do was put that ability to use with his own feature film. This chance would come in 1924 when the Proletkult decides to produce eight films that would chronicle the rise of the communist party up to 1917.
The director of the Proletkult, Valeri Pletyov, had written one of the scripts and asked Eisenstein to direct the piece. The resulting picture, Strike, would not only be Eisenstein's directorial debut, but also the only film of the series to be made. It would be in Strike that the director would first begin to practice his ability to make expressionist films, and it leads to his fulfillment of the second of Andrew Sarris factors for auteurism.
In this second criteria Sarris stated that the directors films had to have a coherent personal style (Kolker 164). This meant that not only did they filmmaker have to know how to be creative in their film, but also that they had a unique personal style that exists in each picture and ties them together as one body of work. Eisenstein began to work on his own personal style long before he even had the opportunity to direct a film.
Eisenstein had begun to think of reaction as possibly measurable in nature. In order to measure something, one must first have a unit of measurement. For this purpose Eisenstein created the attraction. In his first theoretical manifesto, published in 1923 in the journal Lef, Eisenstein stated that the attraction is every element that can be verified and mathematically calculated to produce certain emotional shocks (Cook 143). He would take this notion even further with his idea of the montage of attractions, in which more than one attraction was combined to create a new whole. Two totally different elements could be shown together and create an emotional reaction that was different than the sum of the two parts; a reaction that Eisenstein claimed could introduce a new level of tension (143). Therefore, by 1923, Eisenstein was already developing his most famous theory a year before he had even picked up a film camera to shoot Strike.
That film would be his first chance to test out his montage of attractions, and he took full advantage of the circumstances, as many of his techniques of later films can be traced back to this film (Barna 85). Strike centers around the story of oppressed factory workers who are planning to strike to gain rights and fair treatment in the workplace. In the films climax, Eisenstein got a chance to put his montage of attractions theory to real use. When the factory owners call in the police to help break up the strike, the police chief gets fed up and orders the massacre of all the strikers and their families. Eisenstein intercuts the footage of the police entering the apartments of the factory workers and brutally murdering them with footage of cows being slaughtered by butchers. Each of the separate pieces of action show a disgusting lack of remorse for life, but, as the theory implied, a difference reaction comes from their juxtaposition. When seen together, the two lines of action suggest that the workers who labor day in and day out for little pay are nothing more than cattle to the evil factory owners (Cook 146). Eisensteins montage style, however, would find its most famous and widely discussed example in 1925 with his second feature film.
When discussing Battleship Potemkin, it is important to note that Eisenstein was constantly working on the strongest aspect of his personal style, the montage. Shortly after the film was released, Eisenstein would publish several articles on why the film worked the way it did and how he had achieved his desired emotional response from the viewing audience. Prior to Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein had called his montage theory the montage of attractions, in which two or more attractions came together to form a new idea. Eisenstein wanted to refine this notion, so he set forth to create his theory of dialectic montage. In this new theory, the aforementioned attractions now had titles, as did the result of their combination. First comes the thesis, a force which will come into conflict with a counterforce, or antithesis, and this conflict will produce a whole new creation, the synthesis (Cook 170). This synthesis will now become a new thesis, which will in turn conflict with a new antithesis, which will in turn lead to another new synthesis, and so on. The theory creates an idea in which new meanings are perpetually rising forth from series of aesthetic images, or montages. This theory was then applied to Battleship Potemkin to explain where it got its emotional power.
Stylistically, the film is constructed to be a perpetual example of dialectic montage, starting with the film as a whole for the base of that montage. Each and any section of the film can be broken down into a rising tension (the thesis) followed by a climax of that tension (the antithesis), of which the result (the synthesis) becomes the thesis for the next section (172). Starting with the film as a whole, the rising tension comes form the officers wanting their standard of living to be raised during the first half of the film. After the habour mist sequence, which divides the film in two, the climax comes from the sailors shooting at the politic leaders upon the shore, the result of which is the politic overthrow (172). The film can be broken down even further due to the fact that it is naturally divided into five separate units.
Eisenstein would write about the structure of the film as follows: Outwardly, Potemkin is a chronicle of events but it impresses the spectators as a drama. The secret of this effect lies in the plot which is built up in accordance with the laws of austere composition of tragedy in its traditional five-act form (Eisenstein 54). Each of these five acts are introduced with an intertitle and are structured according to dialectic montage. An example comes from the second act, titled Drama on the Quarter Deck. In this act, the sailors on board the Potemkin discontinue their work until they can achieve better living conditions. The thesis comes when they are taken to the main deck and the commanding officer orders them to be shot. The antithesis occurs when a brave sailor, Vakulinchuk, pleads with the officers and a mutiny begins. The synthesis and result of the mutiny is the death of Vakulinchuk, which in turn becomes the thesis for the next act, An Appeal From the Dead (Cook 152). It is not until act four, though, that Battleship Potemkin displays Eisensteins greatest example of montage.
Act four, The Odessa Steps, revolves around a sequence in which the people of the town of Odessa, witnesses to the cruelty of the officers aboard the Potemkin, gather on the steps by the shore. Cheering for the sailors, they are not aware of the Tsarist troops that have also gathered at the top of the steps. The troops the proceed to open fire on the citizens below. Through his use of montage, Eisenstein shows the events unfold by cutting back and forth between the horrific scenes of the fleeing victims and the forward progression of the troops down the steps. Several key moments occur, such as one women carrying her wounded child up the steps towards the troops, where she is shot, and another where a baby carriage tumbles down the steps when the childs mother is killed. The emotional impact of these events is heightened by the use of the montage, which intersperses the events with the terrified faces of onlookers, many of them wounded themselves (Barna 99). The films emotional and social impact made it a great success, but it would not be the last time Eisenstein used montage to stir emotions in his audience.
Eisenstein followed Battleship Potemkin with a film about the October revolution of 1917, appropriately titled October. Here, Eisenstein further experimented with yet another theory of montage, this time the theory of intellectual montage. This form of montage combined two different images that each comment on the other (Cook 173). An example of this could be seen earlier in Potemkin, where images of a priest with his crucifix and images of an officer with his sword where cut together. This then implies that religion and violence are interconnected (Barna). The use of intellectual montage thus forms not only Eisenstein's filmic style, but also the themes and ideas of his work, which is the focus of Andrew Sarriss final criteria for auteurism.
The third factor for auteurism, and to Sarris the most important, was that the directors films all had to share a common ideology (Kolker 164). This meant that each picture carried a common theme about how things are in the world, and this would tie each picture together with the others. To examine Eisensteins personal views on society, it is important to understand the culture and national philosophies of the Russian people in which he was raised. Much of Russian society life revolves around the principle of egalitarianism. This philosophy states that it is wrong to achieve more than those around you, especially if your success comes at the cost of others (Richmond 33). This attitude has existed for many years, and can be traced back to life on the mir. A mir is an agricultural collective village in which peasants lived to farm and support each other. In a mir, everyone, for the most part, was equal and no one person could rise too far above the rest of the collective (15). This idea would present itself through Eisensteins use of the collective hero.
Eisenstein wanted to show that the collective was much more important than the individual. Many of the American films that were shown is Russia at the time celebrated the lone warrior or worker who would rise up and fight for some cause. But Eisenstein wanted to rebel against these ideas by showing that the group can achieve more if they stand together. Strike would be a way to show this idea to the masses, as he would later comment on. Strike... brought collective and mass action onto the screen, in contrast to individualism and the triangle drama of the bourgeois cinema... no screen had ever before reflected an image of collective action. Now the concept of collectivity was to be pictured (Swallow 48). The idea of the collective would carry through to his next features.
Battleship Potemkin is an interesting example because it features a man who rises above the rest (and is exulted) but is subsequently killed for his action. In his place, the masses (sailors and Odessa citizens) rise to fight the Tsarist system. The theme is most obvious in Eisensteins third film, October.
In October, the director tells of the October revolution of 1917 in which the Winter Place was stormed by the Red Guards who captured many of the governments cabinet members. In the film, Eisenstein cast many actual peasants to represent the nameless faces of the collective. John Greirson, a friend of Eisenstein, would later comment on his use of nonprofessional actors as the collective masses. ŅIt was Eisenstein who could attack the Winter Palace with the people of Leningrad, and in Battleship Potemkin could use the people of Odessa on their famous steps (Swallow 59). October is also the film in which Eisenstein would bring intellectual montage to the forefront to hint at his political beliefs.
Yet perhaps hint is not the right word. At the same time that Eisenstein was publishing his first manifesto on the montage of attractions, fellow filmmaker Dziga Vertov had developed the principle of Kino-glaz, or cinema-eye. He stated that the camera should be a passive observer of the action unfolding on the screen. Eisenstein did not agree, saying the films I make are never film eyes but always film fists. I never make films in which the camera is an objective witness, to be watched by an impassive eye of glass. I prefer to hit people hard on the nose (Swallow 46). With October, that was his goal. When it came time to show the rise of power of Alexander Kerenski, head of the Provisional Government in power before the Bolshevik revolution, Eisenstein used his intellectual montage to show a man who was full of conceit and vanity (Cook 174).
To do so, Eisenstein cut a sequence in which Kerenski ascends a flight of stairs while titles appear on the screen to show his rank in the government rising as well. By the time he reaches the top of the steps, the titles now proclaim him Dictator and Eisenstein cuts to the image of a mechanical peacock who fans out its large feathers. This montage suggests that Kerenski was no more than a narcissist who wanted to show off his power, much like the peacock spreads out its feathers to make itself look more attractive (174). Even though Eisenstein would show the Bolsheviks taking control of the Winter Palace in October, his earlier films did not always have such positive endings.
In Strike, the film ends with the workers being slaughtered like cattle (as the montage mentioned earlier suggests) by the police who are supposed to protect them. This type of ending may seem overly pessimistic, but in reality this attitude is common among the Russian people. For the Russian, pessimism is a way of life due to the hardships that their country and ancestors have been through. As Yale Richmond puts it, Russians feel less in control of their lives than Americans, [they] feel caught up in the big sweeps of history where the individual is insignificant and does not count (Richmond 42). This again ties Eisenstiens pessimism with his need to promote the collective over the individual.
When Andrew Sarris took the ideas of Francois Truffaut and molded them into his auteur theory, his goal was to discover whether a given director or artist really had an impact on their work, and therefore could be titled an auteur. Looking back on the silent works of Sergei Eisenstein, it is clear that he fulfills all of Sarris requirements for auteurism. Before he had ever ventured into the area of sound films, Sergei Eisenstein had already established himself as an auteur through his abilities, his style of montage, and his ideological beliefs about the collective over the individual.
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Cook, David. A History of Narrative Film. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1996.
Eisenstein, Sergei. Notes of a Film Director. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959.
Kolker, Robert. Film, Form, and Culture. Boston: McGraw-Hill College, 1999.
Richmond, Yale. From Nyet to Da: Understanding the Russians. USA: Intercultural Press, Inc., 1996.
Swallow, Norman. Eisenstein: A Documentary Portrait. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1976.