Old movies: Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike

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As the writers and actors of Hollywood are on strike, we take a look at Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike, a movie that’s pro-worker and anti-capitalist. 

In Hollywood right now, writers and actors are on strike. What started as just the former has developed into a dual effort, with the groups protesting unfair wages, ridiculous (lack of) royalties, and the looming shadow of AI that is threatening to consume creativity as we know it. With no more press junkets, publicity, and a ceasing of most productions, it’s interesting to think on the future of Hollywood and filmmaking. Albeit a little terrifying.

The act of striking is not a recent trend. Protests and strikes have helped galvanise throughout history – pushing towards reform and rights for many. Workers have walked out of their jobs to push for fairer conditions, and there have been many films about this. From How Green Was My Valley (1941) to Norma Rae (1979) to Pride (2014), there are Academy Award-winning movies that showcase the power of the people against the greedy corporations.

One of the earliest films about this subject is Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925). This Soviet silent film is told in six parts and set in pre-revolutionary Russia. It tells the story of factory workers in 1903 who rise up against the bourgeoisie to demand for better working conditions and pay.

Sergei Eisenstein is perhaps best known for his acclaimed, and phenomenal, film Battleship Potemkin (1925). However, before his venture into cinema, he was best known as a theatre director. Strike would be his first feature film – with astonishing results.

Visually, Strike is a compelling masterpiece. Eisenstein’s quick editing charges the film with a gripping dramatic urgency, making the atmosphere feel thick with need and necessity. The anger of the people is palpable – rapid in its progression, culminating in a ferocious and fierce walkout as they rally their fellow workers to stand with them. The cutting is almost horrific in nature and pounds with urgency and drive.

Cleverly, the only respite in the film is a moment when the factory is closed. A worker who no longer has work is seen laughing and frolicking with his children and family. This soft sequence is gentle but serves as a hefty reminder of how peaceful life would be if we did not have to do gruelling, back-breaking work. This tranquility is broken by starvation due to the demands not being met by the upper echelons.

Eisenstein uses impressive editing and dissolve to further heighten this atmosphere. The looming image of their laughing boss as workers face not just dangerous, but deadly, consequences due to work is a bloody reminder of the greed and carelessness at the top. The rich get richer on the bodies of the men they have willingly disposed of. It adds fuel to the centric strike.

Different imagery in the film is deployed throughout the film. For example, a wheel is often depicted alongside the workers and when the strike starts, the wheel stops. However, the biggest motif in Eisenstein’s Strike is the comparison to farm animals. Though many will know this symbolism was made most famous due to George Orwell’s novella Animal Farm (1945), it is Eisenstein’s Strike which made the somewhat crude analysis first. The director establishes this theme early on in the movie – using dogs and pigs to showcase personality types at the factory. However, when the strike is suppressed by the Russian military, Eisenstein brutally intersplices the film with footage of cattle being slaughterd. The grim and tragic finality.

Upon initial release, public reaction to the film was less than favourable, with many seeing it as too vicious and gimmicky. It wasn’t until the sixties where filmmakers and film critics reappraised the film. Certainly, even now, Strike feels like essential viewing – though it is gritty and difficult to watch.

Strike is a film that sits angrily on your soul and lingers long after viewing. Eisenstein’s work here highlights the importance of the worker and how the masses can be mobilised to turn the tides against their oppressive state.

It’s a reminder that there is power in protest and people.

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