Strike is set in Russia in the years before the 1917 Revolution. A factory worker pushed to the edge by management hangs himself and this is seen as the final straw by his fellow workers who go on strike. At first there is joy as they are able to experience the pleasure of being with their families but then the hardship of having no income begins to bite. Meanwhile, the factory owners, well dressed and fat, continue to enjoy the good life. Agent provocateurs are used by the authorities and they set fire to a building. Rather than tackling the blaze, the firemen are ordered to turn their hoses on the demonstrating workers. Next, the army is called in. They attack the strikers and many are killed. The film ends by reminding the audience in the new communist Russia not to forget this and other similar brutalities in Tsarist times.
This film gives an account of a strike by factory workers in Tsarist Russia that is defeated by the scheming of the factory bosses, the underhand tactics of the secret police and the brutality of the army. It is made to support the Bolshevik government in power in Russia after the 1917 Revolution and unapologetically puts forward a strongly defined political position.
Eisenstein uses a series of approaches to film construction which challenge the expectations of anybody more used to a standard Hollywood format.1 Because of their own very particular ideological perspective, Hollywood movies have traditionally focused attention on the individual, creating heroes who resolve problematic situations in such a way as to restore order out of chaos. In particular, the audience is encouraged to identify with these individual heroes by the amount of time that is spent following their trials and tribulations. Eisenstein, by contrast, emphasises the movement of social forces rather than the psychological make-up of individual characters. His film is built around the struggle between the workers and the forces of capitalism. The cast is listed not by named character but by generic role: police spy, factory foreman, worker, chief of police, queen of thieves, etc. Individual personalities are not emphasised but instead the whole social group of the workers is presented as a collective hero while the capitalists en masse are seen as the villain within the narrative structure. Individual characters are not named on intertitles as they would be in a Hollywood production, nor are they focused on in such a way as to enable the audience to identify with a particular protagonist and his or her struggle. Instead, actors portray what are suggested to be typical representatives of particular social classes; e.g. the rich, fat factory owners being waited on in palatial surroundings, enjoying bizarrely indulgent (if not debauched) tastes, or the defiant worker who despite recognising what the consequences will be for himself refuses to betray his comrades.
In places the film feels like a naturalistic documentary but at other points individual shots are intensely constructed as single photographic images.2 When we are offered glimpses of dayto-day domestic life in the homes of the striking factory workers as they revel in the experience of having time to play with their children, we are given a feeling of the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ observation that we associate with the documentary. Since we do not have a main character with whom we strongly identify reminding us by their presence of the centrality of the narrative thrust and of the need to be alert to the twists and turns of a plot, and because, as a result, we are able to relax away from this type of narrative engagement, we are easily able to feel we have an unobtrusive camera simply documenting everyday life in the homes of workers. However, the political is never far away. If we are to fully appreciate sequences like these in the homes of workers we have not only to respond emotionally to the depth of the pleasure of these moments of parenthood but also to intellectually understand the oppressive nature of a system that never allows what would now be called ‘quality time’ as a possibility for workers.
Alongside scenes that might be said to document events, Eisenstein uses visual metaphors that immediately destroy any ‘illusion of reality’. Shots of police spies are intercut, for example, with images of animals such as an owl and a fox that it is visually suggested they resemble. Most famously, the final massacre of the surrounded workers by armed troops, shown as dramatic and chaotic action, is paralleled by shots of the slaughter of a cow in an abattoir, shown in full (if quickly edited) throat-cutting and blood-letting detail. The first set of animal images mentioned here is used for comic effect in direct contrast to the seriousness of the abattoir footage, but in both cases what we are being shown is clearly anti-naturalistic in that these animals are not to be found within the imagined scene itself but are inserted as a form of commentary on the action by the filmmakers. They break us out of the apparently ‘real’ scene and force us to think about what they might imply. These sorts of shots used by Eisenstein have no place within any realistic representation of either the police spies or the violent onslaught on the strikers but work to create meaning above and beyond realism. At the same time, as suggested above, the effect of these two examples is very different: the first (showing the spies as various animals) works at the level of humour and ridicule, the second functions at the pitch of Shakespearean tragedy. It might be argued Eisenstein ends up with rather a hotchpotch of different filmic effects, or it might be suggested he has the confidence that an audience can move backwards and forwards between a range of emotional and intellectual responses and a belief that film is about more than just photographic realism.3
Filmmaking techniques that are carefully manipulative of audience response are used all the time here but always in the service not simply of generating response but of creating meaning for the spectator. Conveying clearly the unfair, unjust, not to say brutal, nature of the Tsarist regime is the overriding aim at all times. Editing is seen as a major means of organising the form of the film and generating meaning, and not simply as a technique that is there to serve narrative progression. Eisenstein is not interested in maintaining the illusion of reality, which might be seen to be the major concern dominating the thinking of filmmakers attempting to create the standard Hollywood product. Instead, he wants to actively seek out ways of creating the maximum collision from shot to shot and sequence to sequence. The whole film is constructed around the juxtaposition of shots that comment on each other. His interest to a large extent centres on his concept of montage: that is the arrangement of shots in such a way that the clash between them creates a new enhanced meaning. The chosen style could be seen as an attempt to dogmatically force certain perspectives on the spectator, or more positively as an effort to make the spectator active rather than passive in terms of intellectual engagement.
Clearly, this film is made as propaganda for the new regime in Russia and puts forward a strongly Marxist message. Apart from the more obvious brutalities brought down on the strikers and their families by the factory owners and the authorities in the main narrative, simple aspects of mise en scène such as the wealth, space and grandeur that surrounds the industrialists, compared with the poverty, confined space and basic furnishing to be found in the workers’ homes, work to drive home Eisenstein’s key point. Strike looks back to what it portrays as the brutality of pre-Revolution days when any attempt by workers to defend the simplest of rights for themselves was violently put down and says, in consigning all of that to the past, those days must not be forgotten. The substance of what Eisenstein is dealing with is non-fictional in that it is based on historical events, but he is presenting his chosen material in a very particular way. The message is given at every point along the way in the final, constructed fiction that is brought to the screen.
The most shocking scene for many viewers might be that in which a small child is held aloft by a soldier on horseback and then dropped from a high walkway between the tenement buildings on to the ground below. This is made all the more effective by the fact that we have been made to focus on the innocence of children both earlier in the film in the home of a striking worker and also just a few shots previously as young children play while the chaos of their parents’ struggle with the soldiers goes on around them, and a few scenes previously when a child has wandered off and sat in amongst the hooves of the Cossacks’ horses.4 The choreographed busyness of the scene in the tenement block – where carefully chosen angles of shot create a range of angular boxed spaces at different depths of field within which people, men, women, children and soldiers on horseback move in different directions adding to a complex of lines and movement and spaces so that the eye is unable to settle, is unable to take everything in, but is forced to flit in desperation – is at least as powerful as the more famous Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin which was made in the same year.
Most powerfully, in propaganda terms, the title of this film in itself announced a particularly worrying form of worker action for those who had financial stakes in industrial concerns across Europe during the 1920s. The concept of ‘striking’ is put forward as an imperative and would have been certain to antagonise capitalist governments in Europe faced with the possibility that the Russian Revolution might prove to be a catalyst for further revolts by workers in other countries.5 So, for example, in Britain this film and others from the Soviet Union were not shown for years, other than in film societies with private (middle-class) memberships.6
1. Eisenstein recognises filmmaking as a political act that involves using cinematic techniques to represent the world (and, therefore, inevitably your understanding of the world) to an audience.
2. Some of the shots early in the film with workers standing in front of, or behind, the turning flywheels of industrial machinery could exist as part of a modernist film essay, a paean to heavy industry.
3. More prosaically, it may have been that there was an awareness that the working-class target audience was likely to be used to more piecemeal forms of entertainment such as that offered by cabaret, or the circus. And, at the same time, in this his first feature film and as part of a collective group making the film, Eisenstein is learning and debating with others about how best to use film in a revolutionary context.
4. This thematic concern with children and the use of their innocence and vulnerability in order to emphasise the brutality of the Tsarist regime is something that is also famously taken up in Battleship Potemkin (1925) in the famous Odessa Steps sequence.
5. In Britain in the years immediately before the First World War, for example, there had already been a series of strikes by miners, dockers and transport workers that had moved the country to a point some believed to be close to revolution. In Germany in 1919, the Communist Party organised an uprising in Berlin that had to be violently suppressed with key revolutionaries, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht, being arrested and summarily executed by government troops.
6. Arthur Marwick, War and Change in Twentieth Century Europe, Maidenhead, Open University Press, 1990, p. 146.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USSR. Production Company: Goskino. Director: Sergei Eisenstein. Screenwriters: Grigori Aleksandrov, Ilya Kravchunovsky, Valeryan Pletnyov and Eisenstein. Cinematographers: Edouard Tisse and Vassili Khvatov. Cast: Ivan Klyukvin (activist), Alexander Antonov (member of strike committee), Grigori Alexandrov (factory foreman), Mikhail Gomorov (worker), Maxim Strauch (police spy), I. Ivanov (chief of police).]
David Bordwell, The Cinema of Eisenstein, London, Routledge, 2005.
Ian Christie and Richard Taylor, Eisenstein Rediscovered, London, Routledge, 1993.
James Goodwin, Eisenstein, Cinema and History, Champaign, IL, University of Illinois Press, 1993.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.