The One about Sergei Eisenstein’s “Strike”

An epic feature film debut by filmmaker and film theorist Sergei Eisenstein.  A precursor to the violence and large scale fights shown in his later films, “Strike” will continue to resonate strongly with cinema fans, especially for its famous final sequence.

The great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, known for films such as the 1938 “Alexander Nevsky” and the 1944-1946 films “Ivan the Terrible” and a filmmaker who will be remembered for is his 1925 masterpiece “The Battleship Potemkin”.

But a year before “Battleship Potemkin”, “Stachka” aka “Strike” was created in 1925 and in Eisenstein’s polemic cinematic style featured a theme of collectivism versus individualism and also featured the talent of the Proletcult Theatre.

“Strike” is a film that takes place during the Czarist rule and showcases workers of a Russian factory.  The morale of the workers are low and while these workers work very long hours for little pay, the owners and higher up of the factory are shown as porkly characters that could care less about the employees but are more concerned of making money, eating and drinking well and getting rich.

Featured in six parts, the film begins with the following quote by Vladimir Lenin:

The strength of the working class is organization. Without organization of the masses, the proletarian is nothing. Organized it is everything. Being organized means unity of action, unity of practical activity.

The first part of “Strike” would feature the management of the Russian factory hiring people/agents to spy on its workers and because morale is so low, there is a feeling that there will be a strike.

The second part would feature a worker named Yakov who is upset that his micrometer has been stolen.  Because the micrometer cost 25 rubles, he tells the management about what has happened.  But instead of believing the hard working employee, they accuse him of theft.  Dejected by how he was treated and being called a thief, to save his honor, Yakov hangs himself during the work hour and leaves a note for his fellow co-workers to read and why he killed himself.

This would be the final straw for the workers as they decide to go on strike, which upsets the management.  In fact, they are so upset of what has taken place at the factory and the death of Yakov that they storm the office and take one of the managers and dumps him downhill into the water.

The third part of “Strike” would feature the husbands now having no work and spending time with their families.  The factory is vacant and the owners of the managers are upset and because they are getting more orders, they need the workers to come back.

So, the workers demand that a) They work only 8-hours a day  b) they receive a 30% wage increase and c) minors would only work 6-hours a day.

But the shareholders and the director’s scoff at the demands of the workers and they send the local police to raid the workers.  But the workers stay strong and protest.

In part four, the strike continues and because money is tight for the workers, problems begin to happen at various households because there is no money to buy things.  And while the workers hope that the management will accept their demands, they quickly learn that the management has no plans to give in.

And the final two acts lead up to the violence which would take place as corruption rears its ugly head and leads to a store being burned and looted.   Because of the civil unrest, the governor sends the military after the workers.

The film culminates into one of the most famous, yet violent scenes in cinema history as the Russian workers begin to be treated as outcasts and instead of trying to come up with a compromise, the military deals with the community of workers in one way they know how…

A magnificent, groundbreaking film that still has relevance today!

Sergei Eisenstein’s “Strike” is a straightforward film. Workers are mistreated, higher-ups are the ones who receive the benefits and when workers want to be treated well, their employers turn on them and the results are tragic.

Of course, in the United States, although strikes do happen and mediation between companies work hard to solve the issues, what we see in “Strike” still happens today in other countries (especially in China where several employee strikes in 2001 have turned violent due to worker’s working very long hours and receiving unfair wages).

And in cinema, America has had its share of strike films with “The Grapes of Wrath”, “Bound for Glory”, “Norma Rae” to name a few. But what makes Eisenstein’s “Strike” so amazing is what was accomplished back in 1925 visually. For one, Eisenstein is a filmmaker who knows how to incorporate large masses of people and capture the realism of that era. In this case, workers on strike in 1903 (note: There was a South Russian strike of 1903 in Odessa but violence was minimal and led to an independent labor movement but I have read that the film is actually was intended to be part of a series that led to the 1917 Revolution which ended Tsarist Autocracy and led to the creation of the Soviet Union).

It’s Eisenstein’s focus on collectivism that comes forefront as American cinema tends to focus on the individual who may have led the strike or had a big part in it. No one actor becomes the protagonist. Strikers are a collective, the management and shareholders work as a collective.

And that is where Eisenstein shows his strength as a filmmaker, the utilization of composition and structure that achieves the film’s efficacy.

Once again, the collective is the keyword to this film. Where many films would show a hero either being incarcerated, killed or simply being held on the pedestal for their achievement, its a banality that is often seen to well in cinema today and Eisenstein knew at the time that it’s the collective that that should be featured and not one person goes down, all will suffer together.

Although I do not like to talk about the ending sequences of a film, “Strike” is one of those films where the majority of discussion of this film is primarily of its final scene. It’s the most violent scene but also cinematography-wise, it’s the most beautiful part of the film is seeing how Eisenstein used the visual aspects of the film to make it artistic but at the same time, no doubt, stirring up emotions of the Soviet people in the 1920’s who watched the film.

If you do not want to be spoiled by my comments on the ending, please stop here and revisit after you watched the film.

“Strike” is well-known for its violent final scenes towards the collective mass interwoven with realistic scenery of a live cow being slaughtered are images that stick in your head. Without having to show hundreds of people marching to their demise, it was a well-executed plan to use the cow during that time, to be a symbol of the slaughter of humans. To show how people of the same blood but not of the same social status are looked down upon.

A mother tries to rescue her daughter who runs towards the military soldiers in their horses. These soldiers could care less and start beating on the mother and possibly the most disturbing scene, aside from the cow scene, was a soldier grabbing a baby and literally dropping the baby many levels below to its crashing death. While we see the workers tormented and running for their lives, it’s a sickening juxtaposition of the exaggerated capitalist, laughing, fat and non-caring of their workers.

The bourgeoisie, the management, higher ups, shareholders, governor, police chiefs…they are the antagonist, the workers, the proletariat are the protagonists, the heroes of the film.

These scenes are quite haunting and although Eisenstein had created even more significant films after his filmmaking debut with “Strike”, It is amazing to see the filmmaker create this aural effect through visual means.

Interesting enough, Eisenstein actually had a conceived a more violent film according to a record made of the completed final sequence which involved the decapitation of the cows heads, skinning of the cows and ending with a closeup of the cow’s eyeball in order to correlate with the massacre of the workers.

There are not many filmmakers who have had the freedom to create films with a large mass of people and also to use his films to have this polemic and propagandist tone. It’s a groundbreaking film for its time that a cinemaeaste must experience as it is quite different than “Battleship Potemkin” and Eisenstein’s other well-known works.

Overall, “Strike” is highly recommended!