Eisenstein’s Editing in Strike (1925)
In his first film Strike (1925), Sergei Eisenstein utilized editing techniques to illustrate the artistic possibilities that theater did not possess. He often uses strong cuts of seemingly unrelated objects to create meaning within the film. Eisenstein joins the images together through associative links such as protesters being fired upon and cattle being butchered. Eisenstein considers “butchering” the associative link. (Eisenstein, p. 57) Strike is representative of director’s cinema with its emphasis on graphic qualities. Strike does not have any main characters but a collection of antagonists and protagonists.
In a shot from the early scenes of the film, Eisenstein dissolves an image of a fox being held by an animal trainer with a medium close-up of the tsarist spy, “The Fox” (uncredited). Eisenstein cuts from this dissolve to a medium shot of “The Fox” sitting at a table, where he applies grease paint to his face. Eisenstein will later show “The Fox” dressed as a street beggar, so he can spy on the rebellious workers without detection. Eisenstein cuts the image of an actual fox with an image of “The Fox” using the associative links of slyness and cunning. The viewer expects “The Fox” to exhibit the clandestine characteristics of an actual fox.
American viewers struggle with Eisenstein’s work at times because many of his editing techniques violate the continuity editing system, which is the most common editing system used for narrative film. Hollywood film editors uses this system almost exclusively, so American viewers visually orient themselves to this editing system. Eisenstein violates two separate rules of the continuity editing system in two shots from a scene of the factory manager and foreman accusing an innocent worker of theft.
In the first shot, the Factory Foreman, portrayed by Grigori Aleksandrov, accusingly tells a worker reporting theft that, “We’ve never had thieves before.” He laughs at the worker (uncredited), who is filmed in a medium shot. The worker draws back his right arm behind him as if winding up to strike the Factory Foreman. Eisenstein cuts to a medium close-up of the worker, who is standing facing forward with both shoulders squared. Eisenstein cuts back to a medium shot of the worker and the Factory Foreman. In this image, the worker still has his right arm back in the wind-up position. Eisenstein’s cut violates the match on action rule due to the worker facing shoulders squared in the medium close-up. The worker’s right shoulder should have been drawn back and his upper body tilted back to the right. Eisenstein’s frequent cuts disorient viewers. Violations of the continuity editing system increase this disorientation.
In the next shot analyzed, Eisenstein violates the 180 degree rule. According to the 180 degree rule, the actor and actresses confine their activities to a half-circle in front of the camera. This technique orients the viewers to the film action because it keeps the action along a predictable line of action. (Bordwell, p. 263) Utilizing these techniques, directors do not place cameras behind the half-circle because it will change the characters position in the frame and disorient viewers.
In the shot, the factory manager (uncredited) is speaking with the worker and also accusing him of theft. The scene is a three-quarters shot of the worker, the factory manager, and two lackeys. The manager dismisses the worker’s protests of innocence and exits to the back of the scene, while the worker watches him walk to the back of the scene. Eisenstein cuts to a medium close-up of the worker looking dejected. He then cuts back to the three-quarters shot of the worker turning towards the door located in the front of the scene and leaving. To maintain adhere to the 180 degree rule, Eisenstein should have directed the worker to turn away from the manager and face the camera in the three-quarters shot. If Eisenstein then cut to the medium close-up of the worker’s anguish, he would achieve the same cinematic effect without disorienting the viewer.
Eisenstein disorients the viewer on purpose at times. He often edits together dissimilar shots to shock the audience. He called this editing technique “montage”. A good example of “cross-montage” is one of the most famous scenes from the film, the suppression of the striking workers.
Eisenstein starts the cross-montage with a long full-shot crowd scene of striking workers fleeing from Russian soldiers, who are shooting at them. Eisenstein then cuts to a shot of a muscular arm striking a cow in the head with a spike. Eisenstein continues to cut from scenes of the army shooting the workers to scenes of a butcher slaughtering a cow. Eisenstein used this cross-montage to create “a film-metaphor of ‘a human slaughterhouse’.” (Eisenstein, p. 252) Eisenstein portrays the tsarist army officers as being no more concerned about the workers they were shooting than the butcher was about the cow he slaughtered. Eisenstein’s use of editing creates a powerful motivational scene for the communist audience he was attempting to reach.
While Strike is a case study in editing, Eisenstein would admit he used editing techniques too much in his first film. Eisenstein stated that his goal with Strike was to illustrate the possibilities of film and its possible artistic superiority to theater. Eisenstein wrote the following concerning strike. “…the break with the theater in principle was so sharp that in my ‘revolt against the theater’ I did away with a very vital element of theater-the story.” (Eisenstein, p.15)
Film scholars and critics laud Eisenstein for his revolutionary editing theories and film accomplishments such as Battleship Potemkin (1927) and Ivan the Terrible Part I (1942). Critics tend to rate Strike much lower than these two films. Critics should reconsider this ranking however if they place a high value on the director accomplishing his goal with the film. Eisenstein thoroughly disorients the viewer while illustrating the aspects of film that theater cannot duplicate. Disorientation however will probably cause the film to maintain its current ranking.
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Strike. Dir. Sergei Eisenstein. With Grigori Aleksandrov, Aleksander Antonova, and Ivan Klyukvin. First State Film Factory, 1925.
Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kirstin. Film Art: An Introduction, Sixth Edition. McGraw Hill: New York, 2001.
Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc: New York, 1949.
www.imbd.com-Internet Movie Database. Used to gather credit information.