Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein. Writers: Grigori Aleksandrov, Sergei M. Eisenstein, Ilya Kravchunovsky, Valerian Pletnev. Starring: Maxim Shtraukh, Grigori Aleksandrov, Mikhail Gomorov, Boris Yurtsev, I. Ivanov, Ivan Klyukvin, Aleksandr Antonov, Yudif Glizer.
Tsarist Russia. When a factory worker is wrongly accused of theft, his suicide ignites the flame causing the other workers to finally rise up against their bad working conditions and capitalist overlords.
If this had been a review only of Strike’s visual qualities, I would have given it a 10 out of 10, no question about it. The images are incredibly intelligent, energetic and powerful, using montage and depth of frame composition in tandem with amazing tracking shots and gorgeous lighting to make the enormous, ugly factory look like an imposing marvel. Locations and sets are equally stupendous-looking and packed with character and detail. There’s always something to look at that feels fresh and innovative, which is quite the accomplishment for a movie that’s 90 years old as of this writing. Striking images include – apart from the lovingly shot gigantic manufacturing machines – piles of massive steel train wheels; weird concrete shafts in the earth out of which dozens of acrobatic beggars come streaming like a mass of rats; and vast shots of crowds of people billowing forth in pastoral scenes as well as on tenement stairs and gangways and – in more intimidating fashion – in scenes where the police, military and even fire brigade attack the strikers.
Alas, this review is not just concerned with the way Strike looks. Soviet film theory has given us much, including the modern way to use montage and symbolic crosscutting, but its proponents were of course also deeply entrenched in socialist doctrine. The fact that Strike is nothing more or less than dramatised propaganda is one thing – it doesn’t make the film any less interesting as a picture of a very special time and place, and the story is so well fitted to the message that the latter feels like a natural component rather than an intrusive addition.
No, the problem is the socialist obsession with glorifying “the masses”, which led to the notion of the “collective hero”. This means that a whole drove of people collectively become the protagonist, in this case the factory workers. This makes Strike lacking in human dimension, for only rarely do we see the workers as individuals. Sure, they have leaders, but they just blend in with the rest, and I would be hard pressed to recognise who is who among the dozen or so characters we see the most. There are a couple of scenes of family life, but they are too generalized and fleeting to bring much life to the characters involved.
The memorable people are instead the villains, who are all caricatures. Most of them are parodically clichéd capitalists: fat, wearing top hats, smoking cigars. The spies these overlords employ are portrayed in equally simplistic fashion, each of them represented by an animal (“The Owl”, “The Bulldog”, “The Monkey”). The one crisply original character is “The King”, a dignified but insane hobo who commands an army of beggars. Strike saves its individualism for the bad guys, then, which is hardly surprising, since in Soviet Russia, individuality was a bad, possibly criminal trait.
As for the script, it is just as predictable as the images are surprising, so that these two elements work in direct opposition to one another. If you or I were to put minimum effort into writing a story about a factory strike in 1910s Russia, it would in all likelihood go through exactly the same motions as Strike does: the final drop causing the strike, the strikers’ initial sense of power and freedom, then the increasing worries about food and money, then the owners’ refusal of demands, followed by the retaliation of the authorities against the strikers. There are no surprises.
Strike is a great film to look at, but soon becomes tedious to actually watch. See it for the pure genius of the cinematography and editing.
Rating: 6 of 10.