‘Soviet silent films were designed to persuade their audiences of the importance of the process of revolution’. Discuss with reference to the distinctive use of form and style in one or more directors.
A propaganda film is a film, either a documentary-style production or a fictional screenplay that is produced to convince the viewer of a certain political point or influence the opinions or behaviour of people, often by providing deliberately misleading, propagandistic content. Lenin declared in 1922 that “of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important”
The development of Russian cinema in the 1920s by such filmmakers as Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein saw considerable progress in the use of the motion picture as a propaganda tool, yet is also served to develop the art of the filmmaking. Eisenstein’s films, in particular The Battleship Potemkin, are seen as masterwork of the cinema even as they glorify Eisenstein’s communist ideals.
Dziga Vertov was interested in the idea that the film camera had the potential to capture ‘truth’; the camera could be seen simply as a mechanical device that was capable of recording the world without human intervention.
A revolution is a fundamental change in power or organisational structure that takes place in a relatively short period of time.
The October Revolution on the 25th October 1917 overthrew the Russian Provisional Government and gave the power to the Soviets dominated by Bolsheviks.
This revolution and the civil war that followed had a devastating effect on the Russian film industry, which was almost completely destroyed. Very few of the Russian directors and stars remained in Russia after 1919, the majority having fled to Paris where they continued production.
Soviet cinema differed from Western cinema in that it had clear political aims to use film as a propaganda weapon and also for it to espouse and reflect the new revolutionary regime. This aim was particularly expressed through narrative and editing.
The ‘montage’ cinema which demanded that the audiences continually searched for the meaning created by the juxtaposition of two shots can thus be seen as alternative to the continuity editing-based Hollywood cinema. One of the Soviet film-makers who developed this idea into both a theory and a practice of film-making was Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein believed that maximum impact could be achieved if shots in a scene were in conflict. This belief was based on the general philosophical idea that ‘existence’ can only continue by constant change. This method of creating meaning from such conflicts of opposites is termed dialectical. For example, shot A combined with shot B does not produce AB but the new meaning C. The formulation can also be presented as: thesis + anti-thesis= synthesis.
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In formal terms, this style of editing offers discontinuity in graphic qualities, violations of the 180 degree rule, and the creation of impossible spatial matches. It is not concerned with the depiction of a comprehensible spatial or temporal continuity as is found in the classical Hollywood continuity system. It draws attention to temporal ellipses because changes between shots are obvious, less fluid, and non-seamless.
One of the more prominent films to fully utilize Soviet montage was Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Man with a Movie Camera is an assembly of seemingly random shots of city life. From the cars on the street to people in motion to Vertov himself carrying his camera, the film represents Russia alive with enthusiasm following the revolution, a country with a genuine desire to better itself and its population.
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Aside from editing, these films have other features which separate them from the dominant Hollywood cinema. In keeping with a Marxist analysis of society, plots frequently do not centre on the individual, for example, in Eisenstein’s Strike, October and Battleship Potemkin, individual heroes are replaced by a mass of people. The only characters that are individualised are those who have wealth. Eisenstein used non actors to play key parts, believing that the external appearance was vital to the performance. This idea is termed ‘typage’. The audience sees a character and immediately recognises him as a sailor or an officer just by his appearance.
Like others before him Eisenstein sought to make the stage a vehicle of omniscient, ever present narration. He challenged Aristotle’s assumption that theatre minimised the author’s shaping hand. Eisenstein’s theory “expressionist” in that it regards narration as the process of making manifests some essential emotional quality of the story.
In Strike Eisenstein uses his principle of ‘montage of attractions’ to the editing. He believes that by creating visual jolys between each cut, the viewer would be shocked into new awareness’s. At various points in Strike Eisenstein juxtaposes shots taken from different viewpoints. Those shots needed to be interpreted by the audience. One of the best examples of this type of ‘intellectual montage’ is in the Slaughter of the bull. Here Eisenstein juxtaposes a non-diegetic image of a bull being slaughtered and shots of the factory workers being killed by government forces. It can be formulated like this: shot A (the workers being killed) + shot B (the bull being slaughtered) = new understanding C (the workers are being killed like animals). In these cases the audience become active political interpreters.
In Battleship Potemkin (1925) which is based on a true story of a massacre that took place on board the Potemkin in 1905, Eisenstein uses montage techniques with a vivid effectiveness, especially in the central part of the film in which the soldiers are marching down the steps leading to the harbour systematically shooting the onlookers. By using montage to repeat scenes, Eisenstein expanded time. The effect is to intensify the nature of the slaughter as well as to hold the audience in suspense. The climax of the scene demonstrates the effectiveness of montage in order to shock the audience. The same can be said about the rest of the film; Eisenstein increases the number of cuts to build up tension in particular in the last part of the film, with the Russian squadron. It gives the scene a sense of urgency which would be impossible to achieve with ought these techniques.
The concept of typage is seen throughout, the actors were not chosen for their acting ability, but instead they were chosen for how well they looked the part. It is another form of ‘attraction’. Eisenstein also rejected the traditional narrative pattern in which a hero embarks on a quest or responds to a challenge. Vakulinchuk and Matyushenko are the only sailors identified by name but they quest or challenge is not theirs alone. We do not follow their journey and we do not observe events through their eyes. Almost all the characters were introduced to contribute to the action, but they do not drive the action.
Critics declared that Battleship Potemkin was pitched far above the intellectual level of most peasants but, like Strike before it, marked a major step in the progress of revolutionary cinema.
Eisenstein’s forth feature length film was October (1927), made for the Tenth Anniversary celebrations of the Russian Revolution, depicts the build-up of the October Revolution, ending with the storming of the Winter Palace by the Bolsheviks. The movie demanded the audience to think in a critical and constructive manner about the important political issues by using ‘intellectual montage’. This can be seen in scene when Kerensky and general Kornilov, in which Eisenstein uses intercuts between these two men and the plaster cast figures of Napoleon. This exposes the vanity and the lack of power to form a separate identity. The film suffered for its unpopularity and bad distribution, but film historians consider it to be an immensely rich experience-a sweeping historical epic of vast scale, and a powerful testament to Eisenstein’s genius and artistry.
The editing of motion pictures has been a focus for various theories of cinematic realism, where editing is usually rejected as manipulative and propagandistic. In place of editing, critics such as André Bazin have argued in favour of the long take where the action plays out without continuity editing or the manipulations of Soviet montage.
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