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The Soviet Films

ISSUE:  Autumn 1931

Everybody at all interested in films as an art knows that within the last four or five years the Soviet Union has produced a remarkable school of film directors, which is regarded by most competent people as the most significant development in the whole history of cinematography. The special film press devotes a great deal of attention to them and in highbrow circles the names of Soviet films have become household words. The purely technical importance of the work of Eisenstein and his school for the art of the moving pictures can hardly be exaggerated and is universally recognized, even in Hollywood. What I am concerned with here, however, is whether a larger significance may not be discovered in these works, and whether they may not affect the whole status of art and its relation to science.

The moving picture is the youngest of the arts, in fact the only art to have grown up in modern times and not out of the common soil of age-old ritual. Its next-eldest brother, architecture, though connected already, with a relatively late stage of cultural development—the centralized agricultural politics of the ancient East—is still a good five or six thousand years older, and as for the other sisters, their birth must be placed before the beginning of any history and not very far away in time from the invention of speech and the discovery of fire. They are all survivals of cultural conditions long since dead. The cinema is the child of an industrial and scientific age, the only art connected from its birth with a scientific technique; this alone would make it an ugly duckling among its venerable sisters.

Of course other arts too have had their points of contact with science. Music was for a time married to mathematics and was one of the four members of the quadrivium, that highest layer of medieval knowledge. Painting too, in the great days of the Quattrocento, came gloriously near becoming a branch of the exact sciences when Paolo Uccello and Leon Battista Alberti first disclosed the mysteries of “divine perspective.” In the later nineteenth century it was once again caught gravitating towards science, when that great communist, Seurat, hoped, with the aid of optics, to make it a pursuit to be learned as one learns engineering. But in all these cases the scientific and technical basis of the alliance was too narrow to be able to affect the original nature of those arts. The tentacles science could stretch out to it were too few and thin for it to get hold of them. Science—social science—could gain a stronger hold of fiction, by giving it for subject-matter the whole life of human society, but it was unable to provide it with a sufficiently exact technique to impose on it a discipline that might curb its subjective freedom. Architecture alone, the youngest of the old arts, is in a somewhat different position, and on her the impact of applied science—of engineering—has been powerful. But this hardly led to the scientific transformation of the art; on the contrary, with the growth of modern capitalistic civilization, whose essential characteristic is that it is pledged to produce cheap that which may be useful, architecture ceased to be an art so far as it remained useful, and so far as it remained an art became divorced from the vivifying influence of science, and set up as its only purpose to conceal under antiquarian garbs its real technical nature. Only within these last years has this state of things begun to be modified.

This essential divorce of art from science has, among other things, resulted in the fact that since the decline of organized theological religion, it is art that has usurped the functions of the latter as the rallying ground of all opposition to science, as the sanctuary of those tendencies in human nature which hark back to primitive mentality or which prefer to construct themselves an imaginary world according to the heart’s desire, instead of accepting (and eventually remoulding) the world as it is revealed by sense and science. This crystallization of the anti-scientific opposition round art began with J. J. Rousseau, reached brilliant expression in the Romantic revival, and after suffering a brief setback in the age of the great advance of biology and engineering has once more become the order of the day and found theoretical justification in the work of such different (and unequally significant) thinkers as Freud, Croce, and Mr. Middleton Murry. Even science, and not only the imaginative guess-science of the psycho-analysts, but the science of mathematicians and physicists, has, as in the writings of Professor Whitehead, thought it expedient to do homage to the new Ersatz religion and to declare that Wordsworth and Shelley may have penetrated deeper into the mystery of the universe than Newton or Lavoisier. In the face of such pusillanimity on the part of science itself, it is no wonder that art has waxed proud, and though it can hardly be accused of being more alive and vital today than in former times, it certainly has become more self-assertive; it parades today as a know-nothing who pooh-poohs the idea that he can learn anything | from the foreigner, science. Ignorance of all physical knowledge has probably never been more complete and more self-satisfied than among the poets and artists of today (or at any rate of yesterday).


Things being thus, it is no wonder that the new-born art of cinematography should have been slow to acknowledge its relation with science. In its first stages it was a craft, a none too ambitious technique, which shunned knowledge that did not pay, and was no more scientific than a travelling conjurer. For a long time it was not an art at all, but merely a paying proposition, like any other show. It is no more true that Hollywood commercialized the films than that Arkwright commercialized the cotton industry. Prewar cinematography was as commercial as anything in the world, only it was commercial in a small and antiquated way. What Hollywood did was to transform a petty business into a big business, not to destroy an artistic craft in order to produce an industry. Films as an art are—if we except the earliest movements of the unborn babe—younger than Hollywood.

But even when, towards 1920, the films did begin to develop into an art, they showed at first no signs of recognizing their scientific kinship. In fact, judged by their aesthetic content, the earliest films that may be regarded as works of art were a reversal to exceedingly primitive forms of thought, the nearest analogy to which is to be found in the fairy-tales. That such exceedingly primitive strata of aesthetic consciousness should have been plowed up by the most modern of arts may seem strange, but is easily explained. The first way in which the cinema manifested its modernity, was by being much more democratic than any other art, by appealing to the largest audiences, audiences that had never come into any sort of contact with modern forms of art, with those lower middle classes whose mentality was still rooted in exceedingly old forms of life. So it was only natural that the first great artists of the films, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, should have recreated in modern dress the age-old world of the fairy-tales. For what is Douglas Fairbanks but a slightly embellished and rationalized Jack the Giant Killer, and what Charlie Chaplin, but the modern and American version of that oldest of folk-tale favorites, the Lucky Fool?

In Europe there was a more conscious movement towards establishing the films as an art. It is usually dated from 1919, the date of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the famous German film which, in the vulgate of film-history that is by degrees forming itself, occupies already a place something like that of Lyrical Ballads in the vulgate history of English Romanticism. The film is typical of the highbrow cinematography that grew out of it in that it is a pure fantasia in form, entirely devoid of all significant emotional content. This purely formalistic attitude, though obviously murderous of films as an art, was nevertheless progressive from a certain point of view, for it did much to probe the immanent possibilities of the scientific technique underlying the new art. It was a definite step away from the helpless and naive theatrical realism of the primitive film towards those principles that now underlie the Soviet school of cinematography.

Since then highbrow cinematography of Western Europe has produced two important offshoots. On the one hand the film has been seized on by poets and by directors inspired by the modern poetic outlook, that is to say consciously concerned with the expression of the subconscious. This school has prospered chiefly in France (though one of its chief practitioners is the American, Man Ray) and has produced work which, gauged by the standards of modern poetry, will hardly be found wanting, such as “The Shellfish and the Clergyman,” by Germaine Dulac, and “Tusalava,” by the Australian amateur, Len Lye. “The Shellfish,” incidentally, is the film which was banned by the British censor on the grounds that it “is so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning it is doubtless objectionable.” A ruling that deserves a place of honour in the annals of official stupidity. But the production of such work, which can be appreciated only by a small audience of ultra highbrows and which is different from poetry only in the use of material instead of metaphorical images, can hardly contribute to the aesthetic justification of such a complicated technique as the cinema’s. It is unquestionably a surrender of the scientific birthright of the films and an ignominious compromise with the older irrational arts.

Neither is the other left-wing tendency, of Western European cinematography—represented chiefly by the gifted Dutch director, Jorris Ivens—which consists in taking modem technique as a material for aesthetic treatment, a real recognition of those birthrights of the youngest of the arts. For it is not a marriage between the scientific and aesthetic aspect of the films, but only the use of the subject-matter of scientific engineering for aesthetic purposes. It is the discovery of aesthetic values in machine-made reality, not of the value of machine-producing science for the construction of a scientifically justified art. It is typical of this whole school (as well as of the very active German school of expressive photography) that in spite of the lip-service it pays to the beauty of functional form, its tendency is to obscure the structural essence and the working of the mechanisms it pictures, by an ingenious use of foreshortening and cutting which make the machines look romantic and fantastic, thus divorcing their aesthetic significance from their real function. This kind of art is the art of the aesthetic intellectual who is fascinated by the machine-created world of scientific engineering, but has no relation to the actual working of that world.


It was only with the rise of the Soviet school of film directors that the inherent kinship of the art of cinematography with science was brought out, and the new art entered on a path that had only occasionally and desultorily been trodden by its elder relatives. This happened with the release in 1925 of Eisenstein’s famous film, “The Battleship Potemkin.”

Before that time Russian cinematography had passed through the usual primitive commercial-theatrical stage of which Ivan Mosjoukine is today the principal survivor, and through a more sophisticated theatrical phase corresponding to that associated in the West with Emil Jannings, and in Russia closely connected with Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre. Advanced technical experiments began only in the early ‘twenties, and were partly due to the ingenuity of poverty, stimulated as they were by, the scarcity of new film. The principle of montage, that was to become one of the mainstays of the new school, originated in the expedient of piecing together bits of old pictures to make new ones (an expedient recently revived in England by a pupil of the-“Russians”—John Grierson). The practice of montage contributed to establish film direction as an original art, for it greatly exercised the imaginative and combinatory faculties of the director. The invention of montage went hand in hand with the introduction of a new scientific attitude into the very process of creation. It is significant in this connection that both the leading directors of the generation have received a technical and scientific education: Eisenstein is an engineer and Pudovkin a chemist.

The principle of montage, that is to say of a creative practice of “cutting” individual shots and putting them together in an order aiming at a maximum effectiveness, has by now become familiar to film directors all over the world and would have already revolutionized film technique had not this revolution been counteracted by the rise of the talkies, A comparison of the effect of the discovery of the sound-film and of the invention of montage is significant for the understanding of the relation of the films as an art to the scientific technique underlying them. The immediate effect of the talkies has unquestionably been reactionary and has thrown back the art of cinematography, in America at least, to where it stood before the War. It has once more lost its independence and become an Ersatz theatre as it had been before the days of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, So it is that a great technical improvement, instead of becoming the basis for a transformation of the art of moving pictures in a progressive direction, has produced a setback and thrown the cinema back to a point it had passed years ago. This of course does not mean that the sound film will remain where it is, but a long development will have to take place before the commercial film again reaches the level of artistic efficiency at which it stood in 1928.

Eisenstein’s revolution, on the other hand, was not connected with any advance in the actual technique of the film. It is only a recognition of the inherent but undeveloped possibilities contained in the scientific technique of the new art. It is a step forward in the understanding of scientific laws rather than in the accumulation of scientific data, a philosophical rather than a technological advance. Eisenstein may be compared to Galileo, whose importance in the history of science does not reside so much in the new observations (however important) made by him as in the realization of the fundamental importance of exact measurement for the construction of physical science. What makes the new Soviet school important not only for the art of the cinema but for modern culture and philosophy in general is that it introduces a new attitude towards the creative process itself, a new way of producing imaginative values. To a certain extent Eisenstein’s revolution reproduces the revolution undergone by painting in the Quattrocento when mathematical calculation was introduced into the creative process of the painter, but the much more complex technical basis of cinematography as compared with painting, and the infinitely larger scientific background of modern civilization, promise to make the new transformation more solid and stable than could be the case in the Quattrocento.

The art of Eisenstein, and of the directors who follow him, is based primarily, on scientific calculation, on elaborate methods of weighing and gauging a multitude of magnitudes connected not only with the photographic technique of film production, but with the psychological action of the sequence of cuts on the spectator. It is not my intention to give an account of the actual theory and practice of these methods, for this would require a wealth of scientific culture equal to Eisenstein’s own, to which I can lay no claim. Unfortunately he has not yet summed up his views on the subject in book form and they must be sought for piecemeal in his scattered articles, and in the writings of his disciples, unless one has the good fortune of attending his lectures, which are few and far apart, and seldom public. Those who had the opportunity of following the course of talks he gave for the London Film Society in 1929 were able to realize how immense is the background of scientific thinking that underlies his artistic practice. They moved in an atmosphere where the most abstruse philosophical conceptions of Hegel or Marx were constantly coming into unexpectedly fruitful touch with the experiments of Freud or the reflexology of Pavlov. To give an idea of his literary culture, it is suggestive that in the half-dozen or so literary artists that he regards as potentially, instructive for the film producer he includes Ben Jonson and James Joyce. In explaining to his audience the measurements, the numerical relations that underly for instance the complex rhythmical montage of the great religious procession episode in his own film, “The General Line,” or in criticising the sacred dances scene in Pudovkin’s “The Heir to Chingis Khan,” he made one feel tangibly the essentially intellectual character of the creative process that resulted in the production of a film.

The intellectual and scientific character of the process does not exclude of course the element of inspiration, of that peculiar and intermittent aptitude of the mind for constructive work, which, as Pushkin said, is as indispensable in geometry as it is in poetry. Neither does this scientific and painstaking method of production exclude the intervention of chance: on the contrary it is particularly apt to prepare the mind for any lucky gift or suggestion of nature. The plan of the work is not born ready-made like Pallas out of the head of Zeus, but grows with the work. The more the director advances in his work the more opportunities are revealed to him by the process of work itself. The most famous episode of “The Battleship Potemkin”—the massacre on the steps—suggested itself to Eisenstein only when, in the middle of his work at that film, he came to Odessa and, seeing the monumental staircase of that city’s sea-front, saw in a flash of inspiration the potential effect of such a setting.


It must not be imagined that Eisenstein has already realized all the possibilities inherent in his method. For all his innovating energy he has not yet produced a film that is a complete masterpiece. His work and that of his school is working upwards, from the smallest unit, from that cinematographic atom—the shot—and has not yet mastered the ultimate unity of the film. The starting point was the relation of figure to frame inside the shot, and of shot to shot. The highest unity hitherto integrated by the new process is the episode. A film by Eisenstein is a sequence of episodes: each of them is a masterpiece but they do not unite to form a masterpiece of a higher order. There is in this state of things a certain analogy to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, who, also starting from the smallest units of painting, design and composition, failed to build up a complete masterpiece from these primary elements. Contrary to Browning, it is a nobler and more difficult thing to build up one’s million one by one, and to work up towards it only after every intermediate hundred has been hit, than to aim at the million out of the void. It is no disparagement of Eisenstein’s genius to point out that his films lack the unity which a good Buster Keaton film unquestionably, possesses. The unity aimed at by Eisenstein is one of a higher order, and may be perhaps attained only by the efforts of more than one man.

Other Soviet directors have produced films which, as complete films, are more satisfactory than Eisenstein’s, but they have done so only by departing from the fundamental principles of the new school, A film like Pudovkin’s “The Heir to Chingis Khan” (1929) is held together by, a scenario of a fairy-tale or mythological character which is different from the scenarios of the Buster Keaton films only in that it is related to a great political idea—an all-important difference of course, but one which does not yet constitute a departure from pre-scientific aesthetics. The film that will be a unity based on the new aesthetic attitude is yet to come.

Nevertheless the theory and practice of Eisenstein forms already a firm foundation for the transformation of the arts in a modern and scientific direction. Starting from it, we may foresee the day when the divorce between art and science will be a thing of the past and art cease to be a refuge for obsolete animistic and subjective attitudes.

It would be natural and right if the ideas and the work of Eisenstein found a fruitful soil in America. In spite of many primitive features in American civilization (abundantly reflected in the primitive mentality of the American films, and in the best of them even more strikingly than in the worst), and in spite of the hypertrophy of the profit-making mentality (an attitude fundamentally hostile to art of any kind), America is, together with Soviet Russia, the country best fitted for and most seriously inclined towards the construction of a new civilization that would be based on scientific knowledge and not on subjective or animistic fancies. It is, for instance, significant that in the most subjective and animism-ridden of sciences, psychology„ Russia and America are linked by a strong tie of cooperation. American Behaviourism is next of kin to the reflexology of Bekhterev and Pavlov, a discipline whose influence on the new cinematography has been of the most decisive. Is it then not natural to expect that the two countries will also cooperate in the conquest of that still stronger citadel of every kind of animism—art?


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