Eisenstein, a cumbersome centenary


By Jacques Rancière

Originally published as ‘Eisenstein, un centenaire encombrant’, in Cahiers du cinéma, june 1998, n° 525.

Some centenaries are more cumbersome than others, judging by the quietude of the echoes aroused by the Eisenstein retrospective. In reality, the “salvaging” of great artistic figures who are emblematic for communism is not evenly evident. It’s not enough to have been criticized and heckled by the Soviet regime. Eisenstein has had as many problems as Shostakovich, but unlike him he hasn’t benefitted from the repercussions that have transformed an official renowned artist into an honored dissident. He has, just like Brecht, maintained his “pensée de derrière”, his deeper motives. But his distance in itself is of another kind than that of the dramaturg. Brecht was able to identify the figure of the cynical observer with that of the committed critic and the lessons of dialectical pedagogy with the athletics of boxing or the derisions of cabaret, in accordance with the esthetical canons at play in the times of dadaism and the new objectivity. He has identified the practice of the marxist dramaturg with a certain artistic modernity, that of an art staging the denunciation of historical ideals of art. This ironic modernity has outlived the political fall of communism. It has become the banal form that allows to preserve the alliance between artistic novelty and criticism of dominant imaginaries.This banalization threatens Brecht, and protects him at the same time.

The case of Eisenstein is more redoubtable. Because he did not care about educating, learning how to see and distance oneself. All of which Brecht claimed to purge theatrical representation, identification, fascination, absorption, he wanted, on the contrary, to capture and boost its force. He announced his intentions clearly: this omnipotence of mimesis, which he had seized on the face of a child reflecting all the events of the scene, he had to extract and rationalize its principle. The effect of identification with the story and the characters had to be replaced with a direct identification with affects programmed by the artist. He claimed not to advance the communist idea as rational explication of the contradictions of the world, but to impose the force of affects in a direct way. No matter his disputes with soviet composers and the infinite distance of his artistic culture, nourished by Greco and Piranese, Diderot, kabuki or Japanese painting, from the official marxist culture. He was able to write without turning a hair that his cinema was meant to plow like a tractor through the spectator’s psyche in order to raise another consciousness. His writings did not stem from an assignment but from his own believes, the believes of an artist, not a propagandist. He didn’t put the young cinematic art in the service of communism. He has rather put communism to the test of cinema, to the test of the idea of art and modernity of which cinema was, for him, the incarnation: that of a language of ideas becoming a language of sensation. For him, a communist art was not a critical art, aiming for some kind of awareness. It was an ecstatic art, directly transforming the connections of ideas into chains of images, in order to establish a new regime of sensibility.

Of course this ecstatism looks to rationalize itself in terms of dialectics: the mathematical rigor of “organic” montage leads up to the qualitative jump of “pathetic”. And The General Line (the old and the new), film without “story”, without any other subject than communism itself, is supposed to illustrate this dialectical law. The pure means of montage have to pathetise an idea deprived of any identificatory agency. The construction of sequences alternating between the old (the procession asking for rain) and the new (the cream separator), the accelerated multiplication of shots going from the rotation of the machine to faces, alternately dubious, joyous and gloomy, on their own have to exalt the event, it itself little attractive, of the condensation of milk. Constructive mathematics has to take the place of the Dionysiac orgy. But who doesn’t see that it is only possible on one condition? That its “abstract” frenzy would already be anticipated by the sequences of the “old” themselves.

What is of importance in the sequences of the procession, more than the “dialectical” games of oppositions complacently enumerated by the filmmaker, is the crazy pantomime of cross symbols and genuflexions. It’s not only the old submission to superstition that has to be replaced by the simple attention to verifiable performances of the machine. It is the force of incarnation of an idea in a body that cinema has to capture in its procedures to allow its conversion in another body of ideas. Yet the montage does not assure this conversion of affects by way of a simple calculation of “attractions”. In order to operate it, it has to resemble to this possession of a body by an idea. The principle of montage, stated Eisenstein in his writings, is entirely tied to the perception of the superstitious for whom the cat is not only a fury mammal, but a combination of lines that is since the beginning of time associated with darkness. This is not much of a boutade. And it is not more of a pirouette than this paradox that was, in 1935, thrown in the face of the congress members who denounced his formalism and urged him to regain the values of warm humanity: the claimed formalism, he replied, was actually the language restored from preconceptual thinking. The metaphors and the synecdoches in the General Line and Battleship Potemkim assure the adequation between the pure conscious calculation of the communist oeuvre and the unconscious logic governing the deepest layers of sensorial thinking.

But if they do assure that, it’s because the montage refitting the sensorial affects of superstition is itself accomplice. The young Komsomol in The General Line can turn away his head when the Kolkhozians put the heads of dead bovines on the fence to exorcise the disease of the bull. The filmmaker can punctuate with an inter-title the return of superstition. But the mise-en-scene, it cannot separate the force of these exorcisms. It cannot do without these masks, faces of death , metaphors and animal masquerades. And without a doubt the taste of masks and hybridations is a taste of the time. But its ordinary usage is “critical”: in the paintings of Dix, the montages of Heartfield, or in the scene of croaking toads in You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang), the metaphor or the masquerade denounce a certain inhumanity of man. Eisenstein bestiaries do something else entirely. Beyond caricature and metaphor, they take us back to a positive affirmation of the first unity of human and non-human. They properly constitute a mythology: perhaps the last version of this mythology of reason becoming sensible in which the “Oldest Systematic Programme of German Idealism” saw, at the dawn of the 19th century, the task of art converging with that of the new community.

That this programme has become suspect to us is not the heart of the problem. Our unease when seeing the waterfall of milk or the wedding of the bull in The General Line is not ideological. It is properly esthetical. It concerns what we see. We would like to get rid of it by denouncing it as a propaganda film. But the argument fizzles out. Not only because the shots in the film are the most beautiful, the most free that Eisensetein has ever composed. But because propaganda films does not function like that. They have to assure us of what we see, choose between the documentary that gives it to us as tangible reality and fiction that proposes it as a desirable end, put in their respective places narration and symbolization. And that is the certainty that Eisenstein systematically refuses us. Let’s go back to the sequence in which two brothers, according to the law of the “old”, share their poor inheritance. They lift the thatch from the roof and saw the wood of the isba; The metaphor of “dismantlement” of property is literalized and we expect to see, in the course of the sequence, an isba surrealistically being cut in two. But what we get to see is different and is allocated in two incompatible registers. Symbolically the sawn wood immediately becomes a new fence around the fields. Narratively the family of the brother leaves while carrying on their cart this wood that the metaphor has already “used” to construct these barriers. The filmmaker borrows a classical rhetorical figure, the syllepsis, consisting in taking an expression at the same time in its literal sense and in its figurative sense. The syllepsis takes together the small scene and the world it symbolizes. But it only does so at the price of leaving the elements disjointed and the eye uncertain of what it sees. The end of the well known sequence with the cream separator presents us with the same counter-effect: narratively the milk has to turn into cream. Metaphorically this thickened flow has been anticipated by its symbolic equivalent; an upward flow of water, synonymous of prosperity. And the body of Marfa on her knees has to visually carry the two meanings, in stretching out her hands flowing with spattering liquid – in opposition to the water coming from the sky of the procession – and in carrying on her cheeks the traces of thickened cream – in opposition to the stains of earth on the forehead of the farmer woman who is recovering from old genuflexions.

It’s too much for a body – and too little at the same time. And everything unbearable about the film can be condensed in the body of Marfa. It’s about making collectivism desirable. And the ordinary way to make an idea desirable is to let it be carried by desiring and desirable bodies, by bodies exchanging the signs of desire. To seduce in favor of the idea, Marfa not only has to undo her scarf a few times. She also has to signify, though as little as it is, a desire for something else than her cream seperator, her bull and her tractor, a human desire.

To make the law lovable, bodies need a weakness, a violation of the law. And the joyous lad in By the Bluest of Seas (Boris Barnet) who abandons the communist work for the beautiful eyes of the Kolkhoz girl does more to make communism lovable than this figure in all her devotion. Woman without man, without husband or lover, without parents or children, Marfa only desires communism. This would still work if she would be a virgin of pure thought. But there is nothing of an ideal in the communism of Marfa. There is a constant mobilization of romantic affects culminating in the fake-real love scene that does not unite her with the tractor driver but with the tractor. To replace the driving belt of the broken down tractor, a cloth is needed and the driver who has already sacrificed his shirt is prepared to use the red flag when Marfa takes back his hand. A silent dialogue. Marfa half-opens her coat, uncovers her skirt and helps the driver to tear off some cloth. Crouching down under the tractor, the driver piece by piece tears off the cloth and Marfa hides her face in her hands while giggling, like a shy virgin both laughing and crying when exposing herself. The tension of the scene is as superb as it is intolerable (as was the confrontation regarding the use of profits, when Marta suffers the equivalent of a collective rape).

That is what frightens us: this gigantic détournement of energies that gives the communist tractor affects that are “normally” only at stake in the relation between one human body with another. But, once again, ideology is not the heart of the issue. We are not upset with Eisenstein because of ideals that he wanted us to share. We are upset with him because he takes our claimed modernity from the rear. He reminds us of this idea of artistic modernity with which cinema, at one time, could supposedly identify its technique of anti-representative art that was going to substitute to stories and characters of yesteryear the language of ideas/sensations and the direct communication of affects. The skirt that is lovingly torn from Marfa does not only take us back to a century of illusions that has capsized. It also asks of us in which century we are living ourselves, we who take, with Deleuze in our back pockets, so much pleasure in the love between a young girl in first class and a young boy in third class on a boat that is sinking.


Translated by Stoffel Debuysere (Please contact me if you can improve the translations).

In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts