In 1925, a 26-year-old theatre director named Sergei Eisenstein made his first film - and revolutionised an entire art form. With the sole exception of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, I can't think of another feature debut by a near-total beginner that is so massively accomplished, not merely demonstrating a complete mastery of pretty much every cinematic technique that had been discovered up to then but also pushing the medium into entirely new areas by fusing it with theories from other art forms and philosophies (in Eisenstein's case, everything from Cubism to Japanese calligraphy). If Strike has been overshadowed by its successors Battleship Potemkin and October, that's to its advantage - because it's less well known, it retains a freshness and vitality that the others have lost from endless quotation and outright plagiarism.
It's clearly a young man's film - virtually every frame is bursting with visual and conceptual ideas, many of which work sensationally well while others are hopelessly (and sometimes hilariously) off-beam. Eisenstein thinks nothing of turning a violent confrontation into a slapstick comedy routine (and back again), dissolving from the faces of the bosses' spies to those of the animals they take their nicknames from, artificially freezing his actors in stylised mock-heroic or mock-villainous poses mid-scene, turning the rout of a riot by water cannon into an abstract ballet of water, light and shade or - and this still packs a hefty punch even today - suddenly cutting from faked and stylised violence to genuine close-up slaughterhouse footage.
The narrative is broken up into six parts, each given a self-explanatory title. Part One (All Calm at the Factory) sets the scene, where workers are victimised by oppressive bosses and their extensive network of spies. Part Two (A Reason to Strike) features the catalyst, where a worker kills himself after being falsely accused of theft, causing his comrades to come out on strike. Part Three (The Plant Stood Still) sees the strikers formulate their demands, Part Four (The Strike Drags On) looks at the human cost of the strike as starving and desperate workers are forced to sell everything they own while the bosses reject their demands, Part Five (Provocation to Disaster) sees the bosses devise a plan to completely discredit the strikers, and Part Six (The Liquidation) sees all these elements come together in a shockingly violent conclusion.
There are no real protagonists in Strike - people are conceived of in terms of crowds, not individuals, and Eisenstein choreographs them brilliantly - some of the most memorable images are those packed with people on multiple planes, all given a specific dynamic purpose within the frame: they're not so much masses as floods and torrents. Case histories are sketched in seconds, as in the montage of starving families that opens part four, and the overall effect is a collective one: his actors are seemingly cast more for their appearance than their acting ability, but Eisenstein's editing is so rapid that the latter really isn't an issue.
The word most associated with this film and with Eisenstein's work in general is 'montage' - when first released, Strike had arguably the most conceptually sophisticated editing of any film made up to that time (only Abel Gance's unfairly forgotten La Roue, which Eisenstein may well have seen when a print was shipped to Moscow, offers any serious competition). Eisenstein's concept of montage went far beyond conventional narrative construction.
In Strike, entirely disparate images are fused together, sometimes by straightforward cuts, often by more elaborate transitions, to create powerful and wholly unexpected associations, sometimes through matching shapes and forms (particularly circles and lines: his fondness for finding clear geometric patterns in virtually everything he looks at betrays his background as an architect's son and an engineering graduate in his own right), at others introducing seemingly incongruous images such as a newly hatched duckling or a home-made gibbet for hanged cats, designed to trigger specific reactions in the viewer to do with, respectively, warmth and revulsion.
Eisenstein plays around with time, too, cutting within scenes to deliberately disorientate the viewer both spatially and temporally - a kind of cinematic equivalent of Cubism, the dominant visual art form of the previous decade, though such is his control of his material that this never becomes excessively confusing (borne out by the film's considerable commercial success: it ran for over nine months in Moscow, a phenomenal run for a decidedly experimental film that broke all the rules in terms of audience expectations).
Some of Strike can't help but seem crude today (though it must have been eye-poppingly original back in 1925), but much of it is still remarkably effective. Of all Eisenstein's films, Strike is his most complex and arguably his most fascinating - if it ultimately isn't as focused as its successors (the lack of any real human element beyond fleeting vignettes, although in keeping with Eisenstein's collectivist aims, is a definite flaw), it more than makes up for this by being far more inventive. I must have seen it half a dozen times over the last two decades - and every time, I find I've forgotten just how exhilarating it is.
This isn't the best silent film DVD I've seen, but compared with Eureka's rather disappointing Battleship Potemkin it's not at all bad. The print is far from pristine, but for a nearly eighty-year-old title it's been surprisingly well preserved - there are certainly spots and scratches and occasionally more serious damage (tramlines, chemical blotches, jump cuts from splices), but the quality of the image is generally very acceptable, with a pleasingly wide dynamic range. The transfer is occasionally beset by digital artefacting, but it's rarely especially obtrusive.
The picture has been slightly windowboxed within the 4:3 frame so that the original somewhat unorthodox aspect ratio can be preserved in full. Going from the running time and a footage count, I'd guess that the projection speed is about 18fps, which seems about right for the period (though silent film projection speeds are more of an art than a science: exact timings are almost impossible to obtain).
Thankfully, the original Russian intertitles have been retained - crucial with this film as Eisenstein intended many of them to have a specific graphic effect as part of his montage sequences. Where text fills the screen, Eureka have taken the unusual and I think rather effective step of shrinking the frame so that it only takes up half the screen, leaving ample room for the subtitles underneath. There are six chapter stops, representing each of the film's six parts.
There are two soundtracks on offer - the first is a Dolby Stereo score by the Alloy Orchestra, which I thought was very effective indeed: clearly composed specifically for the film, the heavily percussive music recalls what some of Eisenstein's contemporaries such as Alexander Mossolov (whose most famous opus is the all too self-explanatory The Foundry) were writing at the time. According to the credits, it was recorded in 1998, and the technical quality of the recording is absolutely fine as far as plain stereo goes.
The second soundtrack is the DVD's only extra, but it's well worth having - a scene-specific commentary by Russian film historian Yuri Tsivian that is crammed with background theoretical, anecdotal and context-setting information and, most usefully, more elaborate translations and explanations of the intertitles than the subtitles can realistically provide (there are some very complex puns going on in there that require a knowledge of Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet to fully appreciate). It's an exemplary commentary of its type, admirably lucid considering that English is clearly not his first language, and it's only a pity that he didn't do similar honours for the other Eisenstein films. I learned more about Strike from it than I have from a dozen textbooks (some by Eisenstein himself), and that's no mean feat.
Strike is available either on its own or as part of Eureka's four-disc Russia in Revolt package, which also includes Battleship Potemkin, October and The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. It's also available in Region 0 NTSC from Kino (via Image Entertainment) in the US, though reviews of that disc strongly suggest that it's exactly the same (video standards aside), as it has the same score and commentary. An authentic Russian edition is due for release from the Russian Cinema Council at some point, which may well have the advantage of superior source materials - though that's not a guarantee, its release date isn't yet scheduled, and it almost certainly won't have the commentary, which I'd say is worth the price of this DVD on its own. Of Eureka's three DVDs of the silent Eisenstein masterpieces, this would be my first choice by a fair margin.