Soviet Cinema and Russian Constructivism
Keywords: Vladimir Lenin, revolution, Czar Nicholas II, Communism, Soviet, machine aesthetic, Russian Constructivism, Russian, Modernism, Kotscherguin, Battleship Potemkin, The Results of the First Five-Year Plan, Varvara Stepanova, Monument to the Third International, Vladimir Tatlin, Proletkult, Odessa Steps, Sergei Eisenstein, Strike In 1917, Russia experienced a revolution in which the workers seized power from Czar Nicholas II. This was a Communist revolution, a people’s revolution that aimed to create a workers’ paradise where wealth would be shared equally. The revolution inspired architects and designers to create new design for the new Soviet society . In this era, Russia was becoming industrialised. The machine was transforming society, so Russia became a breeding ground for Modernism and the machine aesthetic. A movement emerged called Russian Constructivism, which was essentially the Russian form of Modernism.
The leader of the new Russian state was Vladimir Lenin, who believed that culture should support political needs, which effectively meant that all culture was viewed as propaganda. Lenin set up a number of agencies to regulate Soviet art and culture. The most important was called Proletkult, the Organisation for Proletarian Culture. Many of the leading designers were commissioned to create works that mythologised the revolution.
In the 1920s, Russia was still a rural peasant country. Most of the population was illiterate – so the emphasis was on visual propaganda. For this reason, the Constructivist movement had a major impact on graphic design. The state commandeered trains and hired designers to cover them with Constructivist graphics. These ‘Agit-Prop’ trains travelled across Russia spreading revolutionary messages.
The graphic designer Kotscherguin produced an illustration for a Communist journal called The Red Worker (1920). The workers have come together into a mob, one single mass. Above them rises a fantastical figure that symbolises collective strength. This is the dream of Communism: solidarity. Crucially, the figure is anonymous – he is drawn as a silhouette. Communism is not about the individual, it’s about the masses. The skyline is made up of factories generating wealth for the state. The sun is drawn as a whirring cog with splinters of light shooting off in all directions, suggesting the energy of the modern age.
One of the best graphic designers was Varvara Stepanova. She introduced the technique of photomontage into her work. Photomontage involves cutting up photographs and combining the fragments into new images. Photomontage was analogous to editing in film, and Russian directors like Sergei Eisenstein began experimenting with dynamic editing in films like Battleship Potemkin. Stepanova produced an image for a volume called The Results of the First Five-Year Plan (1932). She uses a photo of a crowd with Communist banners. A photo of Lenin presides over the revolution. An electricity pylon is depicted; technology was being used to transform society by spreading electrical power around the country. But the pylon is also used for its visual properties – it has been arranged in sharp diagonals, giving the image a sense of dynamism.
A founder of the Constructivist movement was Vladimir Tatlin, who believed that design was linked to engineering rather than art. He saw the designer as an anonymous worker who served society. He designed the Monument to the Third International (1919-20), which was meant to be a 400m tall tower made of iron, glass and steel. It would have been taller than the Eiffel Tower. High costs prevented Tatlin from executing the plan. In fact, only a scaled-down model was ever built, but it’s the perfect example of Russia’s use of the machine aesthetic. As well as resembling a machine, the tower actually functioned as one: it featured four volumes that rotated at different speeds. These were intended to house government offices for legislation, administration and information, as well as a cinema. It’s significant that a cinema would have been included: propaganda was crucial.
Again, Lenin believed that all art was propaganda and he thought that the most useful form of propaganda was cinema because it had a mass audience and it was visual. This permitted an explosion of Soviet films, the first of which were highly experimental. The greatest Russian director was Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948). His work has been profoundly influential because he invented radical techniques of editing – the act of taking separate shots and combining them into dynamic sequences. Eisenstein studied architecture and engineering at the Petrograd Institute of Civil Engineering. In 1920, he moved to Moscow, and began his career in the theatre working for Proletkult, so he had a strong design sensibility and his work was closely related to Constructivism.
Eisenstein was a pioneer in the use of editing. He believed that editing could be used for more than just telling a story: the juxtaposition of independent shots could create new meanings. Eisenstein felt that the ‘collision’ of shots could be used to manipulate the emotions of the audience and create metaphors. This emphasis on the juxtaposition of images brought an element of collage into film. This is the cinematic equivalent of Varvara Stepanova’s photomontages.
Eisenstein's first full-length film was called Strike (1924), which tells the story of a 1903 strike by factory workers that was crushed by Czarist forces. The film opens with a quote from Lenin: At the factory all is quiet. Using typography, the word ‘??’ (but) appears. It then animates into an image of machinery in motion. This is a piece of Constructivist design. The most famous sequence shows the Czarist forces crushing the strike. The workers are driven into a field by the army and shot en masse. The scene is intercut with footage of cattle being slaughtered. This is an example of Eisenstein’s radical editing technique: the collision of images is used to create a strong emotional response in the viewer. Animals are used as metaphors for the plight of the workers. Please be aware, the scene is very disturbing.
Eisentein’s most influential film is Battleship Potemkin (1925). This is based on the true story of a mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their officers. Battleship Potemkin has been called the most influential propaganda film of all time, and is regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.
The most celebrated scene is the massacre on the Odessa Steps. This is one of the most famous sequences in film history and a masterpiece of editing. The sequence is built from separate shots combined in a very dynamic, rhythmic way. Eisenstein edited the film to produce the greatest emotional response, so that the viewer would feel sympathy for the rebellious sailors of the Potemkin and hatred for their overlords.
The film had tremendous potential to influence political thought: ‘[Battleship Potempkin is] a marvelous film without equal in the cinema . . . anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film.’ These are the words Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister.
The scene has been quoted and parodied in a range of later films. The Godfather and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith quote from it. Most famously, Brian De Palma made a film called The Untouchables, about the Chicago gangster Al Capone. This film restages the entire sequence in a railway station. This can be seen as a postmodern pastiche: it’s quoting from the film in a very knowing way.