To mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx this year, John Green gives a brief outline of some of the influences of Marxist thought on moviemakers.
What influence has Marx had on film and the cinema? A rather odd if not idiotic question the reader might think. After all, Marx died in 1883 and the first commercial, public screening of moving images, organised by the Lumière brothers in Paris only took place on 28 December 1895 – 12 years later. However, silly as it may at first appear, Marx and his ideas have had a profound influence on the development and evolution of film-making.
The Soviet film-makers, Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov, founder of one of the world’s first film schools, should probably be credited with being the first to attempt to apply Marxist ideas directly to film-making. They immediately recognised the strong affinity between Marxist philosophy and the peculiar, unique essence of film and the creative possibilities it offered.
For Kuleshov, the essence of the cinema was editing, the juxtaposition of one shot with another. To illustrate this principle, he created what has come to be known as the Kuleshov Effect. In this now-famous editing exercise, shots of an actor’s face, looking at something were intercut successively with different images of objects (a casket, a bowl of soup, etc.), as if the actor were looking at them. Viewers apparently thought they could perceive subtly different expressions in the actor’s face corresponding to what he was supposedly looking at.
In actual fact, however, Kuleshov used exactly the same image of the actor, thus making the point that the mere fact of juxtaposing different images creates a third, imaginative image or perception in the heads of the viewer. Editing techniques can change or influence viewers' interpretations of images.
Another one of his famous inventions was creative geography, also known as artificial landscape. Those techniques were described in his book The Basics of Film Direction (1941) which was later translated into many languages.
But it was Eisenstein who was able to translate Marxist ideas most effectively through his films. Marxist dialectics, the recognition that change in the world comes about primarily through a conflict of opposites to create a new synthesis, and that human history unfolds as the result of class conflict are central to Eisenstein’s approach.
Eisenstein, Battleship Potemkin, 1925
While other Marxist film-makers chose more traditional ways of editing (montage) and story-telling, Eisenstein was convinced that the unique medium of film allowed – demanded even – a new approach. He became the father of what we today understand by the term film montage (creative, non-linear, editing). Following Kuleshov, he also recognised that by placing two very different images in conjunction, each would attain new meaning and lead to a new and deeper comprehension of reality.
By consciously framing and arranging elements within the frame of each image, in order to create a formal conflict, he also underlined this contradictory character. In his use of music too, he employed it not as mere accompaniment, to give emphasis to the emotional charge contained in the images, but as an aural commentary upon the visual, and as a counterpoint.
Eisenstein was also a master of choreography, to emphasise the role played by the masses in creating history and underlining the fact that it is not individuals who are paramount in bringing about change, but mass movements. In his films Potemkin or Alexander Nevsky, for instance, this aspect of his approach is demonstrated to awesome effect.
In order to break away from Hollywood’s ‘dream machine’ film-making culture, which used narrative structures that over-emphasised individual characters’ actions, Eisenstein shunned narrative structure by eliminating the individual protagonist. Instead, events were related in which the action is moved forward by the group and the narrative unfolds through a clash of one image against the next, whether in composition, motion, or idea. In this way, the audience is never lulled into a stupor of believing that they are watching real life, but something that has been worked upon, constructed.
While his films are immensely powerful historical statements, and his use of montage has influenced numbers of film-makers throughout the world, Eisenstein’s tendency to over-theorise could become something of a straitjacket on the narrative. Other film-makers, who would also have defined themselves as Marxists, while readily utilising some of his methodology and ideas, chose to follow more traditional narrative paths.
Although strongly influenced by those early Soviet innovators, few film-makers since have chosen to follow Eisenstein’s methodology strictly, but have chosen instead to incorporate Marxist ideas and a Marxist outlook more through their choice of subject matters. Although Bertolt Brecht, in his short foray into the film world, did use similar montage elements to Eisenstein and Kuleshov in his film Kühle Wampe, about working class life in Germany.
Kuhle Wampe, a 1932 film about unemployment, homelessness and left wing politics, conceived and written by Bertolt Brecht
Certainly many film-makers in a whole number of countries have at one time or other been members of their respective communist parties, and have espoused Marxism. Most of the Italian neo-realists were members of the CPI, including de Sica, Rosi, Pasolini, Bertolucci, Visconti. French filmmakers like Jean Renoir and later Jean-Luc Godard and the documentarist Chris Marker, as well as the Dutchman Joris Ivens, were all influenced in very different ways by Marxist ideas.
The Italian neo-realists sought to tackle the subject of capitalism, fascism and social injustice in their films, clearly indicating, if not overtly, that a socialist organisation of society would be a better alternative. But they did this more through the use of amateur actors, raw, outside settings, and using natural lighting rather than the artifice of studio set-ups.
The Indian Marxist and film director, Mrinal Sen, played a significant role in the development of Indian film. The films he made were overtly political, and earned him the reputation of being ‘a Marxist artist’. He was working during the time of large-scale political unrest in India (1955 onwards). Particularly in and around Calcutta, this period was marked particularly by the Naxalite insurgency. He went on to make a series of films that revealed a shift in focus, and instead of looking at enemies outside the country, he sought the enemy within his own middle class milieu. This was his most creative phase.
British filmmakers like Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and the US-born Joseph Losey, as well as modern filmmakers like Ken Loach, have also been strongly influenced by Marxist ideas, expressed itself largely through their choices of subject matter and a class-based approach to story-telling.
Ken Loach, The Navigators, 2001
There has also been a large body of work devoted to Marxist film theory. This work, though, has largely taken place in academic circles and media studies departments, rather than in the film industry itself.
Since the French Nouvelle Vague movement of the 50s and 60s, there have been few identifiable groups of filmmakers one could be characterise as following certain guidelines or a unifying philosophy (and even the Nouvelle Vague was a somewhat amorphous group, born from the pages of the French cinema journal, Cahiers du Cinéma).
However, in 1995 a small group of Scandinavian filmmakers, called Dogme 95, did attempt to define a new approach film making in answer to the dominant, commercialised Anglo-Saxon model, and found inspiration in Soviet cinema and Marxism. Founding members were the Danish directors Lars van Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. In their manifesto they formulated ten rules, involving strict adherence to what they saw as a ‘natural way’ of filmmaking. They also wrote:
- Sergei Eisenstein and many other Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s expressed ideas of Marxism through film. In fact, the Hegelian dialectic was considered best displayed in film editing through the Kuleshov Experiment and the development of montage.
- While this structuralist approach to Marxism and filmmaking was used, the more vociferous complaint that the Russian filmmakers had was with the narrative structure of US cinema.
- Eisenstein's solution was to shun narrative structure by eliminating the individual protagonist and tell stories where the action is moved by the group and the story is told through a clash of one image against the next (whether in composition, motion, or idea) so that the audience is never lulled into believing that they are watching something that has not been worked over.
- French Marxist film makers, such as Jean-Luc Godard would employ radical editing and choice of subject matter, as well as subversive parody to heighten class consciousness and promote Marxist ideas.
- Marxist film theory has developed from these precise and historical beginnings and is now sometimes viewed in a wider way to refer to any power relationships or structures within a moving image text.
So, again we have an example of modern filmmakers seeking inspiration in Marxist ideas when formulating their own cinematic philosophy or filmmaking theory vis-à-vis the hegemonic commercial cinema.
In the British magazine Screen, published in the early seventies, there was a discussion of Screen Theory which is based on a combination of Marxism and psychoanalysis. To discuss that in detail here would be perhaps somewhat outside the scope of this short resumé. But briefly, the theoreticians of the "screen theory" approach – Colin MacCabe, Stephen Heath and Laura Mulvey –describe the ‘cinematic apparatus’ as a version of Althusser’s ideological state apparatus.
According to screen theory, it is the spectacle that creates the spectator and not the other way round. The fact that the subject is created and subjected at the same time by the narrative on screen is masked by the apparent realism of the communicated content. Screen theory's origins can be traced to the essays ‘Mirror Stage’ by Lacan and Miller’s ‘Suture: Elements of the Logic of the Signifier’.
Another group of filmmakers, the so-called Situationists, also adopted an approach based on a critique of capitalist film industry. Situationist film maker Guy Debord, author of The Society of the Spectacle, began his film In ‘girum imus nocte et consumimur igni’ (Wandering around in the night we are consumed by fire) with a radical critique of the spectator who goes to the cinema to forget about his ‘dispossessed daily life’. This resonates with Marx’s ideas on alienation.
Situationist film makers produced a number of important films though, where the only contribution by the situationist film cooperative was the sound-track. In Can dialectics break bricks? (1973) a Chinese Kung Fu film was transformed by redubbing into an epistle on state capitalism and proletarian revolution. The intellectual technique of using capitalism's own structures against itself is known as détournement.
Marxist film theory has developed from precise and historical beginnings and is now sometimes viewed in a wider way to refer to any power relationships or structures within a moving image text.
A massively broad understanding of Marxist film theory could be viewed as an attempt to decentre the narrative of the film away from individuals as the central drivers of a film, and as an attempt to analyse or re-contextualise hierarchical relationships regarding gender, race, socioeconomic status etc. or as propaganda to raise class consciousness.
One of the latest incursions into Marxist film theory has been made by the flamboyant neo-Marxist philosopher, Slavoj Zizek. in A Perverts Guide to Ideology, made by him in collaboration with Sophie Fiennes. Specifically, A Perverts Guide attempts to examine the hidden ideology immanent in films, and attempts to understand the message this ideology is seeking to convey.
In his terms, ideologies aren't political doctrines codified into ‘isms,’ but rather the fantasies and beliefs that underlie the functioning of all societies. In showing how these are reflected in the stories of individuals conveyed to us through films.
He analyses a number of famous films, ranging from Jaws, Full Metal Jacket to Taxi Driver, using them to explore the deep-seated power of ideologies and how they surface in such seemingly unconnected elements as Nazi propaganda films, the London riots or Coke commercials from the 1980s.
He remarks, for example, on the similarities between The Searchers and Taxi Driver, and attempts to draw a parallel between such films and the US military experiences in Vietnam and Iraq – one of many instances where he teases out connections between imaginary constructs and political realities. He concludes that, ‘The depressing lesson of the last decades is that capitalism has been the true revolutionising force, even as it only serves itself.’
John Green is a journalist and broadcaster. He has authored and edited several books and anthologies on a wide range of subjects including political biographies, labour history, poetry, natural history and environmental affairs.