What follows is a translation of three articles. One is by the Hungarian critic, screenwriter, and film theorist Béla Balázs, while the other two were written by the legendary director and master of Soviet cinema, Sergei Eisenstein. Both men considered themselves Marxists. The former, Balázs, was of a slightly more heterodox cast, comparable perhaps to the position of the young Georg Lukács, his fellow countryman and longtime friend. Eisenstein, by contrast, drifted from the harsh engineering aesthetic associated with constructivism early in his career to the monumental Stalinist style toward the end of his life. At the time of his first exchange with Balázs, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) was making waves in Western Europe and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1927) was about to be released. He explained in 1928 to the visiting curator Alfred Barr, future founder of the MoMA, that
I am a civil Engineer and mathematician by training. I approach the making of a film in much the same way as I would the equipment of a poultry farm or the installation of a water system. My point of view is thoroughly materialist…
Despite their respectful disagreement in the proceeding debate, Balázs and Eisenstein would go on to collaborate quite closely in subsequent years. Balázs wrote the screenplay to The Old and the New, alternately titled The General Line. This film, which featured buildings and set designs by the constructivist architect Andrei Burov (in consultation with Le Corbusier), was shot mostly in 1928 but shelved until 1930 for ideological reasons. In the interim, much had changed: the avant-garde emphasis of the 1920s on collectivism, technology, and the masses had receded somewhat, making way for the pompous heroism of the 1930s. Not long thereafter, Balázs fled Vienna in 1933 to escape Austrofascist persecution — he was a communist, a foreigner, and a Jew — settling in Moscow, where he taught film aesthetics until the close of World War II. Just as Lukács had been harshly criticized by Party dogmatists in the 1920s, so too was Balázs in the 1930s. Such was the changed climate of Soviet discourse during this period.
Eisenstein died of a heart attack in Moscow in 1948; Balázs died the next year in Budapest. You can download a selection of their translated works below. If anyone has retail PDFs of the Richard Taylor translations, please e-mail them to me.
The future of film
July 6, 1926
Film can become a work of art only when photography itself ceases to be mere reproduction and becomes the work itself. When the work, the decisive creative expression of the emotions and the spirit, is realized not in staging and acting but through the mediation of the photograph in actual shots.
When the cameraman who does in fact make the picture also becomes its author, the poet of the work, the real film artist for whom acting and staging are the mere “occasion” to which he relates, like a painter to a landscape (preferably the most beautiful one!), to a life only through his brush in a work of art, in the expression of his spirit. As long as the cameraman is last in line, cinema will remain the last of the arts. But the reverse is also true!
In insisting on the artistic integrity of the photograph itself I by no means have in mind the decorative beauty of the shot which, incidentally, you encounter very often and which is not infrequently accorded much greater significance than it deserves. The decorative charm of individual shots gives them something that is statically pictorial, immobile and wrapped up in itself: their “beauty,” as if petrified, is killed by a headlong rush of events in the form of a series of “living pictures” through which the film as a whole staggers staccato fashion from one pictorial shot to another. Whereas the whole essence of cinema lies in the scope of the general rhythm of the passing events of real life.
No! I have in mind the hidden symbolic expressiveness, the poetic significance of the shot that has nothing to do with “decorativeness” or “beauty,” that is not produced either by play or by the object (subject) of the photograph but is created exclusively by the methods and possibilities of photography.
I want to explain this through two recent examples, two wonderful shots from Battleship Potemkin.
The enthusiasm of the population of Odessa is shown by the increasing rhythm of the groupings of the enthusiastic masses and you begin to wonder: where do we go now? How can they possibly show more enthusiasm, joy, or ecstasy?
Suddenly you see a sumptuous picture. Like a hymn of ecstasy that resoundingly interrupts what has gone before you see the skiffs sailing to meet the battleship. According to the plot they are carrying foodstuffs to the mutinous sailors. In the film it seems as if they are hurrying towards them with millions of hearts.
This delicate winged flight of hundreds of billowing sails evokes an image of the collective display of enthusiasm, joy, love, and hope that no single face, even that of the greatest artiste, could express. It is not the plot motif but the photograph, the photograph itself taken beyond the bounds of the greatest lyricism and of such powerful figurative and poetic force that you can scarcely compare poetry itself with it!
It is in this hidden figurative quality of the shot, that has nothing in common with “decorative” beauty, that the creative poetic opportunities for the cameraman lie concealed.
Then we see the sailing-vessels filmed from the deck. As if by some command they all lower their sails at once. The logical “content” is that the boats have stopped near the battleship. The action of the picture suggests that a hundred sails, a hundred banners have been lowered before the hero. It is this figurative quality of the pictures that contains their original poetry, something that can occur only in a film, only through photography.
For two photographs on the same subject would be deprived of any symbolic or poetic expressiveness if they were merely part of a vast landscape. Then they would not define the expression or physiognomy of the shot.
It is only through an undoubtedly conscious design that crams the whole shot full to its very edges with sails that these photographs acquire the unity of mimic expression and the significance of gesture that become the depth of experience and the sense of the film. There is not even any room for argument here: the poetic expressiveness of the scene is created not by the motif but by the photography.
But this is the only way that can help cinema to stop being a servant of art and become an independent art.
People say to me: both the camera positions in Potemkin that you have described were determined by the director and were not the original and independent ideas of the cameraman.
So be it. It does not matter in this context who is in charge of the photography. It makes no difference whether the director or the cameraman is the creator of such a work of art. The decisive factor is that cinema art of this kind emerges only through the lens; it can only be produced through photography.
On the position of Béla Balázs
July 20, 1926
Balázs’ article will surprise some people. Without its concluding stipulation: “The cameraman is the alpha and omega of film.”
We have such respect for foreigners that we might consider this a “blessing.” The idiots on the Moscow evening paper who accorded recognition to the exercises by young Frenchmen that Ehrenburg brought from Paris have declared it to be a “revelation.” These are sheer enfantillages — “children’s playthings” — based on the photographic possibilities of the photographic apparatus. I am not exaggerating when I say that: if we have these “children’s playthings” today, tomorrow they will be used to refurbish the formal methods of a whole branch of art (for instance, the “absolute’: the plotless film of Picabia, Léger, or Chomette).