TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Filming Capital, Filming Ourselves: Uncovering the Revolutionary Horizon of Cinematic Thought and Practice

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Matt Applegate looks at Yvette Biro’s “The Intellectual Film: Eisenstein’s Plan to Film Marx’s Capital from Telos 39 (Spring 1979).

It is difficult to think of what cinema is in the present, and indeed, what cinema might be in the future, outside of large studio systems, box office opening numbers, and global profit intake. Even so-called “independent” films often circulate in a virtual minor league of the Hollywood studio system, vying for wide release. To be sure, cinema’s thorough commodification both limits its potential for aesthetic experimentation and makes it easier to equate it with other forms of media. When cinema becomes secondary to the metrics of profit, its distinct aesthetic qualities are subordinate to its function as a product comprised of moving images and sound. Moreover, as film moves away from celluloid and toward digital formats, one is compelled to ask what makes cinema distinct as visual technology is homogenized. This is not to say that cinematic experience and practice are bankrupt aesthetic qualities or that film is doomed to devolve into an indistinct mesh of CGI and user-generated websites like YouTube and Vine. Rather, as Yvette Biro suggests in her “The Intellectual Film: Eisenstein’s Plan to Film Marx’s Capital,” the horizon of cinematic thought and practice is perhaps best imagined by examining the relation between ideology and cinematic aesthetics.

Published in 1979, Biro’s article is written from a different socio-political vantage point than our own. For Biro, the political dimension of film is perhaps the most important component of its ideological and aesthetic capabilities. In this short but powerful article, she gives a reading of Sergei Eisenstein’s proposal to film Marx’s Capital in a non-linear and non-narrative style. Hailed as the “Father of Montage” and acclaimed worldwide for his films The Battleship Potemkin and October, Eisenstein was an avowedly communist filmmaker in content and theme. October was produced for and screened at the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution in 1917. In 1939, Eisenstein was awarded the Order of Lenin and Stalin Prize for a biopic of Alexander Nevsky—popularly known as Prince Alexander of the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire—and his defeat in the invasion of Novgorod. While Eisenstein’s film on Capital was never produced, it stands out for Biro precisely because of its potential to mobilize image and sound toward the conceptual and practical development of communism simultaneously. Eisenstein’s project is, at its origin, an attempt to juxtapose the banalities of capitalism on screen toward the production of a monumental event beyond it—the abolition of capitalism itself.

Eisenstein’s plan to film Capital is not necessarily characterized by its nationalist ties to Soviet Russia. It is rather characterized by its potential for innovation and genre. The most detailed source material for Eisenstein’s project was a manuscript that emerged from Eisenstein’s estate, published in the Summer 1976 edition of the famed art criticism and theory journal October. Largely a list of scattered notes and references to earlier films, Biro insists that the document reveals a groundbreaking methodology that is based on the structural elements of montage: “on the one hand Eisenstein is confronting the traditional practice of ‘narrative film,’ whose only aim is to show us pictures of everyday life; on the other he is stating the innermost goal of his life’s work, which was to elevate film to the heights of abstract, generalized imagery” (154). Here, Eisenstein’s proposed project was to mirror the profuse yet uneven development of capital with image and sound, but also to challenge its hold over everyday life by repositioning the images and sounds of capital, thus reinventing social, political, and economic relations. The complexity of the project lies precisely in rearranging, and thus reorienting, the banalities of life under capitalism in a revelatory style. By Biro’s description, filming Capital would be an attempt to change the syntax and language of cinema by mobilizing montage toward the cinematic expression of dialectics. Banal images of a woman cooking would be placed alongside images of the stock exchange, for example, or perhaps they would be overlaid onscreen, and in this way transcend themselves toward a fuller consciousness of exploitation.

Moreover, the dialectical operation of montage is formative of the film’s proposed generic innovation on Biro’s account. Contra the progression of a linear narrative and obvious plot structure, the film’s associative unfolding of images would elevate film to a mode of conceptual thinking. Where the film was to become an intellectual performance, it would become an “intellectual film,” and in this context, instruct the viewer in the operation of the dialectical method. Indeed, Eisenstein affirms this understanding of the project at the conclusion of the document:

The most important tasks in a cultural revolution are not only dialectical demonstrations but instruction in the dialectical method, as well. Given the available data on cinema, such tasks are not yet permissible. Cinema does not possess those means of expression, since there has been, until now, no demand for tasks of that sort; only now do they begin to be defined.[1]

Eisenstein proclaims the innovation of his own methodology in this passage, clearly, but he also proclaims the revolutionary potential of film. The juxtaposition of banal and monumental imagery on screen would ideally manifest a productive antagonism beyond it, fulfilling Eisenstein’s didactic program. It was thus in the proposal to film Capital that Eisenstein was intent on mobilizing the revolutionary potential of film as a communist potential, easily contrasted to the thorough commodification of cinema in the present.

Biro takes the proclamation for film’s revolutionary and conceptual traits thus to be a sign of Eisenstein’s genius, arguing that he should be considered alongside figures like “Pasolini, Godard, and the American Experimentalists” (162). Yet, she concludes her essay with a claim that underscores the connection between film and politics that is just as important as the distinct aesthetic qualities of the medium. The importance of Eisenstein’s project is revealed precisely because “film has the means to become the most powerful medium of communication ever,” and to do so without thinking its potential to radically alter the world as such would be to our detriment (162). In this way, to imagine what the future of film might be, especially as emerging media enhances and alters cinematic expression, is to attempt to think at an absolute remove from commodification and the bottom line. Clearly not an argument to make film for film’s sake, Biro’s article is powerful in the contemporary moment precisely because it compels the reader to think otherwise and imagine modes of aesthetic production that alter the world without reifying the capitalist mode of production.


1. Sergei Eisenstein, “Notes for a Film of ‘Capital,’” trans. Maciej Sliwowski, Jay Leyda, and Annette Michelson, October vol. 2 (Summer 1976): 26.

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