Capital and Co.: Kluge/Eisenstein/Marx

Das Kapital

Let’s be frank – the idea of filming Karl Marx’s Das Kapital strikes one as, at the very least, strange. To film thousands of pages written in a dry language of 1860s political economy? To film … what, exactly? The notions of productive forces, relations of productions, use value and exchange value, commodity fetishism and capital per se? To film … how? To show workers, factories, conveyer belts, cogs, repetitive movements of hands and heads in slow motion? Or: to show banks, money presses, currency in various denominations, stacks of gold and silver bullions as stills? To film Capital: don’t be ridiculous!

Yet that was precisely the idea that Sergei Eisenstein lovingly developed over 1927-8, having finished October (1927) and while completing the work on The General Line (1929). Towards the end of 1929, Eisenstein wrote to his friend Leon Moussinac:

The “proclamation” that I’m going to make a movie of Marx’s Das Kapital is not a publicity stunt. I believe that the films of the future will be found going in this direction (or else they’ll be filming things like The Idea of Christianity from the bourgeois point of view!). In any case, they will have to do with philosophy … the field is absolutely untouched. Tabula rasa. [1]

Eisenstein’s project of filming Capital remained – among many other ideas of his – unrealised. All we have left is about twenty pages of notes in his diary/working notebook. But, eighty years later, the idea gave powerful inspiration to Alexander Kluge to produce his monumental nine-and-a-half-hour film Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike – Marx/Eisenstein/Das Kapital (News from Ideological Antiquity: Marx /Eisenstein/Capital, henceforth referred to as News).

While for both Eisenstein and Kluge the engagement with Capital was to become a meditation on the nature of the economic and political mechanisms of capitalism, I shall argue in this article that it also provided an avenue for a meditation on the nature of cinema, and – more specifically – a forceful argument regarding the potential of cinema as an art form that is most fully realised when it is understood as operating between media.


Released in 2008 – one year after the much celebrated German essayist, sociologist and filmmaker turned 75 – Newsproves that Kluge can live up to his reputation as a Marathon Man, as coined by Thomas Elsaesser. [2] While, in Elsaesser’s view, Kluge’s output had already amounted to nothing less than a Gesamtkunstwerk (p.57), News is poised to become the Magnum Opus in his prodigious legacy. In terms of its genre – which can be described as a philosophical/historical essay – it joins a recent spate of works such as The Ister by David Barison and Daniel Ross (Australia, 2004) and Examined Life by Astor Taylor (Canada, 2008), overlapping with Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialism (France, 2010), while resonating even more strongly with his Histoire(s) du cinéma (France 1988-98). At the same time, Newsbrings together several characteristic lines of Kluge’s œuvre, such as his persistent historicism (in terms of content), and virtuoso use of loose, associative montage (in terms of form), delivering 570 minutes of sustained engagement with a vast material subsumed under the master signifier of capital. As film critic Helmut Merker notes, it “is not a minute too long”. [3]

The film is divided into three parts: I. Marx and Eisenstein in the Same House (199 mins); II. All Things are Bewitched People (200 mins); III. Paradoxes of Exchange Society (183 mins). In a kind of ‘establishing shot’, film historian Oksana Bulgakova describes Eisenstein’s initial idea of filming Capital and his meeting with James Joyce (whose influence on Eisenstein many observers now credit as critical for the development of the project); while social theorist and philosopher Oskar Negt (with whom Kluge co-authored a massive theoretical exploration, Geschichte und Eigensinn or History and Obstinacy or History and Idiosyncrasy) appears rather sceptical about the possibility of finding the right images for such a project.

Then, guided by a typical Kluge interview technique “part prompting, part leading questions and part cross-examining his own witnesses” [4] a number of talking heads appear. Poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger compares the soul of man with the soul of money; the author Dietmar Dath comments on the meaning of the hammer and sickle on the Soviet flag, and touches upon industrialisation; the actress Sophie Rois recalls Medea, stressing the difference between additive and subtractive love; the recently deceased filmmaker Werner Schroeter stages Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde on the bridge in Battleship Potemkin; the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk talks about Ovid and the metamorphosis of added value; the poet Dürs Grünbein interprets Bertolt Brecht’s aestheticisation of the Communist Manifesto; the cultural scientist Rainer Stollmann explores the multiplicity of meanings in Marx’s writings as science, art, storytelling, philosophy and poetry; and the former steel worker Atze Muckert talks about his experience of reading Capital, in which Marx does indeed explain everything.

These involved discussions are intercut with film excerpts and stills, newspaper clippings, photos, home movies, diagrams, snatches of popular music and operatic arias. The rich audiovisual tapestry unfolds within (to quote Elsaesser) “typically Klugean whimsy and absurdity” (p.63): we see a short by Tom Tykwer tracing the human side of production behind ordinary objects, sequences on the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg, and pairs of actors (variously dressed in military uniforms, nineteenth century civilian clothes, or stone-age rugs) reading various passages from Marx. As Merker notes, Kluge is “not filming Das Kapital but researching how one might find images to make Marx’s book filmable”.

Kluge’s approach to Capitalis not chronological; this is in line with his approach to history in general, which Elsaesser describes as “archaeological” rather than narrative (p.61). Elsaesser identifies some of the rhetorical tropes that Kluge typically uses to achieve this: fragmentation, splintering, absence, metaphor/metonymy. Two important devices should be added: Russian Formalist defamiliarisation and Brechtian distancing. Never very far from didactic methods, Kluge insists: “We must let Till Eulenspiegel [a trickster figure in German folklore] pass across Marx and Eisenstein both, in order to create confusion allowing knowledge and emotions to be combined together in new ways.” [5]

Discussing Kluge’s earlier films, Elsaesser notes that while all of them were preoccupied with history, Kluge’s loose associative montage contributes to a suspension of the characters between different temporal registers. He further argues that:

This introduces the possibility of parallel universes and the idea of time travel – not as a science-fiction trope, but as a matter of perspective and proportion, of the relations of size and scale: you cannot escape the world, but you can rearrange its parts. As a consequence, the thorny issues of agency and responsibility, of time and causality, can be translated into spatial relations, and history becomes no longer a question of events and their causal (con)sequences, but a matter of distance and proximity, of shape and relation – which also means that time’s arrow no longer points in one direction only (p.64).

But if, as Elsaesser suggests, Kluge’s life-long preoccupation with history has turned into a kind of “dream-screen” for an intense working-over and obsessive return to the only question that seems to matter – “How could it have come to this?” (p.60) – then News seems to provide, if not a resolution, then at least a change of perspective. In one of the best of the very few critical analyses of News published so far, Fredric Jameson argues that Kluge “tirelessly suggests new recodings of the stereotypical heritage on his own terms: the future reconstruction of experience, binding affects and knowledge together in new ways. It is a future which demands the constitution of an antiquity appropriate to it” (p.116). Jameson brings into sharp relief the importance of the title News from Antiquity and the paradox embedded in it.

For the concept of antiquity may have the function of placing us in some new relationship with the Marxian tradition and with Marx himself – as well as Eisenstein. Marx is neither actual nor outmoded: he is classical, and the whole Marxist and Communist tradition, more or less equal in duration to Athens’s golden age, is precisely that golden age of the European left, to be returned to again and again with the most bewildering and fanatical, productive and contradictory results (pp.116-7).

But if Kluge succeeds here in rethinking the Marxist heritage and breathing new life into it by positioning it as antiquity, he might be achieving just as much in terms of a rethinking of the early heritage of film, and re-invigorating it in the context of the digital revolution – problematising the divide between so-called new and old media.

Of course, the very emergence of a nine-and-a-half-hour long film was greatly facilitated by digital technologies. It exists only on DVD, and thus its terms of distribution are conditional on the existence of individual DVD playing devices – although numerous public screenings by various, typically leftist political organisations have been taking place since its release. Similarly, on the most conspicuous level the film makes a feast of alluding to, recycling and quoting material coming from different media formats. Taking as its point of departure the book of Capital itself and Eisenstein’s plan, the film utilises graphics from both Marxian and Eisensteinian texts, clips and stills, intertitles and newspaper clippings, diagrams and photographs, images of sculptures and paintings. It mobilises a number of art forms: theatre, opera, music and dance. The internal heterogeneity of its language is perhaps the first feature that strikes the viewer in terms of the intermedial – rather than simply intertextual – nature of this work.

As such, News is forcefully and deliberately geared towards the conditions of new media as formulated by Lev Manovich, for example. This refers to the range of technologies that rely on digitisation, encompassing, besides digital cinema and television, the genesis of broadband, virtual and immersive technologies, and the development of Artificial Intelligence. In his The Language of New Media, Manovich describes five general principles that underlie new media. First, new media utilise numerical representation: new media objects exist as data. Second, new media are organised according to a modularity principle: the different elements of new media exist independently. Third, new media rely on automation: new media objects can be created and modified automatically. Fourth, new media are characterised by variability: new media objects exist in multiple versions. And fifth, new media mobilise transcoding: a direct digital-to-digital conversion of one encoding to another. [6]

From this perspective, News can be seen as a powerhouse of new media technologies and principles: existing only in the digital (data) format, News is created out of a number of independent segments (modules) rather than using a continuous narrative line or procedures resembling continuity editing – through vigorous and extreme techniques of montage. While the presence of the human agency – Kluge himself – behind the production is clearly discernible, the excessive use of found material and procedures such as split-screens (with multiplying repeated objects) gestures towards automation and problematises the issue of authorship. Finally, the various modules of News can be thought of as multiple versions of the same object: description, visual representation, re-enactment and so forth, versions that are often transcoded into each other.

As much as it utilises the principles of new media, News refers to an earlier cultural heritage. Alluding to masters from Fernand Léger to Andy Warhol and from Eisenstein to Godard, the film catalogues all the 20th Century’s major cultural forms. Within this vast heritage, Kluge privileges the early stage of cinema development – the silent black-and-white period is the one recycled most profoundly and, correspondingly, heavy semantic and emotional emphasis is placed on intertitles. Utilising the beginning of the twentieth-century typography, the intertitles are re-invigorated through the application of dramatic electrifying colours, alluding simultaneously to computer graphics and printing press technology. And it is not just a historical reference: in doing so, Kluge aims to re-think the relationship between image and text along the lines previously indicated by Godard and Raymond Bellour. The latter argues that:

We have gone beyond the image, to a nameless mixture, a discourse-image, if you like, or a sound image (“Son-Image”, Godard calls it), whose first side is occupied by television and second side by the computer, in our all-purpose machine society. This is clearly where we can observe all the potentialities anticipated by the computer image, over and above the image itself, since it is produced by the same machine which, better than any other, can combine and relate interplays with images and with language to any conceivable extent. [7]

Kluge similarly mobilises the intertitles to re-think and foreground a new – and constructive – relationship between image and text. It appears thus that, in News, the early period of cinema’s development acquires the same status of antiquity as Marxism. This places us in a new relationship with the history of the medium. The beginning, the silent era, the montage technology and intertitles are similarly accorded a status of the medium’s golden age – to appropriate Jameson’s statement “to be returned to again and again with the most bewildering and fanatical, productive and contradictory results.” This argument elaborately staged by Kluge in Newscorresponds to the view that Adrian Martin has also recently stressed: in order to understand the digital revolution, a historical approach is needed that would also acknowledge earlier technological, as well as aesthetic and stylistic, changes. [8]

In this context, Kluge’s engagement with Eisenstein is doubly productive – not only in terms of themes (such as the re-visiting of Marxist thought), but also in terms of method, since Eisenstein’s exploration of the critical challenges that the cinematic medium faces remains unsurpassed to this day in terms of depth and breadth of engagement. To follow Eisenstein, as Kluge does in News, is to re-engage with and rethink such critical issues as image versus sound, time versus space, synchronic versus diachronic, narrative versus structure, part versus whole, emotional versus cognitive to name a few – each of them not only retaining their currency but acquiring added urgency with the move towards the era of new media.

Significantly, the very structure of News resonates deeply with one of the most cherished ideas of Eisenstein: to create a spherical book. While writing his first (non-spherical) book, Eisenstein commented in his diary on August 5, 1929:

I want to create a spatial form that would make it possible to step from each contribution directly into another and to make apparent their interconnection … Such a synchronic manner of circulation and mutual penetration of the essays can be carried out only in the form (…) of a sphere. But, unfortunately, books are not written as spheres … I can only hope that they will be read according to the method of mutual reversibility, a spherical method – in expectation that we will learn to write books like rotating balls. Now we have only books like soap-bubbles. Particularly on art. [9]

Taking Eisenstein’s idea to film Das Kapital as the point of departure, News unrolls – or rather, explodes – into a multitude of directions almost simultaneously. Although given that News as a film has built-in unfolding temporality and this actual unfolding takes the form of a spiral rather than a sphere, it is not difficult to imagine it as a hypertext in a CD-ROM format, or a multi-screen version where the viewer would be able to pursue the various chosen lines of exploration of Das Kapital simultaneously as well as consecutively.

The idea of a spherical book has far more than just aesthetic or metaphorical value. It can be seen as a deeply prophetic idea circumscribing the very essence of the move towards new media. This move is often described as that from narrative as linear teleological unfolding to data as spatial mass or matrix. Sean Cubitt highlights one of the crucial changes underlying this: data storage and retrieval are not linearly structured in time, as in narrative, but in space, as a matrix or thesaurus. The kinds of operation that this data organisation presupposes (such as navigation, search and surfing) are radically different from literary principles of textual organisation. Cubitt highlights two reasons for this:  “First, […], they are spatial rather than temporal metaphors; and secondly they are eschatological, not teleological.” [10]

Such processes themselves are deeply imbedded in the particular structure of the relationships of production that characterise late capitalism. Firmly locating digitisation within the overall landscape of the economic, social and political processes of the late 20th and beginning of the 21st Centuries, Cubitt suggests:

Key among these is the capacity to document the present in order to stabilise the future. The restrictive design of the HCI [human computer interface] in such modes as the browser window’s ever-present frame or the single-user desktop and laptop design of the physical machine, is then itself a product not of the acceleration of progress, but of the attempt to stabilise such social formations as individualism and advertising (with its underlying separation of audience and producer) at the precise point, in the meeting of human and machine, at which the evolutionary potential is highest and least controllable. The spatialisation tendency belongs to contemporary capital’s need to plan the future in terms of its stability: to preserve the status quo (p.8).

But no matter how strong the pressure to capture the actually existing moment of perception, the ephemerality of this moment cannot ever be completely erased or controlled. This in itself becomes a source of resistance, even revolutionary potential. Cubitt:

At the brink of the twenty-first [century], ephemerality need no longer be understood as loss, but as becoming. The much-vaunted sublime, as post-modern icon, stands across the possibility of the future, setting its ahistorical finality athwart the trajectory of emergence. What makes today’s post-narrative, temporal, historical, eschatological creation so singular is neither nostalgia nor sublimity but becoming, as adumbrated in ‘divisionisme’ [an Impressionist painting technique], and so triumphantly realised as a new mode of thinking, being and creating in the cinematograph a hundred years ago (pp.9-10).

News embodies boldly the move into the new media era – with its breathtaking opportunities and mesmerising options, as well as deadly challenges and chilling limitations. Embracing the array of new technical means and rising to the challenges that underpin their emergence philosophically, Kluge constantly foregrounds the idea of looking back while moving forward – looking at the golden era of cinematographic antiquity, and mobilising the heritage of one of its masters, Eisenstein. However, while what Kluge achieves in his nine-and-half-hour film is not an inconsiderable feat, even this massive work does not acknowledge, let alone put into practice, the full potential of Eisenstein’s heritage. Among these less acknowledged aspects is first and foremost the idea of intellectual montage, through which Eisenstein thinks the possibility of intermediality in a quite radical fashion.


The idea of intellectual montage belongs among Eisenstein’s most complex and challenging concepts. In this context, it is worth revisiting the brilliant engagement with the subject by Annette Michelson, as presented in her essay “Reading Eisenstein Reading Capital” which appeared alongside the publication of Eisenstein’s notes for Capital in October in 1976. Elucidating Eisenstein’s efforts to pose montage as a privileged mode of analytic investigation and a mode of discourse that bears directly on social change, Michelson located such efforts within the broader context of cinema theory in Europe in the first half of the 20th Century:

The sense of cinema as a possible agent of social transformation is general and will persist throughout the crises of the next half-century. What is particular to the theoretical and critical sensibility of that time is the recognition – not by Eisenstein alone, but in theory and practice of Clair, Epstein, Vertov, Faure, Artaud, Benjamin, Balász, Fondane, Léger and to some extent Delluc – of a new critical instrument, facilitating an epistemological inquiry of unprecedented immediacy and power. [11]

Michelson was then at pains to explicate what particular – unique and radical – take on the idea of cinema as a cognitive instrument was offered by Eisenstein. In her search for the right terminology, she describes his innovative cinema from Strike (1924) to October (1928) as maieutic (a pedagogic procedure to arrive at the truth embedded in each mind) and propadeutic (an introduction to further study) – preparing the conditions, instructing in a such a way that truth could be born … Michelson:

October had been Eisenstein’s most elaborate and sophisticated effort in the direction of radically maieutic cinema, and in at least two different ways. Its spatio-temporal distensions and syntheses had, as in the celebrated sequence of The Lifting of the Bridge, reordered action in a multiplicity of aspects and positions and thus altering the temporal flow of the event and of its surrounding narrative structure. The result was a declared disjunction of constituents, soliciting a new quality of attention and eliciting inferences as to spatial and temporal relations. Perception of the disjunction within the distended moment and fragmented space had to be cognitively resynthesized by the spectator into the order of an event. The recaptured unity of constituents that were experienced as discrete was heightened by the apprehension of a temporal wedge, driven into the flow narrative, a temporality exceptional, momentous, epic in form.

In another, more generally familiar sense (it is explicated in his writings), Eisenstein worked in October to develop, as “a ladder to a completely different idea of cinema”, the technique which could induce a cognitive grasp, not only of abstract concepts as such, in the material concreteness of their class determination, but of the very forms and methods of discourse. Thus was to be the “intellectual montage” proposed in the “dance of the Gods about Korniloff”, an atheological argument demanding or impelling logical deduction (pp.30-1).

Michelson evidently found the maieutic aspect of Eisenstein’s cinema to be the more compelling; since Gilles Deleuze’s concerted engagement with precisely this same aspect in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image, it seems that this particular cluster of ideas has received its due intellectual acknowledgment and elaboration in philosophical and cinema theory discourses. [12]

The second aspect however – the idea of intellectual montage per se – was to remain unpacked, waiting perhaps for the move towards new media as a material condition of its full appropriation.

It has become now commonplace to refer to James Joyce as a major source of inspiration for Eisenstein’s project of Capital, and in general for the idea of intellectual montage – an assumption that Kluge’s film partially endorses as well. Only Jameson (pp.112-3) remarks that these ‘rumours’ are spread and reinforced by people who know that Eisenstein was reading Ulysses at the same time as he was working on the idea to film Capital (and even wanted to dedicate the formal aspect of the film to Joyce), but were not aware of the broader context of Eisenstein’s work. In Jameson’s view, such partial knowledge only exacerbates widespread fantasies about the Capital project. Indeed, if one reads Eisenstein’s notes for Capital closely, it becomes very quickly clear that Joyce was only one of his influences (“Joyce may be helpful for my purpose”). Going beyond Jameson’s criticism, it should be noted that around the same time Eisenstein was developing multiple contacts with leading psychologists both in Russia and in Europe, including a seminar that he started in Moscow with Alexander Luria and Lev Vygotsky – two psychologists whose joint efforts shaped Russian psychology of the first half of the twentieth century and greatly influenced development of psychological ideas worldwide.

Alexander Luria moved from popularising psychoanalysis in Russia to founding neuropsychology as a discipline. [13] Lev Vygotsky moved to psychology from law and philology. Their interests intersected when they started laying the foundation of a cultural-historical theory, which Vygotsky developed and further refined, and which became canonised as one of the most important psychological theories of the last century. This theory addressed the issues of consciousness formation and the relationship of thought and speech. Among other important mechanisms, Vygostky outlined the role of inner speechin the process of thinking and the transformation of words into concepts. [14] He defined these transformational actions as psychotechnic. Thinking, for Vygotsky, is always double-sided: it utilises the whole arsenal of cultural tools accumulated in human history – words and numbers, mnemonic devices and writing techniques – but it always takes place anew, transforming, breathing life into otherwise dead words, images and signs so that they can create fresh meaning. This is the essence of psychotechnic action. Interestingly, Vygotsky borrowed the term, while changing its meaning significantly, from Hugo Munstenberg, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and one of the founders of the field of industrial and applied psychology, who published in 1916 one of the first theoretical accounts of cinema, The Film: A Psychological Study. [15]

Vygotsky first outlined his own take on the psychotechnic in 1925, in his early treatise Psychology of Art [16] – a hand-typed copy of which, given by him to Eisenstein, is still kept in the latter’s Kabinet Museum in Moscow, covered as always with his marginal notes. What Vygotsky described as psychotechnic, Michelson calls maieutic and propadeutic; at stake in all these various definitions is the issue of transformation, the move from one semantic level to the next – image into word, word into concept, concept into abstraction, and so forth. Vygotsky’s concept of the psychotechnic is thus just as much behind Eisenstein’s efforts to crystallise procedures of intellectual montage in Capital as Joyce’s stream of consciousness. And much more frequently than to Joyce, Eisenstein returns in his notes for Capital to October – not only as a final stage of his trilogy which included Strike (1924) and Battleship Potemkin (1925), and completed his work on the theme of revolution, but also his formal exploration of method.

Time and again, Eisenstein returns to two sequences that have since become textbook material: the ‘Gods’ sequence and the sequence dedicated to Kerensky – the head of the temporary government that Eisenstein compares critically to Napoleon, trying to expose their mutual hunger for power and inflated ego. Apart from Eisenstein, who defined these sequences as ‘montage phrases’, these sequences received further critical attention from Naum Kleiman, one of the leading scholars of the director in Russia, who described them as “montage metaphors” [17] , highlighting their constructed double-sided character; and David Bordwell, who suggested that these are the instances where time and space both become suspended and action becomes “quasi diegetic”. [18] Among the many formal achievements of October, Eisenstein identified these montage phrases as critical steps on the way to produce a new method of cinema – a cinema that can create abstract conceptual meaning through the juxtaposition of visual images. As Viacheslav Ivanov (co-leader of the semiotic school founded by Yuri Lotman) observed, Eisenstein demonstrated how, through the use of montage, a transition from representation/ image to notion is carried out, and how through the syntactic sequence of two graphical representations a visually unrepresentable meaning is produced. [19] In his notes for Capital, Eisenstein wrote:

The most important thing ‘in life’ now is to draw conclusions from formal aspects of OCTOBER.

It is very interesting that “gods” and “Kerensky’s ascent” are structurally one and the same: the latter – identity of fragments and semantic crescendo of the intertitles; and the first – identity (implied) of the intertitles “God”, “God”, “God”, and semantic diminuendo from the material. Series of meanings. These are sure some kind of first indications of the method’s devices. It is interesting that these things can have no existence outside the meaning, the theme (unlike, for instance, the lifting ‘bridge’ which can function überhaupt). An abstract formal experiment is inconceivable here. As in montage in general.

Experiment external to the thesis is impossible. (Take this into consideration.) [20]

Of particular importance for Eisenstein was October’s departure from narrative/descriptive cinema towards a discursive cinema, thus paving the way for the move towards the cinema treatiseform that would have been fully realised in Capital.

After the drama, poem, ballad in film, OCTOBER presents a new form of cinema: a collection of essays on a series of themes which constitute OCTOBER. Assuming that in any film work, certain salient phrases are given importance, the form of a discursive film provides, apart from unique renewal of strategies, their rationalization which takes these strategies into account. Here’s a point of contact already with completely new film perspectives and with the glimmers of possibilities to be realized in CAPITAL, a new work on a libretto by Karl Marx. A film treatise (p.4).

Note that Eisenstein specifically highlights the radical difference between this new cinema and previous cinema: new films provide not only new strategies but also ‘their rationalization which takes these strategies into account’. The film therefore becomes reflexive in a very fundamental sense – it is the film that simultaneously ‘thinks’ its theme (capital) and ‘thinks itself’, i.e., Cinema with capital C. Thus, Eisenstein’s early thoughts regarding intellectual montage anticipated not only the emergence of reflexivity in the second wave of modernist cinema in the 1960s (which, to be precise, drew attention more to the cinematic apparatus and the process of seeing rather than thinking) but also, more astonishingly, what Manovich describes as a challenge of multimedia writing: “Not only to convey complex ideas through multimedia, but to take the reader along the process of thinking”. [21]

Building on the montage sequences in October, Eisenstein outlines a few examples of how such a method will be further developed in Capital. In several fragments, Eisenstein suggests starting with an everyday object, tracking its multidimensional social, aesthetic and ethical implications. Such an approach would change the syntax and semantics of cinema: “The continuity of a series should by no means be ‘sequential’ as in a plot – unfolding in a logically progressive manner, etc. An associative unfolding” (p.22). This new language of cinema would also refigure its economy: “The character of the material presented calls for economy. The ‘ancient’ cinema was shooting one event from many points of view. The new one assembles one point of view from many events” (p.18).

Eisenstein’s example of women’s stockings demonstrates this logic:

Woman’s stocking full of holes and a silk one in a newspaper advertisement. It starts with a jerky movement, to multiply into 50 pairs of legs – Revue. Silk. Art. The fight for the centimeter of silk stocking. The aesthetes are for it. The Bishops and morality are against. Mais ces pantins dance on strings pulled by the silk manufacturers and the garment peddlers who fight each other. Art. Holy art. Morality. Holy morality (p.17).

Developing this example, Eisenstein euphorically claims that by combining images and text (Ein Paar seidene Strumpfe, literally ‘a pair of stockings’), such a sequence can ‘solve’ art, economics, religions, morality and (in a prophetic insight) what is now defined as biopolitics.

Notez once again the unity of the intertitles!!! Just like as in “The Gods” and (in reverse) in Kerensky.

On this level, one could solve:
Ein Paar seidene Strumpfe – art.
Ein Paar seidene Strumpfe – morality.
Ein Paar seidene Strumpfe – commerce and competition.
Ein Paar seidene Strumpfe – Indian women forced to incubate the silk cocoon by carrying them in their armpits! (pp.24-5)

Eisenstein’s outline of the stocking sequence has attracted various critical commentaries, including Kluge’s elegant reference in News. Jameson notes that “Kluge’s rather decorative rehearsal of this multi-dimensional social object – he might also have included Kracauer’s Busby Berkeley-like ‘mass ornament’ – scarcely reaches the allegorical complexities Eisenstein himself ultimately glimpsed” (p.115). However, Kluge might be achieving something else here, as his take gestures as much to Busby Berkeley as to Fernand Léger’s sequence on stocking advertisements in Ballet Mécanique (1924) – another early example of a work that addressed, in a reflexive manner, the juncture of the new art of the moving image and commerce as well as, even more broadly, capital itself.

Which brings us to a rather important question: the correspondence of method and theme, which always looms large in Eisenstein’s work. Namely, what made Eisenstein think of the necessity of moving to a new cinema language in his idea to film Das Kapital; or, conversely, why, having felt the urge and imperative to fully develop the potential of intellectual montage, did Eisenstein turn to this book for material and inspiration? That such a correspondence has a crucial importance for him is indicated by comments not only on the ‘film Capital’ being the final stage in the development of montage language after Strike and Battleship Potemkin, but also more specifically by this: “There are endlessly possible themes for filming in CAPITAL (‘price’, ‘income’, ‘rent’) – for us, the theme is Marx’s method” (p.23). Many scholars have interpreted this statement as indicating that Eisenstein was keen to put into montage practice Marx’s dialectic method, classically encompassed by the move from thesis through antithesis to its sublation, or resolution and integration on a higher level. Michelson argues in her comments on Capital that, at this stage, Eisenstein works “toward an articulation of montage as the formal instantiation of cinema’s triadic rehearsal of the dialectic” (p.29). This is how indeed the very essence of montage is understood, as a synthetic resolution of conflict between colliding shots.

It should be stressed however, that in Eisenstein’s Capital notes there is not a single mention of a triadic structure of montage, although there is a mention of Marxian dialectic. It should be further stressed that, despite the common belief that Eisenstein was Marxist, such labelling should be regarded critically. Certainly, Eisenstein was interested in Marx’s and Engels’s writings, but he himself was not a philosopher; his appropriation of Marxism was as passionate as it was creative. Further, in speaking about dialectics, Eisenstein’s main drive was often to challenge the linearity of thinking, rigid cause and effect explanation, as well as to highlight the possibility of surprise and the emergence of something new. The structure underpinning the Capital film is described by Eisenstein not as triadic, but rather as a crystal, with a core – one point of view – and multiple axes representing many events radiating towards this core. While the image of crystal is mine (via Deleuze), the idea of transparency in relation to the Capital project belongs to Eisenstein; it represents the project’s most radical and least understood, even least addressed, aspect.

Eisenstein was planning to film Capital while simultaneously developing another project: The Glass House, conceived in 1926 and, like Capital, unrealised. The action of this satire on bourgeois norms and morale was to have taken place in a building whose walls, ceilings and floors were made of glass. The transparency had dual significance for Eisenstein – metaphorical, as a way of “exposing” the hidden truth; and technical, allowing a radically new possibility for the inclusion of several actions within a single frame. This rethinking of montage possibilities within the frame – as simultaneous overlap rather than unfolding of actions – was positioned as a key problem of method for Capital.

Absolutely special will be the problem of the image and frame composition for CAPITAL. The ideology of the unequivocal frame must be thoroughly reconsidered. How, I can’t yet tell. Experimental work is needed. For that, it’s ‘madly’ necessary first to make THE GLASS HOUSE, in which the (usual) idea of the frame is what happens to the structure of things in the fragments of OCTOBER and in CAPITAL’s entire structure (p.24).

Since Eisenstein’s notes for The Glass Housewere first published by Kleiman, the project has been contextualised by various scholars including François Albera, Oksana Bulgakova, Mikhail Yampolsky and William Routt within multiple cultural and political trends of the first half of the 20th Century. [22] The Glass House project has been discussed in relation to the general issue of vision and transparency and, more specifically, the changing paradigm of perception in modernity; to the psychoanalytically informed issues of voyeurism and exhibitionism; to issues of surveillance and control with a nod to Michel Foucault’s take on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon; to the emergence of modernist architecture, particularly in the work of le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe; and, underpinning this, developmental issues of hierarchy, organisation and productivity. Such discussions unanimously acknowledge as a point of departure one specific historical event: Joseph Paxton’s construction of the Crystal Palace, unveiled in 1851 at the First Universal Exhibition in London. There is, however, one important connection in this context which has not yet been explored: the link between the Crystal Palace and Eisenstein’s Glass House project on the one hand, in relation to the Crystal Palace and Marx’s Capital on the other hand.


Giorgio Agamben points out that Marx was in London when the first Universal exhibition was inaugurated in Hyde Park, and makes a persuasive suggestion.

It is probable that Marx had in mind the impression felt in the Crystal Palace when he wrote the chapter of Capital on commodity fetishism. It is certainly not a coincidence that this chapter occupies a liminal position. The disclosure of the commodity’s “secret” was the key that revealed capital’s enchanted realm to our thought – a secret that capital always tried to hide by exposing it in full view.

Without the identification of this immaterial center – in which “the products of labor” split themselves into a use value and an exchange value and “become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social” – all the following critical investigations undertaken in Capital probably would not have been possible. [23]

Jacques Derrida continues this line of reasoning in his Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International – a work deploying the apparatus of hauntology, encompassing notions of spectre and ghost, simulacra and illusions, conjuration and haunting, incarnation and exorcism, to address not only the afterlife of Marx’s legacy but also to explicate the very logic of Das Kapital itself which is predicated, according to Derrida, on a spectral movement. “It is a great moment in the beginning of Capital” when “Marx is wondering in effect how to describe the sudden looming up of the mystical character of the commodity, the mystification of the thing itself – and of the money-form of which the commodity’s simple form is the ‘germ’.” [24] Derrida argues that in this singular moment, the values of value (between use-value and exchange value), secret, mystique, fetish and ideology form a chain in Marx’s text, demonstrating the spectral movement of this chain. Having explained commodity fetishism as use value, masking exchange value, masking transformed labour, masking time, Marx describes “money, and more precisely the monetary sign, in the figure of appearance or simulacrum, more exactly of the ghost” (p.55).

In a similar way, in The Critique of the Political Economy, Marx explains “how the existence (Dasein) of money, metallic Dasein, gold or silver produces a remainder. This remainder is – it remains, precisely – but the shadow of a great name” (p.56). Derrida points out that later Marx “will compare this spectral virtue of money with that which, in the desire to hoard, speculates on the use of money after death, in the other world (nach dem Tode in der andern Welt). Geld, Geist, Geiz: as if money (Geld) were the origin both of spirit (Geist) and of avarice (Geiz)” (p.56). The spectre, therefore, is not an analogue or a metaphorical description – it is the very essence of the phenomenon, as Derrida emphasises: the spectre is always at work. And what is in question here, explains Derrida, “is a spectralizing disincarnation. Apparition of the bodiless body of money: not the lifeless body or the cadaver, but a life without personal life or individual property” (p.51).

If the logic of Capital can be described as predicated on hauntology, cinema as a medium has its own ghostly underside – as an art of light and shadow, disappearing images and ever dying sounds. Let us recall one of the first descriptions of the new art of moving image by the Russian writer Maxim Gorky who after seeing a program of Lumière films in 1896 wrote:

Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows.

If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without colour. Every thing there – the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air – is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life but its shadow; it is not motion but its soundless spectre. [25]

While, from Bazin to Kracauer and well beyond, theorists have debated what is real in film and how the alleged indexical nature of cinema can support this notion, the unconscious of cinema history has been always haunted by the images of spectre and ghost, and the metaphor of apparition. Cinema can be described, in this context, as a medium in another sense: a means of communicating with the dead and underworld, as poignantly demonstrated by Laura Mulvey’s definition of cinema as ‘death 24 times a second’. [26] Cinematic hauntology, however, reveals itself as a force to be reckoned with toward the end of the 20thCentury, when the joint advances in technology (breaking the indexical link through digitisation) and theory (advancing notions such as simulacra) brought home the idea that indeed the spectre is what ‘works’ – in cinema, as well as in political economy. However, the most powerful aspect of this work was hinted at even earlier than Derrida by the Situationist critique, and particularly by Guy Debord in his concept of the society of spectacle. [27]

The society of spectacle reveals how capital and image become soldered together, not through the mechanism of production that connects them, but through the chemistry of spectacle, the spectral logic that animates them both. As Agamben notes in his commentary on Debord:

The “becoming-image” of capital is nothing more than the commodity’s last metamorphosis, in which exchange value has completely eclipsed use value and can now achieve the status of absolute and irresponsible sovereignty over life in its entirety, after having falsified the entire social production. In this sense, the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, where the commodity unveiled and exhibited its mystery for the first time, is a prophecy of the spectacle, or, rather, the nightmare, in which the nineteenth century dreamed the twentieth (p.76).

In this context, let us ask again the strange question that opened this essay: how could there possibly be a film of Capital? But now it doesn’t sound so strange – in fact, it sounds like a logical and (as Eisenstein would have said) necessary proposition. For something (capital) whose very nature is predicated on the ghostly metamorphosis of simulacra, the most spectral of the media (cinema) can provide indeed the most logical form, particularly if its capacities are reinforced by digital technologies. The medium that relies just as much on the body of light as on the body of material, that can only reveal itself through the apparition, that indeed represents a spectral becoming-body. It is the medium’s contradiction of visible/invisible and sensuous/unsensuous form that can embody the enigma of the commodity fetish which, as Marx pointed out, is “visible or evident to the point of blinding dazzlement” (Derrida, [p.165]) or, even more powerfully, can model the phenomenon of capital not only metaphorically described but also materially understood as the spectre.

To conclude this discussion, I will make one final connection, thanks to Derrida:

In this whirling dance of ghosts Marx always aims at the head – in both metaphoric and literal senses – at the head as living thinking imagining head which contains all the ghosts and at the head as a master ghost. And this singular ghost, the ghost that generated this incalculable multiplicity, the arch-specter, is a father or else it is capital (p.173).

In order for the spectacle to take place and for hauntology to unfold, there should be an embodied, breathing subject at the very centre of the chain – it is in his or her head, and only there, that the action takes place, through analytical work as well as through the work of imagination. And it is perhaps in response to the same logic that Eisenstein focused so strongly on Capital as the key to intellectual montage in his own work. For him, ultimately, cinema takes place in the mind or, more precisely, in the brain: the brain is the final screen, the key switchboard, the central computational device, connected simultaneously to both rational and emotional sides (the idea later developed through the concept of sensuous thought), to both cultural heritage and individual agency.

Eisenstein strongly believed that the brain always operates between senses, faculties and media; his compatriot Vygotsky added that thought itself is no more than another medium, in which we explain ourselves to ourselves and reveal our agency in the world. We think by combining words and pictures, smells and gestures, attuning to our needs and mobilising the cultural tools available to us. To film Capital – and to mobilise the means of intellectual montage to do so – is to make the strongest argument that the potential of the mind is realised to its fullest when it operates in a dynamic and fluid way between different modalities, between different semantic levels, between various degrees of complexity and abstraction. To film Capital is to demonstrate how audio-images and words can be translated and transformed into a complex conceptual whole, a whole which is moreover, emotionally charged.

The project of filming Capital can thus be thought of as a limit case in which cinema reveals its ability to communicate, influence and move the spectator precisely because it operates in an intermedial way, and because spectators of the 20th Century have become profoundly intermedial beings in their cognitive and broader intellectual make-up. If anything, since Eisenstein outlined his idea to film Capital, our intermedial complexity has only increased. Therefore, to rise to the challenge posed by the idea of filming Marx would require cinema to intensify its dialogue with the newly emerged media. It would require cinema to maintain its critical stand, both by being aware of its internal mechanisms, or its reflexivity; and its power in the world outside – its politics.

[1] Quoted in Eisenstein at Work, eds. Jay Leyda and Zina Voynov (London: Methuen, 1982), p.35.
[2] Thomas Elsaesser, “Marathon Man”, Film Comment (May-June 2008), pp.52-64. Further page references provided within the text. 
[3] Helmut Merker, “Marx: The Quest, the Path, the Destination”,, accessed 15 January 2011, originally published in Tagesspiegel, 8 January 2009.
[4] Fredric Jameson, “Marx and Montage”, New Left Review, no. 58 (July-August 2009), p.111. Further page references provided within the text. Available on-line at (accessed 3 September 2010).
[5] Alexander Kluge, commentaries to Nachrischten aus der ideologishen Antike, CH DVD (Frankfurt, 2008), p.16.
[6] See Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001). Further page references provided within the text.
[7] Raymond Bellour, “The Double Helix”, in Timothy Druckrey (ed.), Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation (New York: Aperture, 1996), p.199.
[8] See Adrian Martin, “Turn the Page: From Mise en scène to Dispositif”, in this issue of Screening the Past.

[9] Sergei Eisenstein, Montage (Moscow: Museum of Cinema, Eisenstein-Centre, 2000), p. 475.
[10] Sean Cubitt, “Spreadsheets, Sitemaps and Search Engines”, in New Screen Media: Cinema/Art/Narrative (London: British Film Institute, 2002), p. 7. Further page references provided within the text.
[11] Annette Michelson, “Reading Eisenstein, Reading Capital”, October, no. 2 (Summer 1976), p.31. Further page references provided within the text.
[12] See Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986) and Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).
[13] See Alexander Luria, The Working Brain: An Introduction to Neuropsychology (New York: Basic Books, 1976).
[14] For an application of this concept to cinema, see Paul Willemen, Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), esp. Chapter 1, “Cinematic Discourse: The Problem of Inner Speech”, pp.27-55.
[15] See Hugo Münsterberg, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study and Other Writings (London: Routledge, 2001).
[16] See Lev Vygotsky, Psychology of Art (New York: MIT Press, 1971).
[17] See Naum Kleiman, The Formula of Finale(Moskva: Eisenstein-Centre, 2004), pp.10-41.
[18] David Bordwell, The Cinema of Eisenstein (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), p.47.] 
[19] See Viacheslav Ivanov, Ocherki po Istorii Semiotiki v SSSR (Moskva: Nauka, 1976), pp.149-154. 
[20] Sergei Eisenstien, “Notes for a Film of Capital”, translated by Annette Michelson, Jay Leyda and Maciej Sliwowki, October Vol 2 (Summer, 1976), p.9; original typography preserved. Further page references provided within the text.
[21] Lev Manovich, “Jump over Proust: Toward Multimedia Writing”,, accessed 17 October 2010.
[22] See Sergei Eisenstein, “The Glass House Project”, Iskusstvo kino, No 3 (1979), pp.94-114; François Albera‚ “Formzerstörung und Transparenz”, in Eisenstein und Deutschland, pp. 123-142; Oksana Bulgakova, “Eisenstein, the Glass House and the Spherical Book”, Rouge, 7 (2005), XXX, accessed 15 May 2011; Mikhail Iampolski, “Transparency Painting: From Myth to Theatre”, in Alla Efimova & Lev Manovich (eds.), Tekstura: Russian Essays on Visual Culture (Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1993); William D. Routt, “Film and Architecture: The Glass House”, Filmviews, Vol 33 No 137 (Spring 1988), pp.32-5.
[23] Giorgio Agamben, “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle”, in Means without End: Notes on Politics, pp.75-6. Note that the title of the official English translation of Debord is Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (see citation below).
[24] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. by Peggy Kamuf (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), p.186. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets. 
[25] Maxim Gorky, “The Lumière Cinematograph, 4 July 1896”,, accessed 24 May 2011.
[26] See Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion, 2006). 
[27] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (London: Black and Red, 2000) and Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (London: Verso, 1998).

About the Author

Julia Vassilieva

About the Author

Julia Vassilieva

Julia Vassilieva is Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at Monash University. Her research interests include historical film theory and criticism, intersection of film, politics and philosophy, and contemporary Russian cinema and popular culture. She has conducted extensive research in S. Eisenstein’s archives in Russia and has published widely on Eisenstein in English and in Russian. Her publications include “Between Utopia and Event: Beyond the Banality of Local Politics in Eisenstein”, Film-Philosophy, 15, “Capital and Co: Kluge, Eisenstein, Marx”, Screening the Past, 31, “Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Qué viva México! through Time: Historicising Value Judgment”, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 24.5. Among her recent publications are also “Religious Discourse as an Empty Signifier in the Post-Communist Russian Cultural Space”, Aesopic Voices, 2011, and “Becoming-girl in the New Russian Cinema: Valeria Gai Germanika’s Films and Youth Television”, forthcoming in Camera Obscura. She is co-editor, with Con Verevis, of After Taste: Cultural Value and the Moving Image, Routledge, 2012.View all posts by Julia Vassilieva →