Philosophy 281: Dialectical Cinema/ Fall 2012


Instructor Information

Instructor: Gary Zabel, Ph.D.

Department of Philosophy, UMB

Office: Wheatley 5/040

Office Hours: Tues/Th 1:00 - 1:50 and by Appointment



Course Description

The idea of dialectic is central to the work of the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, and his heretical student, Karl Marx. In general, dialectic refers both to a method of understanding reality, and to the character of the reality the method seeks to understand. For the dialectical thinker, there is nothing completely static in the universe. Everything is caught up in processes of change. In such dynamic processes, a natural or social whole splits into parts that are in opposition to one another. The conflict between these parts drives toward a resolution in which there is a qualitative leap into something new. A new configuration of the original whole replaces its predecessor, splits into parts that enter into a new conflict which drives toward a new resolution, and so on. The succession of configurations forms a progressive series, a cumulative and advancing development.

The Russian Revolution of October 1917 was led by political activists who thought of themselves as the heirs of Hegel and Marx. The Russian revolutionaries sought to apply the dialectical method to understanding the conflicting forces unleashed by the introduction of capitalism into Russia, and to resolve this conflict by making a leap into a fundamentally new form of society, that of socialism.

These political revolutionaries had counterparts in the arts. The early years following the Revolution were marked by the rise of a remarkable artistic avant garde, active in painting, sculpture, poetry, architecture, design, and cinema. In the case of cinema, the avant garde created a school of filmmaking in the Soviet Union unrivaled at the time by any other nation, a school that continues to influence the creation of film down to the present day. The great directors, Eisenstein, Pudhovkin, Dovzenko, and Vertov were masters of montage, which is the technique of cutting film into segments in the editing studio, and combining those segments in unanticipated, dynamic, and jarring ways. Each of these four directors regarded montage as a dialectical technique of conflict, development, and resolution, a technique that defines cinema as a unique art form.

In this course, we will investigate the dialectical cinema of the Soviet avant garde in relation to the writings of Hegel and Marx, as well as the writing of the Soviet directors themselves. We will apply these writings to the analysis of the following films: The Fall of the Romanovs (Shub), Battleship Potemkin, and October (Eisenstein), Storm Over Asia and The End of Saint Petersburg ( Pudhovkin), Earth and Arsenal (Dovzhenko), and A Sixth Part of the World  and Man With a Movie Camera.


1. Each week students will read the assigned written material  and view the assigned films.   The readings can be accessed through our  Blackboard site, and the films through links on this website.

2 . Each week students will either listen to a lecture by the instructor on the readings and relevant films, archived as podcasts  on our Black Board site, or read an article or book chapter by the instructor.

3. Each week students will participate in written discussions of the course material in an electronic discussion group hosted by our Black Board site. Each student will write at least two paragraphs on a topic to be assigned each week, as well as respond in writing to the postings of at least two other students.

4. Students will write a midterm essay (approximately 6 double-spaced pages) based on the readings.

5. Students will produce a final paper (10 to 15 double-spaced pages) addressing questions in the philosophy of cinema based on the course readings, lectures, films, and discussions.


The course requirements have the following weight in determining the final grade for the course:

Midterm exam = 30%

Participation in group discussions = 25%

Final paper = 45%