Marxist ideology is anathema to the business-driven film industry of the United States, but its outlook appears in one form or other in a variety of American films. Although the US government and business sector have been adamantly opposed to all forms of socialism, notions of class struggle have appeared in cinema from its inception. Filmmakers partaking of progressive discourse tend in general to appeal to notions of charity and social equality rather than to Marxist revolution. D. W. Griffith's (1875–1948) Intolerance (1916) can be read as one long plea for social justice. One of the epic's highlights is the Jenkins Mill episode, a loose recreation of the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, during which Rockefeller financial interests hired National Guardsmen to assault and kill striking workers at a chemical plant in Colorado; this event outraged many, including conservatives such as Griffith. Early film comedy, especially the works of Charles Chaplin (1889–1977), have strong anti-authoritarian and socialist themes, from Chaplin's short farces such as Easy Street (1917), which portray in Dickensian fashion the life of the urban poor, to his feature-length spoof of industrial capitalism, Modern Times (1936).
Post–World War I European cinema, especially that of Germany, showed both the effects of the war and the alienated and helpless condition of people under the German class system. Expressionist horror films such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari ( The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , Robert Weine, 1920) conveyed a modernist sense of humanity's twisted, tormented situation under the standing economic order. Fritz Lang's pioneering science-fiction masterpiece Metropolis (1927), with its seminal vision of an ornate city resting atop the underworld city of the workers who maintain it (a notion derived from H. G. Wells's 1895 novel The Time Machine ), would foreground anxieties over the class struggle that had propelled Russia's October 1917 Revolution.
Indeed, the Soviet Union after the October Revolution would produce the key films extolling the virtues of socialism and communism; these films would also become landmark contributions to the development of the cinema. Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik revolution, saw cinema as "the most important art," a phrase often repeated in histories of film. Lenin thought that cinema's ability to communicate through images had an innately democratizing aspect, one crucial to the Soviet Union's numerous ethnicities and languages. This idea was intuited by the pioneers of the Soviet cinema, including Lev Kuleshov (1899–1970), whose famous "Kuleshov experiment" emphasized the importance of film editing by demonstrating how the interrelationship of images affected the consciousness of the spectator. The Soviet cinema for the decade following the October Revolution was among the most avant-garde in the world and established a place in artistic modernism. The key figure of the Soviet cinema, and a giant of film history, is Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948), who fused Marxist dialectics with art movements such as Cubism and Constructivism to produce a challenging, dynamic cinema that served the agitation purposes of the Soviet revolution. His major films, especially Stachka ( Strike , 1925), Bronenosets Potyomkin ( Battleship Potemkin , 1925), and Oktyabr ( Ten Days that Shook the World and October , 1927), broke cleanly with the static melodrama characteristic of early cinema—even the innovative films of Griffith—to create a style based on montage, or cinema built around rapidly cut sequences whose images were charged with symbolism and interacted with each other with remarkable sophistication.
Eisenstein's theory of montage became crucial to the cinema, owing its intellectual basis to Marxist dialectics. In contrast to his colleague Kuleshov, Eisenstein felt that images should "collide" rather than merely be "linked" through editing. Eisenstein applied classical dialectical thinking of thesis opposed by antithesis, leading to synthesis, borrowing from Marx the idea that the standing thesis (problem) of society was capital, its antithesis the worker, synthesis the revolution. Eisenstein translated this into an editing structure wherein the thesis is, for example, images of Czarist troops in the Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin , the antithesis shots images of the population. The ultimate synthesis is not revolution, but rather the awakening of the spectator. Clearly Eisenstein's films, even before his famous montage theory was formulated, were focused on agitation (as is evident in Strike , his first major film).
Other important early Soviet directors included Dziga Vertov (1896–1954), whose kino pravda ("film truth") movies inspired the cinema verité movement first in France and then internationally. Vertov sought to change the style of the documentary and the notion of the real as depicted in bourgeois art. His most radical accomplishment was Chelovek s kino-apparatom ( The Man With a Movie Camera , 1929), which recorded a day in the life of a Soviet city. What could have been a prosaic film was a radical departure for the documentary, embodying various forms of modernism along with the Marxist aesthetics of theorists such as Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956). Vertov used split screens, superimpositions, animation, and above all an attempt to incorporate the viewer into the very process of filmmaking by showing us the operation of the camera and including self-reflexive jokes such as an image of the filmmaker floating with his camera over the city. Vertov challenged bourgeois realism as well as conventional notions of perspective inherited from the Renaissance, which Vertov, like other Marxist artists, believed lulled the audience into a sense of self-satisfaction and consolation as it accepted the singular vision of one inspired "genius."