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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Sergei Eisenstein

Battleship Potemkin, 1926, Sergei Eisenstein, director.
Sergei Eisenstein, 1925
If you're a serious film buff, you've no doubt heard the name, Sergei Eisenstein. If not, probably not. Eisenstein was a Soviet Russian film maker born in Latvia in 1898. His father was of German, Jewish, and Swedish blood. His mother was Russian. His father was an architect who moved around a lot so the boy grew up all over eastern Europe during the first two decades of the 20th century. Sergei, like his father, studied architecture before WW I and his enlistment in the Red Army (his father was a tsarist). He got his start in film making while working in an army propaganda unit after the war in support of the Bolshevik October Revolution. However Eisenstein's first creative efforts were with the Moscow theater, in the role of set designer. There he directed his first short films of theater productions while writing articles on film theory, especially montage editing. His first feature film, Strike, made in 1925, dealt with a strike at a pre-revolution factory in which metaphorical shots of cattle being slaughtered were intercut with scenes of violent strike suppression.
The Battleship Potemkin around 1905, before the mutiny.
The final shot from Eisenstein's
 Odessa steps massacre sequence.
Subtlety was not his forte.
Eisenstein's most memorable film, and probably his best effort, was the silent Battleship Potemkin from 1926. Eisenstein is often compared to the American film maker, D.W. Griffith, in which case Potemkin is his Birth of a Nation. Both films are propaganda pieces, Griffith's landmark effort somewhat more subtle in that regard than Eisenstein's, but no less influential from a cultural and technical perspective. Although Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) was made more than ten years before Battleship Potemkin, it's uncertain whether Eisenstein had ever seen Griffith's film.  In any case, both covered much the same ground. The two films also have much the same look and feel, though Eisenstein's focus is narrower, his interest and expertise more on the emotional impact of editing and in managing large crowd scenes than the melodramatic love stories and moralistic themes Griffith pursued. Moreover, Griffith was relatively subtle. Eisenstein was far from it (left).
Eisenstein's Massacre on the Odessa steps, Battleship Potemkin, 1926.
The Battleship Potemkin, after the Mutiny.
The Potemkin was a Russian battleship built for the Black Sea fleet about 1903. The story revolves around the mistreatment of its crew by their tsarist officers. One memorable scene early in the film involves the crew rebelling against being served meat infested with maggots. With the onslaught of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the crew mutinied. Sailing out of Odessa, the most famous scene comes late in the film when a group of townspeople are seen waving goodbye as the ship leaves port, whereupon they are attacked by tsarist troops at the top of a seemingly unending, broad flight of steps. They flee down the steps only to be met and massacred by Russian Cossacks at the bottom. Even in black and white, the blood splatters freely. The sequence (which can be seen in the video clip near the bottom) ends with an unattended baby carriage rolling suspensefully down the steps toward the slaughter and the water. Eisensteins' editing is masterful, though possibly a bit slow by modern standards. The only problem is, the whole scene never actually happened. Yes, there was a great deal of bloodshed in the Crimean area at the time, and the Potemkin did come under Bolshevik control, but, ever true to his propagandist calling, Eisenstein simply made the worst of a bad situation.
Eisenstein's dramatic confrontation on the Odessa steps, Battleship Potemkin, 1926.
Seconds later...
During the 1930s, as a result of the critical acclaim heaped upon Battleship Potemkin, and his 1928 silent film,  October (Ten Days that Shook the World), Eisenstein was something of a celebrity in Russia. He traveled and lectured on his film theories all over Europe. He eventually came to the United States and flirted with Paramount's Jesse Lasky, though the two never came to any agreement as to an American project. Eisenstein's free-spirited film making techniques did not fit well with the American factory-studio approach. Moving on to Mexico, he did actually shoot a few miles of film, though his financial backers pulled the plug before the film Que Viva Mexico (Long Live Mexico) could be completed. Moreover, Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin smelled a deserter and called him back to mother Russia. There, he made such epics as Alexander Nevsky, Seeds of Freedom, Land of Freedom, Ivan the Terrible Parts I & II, as well as numerous short films and documentaries all of a predominantly socialist realism genre (read propaganda). Eisenstein's Communist idealism led him to envision a sort of film maker's utopia free of studio bosses and budgetary restraints which he saw as hampering his creative freedom. He died in 1948 at the age of fifty, disillusioned by the fact that bosses and budgets were as much a part of Communism as Capitalism.

Eisenstein's most powerful editing:

Eisenstein's suspenseful baby stroller scenario was copied by Brian De Palma in his 1978 film, The Untouchables, during the climactic massacre scene filmed in New York's Grand Central Station.


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