Sergei Eisenstein is without a doubt one of the most important directors in the history of cinema. His films now stand as classics, universally acclaimed by critics and having long become staples of film courses where they are used as examples of how to read cinema. Of course, to the average viewer, this may mean little, and the truth is that although most film fans will have heard of his name and know enough of his career to proclaim him a ‘masterful auteur’, the truth is that many will not have seen any of his work (despite protestations to the contrary). This is to an extent understandable, as a good few of his films have remained relatively obscure and unavailable, and simply due to the fact that they belong to the silent era of cinema. The question now therefore is whether or not these undoubted masterworks are likely to appeal to modern audiences, or whether they are best left to quietly gather dust in the cinematic hall of fame. Thanks to Tartan, viewers can now make up their own minds, with the new DVD release of several collections of his films, beginning with the first volume comprising the three early works “Strike”, “Battleship Potemkin” and “October”.
Eisenstein’s first proper film “Strike”, originally released back in 1924 is basically a communist propaganda piece, following the incidents at an industrial factory after a falsely accused man commits suicide, setting off a series of confrontations between the workers and owners. As might be expected, the film is largely populated by broad caricatures, such as dumb, fat, cigar smoking capitalists who are interested only in exploiting the situation, and vaguely noble, idealised workers with justice on their side and tragedy in their future. However, working within the confines of this simple set up, Eisenstein does manage to add some depth, and though he had little creative control, he slyly pokes fun at the stereotypes he employs, and the film at times verges on a kind of cynical comedy. Where “Strike” really impresses though, and where it is most likely to appeal to modern viewers, is through its amazing visuals. Surprisingly for a silent film, which many might assume would be slow and static, Eisenstein injects an incredible sense of energy, keeping every shot full of action and movement. The film is filled with dynamic montages and a vast variety of editing tricks, many of which are still being seen in cinemas today. Although somewhat more primitive than Eisenstein’s later outings, “Strike” is still very much a landmark in Soviet cinema, and an incredible debut from a young director who at the time had had very little training in film. This new DVD release also benefits from the option of a fitting new musical score from composer Ed Hughes, which is likely to make it more accessible to modern audiences.
“Strike” laid the groundwork for Eisenstein’s next outing, “Battleship Potemkin”, arguably his masterwork and one of the most influential films ever made. Released in 1925, the film revolves around the mistreatment of the Russian navy, who finally snap after being abused by their superiors and rebel. They are backed by the common people of Odessa, who join them in a street protest which ends tragically in a massacre. Of all Eisenstein’s films “Potemkin” is the most likely to appeal to the average viewer, simply because it is a fantastic piece of cinema which defies its age and the limitations of the silent form. The film is absolutely packed with memorable images, and shows the great director honing the experimental visuals seen in “Strike” to a poetic art form. The famous Odessa steps sequence (which has been paid homage to in a variety of modern films, most notably “The Untouchables”) retains its power after so many years, and stands as one of the greatest set pieces ever committed to celluloid. Although the film is silent, viewers will soon forget the lack of dialogue as Eisenstein keeps things moving at a fast, passionate pace, and the action is surprisingly engaging and suspenseful. As a result, “Battleship Potemkin” still stands as essential viewing for all fans of cinema even today, and offers a far more exciting experience than might have been expected. Again, the DVD features a new score from Ed Hughes, which offers an interesting alternative, though one which does change the viewing experience somewhat, especially for those used to the powerful original soundtrack.
The final film in the collection is “October” (a.k.a. “Ten Days that Shook the World”), perhaps one of Eisenstein’s lesser known works, at least for non cineastes. Based upon a book by American writer John Reed (which also inspired Warren Beatty’s 1981 Oscar hit “Reds”), the film documents the final events of the October 1917 Russian Revolution which led to the overthrow of the government. Although the film was actually co-directed by Grigori Aleksandrov (a long time Eisenstein collaborator who would go on to make many propaganda pieces for Stalin), it is unmistakably the work of Eisenstein, featuring the same kind of fluid visuals seen in “Strike” and “Potemkin”. Rather than simply repeating the visual devices employed in his previous films, the great director here continues to experiment, trying out a variety of odd though effective camera angles and fascinating editing techniques. Visuals aside, the film offers an interesting, if painfully one sided and politicised account of a turbulent time in Soviet history, and although in narrative terms it lacks focus, it does accurately give a sense of the chaos and confusion which gripped the country. As such, whilst by no means as essential as his previous works, “October” should certainly be enjoyed by viewers whose appetite for Eisenstein will no doubt have been whetted by “Potemkin” or “Strike”.
Sergei Eisenstein (director) / Sergei Eisenstein (screenplay)