REVIEW: DVD Release: Sergei Eisenstein Vol One: Silent Classics

Film: Sergei Eisenstein Vol One: Silent Classics
Release date: 12th July 2010
Certificate: 12
Running time: 255 mins
Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein
Starring: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Maksim Shtraukh, Grigori Aleksandrov, Mikhail Gomorov
Genre: Drama/History/War
Studio: Palisades Tartan
Format: DVD
Country: Soviet Union

Innovative Soviet Russian film theorist and director Sergei Eisenstein’s first volume of films arrived on shelves this summer presenting both his early and most famous silent works. Containing his first feature film Strike (1924), piece de resistance Battleship Potemkin (1925) and the epic October: Ten Days That Shook The World, it is easy to see why he is so revered. Cinema with a political streak, Sergei Eisenstein Vol One manages to capture the essence of Pre-World War II Russia and the spirit of revolution that runs through its veins.

Silhouettes of workers and machinery glide across the screen as we witness their daily routine. Set in Russia during tsarist rule, “discontent is spreading,” and we are greeted with the stereotypical suited and booted manager puffing on a fat cigar. He has brought in spies and double agents to survey workers as tensions arise.

When a respected and friendly worker commits suicide after being accused of theft, news spreads leading to the workforce going on strike.

Family time is relished as well as morning lie-ins. The factory is still and quiet; the manager, with no productive employees is losing money yet still refuses to meet the strikers’ demands.

As the strike drags on longer than expected, families go hungry and pressure mounts on both the employees and managers. Loyalties are betrayed and violence ensues as the managers attempt to bring the strike to a halt by any means necessary…

The first feature film from the father of montage, Strike provides a glimpse of the visionary master’s early experimentation with his trademark aesthetic. Opening with an epigraph by Lenin, the film’s central themes of class, strength in numbers and how at the heart of unity, organisation is the glue holding the elements of strength, are practically forced upon viewers.

It is interesting to view Eisenstein’s theories of film in their primitive forms within Strike. In a literary style expected of great authors, Eisenstein’s eloquent way of speaking to an audience through metaphors comparing humans and animals (and, to a certain extent, vice versa) presses further emphasis upon the worker’s lack of control over their own lives. The most extreme sequences displaying these contrasts involves animal slaughter to replace the film’s final scenes of violence; whilst experimental even in contemporary cinema, it can seem a little pretentious to some viewers who feel put off by films that strive to be too artistic.

Whilst necessary to reveal the characters that populate Strike, scenes including superimposition can be distracting, as well as migraine inducing due to the length of time they appear.

The main downfall of Strike is that some scenes appear extremely out of place or contrived. For example, during a scene of interrogation, two people are dancing on a table in the background, which although one could delve further and say it is representative of the question-answer process, it was just too abstract and unnecessary for a scene that needs no elaboration. Like an author who uses flowery prose excessively, Eisenstein decorates Strike with metaphors and quick cut-away scenes that sometimes dampen the film’s true message and story.

An ensemble piece, Strike focuses upon the masses as opposed to individual characters. Similarly to Battleship Potemkin, also featured in Essential Eisenstein Vol 1, innocents (mostly children) being caught up in the violent mix are depicted yet in fleeting moments; a stark contrast to the lingering scenes upon the Odessa steps in Battleship Potemkin in which a mother’s distress is seen alongside the images of her child in danger. It is a stark reminder from Eisenstein that future generations are the ones who suffer most in times of strife, yet, hauntingly, they too will grow and fill a place in society which, depending on their ancestor’s actions, could start the ball rolling all over again.

Battleship Potemkin
Like the other features in the box set, Battleship Potemkin opens with an epigraph by communist leader Joseph Stalin about revolution being the only justifiable war, the film’s rebellious undertones and convictions of equality are immediately embedded from the get go.

The film, based on the true story of the mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin, is partitioned within five episodes similar to the plot structure of Japanese Kabuki theatre favoured by Eisenstein.

Beginning with ‘Men And Maggots’, we are introduced to sailors Matyushenko and Valkulinchuk as they complain to their fellow seamen of the poor working conditions the group suffer. With cramped sleeping quarters and abuse inflicted upon the sailors day by day, cabin fever sets in, and the ends of tethers are reached as they’re served rotten meat crawling with maggots. Disgusted with their less then basic living conditions, some of the sailors attempt to change their working conditions and refuse to eat their meals.

Progressing to the next phase of the film, Drama At The Harbour, the injustice against the sailors takes a sinister turn as the commanding officers threaten their fates. Realising their free-thinking could lead to death, the sailors attempt to escape but are soon captured and prepared to be shot via a firing squad consisting of their fellow colleagues. As tensions mount, questions of morality and conscience is soon added to the potent mix with the ship’s priest crying out to bring “the unruly to reason.” But who is the unruly: the sailors following their orders or the rebellious crew creating chaos in the name of equality?

With the Potemkin under mutineer control, during the next phase, A Dead Man Calls for Justice, they sail to dock at Odessa with their revolutionary figure laid to rest at the port. Potemkin is becoming the subject of outrage and shock on dry land as word spreads of the sailors’ plight. Saddened by the death of the man “killed for a plate of soup,” and with their fists clenched, they vow to “never forget…”

Hailed as the most influential propaganda film ever made, the legend and hype surrounding Battleship Potemkin can be intimidating upon the eve of your first viewing. But director Sergei Eisenstein’s magnum opus delivers and lives up and far beyond the critical acclaim surrounding it.

Whilst the film is based upon the events aboard the Potemkin in 1905, legend has it that Eisenstein’s portrayal of a fictional confrontation on the Odessa steps was so embedded in the hearts and minds of movie-goers that many believed it had actually happened.

Being a raconteur, Eisenstein strays from the era’s standard cinematic vision and manages to hone his skilled use of montage seen in other features (Strike, October) to heighten the tensions of the viewer, and emphasise the horror of the events unfolding. Close up shots of distressed children and even violence against them - whilst shocking during the film’s original release - still continue to outrage contemporary audiences who are desensitised by the extreme violence displayed in modern news media. When the Odessa rally together to bring food and supplies aboard the Potemkin, what ensues is possibly one of the most traumatic depictions of violence on-screen.

Artists such as Francis Bacon have sighted Battleship Potemkin and Eisenstein’s visual aesthetic as inspirations within their own work, and it is easy to see why. Each frame shot by Eisenstein is a visual feast that nourishes the mind’s emotional investment in the characters of the film, from the nameless crowd members to courageous sailor Valkulinchuk. The aim of the film is to garner sympathy for the sailors and their fight through not only personally introducing us to the sailors’ ambassador-like figure (Valkulinchuk), but also ingraining the central message by using Lenin’s words at the beginning of the film.

Eisenstein’s montages depicting the masses is a crown bejewelled with sparkling moments as the dust settles - only for this to be disturbed and gears changed to quick cut-away and repetitive shots to further elevate our own sympathy towards both the crowd and the sailors. The contrast of the sweeping and panning montages captures the true chaos and power of a crowd that produces feelings of claustrophobia, as well as a close bond towards the nameless faces we have come to recognise.

In a way, events that shaped the noughties, such as the war on terror and the conflicts arising in the middle east over the Taliban’s restriction of human rights, contain themes, dilemmas and strife that make the film’s core values applicable to even today’s world issues, whatever an individual’s beliefs.

Commissioned to honour the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia, Eisenstein’s October is a detailed war film of epic proportions that is shot in chronological real time depicting the events of 1917.

Eisenstein’s trademark crowd scenes and montages once again make an appearance in a film that to those who perhaps haven’t had a chance to brush up on their knowledge of Lenin and Trotsky (whose portrayal was edited down last minute) will be confusing.

The film Illustrates the poverty and troubles experienced by the working class as well as delving deep in to the political turmoil surrounding them…

Chaos reigns supreme in October which plays up the director’s greatest strength of depicting the masses and the strength that can be acquired within large numbers - a force that manages to over turn the political leaders they feel stunted by.

Being a film that historians will adore, one would expect that it would to say the least be historically accurate. It is in fact the inaccuracy of events (such as the embellished Winter Palace storming) that is most revealing about the film’s intentions. With an introduction explaining that many of those who partook in the October Revolution are seen in the film, a great amount of pride concerning the overturning of a government radiates from the screen and it is clear that like most propaganda films, the views and opinions expressed are extremely biased. It is Sergei Eisenstein’s artistic genius that keeps the film afloat and shines through until the very last second.

Cinematic ground is broken and new feats created when Eisenstein utilises his technique of ‘intellectual montage’, in which the events taking place on film are interspersed with clips of unrelated objects to encourage comparisons between them. By using iconic images of different religions, such as Christ, Buddha, Hindu deities and even imagery relating to Aztec beliefs, Eisenstein exercises a then controversial opinion that all religions share the same essence only to then compare fundamentalism with patriotism.

A man who was forced to denounce his own work publically, it is a testament to Eisenstein’s strength and dedication to his art that he continued to produce experimental and surreal aspects in his films. And after watching October, it is clear that if Eisenstein had listened to his critics, it would have been a great disservice to cinematic history to have altered his creations.

Although the films featured in Sergei Eisenstein Vol 1 are familiar to fans of the pioneering director, the box set is a welcome introduction to Eisenstein for those who have only heard of him through the worldwide success of Battleship Potemkin. With its picture perfect visuals and rebellious spirit, this is a wonderful trio of films that should be the top of the ‘must watch’ list of those who are passionate about film. SRI

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