Integrative Arts 10

Expressionism and Sergei Eisenstein


Eisenstein had worked out a highly mathematical concept of montage according to which a film's meaning was created from the series of synthetic collisions between image and subsequent image.


Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein

Born 23 January 1898, Riga, Latvia. Died 11 February 1948, Moscow, USSR.

The son of an architectural engineer, Eisenstein served with the Red Army before working in the theatre as a scenic artist and innovative director. He made his first use of film as an addition to one of his stage productions and made his feature length directorial debut with Strike (1924), a dynamic recreation of a conflict between workers and the state in 1912 that made use of montage to emphasize such dramatic points as the senseless slaughter of the strikers by state cavalrymen. Drawn to the celebration of heroic collective struggles, he followed this with Battleship Potemkin (1925), a further excursion into polemical historical drama, set during the sailors mutiny of 1905 and featuring the famous 'Odessa Steps' sequence. October (1928) and The General Line (1929) were further fusions of art and propaganda that put his advanced use of editing and montage techniques at the disposal of stories saluting the events of 1917 and the establishment of a collective farm. With Que Viva Mexico (1932) unfinished, Bezhin Meadow abandoned in 1937, and the director felled by a nervous breakdown, it would be a decade before his next film Alexander Nevsky (1938), a more conventional narrative epic closely allying music by Prokofiev (1891-1953) with the visual images, and famed for the Battle of the Ice sequence. His final work, Ivan The Terrible (1942-46) was planned as a monumental triptych on the epic struggles of 17th century Tsar Ivan IV. In the end, only two parts were completed, with the rapid editing and dynamism of the director's earliest work superseded by a more measured pace and ornate visual style. Arousing the ire of Stalin (1879 – 1953) with its unflattering portrait of the secret police, Part II was suppressed by the authorities until 1958 and the director died of a heart attack with Part III barely begun. A great craftsman and impassioned propagandist whose influence has extended over all future generations, his films tend to betray the hand of an academic and theoretician rather than the beat of a natural storyteller's


BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (USSR 1925)
Alexander Antonov, Grigori Alexandrov, Vladimir Barsky, Sailors of the Red Navy, Citizens of Odessa, Members of Moscow's Prolekult Theatre.
86 min. B/W. silent. Reissued 1956 in sound version with new score.

The worldwide success of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin immediately focused international attention on the new Soviet cinema, fulfilling to some extent the Bolshevik authorities' hopes that their state-funded program of film making for explicitly propagandist purposes would not only consolidate the Revolution at home but promote the notion of class consciousness abroad. Commissioned to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1905 Revolution, Eisenstein chose to concentrate in particular on the naval mutiny and subsequent Tsarist massacre of civilians in the seaport of Odessa. The film embodies the idea of the collective hero he'd absorbed from his days creating a new revolutionary art in the theatre under Meyerhold, using the idea of typage to cast real sailors and actual citizens for greater authenticity of performance. Most significantly however, Battleship Potemkin was a textbook demonstration of Eisenstein's theoretical and practical approach to montage. From Marx's dialectical materialism, Pavlovian work on stimuli and response, Freudian psychology and the post-Revolution Soviet wave of Constructivist art, Eisenstein had worked out a highly mathematical concept of montage according to which a film's meaning was created from the series of synthetic collisions between image and subsequent image. Although few of today's films adopt Eisenstein's doctrinaire approach to the technique, his basic thesis added immeasurably to the widening of film grammar and Battleship Potemkin's typically precise sequence of slaughter on the "Odessa Steps" became one of the cinema's best-known moments. Battleship Potemkin


Potemkin not only contains the most famous scene in silent film, the Odessa steps
sequence, in which Tsarist troops relentlessly advance downwards firing upon
the townspeople; the whole film employs the revolutionary cinematic technique
of colliding successive images, in order to whip up the audience's emotional
response. Eisenstein's use of `montage' continues to exhilarate cineastes
everywhere and the film is still a regular fixture on critics' `Top Ten' lists, but at
the time it was Potemkin's depiction of a successful rebellion against political
authority that over-excited the world's censors. The French police burned every
copy they could find, in Pennsylvania it was banned on the grounds that it `gives
American sailors a blue-print as to how to conduct a mutiny', and in Europe one
censor tied a knot in Eisenstein's Marxist dialectic with a sinister warning to any
would-be revolutionaries: every scene that occurred after the Odessa steps
sequence was cut.


Riefenstahl vs. Eisenstein

It's a Horrible Life -- Few documentaries are as well-titled as The wonderful, horrible life of
Leni Riefenstahl(Ray Müller, director; 1993). The wonderful part of Liefenstahl's life, of course,
was her films, notably Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympiad (1938), two of the most visually
stunning movies ever produced, and certainly the two greatest documentaries ever filmed.

They are also the horrible part of her life. Both movies were made in Nazi Germany. Worse still,
the subject of the former was the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg, and it glorified Hitler and Nazism.
Indeed, it was used as Nazi propaganda. Her critics also manage to find a Nazi flavor (the body
beautiful was a Nazi theme, they say, and . . .) to Olympiad, though here they stretch credibility a
bit.

Riefenstahl never cared much for politics, and saw her films as apolitical works of art. She could
just as easily have filmed a rally for Franklin Roosevelt or Joseph Stalin, or Olympic games staged
in Moscow or Los Angeles. Even so, after World War II, she was put in detention for four years,
and has pretty much remained an object of opprobrium ever since. Much of the documentary
about her life consists of her being badgered about her work for the Nazis. She explains over and
over that her concern was cinema, not politics. Before the documentary is over, it seems like she
protests too much.

Leni Riefenstahl is not the only great filmmaker to put her talents to work on behalf of a totalitarian
monster. The very celebrated Sergei Eisenstein did his work for the murderous Soviet regime,
beginning in the 1920s and lasting through the post-World War II period. Unlike Riefenstahl,
Eisenstein was an ideologically committed servant of his master. He was a Latvian studying in St.
Petersburg when the Bolshevik revolution broke out. Rather than return to his newly independent
homeland, he volunteered for service in the Red Army, where he studied theater. In 1920, he left
the army to join the First Workers Theatre of Proletcul, which was striving to replace the old
culture with a new Communist one. He made his first film in 1923. In the words of a standard
reference book, "he believed that his duty as an artist was to contribute to the forging of the new
life for his country [and] eagerly embraced the film medium as the most efficient tool of communist
propaganda." He followed every jot and tittle of the Communist Party line, even speaking in favor
of alliance with Nazi Germany during the period of the Stalin-Hitler pact. His films were easily as
propagandistic as Triumph and vastly more so than Olympiad.

Yet curiously, Eisenstein is not remembered as part of the murderous Stalinist regime. He is
celebrated as a great pioneering filmmaker who happened to live in the Soviet Union.

Why the different treatment? Well, Eisenstein's pro-Stalinist views had a lot of appeal to American
intellectuals and filmmakers of the era. He visited the United States in 1930, lecturing at Ivy League
colleges and making a triumphant visit to Hollywood, where he hoped to make a film and was
welcomed by Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and Walt Disney. His Hollywood project was
sidetracked and he returned to renew his work on behalf of Stalin.

But I suspect the real reason is simpler. Germany lost the war and the Soviet Union won it. Just as
the victors write the history books, so they evaluate filmmakers.

When the war ended, Riefenstahl was shown Allied film of the piles of corpses in Hitler's death
camps. She was shocked, as any decent human being would be. But there was no one to show
Eisenstein films of the 30 million starved in the Ukraine during Stalin's collectivization of agriculture.
As a conscientious and dedicated Communist, would Eisenstein have been shocked? --R.W.
Bradford


The Russians Eisenstein and Prokofiev

Eisenstein's Masterpiece Alexander Nevsky


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