Sergei Eisenstein’s lasting influence
Montage. The word comes from the French and means ”assemblage.” But it was a Russian, Sergei Eisenstein, who gave montage, the combination of a series of images to create persuasive effects, its first real kick in film. Eisenstein was working in the service of a brand-new, world-shattering revolution eager to impress both those at home and abroad. His movies, such as Strike (1924), were intended primarily as Communist propaganda.
But his technique transcended his subject. Instead of convincing the world that the socialist revolution had changed the world, he changed the face of film. ”The stage will have to give way to the cinema,” conceded the great theater director Max Reinhardt in 1925 when he saw Battleship Potemkin (White Star), Eisenstein’s retelling of a 1905 shipboard mutiny and the ensuing massacre on the Odessa steps. The stage could never again compete with the impression of continuously exciting motion, which the young director achieved by using more than 1,300 separate shots within 65 minutes.
Rapidly juxtaposed images achieved unforgettable emotional effects: One moment a baby carriage bumps down the steps out of control, the next there’s a close-up of the baby’s terrified mother, followed by the advancing soldiers firing their guns, people being randomly shot, and then back to the baby carriage on its perilous journey.
Of all Eisenstein’s work, Potemkin is the one to see: It’s required viewing in virtually every Film 101 class. Look at any MTV video or any slick million- dollar minute of advertising, and you’ll see its origins in that assemblage of shots in Potemkin. This newly released video is also the best available version; it was made from a restored print struck in the Soviet Union in 1976. The White Star versions of both the rousing Alexander Nevsky and the grand Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II are also from pristine prints.
Though the white-on-white subtitles can be difficult to decipher on these latter two (Potemkin predates the sound era), both films, with thunderous scores by Sergei Prokofiev, rely primarily on their stunning visual sweep, not dialogue, for their effects.
The very accessible Nevsky (1938) shows Russia in the 13th century being invaded by Mongols and Teutonic knights and chronicles the swashbuckling Russian prince’s resistance. Eisenstein was able to inject narrative drama into what is little more than a series of skirmishes, culminating in the film’s famous battle on the ice.
Ivan the Terrible (1944-46) tells the tale of Russia’s toughest czar, who ruled in the 16th century. Using imposing and fantastic sets, the two-part film is filled with pageantry and intrigue as the clever, ambitious, and merciless Ivan secures his throne. Be prepared for the exaggerated acting of the period: Nikolai Cherkassov plays both Nevsky and Ivan in the High Bolshoi style of arching eyebrows and rolling eyeballs. All these films are, in fact, quite bolshoi. In Russian, that means ”big.” Battleship Potemkin: A+ Alexander Nevsky: A- Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II: A