For Reel


Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1958)
February 1, 2012, 8:40 pm
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Director: Sergei Eisenstein

Although Joseph Stalin greatly approved of the first part of Sergei Eisenstein’s planned Ivan the Terrible trilogy, the second part was not screened until 1958 due to the heavy criticism thrust upon it by authorities. Interestingly, while one might be inclined to attribute this to the fact that Ivan had become more unhinged in the second part, the picture’s most drastic difference from the first is in its use of childhood flashbacks. Eisenstein initially wanted these scenes to be a part of the first film, however he was forced to give them up and eventually had to fight for their positioning in the second. In suggesting Ivan’s early victimization and his feelings of reclusion and helplessness, he is given psychological complexities that were not alluded to in the previous film. Stalin argued that Eisenstein didn’t provide enough reason for Ivan’s cruelness, however that isn’t quite the case. Eisenstein interprets that Ivan’s ambition is fueled by his own lust for self-empowerment, which stems from his feelings of vulnerability as a child. The worry, then, is not that the picture doesn’t provide enough reason for Ivan’s inhuman behavior, but that the reason it provides so thoroughly humanizes Ivan that he no longer serves well as Russia’s proud, strong father. In addition to presenting a fuller portrait of Ivan, in Part II Eisenstein had the means to top the spectacle of Part I with a color banquet sequence, beautifully rendered with reds and golds in an almost implacable setting that could substitute for hell.



Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944)
February 1, 2012, 7:57 pm
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Director: Sergei Eisenstein

Commissioned by Joseph Stalin in 1941, Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible was devised to rehabilitate the image of the titular ruler as a mythological ideal of Russian leadership. Eisenstein was a master of spectacle – few filmmakers produced images so viscerally thrilling as he – and the two existing parts of Ivan (the third was never completed due to Eisenstein’s death in 1948) are perhaps his most arresting achievements. The picture’s production design is so humbling in scale that it makes every other film-world seem austere. Colossal frescoes loom overhead in each frame, and shadows are exaggerated so thoroughly that they often become the decor themselves. The palace’s architecture seems unusual and impractical – characters are often forced to duck through doorways, even as the ceilings stand several stories high. In the way that the characters interact with these sets, as well as the way that the frescoes comment on the action (paintings of eyes, for example, heighten the sense of paranoia), Eisenstein achieves a flawless expression of place. Just as the settings are large and worthy spectacles taken alone, the costumes are hugely eclectic and effectively character-building. Actors without a single line of dialogue are given thoroughly established characters simply by what they wear. Experiencing the picture on the big screen is a must for any cinephile.



October (1928)
January 23, 2012, 4:53 am
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Director: Sergei Eisenstein

With his most ambitious application of his theory of intellectual montage editing, Sergei Eisenstein’s October is his true masterpiece of the silent era. His visual sense is at his heights, reveling in the fog of twilight and the dingy camps wherein the Lenin-led Bolsheviks plot their next actions, as well as the surreal juxtapositional discourses into mechanical peacocks and thrusting church incense burners. The picture was one of two commissioned by the Soviet government to commemorate the October Revolution of 1917, and in it Eisenstein dramatizes the events leading up to the overthrow of the provisional government concluding with the storming of the Winter Palace. Several critics, as well as Leon Trotsky himself, have criticized the ending struggle of the picture, suggesting that the drama of the upheaval isn’t wholly successful. It, however, is much more effective than the often numbing conclusion of the otherwise great Battleship Potemkin, as the chaos is truncated and Eisenstein’s greater interest seems to be in the moving of the chess pieces preceding the take-over, making the drama all the more effective because of the sublime build-up. The picture is full of unforgettable moments – the dangling horse and carriage on a bridge, the rapid-cut montage of a machine gun and the man firing it, the succession of religious icons that suggest that religion is a tool of the government and must be overthrown. It is a film that stimulates more than thrills, and for that reason it leaves a more lasting impression than the all-out revolutionary anarchy of Strike or Battleship Potemkin.



Alexander Nevsky (1938)
January 16, 2012, 11:02 pm
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Director(s): Sergei Eisenstein & Dmitri Vasilyev

Having been unable to complete both Que Viva Mexico! and Bezhin Meadow, Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eistenstein hadn’t finished a feature for nearly ten years prior to the release of his first sound film, Alexander Nevsky. In addition to being his first foray into sound, it may also be considered his least experimental and most accessible work. Even with the expected xenophobic, heavily-propagandistic subtext, it remains a crowd pleaser, with the thirty-minute Battle of the Ice serving as a grand spectacle that clearly has influenced the structuring of medieval warfare scenes in films such as Seven Samurai and The Lord of the Rings pictures. Despite the formal achievements in editing, however, the sequence is deadening and redundant. Assessing the film’s success as to whether or not it achieves the intended nationalistic effect, it pales in comparison to Battleship Potemkin, which had more story and, in the funeral sequence, a more effective sense of what exactly is at stake. The never-ending flurries of swordplay are emotionally distancing, and when the film does attempt to rally the audience with pageantry and moralizing in its third act, the manipulation is so transparent that it makes Strike look subtle by comparison. As gorgeous as the battle sequence is, the picture is that and nothing more, a thoroughly hollow exercise with tremendous technical merits but little else.



Battleship Potemkin (1925)
January 16, 2012, 10:57 pm
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Director: Sergei Eisenstein

The most famous of the propaganda films, Battleship Potemkin is Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 landmark of montage editing. Having now seen it projected, the film’s tremendous appeal was illuminated to me in a way that it hasn’t been before. There is no way to experience the picture unless its images can tower above you. Eisenstein’s method of earning both the audience’s sympathy and rage is much more advanced than in the forgettable suicide sequence of his first feature, Strike. When a heroic ship worker is murdered, the picture stops to take a breath in order to mourn him with a lengthy funeral sequence. Here, the film introduces a few relatively long takes – perhaps as long as any in the picture – and the way that Eisenstein holds to examine the stillness of the ocean water and the dreary progressional march is terrifically evocative of what can be lost and what needs to be made just in a revolution. Furthermore, the effectiveness of his death is heightened all the more because he is the only named protagonist of the picture, as Eisenstein intentionally addressed characters solely as a collective, with his mass bodies of men serving as a sort of hive-mind. Whereas Strike was pure sensation, in Battleship Potemkin Eisenstein’s call-to-arms is a hugely affecting thesis, a true coalescence between his thematic concerns and his aesthetic sensibilites.



Time in the Sun (1940)
January 9, 2012, 12:28 am
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Director(s): Sergei Eisenstein & Marie Seton

The production of ¡Que viva México!, Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s indented four-part epic about Mexican culture from the Mayans to the Revolution in 1910, was halted by producer Upton Sinclair before completion. Since then, the footage has been edited by several filmmakers into truncated versions that supposedly follow Eisenstein’s original outlines. Biographer Marie Seton’s version, entitled Time in the Sun, is successful insofar as Eisenstein’s footage is compelling, however the picture’s political themes are incomprehensible. Near the end of the film, the narrator speaks about the need for revolution despite no visual clues that convincingly suggest cultural unrest. While there are the makings of a successful ethnographic quasi-documentary utilizing the footage, Seton’s structure is a mess, a dull affair unworthy of the project’s prestige. As an outsider to both the production and the Soviet Union, one can assume that Seton’s vision would have shared little with Eisenstein’s, despite her access to a blueprint of his ideas.



Strike (1925)
January 8, 2012, 11:58 pm
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Director: Sergei Eisenstein

The first feature from Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein, completed just before his most remembered film, The Battleship Potemkin, Strike is a classic example of the intellectual montage editing familiar of other influential works of early Soviet cinema. Having been accused of stealing equipment by a superior, a factory worker commits suicide and incites the titular strike. The capitalists – in conjunction with the military – massacre the men, women, and children just before the final title card, calling for the audience to remember the tragedy and the importance of collectivism in battling the corrupt paymasters. Typical of its era, the film has no identifiable individual, rather it concerns the efforts of a mass identity, achieving pathos through their unionized agony. Despite the formal achievements – and one cannot discredit the influence that the picture has had both on filmmakers and on those who discuss cinema – the film’s visceral thrills inevitably grow wearisome, even if the crescendo is unforgettable. It is a picture that, through its relentless, excessive brutality, gives the feeling of having been pummeled.