If a Google Doodle is the best way to rediscover Sergei Eisenstein, so be it.
The pioneering avant-garde Russian filmmaker was born 120 years ago, on January 22, 1898, and died on February 11, 1948. He was only 50 when he succumbed to a heart attack. His legacy is rich, complex and, in many ways, immeasurable. Eisenstein’s politically loaded films galvanised the cinema of the former Soviet Union and beyond with their bold narrative approach, stylistic flourishes, dramatic use of cinematography, editing and music, and marriage between ideology and the craft of filmmaking. Here are six clips that demonstrate Eisenstein’s genius, his contributions to the art of editing through his theories on montage, and his ability to transcend propaganda to create enduring art.
Strike (1925) Eisenstein’s first-full length feature, made as a silent film, and depicting a workers’ protest at a factory in pre-Communist Russia in 1903. The film is divided into six chapters, draws heavily on metaphorical imagery (comparisons are drawn between dead animals and the slaving workers) and includes rousing images of the labourers gathering to defeat their exploitative capitalist overlords.
Battleship Potemkin (1925) If there is only one Eisenstein movie to watch, it is this one. The use of montage as an editing tool to create dramatic tensions and new meaning out of previously disconnected images finds full expression in this stirring tale of a mutiny on board the titular sailing vessel by its crew. The mutiny soon reaches land, where, at the Odessa port, the sailors and commoners unite against their cruel Tsar. As the guns on the Potemkin fire to protest against the Tsar’s actions, inanimate statues, including a lion, seemingly come to life, astounded by the revolution unfolding before their stony eyes. The Odessa steps sequence, another masterclass in editing, reappeared in Brian De Palma’s gangster movie The Untouchables (1987) and even in N Chandra’s Tezaab (1987).
October (1928) Eisenstein frequently fell out with the Soviet regime over his career – his silent-era films were attacked for being formalist, and his popularity in the West drew suspicion. October was among the projects that angered the Soviet regime that had produced the film. Eisenstein’s account of the 1917 October revolution, commissioned to mark its tenth anniversary, is justly celebrated for its explosive techniques, surrealist imagery, and remarkably realistic crowd sequences.
¡Que viva México! (1930, abandoned) Eisenstein’s dream project hoped to portray events relating to the Mexican revolution of 1910. The filmmaker travelled to the country in 1930 and shot several sequences that were abandoned after its producers backed out. The director’s associate, Grigori Aleksandrov, put together an edited version of the footage and finally released the film in 1979.
Alexander Nevsky (1938) A sound film, Alexander Nevsky revisits the battle for Novogrod (now known as Veliky Novogrod) between knights belonging to the Teutonic Order and the forces of Prince Alexander. Its battlefield sequences, use of background music and haunting imagery influenced numerous war dramas down the years.
Ivan The Terrible (1944 and 1958) Commissioned by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, this biopic of the sixteenth-century Russian Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich was meant to be released in two parts. The first came out in 1944, and pleased Stalin, but the autocrat banned the second part when it became clear that Eistenstein meant to depict Ivan’s excesses and obliquely critique Stalin in the bargain. The second movie was banned, and was released a decade after Eisenstein’s death during Nikita Khrushchev’s rule in 1958.
“Although it then seemed the anachronistic relic of a long-gone era, Ivan would, by the late 1960s, markedly influence the two most ambitious and beleaguered movies produced that decade in the Soviet Union—Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and Serge Paradjanov’s very different Sayat Nova,” J Hoberman writes. “Today, this unique work is recognized as the culmination of Eisenstein’s extraordinary and tragic career.”