Sergei Eisenstein

Retrospective at the
Harvard Film Archives

Nélida Nassar  5.20.2012

Sergei Eisenstein’s retrospective at the Harvard Film Archives started last week, with some of this giant’s director seminal films: Strike, The General Line or Old and New, Battleship Potemkin, and Oktober. This week’s program resumes with Bezhin Meadow (Bezhin Lug), Que Viva Mexico!, Ivan the terrible Part One and Part Two, and will close with
 Alexander Nevsky.

On opening night, the two silent movies screening of Strike and The General line or Old and New had live music accompaniment by film music MIT Professor Martin Marks. Professor Martins re-known for performing silent films music played for three hours and twenty two minutes with a short interval, a mélange by the three Russian composers dubbed the consciousness of the revolution: Sergei Prokofiev, Dimitri Shostakovitch, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Professor Martin dazzled the audience with his virtuosity garnering enthusiastic applauses and accolades.

In Strike, 1925 Eisenstein presents a brilliant and complex recreation of the development and suppression of a factory strike by Tsarist Cossaks.  Hacking a revolutionary aesthetic out of space and time, it is a visual and technical masterpiece portraying historical events while abandoning storytelling in favor of a broad chronicle. At the filming of Strike, Eisenstein has been developing the Kuloshov’s montage effect editing.  He uses enormous skill to enhance symbolism inspired by Vsevolod Meyerhold’s teaching. Depicting tragic events, he achieves highly charged emotional responses to the working class strengths, energy and heroism.

The General Line, 1927 is a celebration of the collectivization of agriculture, as championed by old-line Bolshevik Leon Trotsky. Also famous for its montage-like imagery ­– the film uses simple props to trace the progress from the agrarian customs of the 19th-century to the more mechanized procedures of the 20th-century.

The complete reconstruction of both 1925 Battleship Potemkin and the revolutionary 1928 Oktober courtesy of Berlin’s Kino International were projected the following evening. For the first time both silent films had integrated sound featuring music composed by Edmund Meisel.  Eisenstein’s images, combined with Meisel’s powerful rhythmic music, drew the viewer into a maelstrom. In some places, the orchestra acted purely as a percussion instrument, effectively dissipating any impression of a musically aesthetic world of illusion. Nothing less than the revolution was on the march in these two features.

Battle Potemkin depicted a dramatized version of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their officers of the Tsarist regime.  Even with the impressive shots and obtuse-for-the-time story structure, it still draws us into beauty due to the strength of both its composition and montage.  Our eyes wonder the frame and zoomed plans demonstrating the importance of visual information where films communicated primarily through images.

Oktober followed a commission to make a film celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.  This film is a chronicle of the events leading up and during the October up rise. Here Eisenstein excels in creating a montage of religious images such as an elaborate crucifix devolving into a primitive relic conveying his critique of religion. The film is the embodiment of what was venal and arrogant in the pre-Revolutionary political establishment. Few visual and rational queues could be translated into our political, current reality.

If you happen to be in Cambridge this week, do not miss this glorious retrospective, come, enjoy and bask!

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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