Victoria Brown, Arts and Entertainment’s Co-Editor.
A Season of Soviet Cinema: The films of Sergei Eisenstein.
If you’re a film enthusiast but haven’t had the chance to study cinema academically, then you may not have come across the films of Sergei Eisenstein. With a career spanning over 20 years, Eisenstein was a major influence on the language of cinema. He is among the most renowned filmmakers and film theorists of the 20th century, and any serious fan of cinema will gain a new understanding of the art by viewing four of his key films: ‘Strike,’ (1925) ‘Battleship Potemkin,’ (1925) ‘October: Ten days that shook the world,’ (1928) and ‘Ivan The Terrible, Parts I & II.’ (1945) Queen’s Film Theatre are also presenting ‘What should a Soviet Film be? A talk by Ian Christie.’ Here Christie, a film historian, offers a guide to how cinema grew and became increasingly important for the Bolsheviks.
The soviet cinema season coincides with the 100th anniversary of the revolution, and is part of the Belfast International Arts festival.
Eisenstein was born to a middle-class family in 1898 in Riga, Latvia (then part of the Russian Empire in the Governorate of Livonia.) In 1920, he began his career in theatre, but swiftly moved onto theory in 1923. Eisenstein’s most noteworthy contribution to film theory was ‘The Montage of Attractions’ published in ‘Left Front of the Arts,’ an avant-garde journal in the Soviet Union. Montage is an editing style of assembling different shots together, and while this is commonplace in contemporary films, it was largely unheard of in the early years of cinema.
Eisenstein entered the world of cinema at an interesting time. After the First World War, Russia was in chaos. In 1917, Vladimir Lenin had led the Bolsheviks in a revolution against the Tsar. After the revolution, the new leaders needed a way to communicate fast with over 160 million people (many of whom were illiterate,) so film became the communist’s mass communication medium. In 1919, the ‘VGIK: All Union State Institution of Cinematography,’ or the ‘Moscow Film School,’ was founded with the intention of teaching new filmmakers to create films that supported the Bolshevik political party. These films were known as ‘agit-prop films,’ for their intentions were to agitate audiences and serve as political propaganda.
This may lead one to think that propaganda films would lack any sense of creativity, but these new filmmakers, Eisenstein among them, were fascinated by the theory of film and how it could be applied in their own work. Rather than sticking to conventional continuity editing pioneered by his Hollywood counterparts, Eisenstein approached film intellectually.
Eisenstein’s theory of Montage was that this style of editing could elicit an emotional response from the viewer, which Eisenstein believed was the key element to connecting with an audience in the context of a propaganda-driven film. FilmmakerIQ explains that Eisenstein saw “the collision of one shot or montage cell with another as creating conflict that produced a new idea.” The rhythm of this moves the film’s tone higher and higher, constantly creating tension and causing new conflicts. Eisenstein identified five Methods of Montage – Metric, Rhythmic, Tonal, Overtonal/Associational, and Intellectual – and applies them to the more abstract sequences in his propaganda films. If you wish to learn more about Eisenstein’s theory, FilmmakerIQ is a great place to start.
While the theory may be difficult to grasp, you do not need to fully understand its complexity to appreciate it in its visual form. The films that the Queen’s Film Theatre have chosen are all significant examples of Eisenstein’s theory at work. ‘Strike,’ (1925) was Eisenstein’s first feature-length film. Widely considered the first major ‘agit-prop film,’ ‘Strike’ explores the build up to and the consequences of a strike in 1903 by workers in pre-revolutionary Russia. Highly metaphorical, ‘Strike’ is perhaps a perfect example of the Bolshevik party’s emphasis on collectivism among the proletariats. Closely behind that is ‘Battleship Potemkin’ (1925). The true story of a sailor’s revolt aboard the Battleship Potemkin, this film is often cited as one of the greatest in history. Eisenstein’s most famous application of montage is featured in this film, a sequence known as ‘The Odessa Steps.’ ‘October: Ten days that shook the world.’ (1928) It was made to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the storming of the Winter Palace in October 1917. This is arguably Eisenstein’s most controversial film, but it is undeniable in its power. Finally, in 1945 Eisenstein made ‘Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II.’ A third part would have been completed if it were not for Eisenstein’s death in 1948. Although made at the tail-end of his career, ‘Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II,’ are often cited not only among Eisenstein’s greatest films, but among the greatest films in all of cinema.
This fantastic season of films will provide audiences with new intellectual insights into a key architect of cinematic language. It is not to be missed.
Dates and times can be found on the Queen’s Film Theatre’s website.