The Eisenstein Festival
At the Brattle through Monday
As the years pass it becomes harder and harder to appreciate Sergei Eisenstein on his own terms. By now his innovations have become either conventional or out-moded. His stories are unabashedly didactic: Potemkin was rushed through production in time to commemorate the 1905 uprising Nevsky was made as anti-German nationalistic propaganda in 1939, and Ivan was created as a pageant of Russian national unification.
The Battle hip Potemkin is possibly the purest example of Eisenstein's descriptive technique, which he called "montage." Working from a simple, almost schematic series of events, Eisenstein tries to translate the story's social consequences into visual images--faces, gestures, and objects. He isolates fragments of an event and strings them together like the parts of a sentence, which qualify each other and add up to a statement. Certain images become symbols: the surgeon's pince-nez stands for the surgeon and in turn for the Czarist authority he represents.
Eisenstein's formal thematic approach to the story obscures the narrative. (He seems to assume that the audience already knows the plot.) The dramatic suspense suffers from his visual elaborations. Dialogue labels characters "good" or "bad" rather than engaging our interest in them. Furthermore, montage expands the time span of crucial events instead of condensing it. Eisenstein relies on the "rhythm" of the cutting and the motion within the Odessa Steppes scene to keep things exciting; but the silent tumult, the stationary camera, and the formality of description strain a modern audience's attention.
In Alexander Nevsky, the dramatic action benefits from a lack of ideological grist. This 13th century chronicle bears its age better than any other of Eisenstein's films. There is room for characterization and for dramatic imagination. The result is one of the last heroic spectacles to be made without a bedroom scene. Prokofiev's stirring score helps carry the action along, and the film's exuberance and good humor make even Eisenstein's most transparent gimmicks enjoyable--such as the Teutonic knights who jog on unseen mechanical horses. Their full-scale charge across the frozen River Neva was filmed in midsummer on a meadow covered with powdered chalk.
Eisenstein pits Nevsky against diabolic Swedes in brutal-looking helmets and flapping white robes. Nevsky's heroism is magnified by comparison with his lieutenants Buslai and Gavrilo--heroes on a more human scale.
Ivan the Terrible is the most painstakingly constructed of Eisenstein's films, and the most difficult. His first effort in color appears midway through Part II. He planned all the scenery himself and sketched each shot before he took it, plotting out every shadow and ornament. By now Eisenstein was almost a captive of the montage idea, and the plot is impossible to follow. He gave the film immense scale and ponderousness at the expense of pace; it is practically a series of paintings. The conspiring boyars stare malignantly from the shadows, Ivan stands, kneels, and writhes before fearsome religious images, great armies, and burning cities. There is almost no relief from the sheer weight of evil.
Eisenstein followed a complicated color scheme, attempting to define and use the emotional associations of particular colors. The color in Part II looks convincingly abstracted from reality due mainly to the crude chemistry of early Soviet color film. Sitting through Ivan requires patience.