Sergei Eisenstein

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  1. Sergei Eisenstein

From January 8 through February 1, the Gene Siskel Film Center, in collaboration with Seagull Films, presents "Sergei Eisenstein," a series of seven programs devoted to one of the giants of film history. All films are being shown in 35mm prints imported from Russia, and David Drazin will provide live piano accompaniment on consecutive Sundays for the silent classics STRIKE, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, and OCTOBER.

Born in Latvia, Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) developed in the atmosphere of creative euphoria that energized Soviet art in the years immediately following the 1917 Revolution. He began in the theater, where, under the mentorship of Vsevolod Meyerhold, he drew attention with stage productions based on aggressive, often carnivalesque effects known as "attractions." Eisenstein carried this confrontational approach into the celebrated "montage of attractions" that marked his first films STRIKE (1925) and BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925).

By the time of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, Eisenstein was modulating his style in a more symphonic direction that emphasized densely interwoven motifs as much as clash-oriented effects--a tendency that was carried further in his most elaborate silent film, OCTOBER (1928). After 1930, Eisenstein's disputes with Soviet officials, Hollywood studios, and financial backers led to a series of abortive projects, most famously his Upton Sinclair-financed Mexican epic, whose eye-popping footage has since been reassembled in different forms.

Returning to the Soviet Union, Eisenstein weathered a potentially dire storm of political disfavor and restored his standing with the patriotic epic ALEXANDER NEVSKY (1938). His style was now more operatic than agitprop, and less centered on editing effects than on sumptuous mise-en-scène elements such as decor, costume, and lighting. This stylistic shift was confirmed by his magnum opus IVAN THE TERRIBLE (1945-46), an intended trilogy whose third part was never completed, due to political interference and declining health. Eisenstein died of a heart ailment at age 50, leaving behind seven completed features, an array of tantalizing fragments, and dozens of brilliant essays that remain among the best writings on cinema.

The montage aesthetic and Marxist political context that previously dominated discussions of Eisenstein have caused him to be unnecessarily pigeonholed and, in some quarters, considered passé. In recent years, critics have been more inclined to value his work for its "blatant homoeroticism" (David Ehrenstein) and "full-tilt boogie expressionism" (Michael Atkinson). It is time to rediscover Sergei Eisenstein, not simply as a textbook exemplar of "Soviet Montage," but as one of film history's most spectacular and exhilarating stylists, able to mobilize the entire arsenal of cinema's resources--editing, mise-en-scène, music, documentary, and artifice--with a dazzling virtuosity that has never been surpassed.

Special thanks to Alla Verlotsky, Seagull Films.

—Martin Rubin

Eisenstein double-bill discount!
Buy a ticket for the first Eisenstein film on January 8, January 15, January 29, or February 1, and get a ticket for the second Eisenstein film that day at this discount rate (tickets must be purchased at the same time): General Admission $7; Students $6; Members $4. (This discount rate applies to the second film only. Discount rate available only at the Film Center box office.)

STRIKE

Showtimes

Sun, Jan 8th at 3:00pm
Wed, Jan 11th at 6:00pm
Average: 3.8 (5 votes)
  1. STRIKE
  1. (STACHKA)
  2. 1925, Sergei Eisenstein, Russia, 82 min.

Eisenstein's first film is a work of precocious brilliance, brimming with flashy effects and an exuberant energy that trumps the story's tragic outcome. Based loosely on real events that took place in 1903, it tells of a factory uprising triggered by the suicide of a worker wrongly accused of theft. The performances (especially the zesty caricatures of capitalist pigs and their lumpen stooges) are highly theatrical, but the techniques (especially the dynamic editing and grittily beautiful cinematography) are already thoroughly cinematic. 35mm. (MR)

Silent film with live piano accompaniment by David Drazin on Sunday; recorded music score on Wednesday.

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BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN

Showtimes

Sun, Jan 15th at 3:15pm
Tue, Jan 17th at 6:15pm
Average: 4.2 (5 votes)
  1. BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN
  1. (BRONENOSETS POTYOMKIN)
  2. 1925, Sergei Eisenstein, Russia, 70 min.

Like CITIZEN KANE and BREATHLESS, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN is one of those groundbreaking classics that never gets old, retaining its freshness and excitement in viewing after viewing. Eisenstein's brilliant editing and compositional strategies prove the perfect vehicle for this dynamic, emotionally riveting recreation of the 1905 naval mutiny that erupted into a widespread uprising, foreshadowing the 1917 revolution. 35mm. (MR)

Silent film with live piano accompaniment by David Drazin on Sunday; recorded music score on Tuesday.

Please note: This print, imported from Russia, is very old and contains many splices. This may effect the quality of the screening. We apologize for any inconvenience.

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TIME IN THE SUN

Showtimes

Sun, Jan 8th at 4:45pm
Mon, Jan 9th at 6:00pm
No votes yet
  1. TIME IN THE SUN
  1. 1940, Sergei Eisenstein and Marie Seton, USA, 56 min.

Two fascinating fragments from Eisenstein's post-1930 period in the wilderness:

In 1931, Eisenstein filmed over 50 hours of footage for his four-part Mexican epic QUÉ VIVA MÉXICO! before producer Upton Sinclair halted production. The footage was repackaged into several truncated versions. In 1939-40, Eisenstein biographer Marie Seton compiled TIME IN THE SUN, based, she claimed, on an outline provided by the director himself. Eisenstein considered the Mexican footage to be the best he had ever filmed, and these stunningly photographed remnants (especially a Day of the Dead celebration) confirm his high regard. English narration. 35mm.

BEZHIN MEADOW
(BEZHIN LUG)
1937, Sergei Eisenstein, Russia, 31 min.

Preceded by BEZHIN MEADOW, a rural-political drama (based on a story by Turgenev) that was nearly completed when production was halted for political reasons; the only surviving print was destroyed during the war. This condensed version was reconstructed from still images in 1968. 35mm. (MR)

ALEXANDER NEVSKY

Showtimes

Sun, Jan 15th at 4:45pm
Wed, Jan 18th at 6:00pm
Average: 4.5 (4 votes)
  1. ALEXANDER NEVSKY
  1. (ALEKSANDR NEVSKY)
  2. 1938, Sergei Eisenstein, Russia, 111 min.
  3. With Nikolai Cherkassov

In 13th-century Russia, Prince Alexander Nevsky struggles to alert his countrymen to the threat posed by Teutonic knights (widely interpreted as allegorical stand-ins for Nazi Germany). Eisenstein's baroque images and Prokofiev's thundering score set the standard for director-composer collaborations, reaching a peak in the celebrated Battle on the Ice, one of the greatest action set pieces in the history of cinema. In Russian with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)

OCTOBER

Showtimes

Sun, Jan 22nd at 3:00pm
Thu, Jan 26th at 6:00pm
Average: 4 (3 votes)
  1. OCTOBER
  1. (OKTYABR)
  2. (aka TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD)
  3. 1928, Sergei Eisenstein, Russia, ca. 110 min.

Commissioned to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 1917 revolution (but released a year late due to production delays), OCTOBER is Eisenstein's most elaborate and ambitious film, both for the historical scope of its narrative and for the wide-ranging application of his montage theories. The film begins with the toppling of the Tsarist regime, but the central conflict is between the bourgeoisfied Provisional Government under Kerensky and the righteous Bolsheviks under Lenin. Eisenstein's no-expense-spared recreations of battles and demonstrations are so convincing that they often pass for the real thing in documentaries on the Russian Revolution. 35mm. (MR)

Silent film with live piano accompaniment by David Drazin on Sunday; recorded music score on Thursday.

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IVAN THE TERRIBLE - PART I

Showtimes

Sun, Jan 29th at 3:00pm
Wed, Feb 1st at 6:15pm
Average: 5 (3 votes)
  1. IVAN THE TERRIBLE - PART I
  1. (IVAN GROZNYY)
  2. 1945, Sergei Eisenstein, Russia, 96 min.
  3. With Nikolai Cherkassov, Lyudmila Tselikovskaya

"Eisenstein's greatest cinematic achievement, a vast, hypnotic epic charged with operatic splendor."
—Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune

IVAN THE TERRIBLE was originally conceived as a trilogy on the life of the notorious 16th-century Czar who united Russia, but only the first two parts were completed before the director's death. Shifting from the montage-based aesthetic of Eisenstein's silent films, the two IVAN's are a triumph of shadowy, claustrophobic mise-en-scene, filled with looming icons, gargoylish close-ups, and the Kabuki-like postures struck by imposing lead actor Cherkassov.

PART I charts the young Czar's ruthless rise to power in the face of treacherous nobles, Asian armies, and near-fatal illness. In the more flamboyant and eccentric PART II (banned by Stalin and not released until 1958), an epic of national unity turns into a nightmare of despotic paranoia, capped by the most sinister musical number (one of the film's two color sequences) this side of SWEENEY TODD. Music by Sergei Prokofiev. In Russian with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)

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IVAN THE TERRIBLE - PART II

Showtimes

Sun, Jan 29th at 5:00pm
Wed, Feb 1st at 8:15pm
Average: 4.7 (3 votes)
  1. IVAN THE TERRIBLE - PART II
  1. (IVAN GROZNYY)
  2. 1946/1958, Sergei Eisenstein, Russia, 90 min.
  3. With Nikolai Cherkassov, Serafima Birman

"Eisenstein's greatest cinematic achievement, a vast, hypnotic epic charged with operatic splendor."
—Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune

IVAN THE TERRIBLE was originally conceived as a trilogy on the life of the notorious 16th-century Czar who united Russia, but only the first two parts were completed before the director's death. Shifting from the montage-based aesthetic of Eisenstein's silent films, the two IVAN's are a triumph of shadowy, claustrophobic mise-en-scene, filled with looming icons, gargoylish close-ups, and the Kabuki-like postures struck by imposing lead actor Cherkassov.

PART I charts the young Czar's ruthless rise to power in the face of treacherous nobles, Asian armies, and near-fatal illness. In the more flamboyant and eccentric PART II (banned by Stalin and not released until 1958), an epic of national unity turns into a nightmare of despotic paranoia, capped by the most sinister musical number (one of the film's two color sequences) this side of SWEENEY TODD. Music by Sergei Prokofiev. In Russian with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)

See video