Sergei Eisenstein

The Films of Sergei Eisenstein:

“Alexander Nevsky” - Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitriy Vasilev (1938)

Film directing luminary Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) was, at least among the international critical community, a superstar from the outset of his career in Russia, when at the age of twenty-six he made his classic silent film The Battleship Potemkin (1925).  In fact to this day, his reputation, rests primarily on that film and its immediate successor, October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1927).  But his most successful film with the wider public was his first sound film, Alexander Nevsky (1938).  This latter film had interesting cinematic features that contrasted with his earlier work and shed light on Eisenstein’s complex aesthetics.

Eisenstein’s eminence rests not only on his film-directing talents but also on some other factors.  In those early days of the 1920s, Marxism and communism were fascinations of those on the political left, and Eisenstein’s films championing these causes attracted those in the critical and academic community who were sympathetic to such ideas.  In addition, film was a relatively new form of expression in those days, and Eisenstein’s theoretical writings on the subject attracted its own following.  In particular, Eisenstein promoted the notion of film’s unique element of montage, which was primarily concerned with the composition and juxtaposition of images over the temporal dimension.  Following on from the work of his colleague Lev Kuleshov, Eisenstein was interested in formulating a formal grammar of montage, and he was particularly interested not so much in the smooth transition between successive film images, but in the idea of how successive images could “collide” with each other [1,2].  In general, Eisenstein’s published articles on film, which were later collected, translated into English, and published in The Film Sense (1942) [3] and Film Form (1949) [4], revealed a man who was focused on a scientific and materialistic understanding of reality.  Film was simply a new and powerful tool of expression that could be employed for socially useful purposes. But I would say that Eisenstein’s subjective passions were still lurking in his aesthetic subconscious.

With the advent of sound in film, Eisenstein was particularly interested in learning how he could incorporate the sound medium into his montage theories of “collision” [5].  He accepted an invitation to come to the United States, where sound technology was most advanced, to participate in some sound film projects on offer from Paramount Pictures.  Although he entered into several projects, Eisenstein couldn’t make a go with his American producers and collaborators, and all his efforts in America, including a lengthy production endeavor in Mexico supported by famed author Upton Sinclair, came to nothing.  When he returned to Russia, Eisenstein was assigned to make a film there, Bezhin Meadow, but that, too, was a project that got bogged down in production difficulties and was ultimately cancelled.  It may have been the case that Eisenstein, once he became famous, was given too much artistic latitude to explore his theories and could not now bring his productions to closure under these circumstances.  The tolerance in Russia under Stalin for such missteps was of course much less than in the American environment, and this presented an immanent danger.  Fortunately for Eisenstein, the blame for the failure of Bezhin Meadow was ultimately pinned on someone else, the producer Boris Shumyatsky, who was then arrested, convicted of treason, and executed.

Finally Eisenstein was given another chance to direct, which resulted Alexander Nevsky.  This time, though, in order to curb Eisenstein’s artistic wanderings, he was assigned a co-director, Dmitriy Vasilev, who was instructed to maintain a tight shooting schedule.  The film was completed on time and was well-received in both Russia and the West.  Interestingly, prior to the film’s release, an early version was shown to Stalin, but with a reel missing.  Since Stalin approved what he saw, the completed film was released by the producers without that missing reel [6].

When we watch Alexander Nevsky today, we don’t see so much a tightly edited montage collision of opposing feelings and ideas. Instead we see a fascinating presentation of expressionistic imagery that relies less on temporal composition and more on the almost dreamlike emotional landscape evoked.  I would suggest that this expressionistic mode was always an important part of Eisenstein’s aesthetics, even if it was not so much articulated in his essays.  In any case Eisenstein’s expressionism in his later films, which also include Ivan The Terrible, Part I (1944) and Ivan The Terrible, Part II (1945), may seem overblown to some viewers today, and critical reactions to these film vary widely [6,7,8,9].

The story of Alexander Nevsky concerns 13th century Russian military leader Prince Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky, who turned back an invasion attempt by the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire in 1242.  Since the Teutonic Knights were primarily a German order, the entire scenario is clearly depicted as a metaphor for the then threatened German Nazi invasion of Russia, which did in fact take place a few years after the film’s release.

Overall, the film has very much a pro-war message. In fact some critics have even said in this regard that this is Eisenstein’s most propagandist film [6].  Its pro-war message is part of an essentially “blood and soil” theme that underlies the entire film [10].  “Blood and soil” had been primarily associated with and fully exploited in Germany, and it emphasizes allegiance to racial origins and possessive claims to native lands.  But here we see it transformed perfectly into a Russian context. 

To convey the idea that war is a noble act of heroism, Eisenstein and his cinematographer Eduard Tisse constantly employed low-angle shots to look up to their Russian heroes.  This effect is accentuated by the tall stature of the title-role actor Nikolai Cherkasov, who was 6' 6" (1.98m) tall [11].  The film also features Russian patriotic anthems along with a score composed by Sergei Prokofiev.  It is said that Prokofiev worked closely with Eisenstein in connection with the music, sometimes composing musical elements that fit Eisenstein’s shooting script, and in other places the film was cut to synchronize with Prokofiev’s music [6].  Despite this close cooperation, though, I don’t think the music goes well with the images, particularly in connection with the battle scenes.  In addition, I also found it surprising, given Eisenstein’s fascination with the montage possibilities of sound, that the sound effects in the film are weak and add almost nothing to the presentation.

The film narrative is relatively simple, with everything leading toward the famous “Battle on Ice” between Nevsky’s forces and the Teutonic Knights.  There are two threads of focalization – one surrounding the struggle between Nevsky and his foes and the other concerning the friendly romantic competition between two of Nevsky’s lieutenants over a beautiful Russian maiden.  But even this second narrative thread is adamantly pro-war.

1.  The Background Situation
The opening section provides background information about Alexander and his situation. The Rus’ domain, which was a core area of medieval Russia had recently been invaded from the east by the Mongolian Golden Horde (later known as the Tatars), to whom the Rus’ people were compelled to pay tribute.  But at least their sovereignty was still intact.  Then there was another threat, this time from Sweden.  However, the young Alexander Yaroslavich had successfully defended the key city of Novgorod from an attack by the Swedish army near the Neva river, for which victory he had earned the title of “Nevsky”.  Afterwards, competitive pressure from the aristocratic boyar merchants had compelled Nevsky to leave Novgorod.  But now, at the beginning of this film, the city of Novgorod is again imperiled, this time by the invading German Teutonic Knights from the west.  The desperate Lord Novgorod is finally forced to summon Nevsky back to the city to lead their defense.

At the same time, two leading Novgorod warriors and comrades, Vasili Buslaev (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo Oleksich (Andrei Abrikosov) are competitively eyeing a beautiful young woman Olga Danilovna (Vera Ivashova).

Meanwhile the German Teutons sack the nearby city of Pskov, throwing women and children into bonfires and hanging one of the city’s defenders, the daughter of whom, Vasilisa (Aleksandra Danilova), looks on in horror.

2.  The Call to War
The second section of the film is a strident summoning to go to war.  Nevsky knows that to defeat the Germans he will have to recruit an army of peasants, and the people joyfully volunteer to fight.  Even Vasilisa, who has made it to Novgorod, volunteers to become a warrior in true blood-and-soil feminist tradition.

The city’s craftspeople all devote themselves to making weapons.  As one craftsman Ignat (Dmitri Orlov) tells Vasilisa when giving her a sword, “even a flea cannot be killed without a tool.”  Olga tells Vasili and Gavrilo that she will marry the one who shows the most valor in battle.  It’s all about killing now.

The Germans are shown to be particularly demonic, and even their praying to God looks like a collective act of wicked sorcery.  In fact the portrayal here invokes notions of a religious war, as the Orthodox Russians are confronted by a Roman Catholic hegemony bent on mass annihilation.  Eisenstein always shows the German army in an eerily inhuman white color (except for their satanically black-clad bishop), while the Russians army is in earthy gray. 

Before the impending battle, Nevsky overhears Ignat tell a ribald joke, and from this he gets the inspiration of employing a pincer strategy much like the one that Hannibal employed against the Romans at the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C.

3.  The Battle on Ice
The battle takes place on a frozen lake Chudskoye, and it consumes the next thirty minutes of screen time.  Much of the footage shows endless hand-to-hand fighting and swordplay, with Vasili and Ignat, in particular, joyously reveling in the slaughter, while Prokofiev’s loud carnival music plays. 
To these warriors, the whole thing is like a sporting event.

Although the Germans are better armed, Nevsky’s pincer attack works, and the tide of the battle eventually shifts in favor of the Russians.  Then the ice underfoot starts to crack under the weight of the heavier German armor, which engulfs much of the German attack force.

4.  The Celebration
After the German army is routed, the scene shifts back to Novgorod, where the townspeople celebrate their victory and honor their dead heroes.  The triumphant Nevsky announces that he will ransom the captured German knights.  Then he lets the vengeful townspeople tear to pieces two traitorous citizens who had been furtively assisting the Germans.

Vasili and Gavrilo are both wounded but survive, and their rivalry ends in a gentlemanly and tidy fashion.  Gavrilo gets Olga, while Vasili selects the equally beautiful Vasilisa.

In the final shot, Alexander Nevsky issues his stern warning to the outer world:
“Go and tell all the people in foreign parts that Rus lives.  Let people come to us as guests without fear.  But he who comes with sword in hand, by the sword shall perish. On this Rus stands and will forever stand!”

The entire film plays like a bizarre Gothic carnival, and its nightmarish features lie at the core of the film’s overall appeal.  However, Eisenstein’s cinematography and editing are sometimes surprising, with numerous camera-axis crossings and awkward jump cuts.  This may have been an artifact of Eisenstein’s rushed shooting schedule.  And the long battle scene of the Battle on Ice becomes repetitious after awhile and was in need of more context-establishing longer shots to help sustain the visual narrative flow.  Nevertheless, some of the fighting shots are effectively and realistically enhanced by foreground swordplay that often obscures the battling subjects of interest.  This promotes the feeling that the invisible witness is right in the middle of the chaotic action.

In the end, we can see that Alexander Nevsky is a celebration of blood-and-soil patriotism, which always comes to dominate in times of war.  When war comes, all principles of universal humanity and empathy for the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of man are set aside in subservience to the heroic leader, like Alexander Nevsky.  So despotic elites sustain themselves and live off of the threat of war.
 
In recent times the threat of war has been extended further – to the notion a pervasive and eternal terrorist threat.  This is what was evoked by the Nazis after the Reichstag fire in 1933,
and it is also the foundational thinking behind the current Global War on Terror. So we must be prepared, because our current despotic leaders (as well as their Chief Strategist/Puppetmasters) will most likely come up with another Reichstag fire sometime in the next few years in an attempt to put an end to liberal, law- and rights-based democracy [12]. 
★★

Notes:
  1. Evelyn Gerstein, “Russia’s Film Wizard”, Theater Guild Magazine (February 1930), included in Introduction to the Art of the Movies, Lewis Jacobs, (ed.), (1960), pp. 134-139.
  2. Sergei Eisenstein, “Collision of Ideas”, (selection from "The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram”, Film Form, Jay Leyda (trans. and ed.), Harcourt Brace and Company, (1949/1957), pp. 37-40.), Film, A Montage of Theories, Richard Dyer MacCann, E. P. Dutton, (1966), pp. 37-39.
  3. Sergei Eisenstein, The Film Sense, Jay Leyda (trans. and ed.), Harcourt Brace and Company, (1942). 
  4. Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form, Jay Leyda, (trans. and ed.), Harcourt Brace and Company, (1949).
  5. S. Eisenstein, “Eisenstein on Sound”, New York Sun, (5 June 1930), included in Introduction to the Art of the Movies, Lewis Jacobs, (ed.), (1960), pp. 165-167.
  6. J. Hoberman, “Alexander Nevsky”, The Criterion Collection, (23 April 2001).   
  7. Roger Ebert, “Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II”, RogerEbert.com, (19 January 2012). 
  8. Roderick Heath, “Alexander Nevsky (1938)”, Ferdy on Films, (2010).  
  9. Matthew Dessem, “#87: Alexander Nevsky”, The Criterion Contraption, (1 September 2008).  
  10. “Blood and Soil”, Wikipedia, (20 February 2017).   
  11. “Nikolay Cherkasov Biography”, iMDB, (n.d.). 
  12. Timothy Snyder, "The Reichstag Warning", The New York Review of Books, (26 February 2017).   

Buster Keaton

Films of Buster Keaton:

“Seven Chances” - Buster Keaton (1925)

Buster Keaton (Joseph Frank Keaton,1895-1966) had a distinguished and productive fifty-year career as a producer, director, writer, and actor.  But what elevates Keaton into the pantheon of movie-making greats is the string of silent films he made during the 1920s.  These films –  including Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), and The Cameraman (1928) – all featured Keaton as the modest but determined protagonist fighting a comic uphill battle.  Of all of those Keaton films during that run, though, perhaps the most manic and brilliant of them is Seven Chances (1925).  Like many of his films, this one builds up its pace as it goes along, but in this case the frenzied intensity that it ultimately achieves is unparalleled and a work of genius.

Keaton’s cinematic style revolves around the theatrical persona that he always portrayed.  This was supported by his patented porkpie hat (which singled him out), his perpetual upright posture, and his customary deadpan expression (which earned him the moniker “The Great Stone Face”) in response to the numerous setbacks that befall him.  In some sense you could say that Keaton’s character personified the innocent Everyman within all of us – the hopeful boy scout struggling to avoid being overwhelmed by life’s capricious interventions.  Keaton developed his famous deadpan expression and his ability to withstand potentially dangerous pratfalls as a child vaudeville stage performer for his family’s traveling medicine show.  As a consequence, in all of these films, Keaton performed all his own stunts.  And part of our astonishment in watching his films concerns how he managed to survive the large number of life-threatening scenes that he staged for the camera.  Remember, this was all done on constrained budgets and before the special-effect technology available today.

Another fascinating feature of Keaton’s cinematic style was the unique way he fashioned his narrative structure.  He generally avoids the usual technique of setting the viewer up with tense anticipation of some event  that is expected to occur; instead he presents a stream of unexpected events that continually surprise (and amuse) the viewer [1].  This is the essence of his humor. 
  
All of this is on display in Seven Chances, which was based on a story by David Belasco that had been fashioned into the hit Broadway play, Seven Chances (1916), by Roi Cooper Megrue.  In fact Keaton wasn’t particularly enamored of this play, and he added some scenes toward the end of the narrative that make the film an extraordinary work.  In particular, the famous stone avalanche scene was only added after Keaton gauged a preview audience’s reaction to an early cut of the film.

The story of Seven Chances has four rather distinct acts.  Each successive act quite literally accelerates the pace of the film.  The first act involves mostly standing around; the second act involves walking; the third act involves running; and the final act is an even more desperate sprint.  Throughout the course of these acts the film moves more and more into an expressionistic nightmare of almost cosmic proportions.

1.  Jimmy’s Circumstances
The opening scenes (presented only in this part using an early version of Technicolor) covering a period of more than a year, show five almost static shots of the shy and tongue-tied Jimmy Shannon (Buster Keaton) unable to tell his girlfriend Mary Jones (Ruth Dwyer) that he loves her.
Telling a girl that he loves her will soon be his mission in this story. 

Then the scene shifts to Jimmy’s workplace.  He and his partner Billy Meekin (T. Roy Barnes) run a brokerage firm that is facing huge deficits.  To avoid prison, they need money fast.  However, a lawyer with some promising news approaches them, and after several missed connections and misadventures, Jimmy and Meekin learn what is on offer.  Jimmy is to inherit seven million dollars [2] if he is married by 7pm on his 27th birthday, which just happens to be that very day.  So Jimmy has to get married within a few hours to collect the money.

Jimmy rushes over to Mary to propose to her, but she is offended by Jimmy’s blundering mention of the money he stands to earn if her can marry someone on that day, so she kicks him out.  Soon Mary, after talking to her mother, has a change of heart and wants Jimmy back, but she can’t get in touch with him.  The heartbroken Jimmy returns to Meekin, who convinces him that they should head over to their country club and hitch Jimmy up with someone else.

2.  The Seven Chances
Jimmy is familiar with seven single women at the club, and this act is mostly a string of sight gags showing Jimmy’s hurried and unsuccessful proposals.  Not knowing about Jimmy’s potential inheritance, the women all laughingly dismiss Jimmy’s proposals out of hand.  After failing with the seven women, Jimmy even tries the club’s hatcheck girl to no avail.  Then he runs out into the street and approaches random women, including a real, and in those days famous, female impersonator, Julian Eltinge.
 
Now it’s getting late.  Meekin posts a front-page notice in the afternoon newspaper calling for any woman to appear at the Broad Street Church by 5pm in order to marry into a seven million dollar fortune.  Meekin tells Jimmy to show up at the church and be ready to marry.

Up to this point, more than halfway through the film, the comic scenes have been conventionally humorous, but now things start getting surreal.

3.  The Chase
Jimmy shows up at the church and takes a snooze in one of the pews.  While he is sleeping, the church gradually fills up with an enormous crowd of avaricious women who have read the newspaper notice and are hoping to marry a millionaire.  They have all come with makeshift bridal veils are intent to tie the knot.

When the alarmed church minister sees the huge crowd, he announces to them that the whole thing must be a hoax.  Infuriated, the women all vengefully turn on Jimmy and he runs for his life. The chase is on, and this is where the film gets interesting and takes an expressionistic turn.

The mob of angry women, when observed by a gradually receding camera, becomes more of an abstraction, appearing more and more like a marauding horde of predatory brigands intent on destroying everything in its path.  There are a number of shots showing the increasingly destructive powers of the out-of-control mob of rampaging women, as they chase after the terrified Jimmy.  Even the police in the area run away and hide.   

Jimmy has by this time learned of Mary’s change of heart, and when he happens to run by Meekin, he yells at him to bring the minister to Mary’s house and that he will try to meet him there before 7pm.

4.  The Final Sprint
Now things become even more surreal.  Jimmy runs out into the countryside with an enormous, unruly horde of brick-carrying women in hot pursuit.  When he scampers down a hillside, he accidentally dislodges some rocks which quickly sets of a massive avalanche.  Jimmy is soon dodging gigantic boulders that are as big as he is and threaten to crush him.

At this point, nature itself has turned on Jimmy – the entire universe appears set on his destruction.  In fact the rockslide is so horrific that it makes the hitherto implacable horde of enraged women flee in terror.  The film has now become an expressionistic nightmare.

Jimmy is still trying to make it to Mary’s house, and it is now just minutes before 7pm.  You will have to see for yourself what happens in the end.


It seems that Buster Keaton embellished the original Seven Chances play with these last two acts of the film.  What he achieved is a level of slapstick that pushes the boundaries of credibility and even humor.   The idea that “Hell has no fury like a woman scorned” has been taken to its limits, and the film spoofs the more tender gender by holding up an absurd caricature of its opposite temper.  But Keaton managed to put it all together and maintain a tenor of mind-bendingly outrageous humor throughout.  And for this reason Seven Chances stands as a testament to one of the masters of film expression.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Roger Ebert, “The Films of Buster Keaton”, RogerEbert.com, (10 November 2002).   
  2. $7 million in 1925 would be close to $100 million today.