Monday, 20th May 2019

Rediscovering The Magic of Eisenstein

Posted on 29. Apr, 2011 by in Rediscover

Rediscovering The Magic of Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein’s career is one of the cinema’s greatest what ifs.  Incredibly talented, he was, however, stifled by the politics of his country.  Who knows what could have happened if he had been a nurtured artist rather than an oppressed one?  What we do know is that he left us with a handful of brilliant films, perhaps the greatest of which is The Battleship Potemkin.

Potemkin tells the story of a mutiny aboard a battleship.  Rebellion is in the air, but the mistreatment of the sailors by the officers finally pushes them over the edge.  The conditions, they are given rotten meat to eat and are threatened with hanging when they do not eat it, have become intolerable and they fight back, taking over the battleship.  Revolution and sacrifice are embraced, and the people of Odessa celebrate and honor their comrades aboard the Potemkin.  That is, until the Czar’s troops march down the Odessa steps.

The Odessa steps sequence is arguably the single most influential sequence in film history; however, it has always been commonplace, and a huge disservice in my opinion, to show it out of context using the scene as a textbook in montage. The sequence on its own, while brilliantly executed, loses its power and its meaning when divorced from the rest of the film.  If you have been shown this scene out of context on its own you may have wondered to yourself, what’s the big deal?  When watching the film, by the time you get to the Odessa steps scene Eisenstein has you wound up so tight your ready to explode, and then the scene begins and your blood boils.

The film is much more than one sequence.  From beginning to end it is a rousing tribute to revolution and righteousness.  Eisenstein is a formalistic master and he knows how to stir you up, so much so that the film has been banned several times in its history for that very reason.

Potemkin regularly shows up on greatest films ever made lists, most notably Sight and Sound’s, and rightfully so.  It has stirring scenes, unforgettable images, and breathtaking editing (the original Meisel orchestral score is a great addition on the Kino DVD), but don’t take it apart.  Experience the film as a whole and you will understand why this film keeps making those lists.

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