anyone interested in discussing the work of eisenstein?
i’ve just seen “ivan the terrible” parts 1 and 2. i didn’t care for it at all. the biggest flaw was the stylized, over-expressive silent film style acting. acting had been modernized long before this film was released in 1945. so i cant imagine that it didn’t seem completely dated and awkward even back then.
i was also unimpressed with the editing, given the great advances eisenstein made. the entire film was static, from the staccato acting to the stiff frames. and the story wasnt much of a story at all. hitchcock would have passed on this project because he would have said it has no cinematic potential. in other words, the story cant be illustrated with expressive images and powerful emotions. i think that concept is the key flaw of the film.
If you’re interested Matt Dessem has some really interesting things to say here: http://criterioncollection.blogspot.com/2009/01/88-ivan-terrible-parts-i-ii.html
I haven’t seen much of Eisenstein’s work outside of Battleship Potemkin, unfortunately.
It seems to me that earlly films like Strike and Potemkin were full of honest revolutionary fervor, which fed into Eisenstein’s development of dialectical montage. Nothing could be more succint than the quack doctor’s approval of the maggoty meat on deck of the Potemkin, while below, in the crews’ quarters, anger and digust are brewing. At some point which remains nebulous but which may have had to do with disillusionment about the revolution, he seems to have wanted to become a “pure,” apolitical artist, and see if he could apply his techniques to more exotic subjects such as Que Viva Mexico! But something inhibited Sergei, whether shame at his own lifestyle or his fragile health, and he returned to the Soviet Union as something of a whipped dog, forced to apologize on national Soviet radio upon threat of gulag or worse. Ivan the Terrible seems to have been his fraught, neurotic attempt to both placate the tyrant Stalin and covertly expose him at the same time; but his vision proved incompatible with authoritarian censorship and control.
He really paved the way, however: Tarkovsky fared little better with the Comintern censors when he tried to release Andrei Rublev, but at least the full scope and ambtion of the vision is there. It is an un-castrated work, when finally shown to light of day.
I think Ivan the Terrible is a wonder to behold in terms of cinematography, style, and production. The article referenced by Matthias gives many stills from the film and is an excellent overview. I loved the colour and considering much of this film was made in war-time Russia – I think it astonishing. Eisenstein was very ill, as well, but the film is his last testament and masterpiece. The acting, although somewhat stylized, has many great moments. The actor playing the silly prince Vladimir is a revelation, capturing perfectly this bizarre character who is manipulated by others. This film is layered with symbols and stylish touches that only Eisenstien could bring. This is not a ‘modern’ work, so you need to put this in the context of cinematic epics like The Scarlet Empress. A familiarity with Mussorgky’s Boris Godunov won’t hurt, either. Eisenstein died before he could complete the film – a third part, and conclusion. Eisenstein was never able to either complete or do any kind of final edit of this film, so it remains unfinished and incomplete. Yet, there is enough there to judge the film for yourself.
thanks for the article link. interesting.
my first impression is that these films are not masterpieces, unqualified or otherwise. certainly not in the same way that “potemkin” is a masterpiece. and i disagree that this is one of the best films about the way power corrodes. ivan isnt a corrosive character in this film to me. hes a victim. his mother is murdered, he’s the subject of hate without ever doing anything to deserve it, his wife is poisoned, his family and friends plot against him. in this film, he doesnt use his power to evil ends. in fact, all he does is react to conditions around him. rarely is he proactive.
i agree that every frame moves the characters closer to absolute stasis. but the problem is, it moves the film towards absolute stasis too. sending the characters into stasis is ok thematically, and admirable to reflect that in the form of the film, but if there isnt an interesting story to propel emotion and narrative forward, and if the images and editing dont push the film forward as well, all you have is a cyclical statis. that makes for a dead end.
on the extensive use of reaction shots, i find that to be a symbol of the lack of proactive elements of the film. everyone in the film is reacting. the problem is, they aren’t reacting to anything powerful in the dramaturgy, or the imagery. this is what gives the film its stunted feel, and also contributes to the weak acting.
yes, i can see that the entire film is about digging in, symbolized by the battle scene where they dig in explosives into the caves and tunnels. but what are we digging for? when the explosives go off, they dont blow up anything. they just explode. thats the film encapsulated for me right there.
I’ve only seen his first sound film Alexander Nevsky and I thought it was brilliant for its beautiful imagery, some of the best i’ve ever seen, and for it’s eerily prophetic similarities to what was about to take place in history at that time (WWII and Nazism). Not to mention the influence it had on so many films to come. This is quite obvious when you watch the film. Just one glaring example is Thulsa Doom from the Conan movie is lifted directly from this film (and I do mean directly). And I’ll be damned if the brilliant soundtrack from Jaws wasn’t influenced by the opening battle scene music (scored by Sergei Prokofiev) If any one has seen it, please tell me if I am imagining this. The final battle scene has to be one of the best ever put to film. Great movie!
Bob, your distinction between modern and otherwise baffles me. The Scarlet Empress, made eleven years prior to Ivan, is an infinitely more modern work, in terms of how it moves, its intimations of decadence, the totality of its mise-en-scene, and its use of wit and irony.
maybe thats what disappointed me about “ivan”. eisenstein was always a radically modern filmmaker. he was way ahead of his time. but with “ivan”, it finally feels like time caught up with him, and then passed him by.
A strange film no doubt. In a capsule review he wrote for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum described Ivan as “one of the most distinctive great films in the history of cinema—freakishly mannerist, yet so vivid in its obsessions and expressionist angularity that it virtually invents its own genre”. To me that sums it up pretty well.
A strange film no doubt. In a capsule review he wrote for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum described Ivan as "one of the most distinctive great films in the history of cinema—freakishly mannerist, yet so vivid in its obsessions and expressionist angularity that it virtually invents its own genre. To me that sums it up pretty well.
Ivan the terrible parts 1 and 2 are two of the greatest films ever made, and Alexander Nevsky is magnificent. They were stylized on purpose Bobby! Once again you have your head up your ass on yet another film.
Eisenstein was a Stalinist lackey, driven to an early grave by Stalin’s passive-agressiveness. He called SME his favorite filmmaker and made much hay of the PR bonaza created by the fame of “Battleship Potemkin” (a propaganda film about an incident that never took place.) He had him make another “Brezhin Meadow” but changed his mind and had it destroyed.
Eisenstein would appear to have been attempting an escape to the U.S. (accounts vary), but Paraount wasn’t interested in any of his ideas. So he hitched up with Upton Sinclair, who had never produced a film before and knew nothing about how to do so. “Que Viva Mexico” was an improvisatory epic, undone by the fact that it was embarked upon without a script, planning or budget. It all ended when Sinclair’s puritanical brother-in-law, Hunter Kimbrough, discovered that SME was having too much fun with Mexican youths.
As “Alexander Nevsky” was a hit, Stalin “rewarded” Eisenstein with “Ivan” which was lushly budgeted. But there was a war on and as he did before Stalin changed his mind about the results. It’s Eisenstein’s best — and gayest — film. But that’s about all I have to say about it, really.
He’s a minor filmmaker.
I’ve never understood why Battleship Potemkin is so widely heralded as a great masterpiece. My only guess is that it is the only Russian silent film that most people have seen, and therefore, the greatest example of the famous soviet montage that many people will ever encounter. For my money, Pudovkin is Eisenstein’s superior in the silent period, and the best Soviet filmmaker that I have seen from the silent period. Pudovkin’s montage has a rhythm and a life that I find lacking in Eisenstein’s early work, and both Mother and Storm over Asia are tremendous, with The End of St. Petersberg being one of the 5 or 10 greatest silent films ever made. Perhaps 3rd or 4th, behind Joan of Arc and La Roue(or Napoleon). For me, the montage is Potemkin and Eisenstein’s other silent films lack rhythm, and the freneticism of the cutting results in a waste of energy that is dispersed and weak rather than focussed and powerful. I’ve personally had this problem with Peckinpah’s famous “Wild Bunch” which I could not finish, because I was so angry at the cutting that, in my mind wrecked what otherwise could have been a great film. Yes, the famous editing in Wild Bunch offended my own sense of craftsmanship. You can say I’m wrong for thinking that, but it can’t change my philosophy on how films can be put together.
Ok, so I hate Potemkin, and I cannot understand its fame; but Eisenstein’s talkies are all masterpieces. Particularly the Ivan the Terrible films. With these two films(wish it were three), Sergei took what in the hands of most other directors, would have been a fairly pedestrian biopic-although in Sergei’s hands it still would have been a classic judging by his Alexander Nevsky, which still follows many traditional elements, with an Eisensteinian touch. But with Ivan the Terrible, Sergei took the standard biopic and turned it into a cerebral work of art. He nearly removed the film completely from the realm of cinema into something else. It is a static moving painting and a treatise on composition, it is drama and physical acting at the highest levels; it is as if an artist from another artform decided to make a movie, without ever seeing a film, without any pretense of what a film is supposed to be, but executing their vision without flaw and growing pains. Its a bold film, and its completely polished-unlike other experimental films which almost always are imperfect with rough edges and growing pains and a group of apologists who make up reasons for why it is flawed and try to convince you that the flaws are part of what makes it great. No. Eisenstein would not have any such growing pains in his masterpiece.
i don’t see why potemkin is so heralded, while OCTOBER is so ignored. i think october is much more exhilerating and stands the test of time.
if i was trying to expose a friend of mine to silent films that is hesitant about it, i would show them october way before potemkin
For all those who can’t see why Battleship Potemkin is such a highly regarded film, you need to study carefully the Odessa Steps sequence near the end of the film. This is one of the most brilliant and effective uses of montage ever, and the reason this film is studied and revered. Re Ivan, well, Clovenhoof said it all.
I am surprised sometimes that so many people on this site, who claim to be ‘cinephiles’ are so unaware of film history or why certain films and directors are studied and revered. This doesn’t mean that you personally have to like the films or directors, but be careful that your criticisms come from an informed viewpoint and are not just based on ignorance. After all, we are on this site to escape ignorance and philistine attitudes toward film as art, not to breed more ignorance. Personal views notwithstanding, a good film studies course would no go amiss for several on this site.
The way I describe October; or, Ten Days that Shook the World to most people is, “Made me amazingly proud to be a Bolshevik… and I am most definitely NOT a Bolshevik!” Eisenstein is pretty brilliant, mostly in his silent movies. It wasn’t just revolutionary fervor… there’s a short film called “Romance Sentimentale” he made with Grigori V. Alexandrov that was equally as appealing. His ideas just don’t translate quite as well to sound, like so many silent film era artists. I have to admit, thought Alexander Nevsky was brilliant at the time, some of it hasn’t aged very well…. Alexander glowing as he does in many scenes doesn’t hit quite the way Stalin glowing does in his earlier work.
Back in the 50s Potemkin was widely considered the greatest film, but its reputation seems to keep shrinking. It needs restoring to closer its former glory, a Eisenstein was a master of choreography, and i think it has the quality of a symphony, with different movements. Strike and October are superb too, then in the 30s with Que Viva Mexico and Alexander Nevsky Eisenstein’s eye for striking compositions comes through strongly. Nevsky must be among the most colourful b+w films, and the Prokofiev score, worked closely with the images, is tremendous. Ivan the Terrible is a great operatic experiment, the road cinema didn’t take (Potemkin’s montage, rapid editing the road it did take, through Hitch and Psycho to Hollywood’s relentless pacing today). I was a bit disappointd by Ivan when i first saw it, and i remembered it had been picked in a 70s book of Golden Turkey duds, the stylisation and especially the eyeball-rolling posturing may seem ludicrous to some, but now i really admire its lighting, sets and grand imagination. The colour sequence in part 2 is a fabulous fiery jewel. It does seem to be getting a following among some younger cinephiles. Far from old-fashioned, i think it’s modern.
I guess there are some who don’t like Eisenstein’s Soviet propaganda, the lack of focus on individuals for us to attach to (it’s the collective and general types instead that matter more) in his silents, or the overblown style of his later films, but i rate him highly.
i dont know how “ivan” invented its own genre. expressionist angularity wasnt new, freakish mannerism wasn’t new. “ivan” itself is a genre film. a biopic. true, its a highly stylized and artistic genre film. but it plays by the rules. you can argue that it transcends genre, but not that it creates its own genre.
calling eisenstein a minor filmmaker is like calling da vinci a minor painter. eisenstein is one of the building blocks of the art of filmmaking and of film history. he’s a monument.
yes, “ivan” is a bold film. but i dont think its completely flawless. if anything, i’d maybe nominate it for my “great flawed films” page. its truncated. he didn’t get to realize the third film (act). and the dramaturgy of the film is flawed.
just to play devil’s advocate on “potemkin”, does the fact that it has one of the greatest SEQUENCES in the history of cinema mean that it is a great film overall? just asking. for my money, i think the film is important, and canonized for a reason.
on criticism, ignorance, and philistinism. i believe in the early marxist rhetoric of a “ruthless critique of all existing conditions.” nothing is untouchable. nothing should be bowed down to before the fact. everything deserves to be critiqued and questioned. eisenstein isnt beyond reproach, and surely “ivan” part 1 and 2 aren’t either.
i certainly agree that eisenstein is one of those filmmakers whose work doesnt translate well into sound. maybe like chaplin, or some others. he deals in pure cinema, pure filmmaking. that being said, i might have liked “ivan” more if it was a silent film made in the late 20s. a majority of its flaws would have been addressed, i believe.
He meant it, I believe, in the sense that it combines elements—expressionist angularity, Prokofiev’s score, Cherkassov’s performance, Stalinism/reaction to Stalinism, submerged autobiography, historical pageant, “the greatest Flash Gordon serial ever made”—that don’t seem to naturally fit together.
I agree with Jason that Pudovkin and I would add Vertov were both more modern and innovative and well-rounded as filmmakers than Eisenstein. I don’t believe that rapid cutting or montage is a bad thing; however, the sequences that moved me the most in Potemkin were the processional to the shrine of the murdered soldiers, the attack on the capital building, and the earlier one I mentioned, where the approval of the maggoty meat is contrasted with the disgusted reaction of the men — not the Odessa steps, where everything is telegraphed to the point of distraction. There are three separate shots where the mother falls and leans against the baby carriage, at least two shots where the baby carriage teeters, etc. If Eisenstein supposedly invented montage in this sequence, he did not understand his own invention. Nonetheless, in the other sequences I mention, he is close to inventing neo-realism, and in the reaction of the stone lion, which rears up in the midst of battle, he pre-dates Cocteau and the other French surrealists.
Bobby, I don’t know if the sound/silent parallel holds up too much. Sorry to keep harping on Throne of Blood, but there are parts of this movie — especially the forest scenes and the death scene of Washizu — which could be silent without losing much of their power. The foggy forest scenes are almost like Lang. If Ivan seems like a silent film, then maybe it is one, with nominal sound/dialogue and mainly pictorial aesthetic.
It’s interesting that you call Eisenstein a “Stalinist lackey”—Pudovkin was a much more unambiguous propagandist all the way from his student days, through his joining the Communist Party in 1932 to the end of his career in the 1950s. I don’t believe Eisenstein was ever a party member. Sure Ivan is a Stalin stand in, and yes in Pt I Ivan is presented heroically, but in Pt II he morphs into a tyrant.
Pudovkin is more modern in the sense that it’s his vision greatly influences profoundly influences what are now conventional editing practices, so it’s not surprising that you respond more immediately to his films. But “modern” doesn’t necessarily mean better.
i dont get what you mean when you say that eisenstein didn’t understand his own invention (montage). just because he repeated shots of the baby carriage, or the mother falling? you think that was because of a lack of understanding of the editing principles he helped create? so what you’re arguing is that his radical editing experiment should have been less radical? he should have invented something that adhered more closely to a later classical continuity that hadn’t really yet crystallized by that point in time (remembering that his experimental invention was helping that very process of crystallization)?
yes, “ivan” seems like a silent film. i’d argue that it would be better if it really was a silent film. the exaggerated acting would find a more natural home, and the weak dialogue wouldn’t be a factor. but its not a silent. there’s no maybe about it. just wishful thinking.
More radical, probably, Bobby, or more assumptive of the audience’s ability to read the edits more fluently.
i see what you’re trying to say. but tough criticism though. the formative years of the medium, and the formative stage of experimental editing. meaning, the formative years of filmic language. and you want eisenstein to assume the audience is already fluent in this language that he was helping to create at that same moment.
plus, it cant be both ways. it cant be more radical and at the same time also appealing to a basic fluency that the audience is supposed to have.
dont let the passage of time fog your conception of how truly radical this passage already was when it was created. it couldnt be more radical. anything more radical would be vertov’s method in “man with a movie camera”. but that’s so radical that it takes us out of the realm of the narrative film and into experimental avant-garde cinema. and eisenstein was trying to tell a story.
Bobby: “i believe in the early marxist rhetoric of a “ruthless critique of all existing conditions.” nothing is untouchable. nothing should be bowed down to before the fact. everything deserves to be critiqued and questioned. eisenstein isn’t beyond reproach, and surely “ivan” Part 1 and 2 aren’t either.” Point taken. I basically agree, too, that everything should be subject to scrutiny, including this film. I myself took on the grand-daddy of all art films, and our top poll film, Citizen Kane on a separate thread. It would be stupid of me, in hindsight, to deny anyone the right to criticize any film. After all, we all come at this from our own perspective – where else can we? Same goes for Potemkin, but that one’s a bit more problematic, as key scenes are mentioned in every film history I am aware. It is an old film, with existing prints that I have seen not in very good shape, so must be judged accordingly.
After just re-visiting a bit of Part 1 on YouTube, I do see many of the things you complain of in the film. The acting is highly stylized, much like a silent film. I found a quote that best describes this: “it’s the film’s unique visual quality, featuring spectacularly ornate set design and costumes, along with a performance style influenced by Russian classism, grand opera, and Kabuki theater, that makes it such a rewarding experience.” (From the ’Rotten Tomatoes review).
I thought many of these things myself when I first watched the film, but when we got to Part 2, and Eisenstein added colour and more complexity (for me) to the story, it started to work its magic. Certainly, this can best be described, due to its troubled history, in its grandiose filming and staging, a ‘flawed masterpiece’. A great deal has been written on this film, books and articles, extolling its virtues. I have a friend who thinks it the greatest movie ever made. Yet, I can certainly see why it is a film that doesn’t work for everyone. I best think of it in terms of its cinematic imagery, which is why I compared it, strictly on that level alone, not in terms of story execution, to The Scarlet Empress. It is the visual element that most intrigued me with both fiilms. Because visuals are very important to me, I rate Ivan higher than others might, The film did have a definite ‘dated’ quality about it, even for the times. I hope this explains my thoughts on the film a bit more. But, bottom line, criticize away – it’s the only way to at least get at one’s own view on a film.
i hear ya. i agree with the visual brilliance of the film.
my complaints reside on the level of editing, which isn’t as expressive as the imagery. but of course, maybe that was eisensteins point. to go in a different direction of what he was famous for. after all, the film is very much influenced by painting and tableaus.
and my other complaint is about the overall effectiveness of the film, integrating all aesthetic elements to create a unified work of art. there are some elements that drag the overall quality of the film down for me.
but you know, this is my first reaction. i just saw the films for the first time. so these are very raw and impressionistic pieces of criticism. i’ve been known to change my opinions on films over time. and i certainly like to watch a film multiple times before i really try to understand it. so “ivan” has room for improvement in my life as i grow with cinema. but just as i pay special weight to later, more informed opinions of mine after time, study, and critical distance, i also like to analyze my first, gut reactions and see what they tell me. i eventually find the happy medium sooner or later.
The best writing on Eisenstein was done by the late great Nestor Almendros in a piece he wrote for “Film Comment” about 25 years ago.
I can understand that Potemkin might be the first major use of montange, and it is certainly a far better film than Pudovkin’s Chess Fever from the same year. I just think that it is a tool that Pudovkin used better than Eisenstein. I don’t know who actually invented it, but I do know that I like Pudovkin’s silent films better than Eisenstein, and that Eisenstein’s talkies, especially Ivan part II are masterpieces that own their own special place for me among the very greatest expressions of the artform.
Let’s not get sloppy with our terminology, folks. Neither Eisenstein or Pudovkin invented or was the first to use montage. They theorized about and developed in their films very specific styles of montage editing.