The End of St Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga, 1927) was one of a string of films made to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. In this version, a peasant arrives in pre-war Saint Petersburg to find work just as strikes break out across the capital. He joins the strike-breakers and turns one of the organizers in to the police, but he soon realizes he's wrong and tries, in vain, to make amends. Until, that is, some years later when revolution breaks out.
Storm over Asia (Potomok Chingis-khana, 1928) was filmed on location in Mongolia and is set during the period when British rule was being destabilized by the Civil War. The wily British believe they have found the heir to Ghengis Khan and install him as a puppet leader to try and introduce stability. The ethnographically shot scenes are still notable, and this cautionary tale of ill-advised imperialism may strike some as strikingly resonant with today's global politics.
Pudovkin's reputation is now less than that of his fellow montagists, perhaps because, unlike directors such as Kuleshov, Eisenstein or Dovzhenko, he never made a film that had a decidedly anti-regime subtext and was always the dedicated artist in the service of the state. Furthermore, during the Great Terror he "was not always averse to protecting his own interests at the expense of others," as Richard Taylor phrases it. Still, his films from the 1920s are undoubted masterpieces of the era and, if they look less spectacular now than they once did, it is because Pudovkin's experimentations with editing have been more evenly successful and incorportated into the mainstream of cinema vocabulary than have those of other directors from the period.
No film director has had more words written about them than Sergei Eisenstein, the undisputed master of Soviet montage, and no director has written so much about film. His works are still referenced and borrowed from by modern directors such as Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma, not to mention advertising.
Yet none of the films he made exist in the final form in which he wanted them. The negatives to his first two features Strike (Stachka, 1924) and Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925) were sold by Russia to Germany to raise hard currency, and were censored and edited there. His next two features, including October (Oktyabr, 1927), had to be radically revised in an attempt to meet official approval. Two films from the 1930s were never completed. His attempt to rehabilitate himself, Aleksandr Nevsky (1938) was shown to Stalin before it was completed and the dictator was so pleased with the unfinished work that nobody dared alter it further. Eisenstein died without finishing his final project, the Ivan the Terrible trilogy (1943-46). Like that other pioneering auteur Orson Welles (with whom he shared a passion for Shakespeare), Eisenstein left behind a long list of unrealized projects and ideas for films with his death.
Eisenstein started in experimental theater but soon drifted towards cinema. His first film, Strike (Stachka, 1924), although in some ways still marked by his background in theater - Eisenstein would also prefer to use character "types" rather than let his actors explore the personalities of complex individuals - employed some boldly cinematic techniques. The film depicts the titular industrial action, which takes place in Tsarist times, and its suppression by the police. While some of the experiments in film language fail (the dramatic sweeps and shapes to change or frame action would go in his later films), others are as vivid and memorable as anything he would do in his more famous films. Though Strike is a little more uneven than Eisenstein's later works, veteran critic Derek Malcolm considers it his best, as it shows his basic humanity far better than his later masterpieces.
Eisenstein's most famous and influential film is Battleship Potemkin (1925). Although originally conceived as one of a number of films celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1905 uprisings against Tsarist rule, Battleship Potemkin was the only one of the series made. The film's plot is loosely based on the mutiny aboard the titular war vessel in response to appalling conditions and an uncaring and aloof officer class.
Odessa, in the film, comes out in support of the militant sailors, and the Tsarist army brutally suppresses the jubilant shoreline encouragement - the infamous "Odessa Steps" sequence (in fact, a fictional invention by the film's makers rather than a historical event). The battleship then heads out to sea; in the final act, another memorable and endlessly copied sequence, the battleship faces the combined might of the imperial navy with its red flag (hand tinted on the film) fluttering proudly in the wind. The true end was rather more ignominious, with the sailors docking in Romania and being arrested and transferred to Russia.
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