Who was Sergej Eisenstein? In Italy, tens of thousands of people know him above all for his most important film, the second of his filmmaking career after the Strike, The battleship Potemkin, but not for the extraordinary quality of the film.
Those who are not Italian will probably find it hard to believe it. Eisenstein and the whole world of art cinema should thank the writers of the comic film Fantozzi, an amusing adaptation of the term puppet, intended as a puppet man, subject to the clerical and ministerial mechanisms of the environment in which he works.
The hugely popular character of the Italian comedy Fantozzi, super blockbuster, in a famous and hilarious scene, seen by millions of Italians, leads the revolt of his servile office colleagues, forced by force to watch the film in the dictatorial film club of the head of the company they work for. At a certain moment Fantozzi explodes with anger and frustration, and shouts: “The battleship Potemkin is a crazy shit!”
Unwittingly, in satirizing corporate leaders and a certain leftist intellectual culture, the writers of the film created a powerful tool for spreading film culture. At least for those who, after seeing Fantozzi’s film, became curious and tried to know more. Not on those who assumed it was a long and boring propaganda film for left-wing intellectuals anyway. A crazy shit, in fact.
One of the rare moments in the film franchise where the accountant Fantozzi stops being a servile coward to become the leader of a small revolution. A state of frustration in which millions of people have identified themselves.
In reality, the fame of the Russian director in the world and in the history of cinema is enormous and goes far beyond the character played by Paolo Villaggio in Italy. Battleship Potiomkin is not a crazy shit, as Fantozzi said in his outburst of revolt. It is one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of cinema, inspiration for generations of directors.
Who was Sergej Michajlovič Ėjzenštejn
Eisenstein was born in Riga, Latvia, on January 23, 1898, under the sign of Aquarius. Like many other great directors of the early history of cinema he is an eclectic and multifaceted character, who goes through traumatic experiences such as war and recycles himself in different professions and activities.
And at the same time director, screenwriter, writer, production designer and above all the editor of your films. Editing, its centrality in cinematographic work, are the fundamental element of the importance and innovations brought to cinema by Sergej Eisenstein and by other directors of the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s, such as Dziga Vertov, the director who pursued reality and who made masterpieces such as The man with a movie camera and Three songs about Lenin.
The young Eisenstein wandered for a long time with his family in the early 1900s, due to the revolutions that tore the country apart. Until he settled in St. Petersburg starting to study art and humanities, while his parents divorced. During the October Revolution he sided with the Communist forces and went to fight on the front with the Red Army, until he distinguished himself as a soldier of valor and received leadership roles.
After the war he moved to Moscow and began attending the most important cultural and theatrical club of the time, the Proletkult, which was focused on art in the service of the proletariat and communist ideals.
The battleship Potemkin
The Battleship Potemkin is one of the most famous and powerful works in the history of cinema. The Russian answer to David Wark Griffith’s colossals. It was produced by Goskino, the Russian institution that produced, distributed or censored films in the Soviet Union, in 1925.
The protagonists are the crew of the Russian Battleship Potemkin. The film mixes reality and fantasy, historical re-elaborations, recounting the Russian revolution of 1905. It is a commemorative film commissioned by the government and Eisenstein who was chosen thanks to the appreciation of his first film, Strike.
However, being a commissioned film, the young twenty-seven-year-old director was repeatedly warned to respect the strict delivery times of the film. Eisenstein realized that shooting the entire script was not going to be possible. He concentrated on a few episodes, including the most famous one, set on the steps of Odessa. A staircase with geometric shapes that immediately fascinated the formalist Eisenstein.
Eisenstein decided to hire ordinary people, citizens and sailors in Odessa. Only a few theater actors are professionals. He wanted authentic faces that were able to mirror the proletariat. Eisenstein transforms historical chronicle into tragedy in five acts. The shots, the faces, the places are not filmed with a documentary eye but have the light, the expressiveness and the form of an intense drama.
His theoretical ideas of the cine fugno materialize in a succession of shocking, traumatic, overwhelming shots, which follow one another in a rapid and disorienting editing. The director’s goal was to make the viewer feel at the center of the drama unfolding on the screen.
The editing of the attractions
The editing of the attractions, elusive fragmented images, sometimes indecipherable, lasting less than 3 seconds, confuse the ideas of the public and create a sense of bewilderment. The viewer is overwhelmed by a frenzied rhythm without the temporal linearity of the classic narrative and must reconstruct and decipher with his mind what he is looking at.
The shooting choices, the subjects and the angles of the frames create a strong symbolic value of the images, never seen before. One of the most absurd things that happens during the making of The Potemkin Battleship is that the same evening of the premiere the director was still working on the editing, while the projections at the Bolshoi theater of the first reels had already started. The director was just in time to deliver the last reel. It sounds incredible, due to the fast pace and the number of shots, but according to historical sources The Battleship Potemkin was assembled in just 12 days
The film had a good distribution in Russia but didn’t make it to the West. For decades it was banned, first by Hitler and then by the Soviet bloc countries. In Western Europe there were the first screenings in 1960. But it was necessary to wait until the end of the 70s and the early 80s, the end of the Cold War, for the copies of The Battleship Potemkin to be distributed freely, and rarely programmed on television. The full version was nowhere to be found and was released only in the 1980s in home video, in limited edition.
It is not true that the battleship Potemkin, one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of cinema, is an 18 reel monster film as Fantozzi says it goes. It only lasts 75 minutes. But thanks to its overwhelming pace, 75 minutes fly by.
The success of his first film Battleship Potemkin was such that the Russian government called him to direct the film that was to celebrate the October Revolution of 1917. The title was October. A big budget film in which total artistic autonomy was left, for the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the October revolution.
Played by thousands of citizens, soldiers and workers who lived the days of the October Revolution firsthand. But the experimental style of Eisenstein in October, and in the following film, entitled The Old and the New, both made in the late 1920s, did not appeal to the regime, which reassembled it by subjecting it to various cuts.
Eisenstein’s grandiose and experimental style couldn’t fail to be noticed by Hollywood studios. They called him to direct two science fiction films, including the first adaptation of War of the Worlds.
Eisenstein in Hollywood and Mexico
But the American system, where the figure of the producer predominated in the final cut of the film, did not appeal to Eisenstein. It was impossible to reach an agreement and the Russian director did not make the films, which were subsequently assigned to more accommodating directors, such as Josef Von Steirberg.
Esenstein then attempted to make a documentary during his next trip to Mexico, a film entitled Que viva Mexico. Eisenstein agreed with the producer to receive the film shot in Moscow. He was the greatest editing theorist cinema had ever had and editing the film was the real creative act for him. But the film never made it to Moscow. The producer completed the editing of his own initiative film, with the help of writer Upton Sinclair, who had collaborated in the conception and production of Que viva Mexico.
Eisenstein under the control of the regime
Eisenstein’s trip to the United States began to arouse suspicion among the leaders of the Soviet regime who ordered him to return home. They commissioned him to make a series of films about the exploits of the Russian national hero Ivan IV, with the supervision of some party members to be sure that the film was made according to their vision. Eisenstein successfully made the first part of the films, Ivan the Terrible, with Stalin’s approval, also receiving the prestigious Stalin Prize, which was created as the Russian answer to the Nobel Prize. But the next two films in the saga did not convince the Stalinists. They halted production and destroyed much of the third film about Ivan the Terrible, of which only a few scenes have survived.
Eisenstein a few years later at just 50 years old for a heart attack on February 11, 1948 in Moscow.
Eisenstein ‘s theories
Eisenstein is the most important editing theorist in the history of cinema. Many directors have come to understand that editing is the real core of cinematographic creation. But Eisenstein developed his ideas through a series of theoretical studies and publications, in more depth than anyone else had. His idea of cinema is a fragmented representation, where single shots follow one another quickly, by analogy of meanings, by symbols. He gave it the mounting name of the attractions.
The theory of the editing of attractions argued that the editing did not have to tell the story in a traditional and chronologically correct way. But that the combination of different, rapid, traumatic, sometimes symbolic shots should push the viewer to emotion and thought to reconstruct the story he was witnessing.
One of the great directors in the history of cinema who has collected in an exemplary way the theoretical indications on the editing of Eisenstein’s attractions is, for example, Alfred Hitchcock. Eisenstein’s editing manipulation techniques went beyond the temporal linearity of the story and aimed to generate emotion and suspense through the rhythm and associations of ideas provoked by the editing.
The viewer is actively called upon to make an interpretation of the events they watch on the screen. An interpretation that is often subjective. The shots are violent, the close-ups dramatic, the actions fast, engaging and spectacular. Cinema for Eisenstein had to be a punch in the eyes of the public. A theory to which he gave the name of Cine-Punch. The temporal dilation and manipulation through editing perhaps finds its maximum expression in the famous scene from The Potemkin battleship shot on the steps of Odessa. A baby carriage crashes down the stairs in a violent confrontation after the mother is killed.
Eisenstein ‘s legacy
The Odessa staircase scene was picked up many years later by Brian De Palma to shoot the finale of another masterpiece, The Untouchables, with a series of modernized visions, perspectives and time dilations of the scene shot by Eisenstein, set in this occasion in Chicago’s historic station.
Eisenstein was so innovative and modern in his theorizing that he even conceived the basic ideas that many years later, in the sixties, would lead Jean Luc Godard to create his own films. Eisenstein was famous all over the world in the late 1920s. He continued to reflect and theorize about cinema, thinking of it as a tool for philosophical reflection, reflecting on the importance of form over content.
His avant-garde research soon clashed with the needs of Stalin who instead wanted traditional propaganda films. Eisenstein, working for a totalitarian regime, paradoxically planted the seeds of the free cinematic avant-gardes of the 1950s and 1960s. The musical, rhythmic vision of deconstruction of the scene and the fragmentation of the editing, his ideas of asynchronous sound, the images that reject temporal linearity are all ideas that have been taken up in the history of cinema by many directors.