“We came like bedouins or gold-seekers to a place with unimaginably great possibilities, only a small section of which has even now been developed,” Sergei Eisenstein writes in the opening of his essay “Through Theater to Cinema.” The image is undeniably appealing: Filmmakers like Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Lev Kuleshov, and of course Eisenstein tilling the fertile soil of cinema in the dawn of the young 20th century. Yoked to Bolshevik ideals holding cinema as the medium with the predominant sway over the public imagination (“Of all the arts, for us cinema is the most important,” Lenin proclaimed), these filmmakers proved remarkably innovative precisely because of their tethers to guiding sociopolitical logic. As freewheeling as Eisenstein’s Strike and Battleship Potemkin may have seemed, their inventiveness is invariably tied to a larger intellectual program: the dissolution of the individual into the mass. Both released a year after Lenin’s death, they represent a culmination of the think-tank techniques of these early Soviet filmmakers, while also distinguishing themselves from the cruder agitation films of the late 1910s and early 1920s.
It’s said that when Eisenstein saw a print of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance that had been smuggled into his native Russia, he immediately dropped out of engineering to pursue theater, and in turn filmmaking. The influence of Griffith’s marathon mea culpa is immediately apparent in Strike. In cutting not on action, but in tune with emotional rhythms, as a way of establishing a parallelism of ideas, Griffith left a fissure in cinematic form that Eisenstein would blow wide open. Proceeding from the Hegelian dialectic so essential to Marxist thought, Eisenstein paired images as a means of generating a clash of ideas. As he wrote in “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form,” “In the realm of art this dialectic principle of dynamics is embodied in CONFLICT [sic] as the fundamental; principle for the existence of every art-work and every art-form.”
The Hegelian movement from thesis, to antithesis, then finally to synthesis determines the rhythm of Strike, in which images of a dejected worker’s belt (fashioned into an ad hoc noose) rhyme with the belts of the factory floor, creating an imagistic allegory between capitalist labor, slavery, and finally death. This was the intellectual function of montage, exactingly theorized by Eisenstein in essays and books, but most fulsomely on screen. That it all seems so obvious, even quaint, circa 2012 only speaks to the totalizing impact of techniques like these on all of consequent cinema. And ditto, of course, Battleship Potemkin’s famous “Odessa Steps” sequence, a metrically cut epic of violence and fractured political psychology that would live to be one of cinema’s most oft-referenced set pieces, crossing national boundaries as a common phrase in the Esperanto of cinema.
Certain historical movements have washed away at something of these films’ shared ideological heft. The collapse of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and more generally, the general waning of Marxist or Soviet ideals have undeniably eroded something of these films’ shared urgency. Capitalism revealing itself over the course of the 20th century as its own revolutionary agent, its systems of production and conditioning in a constant state of mutation and reformation, has drained Eisenstein’s revolutionary period films—to which we may also add 1927’s October: Ten Days That Shook The World, which pushed Battleship Potemkin’s revolutionary montage technics to the verge of incomprehensibility—of some of their political-aesthetic cohesion, revealing their rather baldly propagandistic functions. Nonetheless, their innovations are essential, or at the very least instructive: Any one of Strike or Battleship Potemkin’s passages offers a crash course in film form, at the same time revealing the rousing intellectual buccaneering of an artist who viewed his medium’s potential as nothing less than “unimaginably great.”
Both of these are the same discs Kino remastered and released over the past two years (Battleship Potemkin in 2010, Strike in 2011). While certain characteristics of nearly-90-year-old films remains intact, grain and all, there’s no doubt that Kino has performed an impeccable job preserving these titles. By not layering on digital effects to mask the gradations in the film quality, or vertical scratches running across the screen, Kino has not only ensured that Eisenstein’s films remain legible (and enjoyable) for future generations, but have retained the integrity of their original presentation. The soundtrack scores are similarly excellent, coming across clean in their 5.1 presentation.
Again, the same as Kino’s previously existing hi-def discs: photo galleries, a 42-minute subtitled documentary on the production and subsequent restoration of Battleship Potemkin, a short feature on Eisenstein and the revolutionary spirit of post-imperial Russian cinema, and first film, the four-minute short Glumov’s Diary. Considering the breadth of material available on the filmmaker, and the films, it seems like Kino could have tucked in a few more supplementary features to distinguish the re-release. Though, to be fair, the two discs come packaged in a new box, ideal for anyone who alphabetizes their home-video collection by director.
Kino’s hi-def releases of Strike and Battleship Potemkin still embody the ideological character and formal-intellectual rigor of Eisenstein’s early films...but they’ve got a new box.