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Sergei Eisenstein's film classics to be screened in June

Film master Sergei Eisenstein, of the former Soviet Union, made fewer than 10 feature films and yet they all exemplified the technique of montage. He enhanced it into a creative aesthetics. In his hands, montage is more than mere editing but is film and life itself. Using an innovative approach in film collage, his works document Russian revolutionary idealism and the power of masses.

His works and writings have had great impact on many filmmakers. “Around the world, when aspiring filmmakers learn their craft, they study Eisenstein,”said film scholar David Bordwell.

To commemorate the 60th anniversary of his death, the first series of “Repertory Cinema 2008” will be “Sergei Eisenstein” to showcase the director’s classics. It will be held at the Cinema of the Hong Kong Film Archive from June 6 to 8, at the Lecture Halls of the Hong Kong Science Museum on June 14 and 15, and at the Hong Kong Space Museum on June 22.

The nine films to be screened are Eisenstein's famous Bolshevik trilogy “Strike”, “Battleship Potemkin” and “October”, his controversial work “Old and New”, the medieval epic “Alexander Nevsky”, his historical film about Russian Tsar Ivan IV “Ivan the Terrible, Part I and II”, “Time in the Sun” and “Que Viva Mexico!” with beautiful footage of Mexican people.

To accompany the screenings, a seminar entitled “Revolution in Film and Politics: Life and Work of Sergei Eisenstein”is scheduled for June 22 at 4.30pm in the Lecture Hall of the Hong Kong Space Museum. Admission is free and it will be conducted in Cantonese.

“Repertory Cinema 2008” is presented by the Film Programmes Office of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and curated by Mr Law Wai-ming. Other than the retrospective on the Soviet director, works of the Japanese New Wave will be featured in September.

The spirited and industrious Eisenstein was not only a great film director, he was also an innovator and a theoretician. Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1898, Eisenstein was trained as an architect and engineer, yet he developed a keen interest in reading, comics and theatre.

When he served in the Red Army during the October Revolution in 1917, he made entertainment productions for the troops. In 1920 he joined the Proletkult Theatre in Moscow and quickly became a co-director. It was a period of tumultuous expansion for Soviet art. In his theatre works, Eisenstein devised the “montage of attractions” to surprise audiences.

Eisenstein’s first film in 1925, the revolutionary “Strike”, was a perfect blend of theatricals and montage. At the age of 27, his masterpiece “Battleship Potemkin” won him world acclaim. After his controversial works “October” and “The Old and New”, the impressive “Alexander Nevsky”, with a marvellous score by Sergei Prokofiev, was an immediate success.

Eisenstein was a pioneer in the use of montage. While other Soviet directors had experimented with it, he proposed a new form of editing on chosen images to create the maximum psychological impact on the audience. He believed that editing could be used for more than just expounding on a scene or moment, through a “linkage” of related images and “collision” of shots to manipulate the emotions and create film metaphors.

The opening film “Strike” is not only an historical drama of the workers’ revolt in 1905 after continual exploitation by the capitalists, but also an analogy of the power struggle after Lenin’s death in 1924. With explosive moments and swift tempo, it was ahead of its time and not much different from today’s action cinema.

“Battleship Potemkin” (1925) was made to celebrate the 1905 Revolution. While on location scouting at the pier steps, Eisenstein decided to retell the carnage of “Bloody Sunday”. Crowd surges; shots of the marching white boots of the army; a baby carriage travels down the long steps…the rhythm of the sequence is inexorable. Through Eisenstein’s montage, the “Odessa Steps” scene became one of the most noted episodes in cinematic history. It is a film that remains as powerful today as the day it was made and regularly appears at the top of critics’ lists of the greatest films ever made.

“October” (1925) chronicled the overthrow of the Tsar by the Lenin-led proletariat revolution in a semi-documentary style. The insertion of newsreel footage became Eisenstein’s narrative without a story. The film was criticised by the Stalin government as “formalism”.

Eisenstein was engaged to direct “Old and New” (1929), which was originally entitled“The General Line”, a film about the bringing of modern agricultural techniques to the Soviet farmer. When Stalin came into power, he ordered a re-cut. Though the political lines changed, it did little to hamper Eisenstein’s mastery over his production and the complex and ever-changing shots were an unprecedented step for the aesthetics of montage.

The exquisitely crafted epic “Alexander Nevsky” (1938) was Eisenstein’s first sound film. The 13th century patriotic tale of Russian warriors defending the country from foreign invaders was a huge hit to boost morale against the onslaught of the Nazis. Its scope and magnificent settings prompted other European countries to follow suit such as Britain’s “The Lion has Wings”. The score by Prokofiev was developed into a popular cantata, making it the most influential film of its era. “October”, “Old and New”, and “Alexander Nevsky” won the Top Foreign Film at the National Board of Review, USA, respectively in 1929, 1930 and 1939.

While Eisenstein was touring Mexico in 1930, he fell in love with the country . He intended to make a four-part documentary on its rich cultural history with each centred around a pair of lovers on the theme of life and death. He and his cinematographer Eduard Tisse captured the exotic details of the country in a way never seen before on the big screen. However, Stalin put pressure on the investor to stop the production.

To salvage the investment, the distribution company edited it into short films for quick release while selling off the rushes as stock footage. “Time in the Sun” (1940) was edited by the original writer into a documentary on the Mexican people. The richness of Eisenstein's work is still apparent. Eisenstein’s close friend Grigori Alexandrov tried to reassemble the footage into “Que Viva Mexico!” (1979) according to the director’s original script. The film won the Honorary Golden Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival 1979. Both films are shown in a double bill.

During World War II, Eisenstein began to work on “Ivan the Terrible,” a film about the 16th century Tsar Ivan IV, whom Stalin admired. “Ivan the Terrible, Part I” (1945) tells of the tsar’s coronation, his military victories against foreign powers, and the power struggle within the palace leading to the murder of his wife. The film ends with the people lining up to plead with him to end his self-imposed exile. The costumes, settings, photography and use of music were never seen in films before then. The film won the Best Cinematography at the Locarno International Film Festival 1946 and Stalin commended Eisenstein after seeing the film.

Eisenstein unveiled the mask of the tsar in “Ivan the Terrible, Part II” (1958). As the palace power struggle heats up, Ivan imposes his totalitarian reforms leading to the Massacre of Novgorod. Eisenstein filmed the ending in black and white with colour to make an astonishing effect. The Stalinists were deeply displeased and the film was banned. Eisenstein had fought for changes, and even planned a third part up till his death in 1948.

Except for the silent films, the other films are in Russian with English subtitles. “Time in the Sun” has English narration without subtitles.

Tickets priced at $50 are available at all URBTIX outlets. Half-priced concessionary tickets are available for full-time students, senior citizens aged 60 or above, people with disabilities and Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) recipients. There will be a 10% discount for each purchase of six to 10 tickets and a 20% discount for each purchase of 11 or more tickets.

For programme information, call 2734 2900 or visit . Reservations can be made at 2734 9009 or on the Internet at

Ends/Friday, May 16, 2008
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