Battleship Potemkin is Sergei Eisenstein’s most famous film and fairly his masterpiece, but I’m partial to his debut feature, Strike (1924). It’s the story of a 1903 factory strike, the workers, the fatcat capitalists and their lackeys, and the police and troops who attack in a grim finale, all presented as propagandistic case history. Despite the build-up to a ferocious climax, it’s also the filmmaker’s funniest film. The humor is in its giddy inventiveness, in the theatrical caricatures, even in the editing, like comparing the stooges to various animals. The animal comparisons eventually become horrific.
The films begins by throwing the most exuberantly visual ideas at the viewer and it never lets up. There are trick shots, traveling shots, superimpositions, and moments of mere beauty. Eisenstein is known for creating meaning through editing, and there’s plenty of that, but it’s also true that each carefully composed shot is rife with meaning. A single image can be rich without resorting to cutting, as in the moment when three workers are superimposed on a great spinning wheel. As the workers fold their arms, the wheel stops.
Kino’s edition (both DVD and Blu-Ray versions), with a new score based on traditional Russian themes, comes with two extras. At just over four minutes, Glumov’s Diary (1923) is Eisenstein’s earliest film. A surreal short made for a stage play, it has extravagantly dressed clowns (sometimes in drag) who turn into various obects. Some context on this film’s part in the play wouldn’t have been amiss, but it’s arresting on its own. Did I say Strike was his funniest film? I hadn’t been aware of this bizarre experiment, though I’m still not sure its humor surpasses its strangeness. It makes me wish he’d done a comedy in full Soviet Eccentric or Constructivist style.
The 37-minute Eisenstein and the Revolutionary Spirit is a talking-head presentation of historian Natacha Laurent illustrated with film clips. She speaks of the general 1920s Soviet film context for 20 minutes and then gives an overview of Eisenstein’s career, for some reason omitting Alexander Nevsky.