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Disc One:
Strike
95 minutes (PG) 1924

Disc Two:
The Battleship Potemkin
74 minutes (PG) 1925

Disc Three:
October
104 minutes (PG) 1928

Disc Four:
The Fall Of The Romanov Dynasty
87 minutes (E) 1927


See also:
Silent Fantasy films
 - top 10 listing

 
 
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Russia In Revolt:
Myths, Mystery & Manipulation
director: Sergei Eisenstein

273 minutes (PG) 1924-28
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail
Also available to buy on video

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by Steven Hampton
Eisenstein's great silent films of the Revolution get a collectors' edition treatment in this worthy four-disc package, digitally restored and re-mastered with English translations of intertitles, and Dolby enchanced soundtracks. Here are three silent classics that are essential viewing: Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (aka: Potemkin, aka: Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1925), and October (aka: October 1917, aka: Ten Days That Shook The World, 1928), demonstrating the director's immediate grasp of narrative and political dynamics, historical significance, and precisely formulated motion picture symbolism. For such a young filmmaker (Eisenstein was only 27 when he made his undisputed masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin), these are quite extraordinary films - clearly works of inspired genius, and they have retained much of their raw emotional truth despite the end of the Soviet Union.
   Although it's difficult to avoid seeing them as 'documentaries', we must remember that Eisenstein knowingly distorted recorded facts in favour of dramatic licence and artifice. Visual impact and ideological messages were more important to him than historic realities.

Strike was Eisenstein's feature début. Conceived as part of an eight-part project called 'Towards Dictatorship', the resulting filmic masterpiece was so innovative and overwhelmingly powerful in its wholesale creativity that the concepts for the series were forgotten, and no follow-ups were ever produced.
   Its recreation of a factory strike (sparked by a worker's suicide) in the Tsarist Russia of 1912, is rich in cinematic techniques and what Eisenstein himself called "artistic engineering." The overly theatrical acting styles of silent film elevate the august clowning of slapstick to tragedy, mixing chaotic farce and melodramatic horror. Locations and backgrounds provide characterisation in a film where the protesting masses are the hero, and the image of a dancing bear evokes a greater meaning than tawdry street circus. Foreshadowing and implication, provocative symmetries, and the juxtaposition of extremes deliver still-jarring comment on the class struggle, so never mind the cartoon simplicity of its representation. When police, spies, and mounted troops crush the workers' rebellion, Eisenstein makes us all feel sympathy for the underdogs. Overflowing with the director's unconventional 'attractions' (for example, the homeless families that live in huge buried barrels) Strike is outstanding cinema that rarely succumbs to predictability or triteness.
   The music added to this silent film in 1998 is by the Alloy Orchestra, and disc extras include Dolby digital stereo sound, plus an expert commentary track.

The Battleship Potemkin is a picture of harrowing despair, chilling rage and brotherly comradeship. The story of a mutiny aboard the warship of the title, it depicts events of 1905, when soldiers ruthlessly crush a people's vengeful rebellion against oppression. As they rally to the cause of a martyred sailor after the Potemkin reaches port, the film boasts crowd scenes on the 'Odessa steps' that form an acclaimed montage of slow motion carnage and rhythmic editing patterns - and this is rightly and almost universally acknowledged as the most famous sequence in the history of cinema. This five-minute montage has been imitated and spoofed over the years (watch Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, and Woody Allen's Bananas for notable examples) and filmmakers from around the world have often paid homage to its potency and lasting influence - see Brian De Palma's The Untouchables. Today, this seems only appropriate for a film that plays out like a haunted version of history. Although Battleship Potemkin is very unlikely to be viewed as enjoyable in the sense of modern entertainment values, it remains a towering landmark in the development of cinema as an art form, and is surely one of the silent screen's most profoundly moving experiences.
   A bit of trivia for film students: can you spot Eisenstein, playing a priest in the film? DVD extras: Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound, scene finder in 15 chapters, and scrolling text synopsis.

With the weight of the 20th century behind us, it's now harder than ever to see October as a 'mere' film. The sound version presented here features the martial tunes of Shostokovick, and was made possible by Eisenstein's close associate Grigori Alexandrov (who acted in Strike and Potemkin). Opening with a Lenin quote, this is a film that insists on being taken seriously as it sets about the reconstruction of proletariat action leading to much violence and bloodshed (warning ultimatums were sadly ignored...) in Petrograd, as Navy warships target the emperor's Winter Palace, and Lenin directs the Bolshevik uprising to bring down Kerensky's provisional government.
   Arguably, October is a showcase for the most spectacular crowd scenes ever. And, during a furious advance (on behalf of the Committee - that demands 'bread, peace, land'), royal statues are toppled, a dead horse falls from a raised bridge, the women's army turn a billiard table into their 'powder room', copies of Pravda litter the river, hungry peasants and young cadets rampage through the royal wine cellars, while in heavy-handed satire, a mechanical peacock signals democratic aspirations, and deposed ministers huddle together like frightened ghosts.
   Chiaroscuro lighting effects, and hugely impressive beards (in every sense of the word), make for an always intriguing - if less than compelling - hour or more. And yet, there's an unexpected clumsiness and lack of care evident in some of the set-pieces, perhaps due to the strict re-editing demands (to cut the rebellious yet vital role of Trotsky) forced upon Eisenstein by those very communist authorities that commissioned the film to mark their Revolution's 10th anniversary.
   October extras: Dolby digital 2.0 sound, enhanced from original mono, plus an informative background text and, in an oddly redundant design flaw, there's both a chapter listing and scene selector.
   This DVD package includes an extra disc, featuring documentary, The Fall Of The Romanov Dynasty, from the Gosfilmofond collection, made by the Museum of the Revolution as a propaganda tool; created to 'prove' that all aspects of the Revolution owed their success to the Bolsheviks, not the proles. It also set out to deny the 300-year-old Romanov monarchy's pioneering latter day reforms. A leading Russian historian challenges all of these myths of the Revolution in the 'talking head' video essay (15 minutes, made in 1991), included on this DVD, and in a fascinating English commentary, which questions assumptions and beliefs fostered by this politically minded film.
   From the purely visual point of interest, scenes of vast armament factories, in readiness to produce destroyers, aircraft and tanks for WWII mobilisation, are of particular note, as they mirror equivalent but fantastic sequences of men dwarfed by great machines in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. There's the usual clutch of terror images showing death and devastation, but was it the effect of imperialism on geopolitics that made worldwide war inevitable, or did individual nations like Russia, France and Germany determine events?
   This documentary title is available separately on DVD or VHS, exempt from BBFC certification. Disc extras include a stills gallery, Dolby digital soundtrack.

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