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International Socialism, Autumn 1960


S.M. Neufeld

The Russian Film


From International Socialism (1st series), No.2, Autumn 1960, p.36.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Jay Leyda
Allen & Unwin. 42s.

Notes of a Film Director
Sergei Eisenstein
Lawrence & Wishart. 18s.

The publication of Jay Leyda’s Kino, subtitled A History of the Russian and Soviet Film, is an important event in the historiography of the cinema. If this book had fulfilled its claims, it could also have been a record of outstanding political importance. Its great merit is that it provides the first .detailed catalogue of films made in Russia, many of them never shown abroad, and that it contains some interesting material on the chief personalities of the Russian cinema. Although the author makes references to the difficulties encountered by individual films and artists during the great political upheavals of the late twenties and thirties, he fails to interrelate these factors more closely and leaves us, in the end, with little more than a list of films and some notes on their makers.

Two individuals stand out in Leyda’s book. There is firstly the revelation of Alexander Dovzhenko (known in this country chiefly by a mutilated version of Earth) as a director of importance and great sensitivity, and secondly that genius of the cinema, Sergei Eisenstein, is shown in his full stature. The case of Eisenstein must stand at the centre of any study of the Soviet film. The recent publication Notes of a Film Director contains some interesting material, unfortunately sandwiched between slabs of loyal exhortation, written during the ‘Great Patriotic War’. During the first creative decade of Soviet Rule, Eisenstein made three films, revolutionary in both form and content: Strike, Potemkin and October. In the following decade he was allowed to complete only the somewhat orthodox ‘General Line’. Thus at a time of two great technical innovations, the introduction of sound and the use of colour, Eisenstein was kept away from creative work by the bureaucracy. It is tragic that his original talent, so influential in fashioning the form of the silent film, should have been prevented from making its contribution to these later developments; from his writings we can indeed see how different and how much richer the film might have become.

When he was permitted, after ten years, to make his first sound film, Alexander Nevski, the use of sound along now conventional and accepted lines had already gone too far for Eisenstein to do other than accept it. Eisenstein never believed that speech should be used naturalistically in the film, but conceived of sound as an additional element which could be used in an entirely abstract way to heighten the reality of the action on the screen. Some of this intention can be seen in his use of music in Nevski and Ivan the Terrible (part II).

Similarly with colour, Eisenstein believed that it should be used sparingly, for isolated passages, and in a very limited chromatic range. Here, at least, we have been able to see the complete vindication of this approach in the now belatedly shown Ivan, part II.

Anyone familiar with Eisenstein’s work and writings must have speculated as to what his development and achievements might have been, had his career been allowed to develop along the paths he had set out on during the early post-revolutionary years. Would he have become lost, as it is alleged, in theory and arid formalism? Or would he have succeeded in making the film that new revolutionary art form at which he hinted in his first works, and from which the cinema has since moved too far ever to retrace its steps.

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Last updated on 14 February 2010