Yesterday’s Google doodle commemorated the 120th anniversary of his birth. Since this movie pioneer’s works were always a huge component of Russian culture courses I taught at Ohio State, I’d like to use this opportunity to share some uncommon observations I’ve made over the years.
His Battleship Potemkin, depicting rebelling sailors and civilians following the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, is best known for its “Odessa Steps” scene, in which tsarist troops crush the uprising. The image of a baby carriage rolling down a multitiered outdoor staircase, the child’s caretaker having apparently been shot, has become thoroughly embossed on the world of cinematography. It is at once heartrending and an iconic textbook example of early, innovative technique.
It has also been widely imitated. Director David Lean tips his hat to Eisenstein in Dr. Zhivago, in a scene in which protestors are shot in the (failed) 1905 Russian Revolution. Their beat of their march is banged out of a parade-style bass drum, but after soldiers on horseback fire into the crowd, the instrument rolls, bereft of its player, down the street. Madonna seems to have taken a cue from The Odessa Steps in her 2013 short, Secret Project Revolution, co-created with Ste. In one shot, bare-chested males dance in front of a burning pram. With its large, old-fashioned wheels, it looks a century old, it just had to allude to the old Soviet director.
Probably Eisenstein’s most enduring influence was on George Lucas. As a student at UCLA’s film school in the late 1960’s, the budding director would have had plenty of exposure to Potemkin. As well as Alexander Nevsky, about a 13th-century saint/warrior who repelled an incursion by the Teutonic Knights into the Republic of Novgorod, an autonomous Russian city some two hundred miles inland from the Baltic Sea. The German monastic order was much reputed for pillaging and raping rather than for any Christian charity, yet Eisenstein ramps up the imagery to epitome-of-evil proportions. The military leaders of the Knights wear helmets topped by twisted talons and ram’s horns—perhaps only a slight exaggeration. The foot-soldiers’ headgear completely obscures their faces, dehumanizing these Crusaders. And they throw Russian babies on a fire!
Swastikas adorn the miter of the bishop who accompanies them—certainly an unhistorical smear. He holds Mass while a cowled monk plays a droning organ—doubtless brought by sleigh across the snow as part of the entourage, in spite of all the logistical problems it entails. This unrealistic detail, I suspect, is meant to heighten the contrast between Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy, whose traditional liturgies have only a cappella music. They’re a dark Other from the West. The dirge-like music is part of the score by Sergei Prokofiev, whose sinister half-tones serve as boos and hisses every time the evildoers appear onscreen. As the 1938 film was shelved under Stalin’s orders after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and not released until the 1950s, the soundtrack became damaged. But the scratchiness actually improves the effect—though a remastered version has come out in recent years.
The German and Russian camps finally duke it out on the frozen Lake Peipus, and the Crusaders plunge ingloriously into the water, weighed down, of course, by all that chainmail. The wintry battleground is widely regarded as the inspiration behind the battle on Hoth, the ice planet, in Star Wars 5. If you need further evidence of the Eisenstein-Lucas connection, consider that Skywalker Ranch, George’s hundred-million-dollar pad in Marin County, has an Eisenstein suite.
Finally, consider the side-by-side stills of Alexander Nevsky and Star Wars characters and scenes in this blog entry’s slideshow. I submit that both Darth Vader and the Emperor owe their costuming to the Eisenstein film. In any event, Eisenstein’s legacy in indisputable.