Combustible Celluloid
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With: Nikolai Cherkasov, Nikolai Okhlopkov, Andrei Abrikosov, Dmitri Orlov, Lyudmila Tselikovskaya, Serafima Birman, Mikhail Nazvanov
Written by: Sergei Eisenstein, Pyotr Pavlenko
Directed by: Sergei Eisenstein
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Russian with English subtitles
Running Time: 292
Date: 03/18/2013

Eisenstein: The Sound Years (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Alexander Meets Ivan

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Criterion Collection has just released a historically exciting box set of Sergei Eisenstein films.

Sergei Eisenstein, as many film buffs know, invented (or perfected) the theory of "montage," or telling stories through editing -- juxtaposing different pictures to create new ideas. Eisenstein's best-known work is Battleship Potemkin (1925), a silent masterpiece famous for its horrifying and action-packed "Odessa Steps" sequence. That film catapulted Eisenstein to worldwide fame.

Eisenstein kept working sporadically well into the sound era, though he only completed two films after 1929: Alexander Nevsky (1938) and the first two parts of his projected three-part Ivan the Terrible epic. It's these films that make up the new Sergei Eisenstein: The Sound Years Box Set (Criterion, $79.95).

The Russian filmmaker had been in a decade-long slump before the reigning Russian film tsar offered him a choice of historical epics to film. Eisenstein chose Nevsky (played by Nikolai Cherkasov) and set out to make a parable warning his homeland against foreign aggressors. Teamed with the composer Sergei Prokofiev (Peter and the Wolf), Eisenstein made a rousing battle epic full of pride and spectacle, famous for its extraordinary "battle on the ice" sequence.

Ivan the Terrible follows tsar Ivan (again played by Nikolai Cherkasov), who in the 16th century, reclaimed the lost territories of Russia and pulled them together into a whole state. The film lacks the battle sequences of Alexander Nevsky, but plenty of drama occurs in Ivan's home with power struggles, jealousy, and attempted murder.

Although Criterion's transfers are impossibly beautiful, both films are exceedingly difficult to watch with their wooden staging, awkward cutting, hysterical acting, and forced dialogue. A casual viewing will most likely result in shutting off the DVD player in disgust. But thankfully the box set comes packaged with enough extras -- scholarly studies, commentary tracks, archive material, and documentaries -- to help with the viewing. Make no mistake: a viewer really has to work hard to reap the rewards of these complicated films, but it's worth the struggle.

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