7. Sergei Eisenstein (1898 – 1948)
With only seven completed films on his resume, Sergei Eisenstein’s influence may stem more from his theories—both written and demonstrated—on the possibilities of film than from his body of work itself. Released 10 years after The Birth of a Nation, Eisenstein’s landmark The Battleship Potemkin wasdirectly inspired by Griffith’s advancement of the medium.
Potemkin’s 10-minute Odessa steps sequence is one of the most powerful testaments to the importance of editing and montage in film, and to the emotion such devices are capable of rendering. Brian De Palma “borrowed” the scene directly for 1987’s The Untouchables, when Elliot Ness and his men confront a group of Al Capone’s associates at a train station.
Intended as a showcase for montage editing, Potemkin was just that. But when the rest of the world wanted to know more, Eisenstein was forced to reveal his secrets. Though his discoveries are often overlooked as a basic part of moviemaking, Eisenstein’s theories continue to affect the changing world of motion pictures.
Says critic J. Hoberman “As the best known of the Soviet montage theorists, Eisenstein has come to stand for the powerful (and basic) notion that cinematic meaning is a factor of editing—specifically the dynamic juxtaposition that is only possible with movies. In his writings, Eisenstein argued that it was possible to use montage scientifically to direct an audience to think and/or feel in a particular way. He not only anticipates propagandists of all political persuasions, but also Alfred Hitchcock (and his multitude of followers), as well as the makers of TV commercials and theatrical trailers.”
Though each of his films employed the same techniques as Potemkin, it only took that one film for Eisenstein to claim his place in cinema history. Alongside Griffith and Welles, Eisenstein is one of the major contributors to moviemaking technique, using innovation to heighten the audience’s visual and emotional relationship to film.