Landmarks of early Soviet cinema come to DVD

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For a time in the mid-to-late 1920s the art of the cinema meant only one thing to the serious-minded film critics of America and Europe: Soviet-style montage, or the art of cutting shots together in a way that would produce ideas and emotions beyond those expressed in the images themselves.

The concepts could be simple ones, as in Lev Kuleshov’s famous experiments: the same close-up of a man looking into the camera could equal “fatherly love” when juxtaposed with the image of a baby, or “empty stomach” when juxtaposed with the image of a loaf of bread.

Or montage could be pushed to elaborate, symphonic heights, as in the celebrated “Odessa Steps” sequence of Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin.” Playing contrasts in content (czarist soldiers versus protesting townspeople), composition (slashing diagonals versus stable triangles) and rhythm (the relentless march of the soldiers, the aimless bounce of the abandoned baby carriage) against each other, Eisenstein achieves a fuguelike effect of enormous complexity and emotional power.

The limitations of the technique lie in its fundamentally Pavlovian treatment of the spectator as a passive lump whose feelings can (and, as far as the more propagandistic filmmakers were concerned, should) be manipulated by the iron hand of the director....

The montage vogue did not last long.... But the fascination of this road not much taken remains, as reflected in Kino’s recent Blu-ray releases of Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” and his first feature, “Strike,” and now by a boxed set of eight films from Flicker Alley, “Landmarks of Early Soviet Film.”

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