Igor' Gonopol'skii: Eisenstein in Alma-Ata (Eizenshtein v Alma-Ate, 1941-1944, 1998)

reviewed by Richard Taylor © 2007

After Nazi German forces invaded the USSR on 22 June 1941, the major Soviet film studios were amalgamated into the Central Unified Cinema Studio (TsOKS) and the bulk of their manpower and resources were transferred to the Central Asian city of Alma-Ata, then capital of the Kazakh SSR, now Almaty, but no longer the capital of independent Kazakhstan.

Igor' Gonopol'skii's film retraces the steps of Sergei Eisenstein and his associates—from their five-day train journey from Moscow to Kazakhstan and back some three years later—beginning with the prediction of his death at 50 made to him in Alma-Ata in 1943 and finishing with an evocative shot of his grave in the Novodev'ichii cemetery in Moscow. Gonopol'skii uses a mixture of techniques: the talking heads of eye witnesses, archival film footage from newsreels and excerpts from Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Groznyi), which Eisenstein was working on at the time, contemporary color footage of the place where Eisenstein and other exiles lived and worked, and Eisenstein's own sketches, some of which are rather subversive!

The mixture works well. There are many poignant moments in the film: when the people living in the house confess their ignorance of its previous inhabitants; when Marianna Tavrog describes their arrival in Alma-Ata almost in terms of Shangri-La; Eisenstein's reaction to the death from cancer of Elizaveta Telesheva; when several witnesses speak of Eisenstein's loneliness, depression, and suicidal thoughts. There are also moments of amusement: one eye witness describes Eisenstein, Fridrikh Ermler, Boris Barnet, and Grigorii Kozintsev arriving at the railway station in Moscow, “synchronously dressed” in grey suits. Dramatized reconstruction brings to life the telegraphic confrontation between Eisenstein and Ivan Bol'shakov, the head of the Soviet film industry, over whether Faina Ranevskaia or Serafima Birman was the best actress to play Evfrosinia Staritskaia, a battle that Bol'shakov eventually won.

The real strength of the film is that it brings to life—far more effectively than the written word—the complexities of life amongst filmmakers in Alma-Ata: the stresses, strains, pleasures of their relationships with one another; the hardships and the unexpected joys encountered in adversity. It does, however, sometimes stray into the voluptuous sentimentality that characterized many documentaries of the late Soviet period, with shots of birch leaves being borne downstream to the accompaniment of plinkety-plonking on a surging piano. But for anyone interested in Eisenstein, this is a film well worth seeing.

Richard Taylor
University of Swansea, Wales


Eisenstein in Alma-Ata, Russia and Kazakhstan, 1998
Color, three parts, 73 minutes
Director: Igor' Gonopol'skii
Screenplay: Leonid Gurevich
Cinematography: Gennadii Popov, Ermek Mambetov
Editors: Chuck Massing, Sergei Filippov, Vladimir Beloglazov
Sound: Irina Zavialova

DVD produced by Natsionalnyi Prodiusernyi Tsentr and IG Company, with TPK Shahar, 1998

Igor' Gonopol'skii: Eisenstein in Alma-Ata (Eizenshtein v Alma-Ate, 1941-1944, 1998)

reviewed by Richard Taylor © 2007

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