At BAMPFA, a classic Soviet film is followed by Russian dinner with a twist

A Film-to-Table dinner at Babette. Photo: BAMPFA

If you know the work of Sergei Eisenstein — think a baby’s pram careening down the steps of Odessa while a woman is shot in the face in Battleship Potemkin‘s most famous scene — it may come as a surprise to learn that the earnest Soviet filmmaker was a fan of Walt Disney.

This nugget of an insight was shared by Peter Bagrov, a film historian, curator and archivist specializing in early Russian and Soviet cinema, with a group gathered to watch a screening of Eisenstein’s 1938 masterpiece Alexander Nevsky at UC Berkeley’s Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) on a recent Saturday evening. Bagrov was flown to the Bay Area by the archive’s senior film curator, Susan Oxtoby, to take part in the Sergei Eisenstein: Films that Shook the World series that runs through April 21.

So keen on Disney was Eisenstein, in fact, that he wanted Russia to bestow a prize on the American filmmaker for Three Little Pigs, Disney’s animated short film released in 1933. Eisenstein, and Sergei Prokofiev, who composed the score for Alexander Nevsky, even borrowed some of Disney’s musical punctuations, such as the glissando used when a character takes a fall, or suffers a worse fate, and did a little “Mickey Mousing” — the term they used, in English — when the last Teutonic knight dies in Alexander Nevsky‘s famous battle on the ice.

On Feb. 10, Bagrov introduced the film, and he also spoke after the final credits had rolled, deftly summarizing some of Eisenstein’s themes and techniques, as well as recounting the filmmaker’s personal story. The evening was part of BAMPFA’s Film-to-Table series which meant that, after the screening, about 30 of the group repaired to Babette, BAMPFA’s architecturally striking café situated in a dramatic womb-like space, part of which juts out over Center Street, to enjoy a Russian-themed dinner.


Babette owners, Joan and Patrick Ellis, had prepared vodka, kumquat and simple syrup cocktails to kick things off. After sitting at a long communal table, guests then tucked into an inventive menu consisting of pickled herring “sushi,” mushroom consommé with oyster and wild mushrooms, beet and apple salad with crème fraîche and dill, and a kulebyaka — an impressively large and beautiful fish and mushroom pie presented to the dinner guests with aplomb by Joan Ellis. The meal ended with honeycake for dessert.

Ellis explained that they approached all the Film-to-Table menus with a sense of inventiveness. The dishes, she said, were “Russian with a twist” rather than traditional fare.

While enjoying the food and wine, guests were also able to talk more about Soviet cinema with Bagrov, along with several other film scholars from around the country who had been invited by Oxtoby to join the dinner.

BAMPFA launched Film-to-Table in November 2016 with a screening of Sidney Lumet’s 1960 drama The Fugitive Kind. The events, say BAMPFA, offer film-goers an opportunity to relax with fellow cinephiles immediately following screenings of select films. Each four-course, prix-fixe meal is planned, prepared and served by Patrick and Joan Ellis in a convivial, dinner-party atmosphere.

A slice of kulebyaka (fish and mushroom pie), on the menu at the Feb. 16 BAMPFA Film-to-Table evening at Babette. Photo: BAMPFA

The next Film-to-Table event at BAMPFA is this Saturday, Feb. 24, with Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband showing at 6 p.m., followed by dinner at 8 p.m. BAMPFA describes Saraband, Bergman’s final work, as “a blistering sequel to Scenes from a Marriage [that] proved that his grasp of human foibles had only sharpened, not mellowed, with age.”

The Babette chefs have a suitably Swedish-infused menu in store for dinner, consisting of apple-juniper soup; three mushroom salad; prune stuffed pork roast with red cabbage-potato pancakes, and a ginger cake with mascarpone mousse.

Film-to-Table dinner tickets are $75 each (they include cocktails and wine) and should be bought in advance at BabetteCafe.com. (Movie tickets must be bought separately at BAMPFA.)