Sergei Eisenstein


Sergei Eisenstein (1898 – 1948) was a pioneering Soviet Russian film director and film theorist, often considered to be the ‘Father of Montage.’

He is noted in particular for his silent films ‘Strike’ (1924), ‘Battleship Potemkin’ (1925), and ‘October’ (1927), as well as the historical epics ‘Alexander Nevsky’ (1938) and ‘Ivan the Terrible’ (1944).

Eisenstein was born to a middle-class family in Latvia, but his family moved frequently in his early years, as Eisenstein continued to do throughout his life. His father was of German-Jewish and Swedish descent, and his mother, was from a Russian Orthodox family. His father was an architect and his mother was the daughter of a prosperous merchant. His mother left Riga the same year as the Russian Revolution (1905), bringing Sergei with her to St. Petersburg. Her son would return at times to see his father, who later moved to join them around 1910. Divorce followed and Julia deserted the family to live in France.

At the Petrograd Institute of Civil Engineering, Sergei studied architecture and engineering, the profession of his father. At school with his fellow students however, Sergei would join the military to serve the revolution, which would divide him from his father. In 1918 he joined the Red Army, although his father supported the opposite side. This brought his father to Germany after defeat, and Sergei to Petrograd, Vologda, and Dvinsk. In 1920, Sergei was transferred to a command position in Minsk, after success providing propaganda for the October Revolution. At this time, he studied Japanese, learning some 300 kanji characters, which he cited as an influence on his pictorial development, and gained an exposure to Kabuki theater. These studies would lead him to travel to Japan.

In 1920 Eisenstein moved to Moscow, and began his career in theater working for Proletkult (an experimental Soviet artistic institution). His productions there were entitled ‘Gas Masks,’ ‘Listen Moscow,’ and ‘Wiseman.’ Eisenstein would then work as a designer for Soviet theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold. In 1923 Eisenstein began his career as a theorist, by writing ‘The Montage of Attractions’ for LEF (a leftist Soviet journal). Eisenstein’s first film, ‘Glumov’s Diary’ was also made in that same year with Soviet documentary film theorist Dziga Vertov hired initially as an ‘instructor.’ ‘Strike’ (which depicts a strike in 1903 by the workers of a factory in pre-revolutionary Russia, and their subsequent suppression) was Eisenstein’s first full-length feature film. ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ (a dramatized version of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their officers of the Tsarist regime) was acclaimed critically worldwide. But it was mostly his international critical renown which enabled Eisenstein to direct ‘October’ (aka ‘Ten Days That Shook The World,’ a celebratory dramatization of the 1917 October Revolution) as part of a grand tenth anniversary celebration of the Revolution, and then ‘The General Line’ (aka ‘Old and New,’ a celebration of the collectivization of agriculture). The critics of the outside world praised them, but at home, Eisenstein’s focus in these films on structural issues such as camera angles, crowd movements, and montage brought him and like-minded others, such as Vsevolod Pudovkin and Alexander Dovzhenko, under fire from the Soviet film community, forcing him to issue public articles of self-criticism and commitments to make his cinematic visions conform to the increasingly specific doctrines of socialist realism (made in furtherance of socialism).

In the autumn of 1928, with ‘October’ still under fire in many Soviet quarters, Eisenstein left the Soviet Union for a tour of Europe, accompanied by his perennial film collaborator Grigori Aleksandrov and cinematographer Eduard Tisse. Officially, the trip was supposed to allow Eisenstein and company to learn about sound motion pictures and to present the famous Soviet artists in person to the capitalist West. For Eisenstein, however, it was also an opportunity to see landscapes and cultures outside those found within the Soviet Union. He spent the next two years touring and lecturing in Berlin, Zurich, London, and Paris. In 1929, in Switzerland, Eisenstein supervised an educational documentary about abortion directed by Tissé entitled ‘Frauennot – Frauenglück’ (‘Women’s Misery – Women’s Happiness’). In 1930, Jesse L. Lasky, on behalf of Paramount Pictures, offered him the opportunity to make a film in the United States. He accepted a short-term contract for $100,000. However, the arrangement failed. Eisenstein’s idiosyncratic and artistic approach to cinema was incompatible with the more formulaic and commercial approach of a Hollywood studio. Eisenstein proposed a biography of munitions tycoon Sir Basil Zaharoff and a film version of ‘Arms and the Man’ by George Bernard Shaw, and more fully developed plans for a film of ‘Sutter’s Gold’ by Jack London, but on all accounts failed to impress the studio’s producers. Paramount then proposed a movie version of Theodore Dreiser’s ‘An American Tragedy.’ This excited Eisenstein, who had read and liked the work, and had met Dreiser at one time in Moscow. Eisenstein completed a script, but Paramount disliked it completely and, additionally, found themselves intimidated by Major Frank Pease, president of the Hollywood Technical Director’s Institute. Pease, an anti-communist, mounted a public campaign against Eisenstein. By ‘mutual consent,’ Paramount and Eisenstein declared their contract null and void, and the Eisenstein party were treated to return tickets to Moscow at Paramount’s expense.

Eisenstein was thus faced with returning home a failure. The Soviet film industry was solving the sound-film issue without him and his films, techniques, and theories were becoming increasingly attacked as ‘ideological failures’ and prime examples of formalism. Many of his theoretical articles from this period, such as ‘Eisenstein on Disney,’ surfaced decades later as seminal scholarly texts used as curriculum in film schools around the world. Eisenstein and his entourage spent considerable time with Charlie Chaplin, who introduce him to a sympathetic benefactor in the person of American socialist author Upton Sinclair. Sinclair’s works had been accepted by and were widely read in the USSR, and were known to Eisenstein. The two had mutual admiration and between the end of 1930, and Thanksgiving of that year, Sinclair secured an extension for Eisenstein’s absences from the USSR, and permission for him to travel to Mexico. The trip to Mexico was for Eisenstein to make a film produced by Sinclair and his wife, Mary Craig Kimbrough Sinclair, and three other investors organized as the ‘Mexican Film Trust.’ Eisenstein signed a contract with the Trust ‘in full faith in Eisenstein’s artistic integrity.’ The contract also stipulated that the film would be ‘non-political,’ that immediately available funding came from Mrs. Sinclair in an amount of ‘not less than Twenty-Five Thousand Dollars,’ that the shooting schedule amounted to ‘a period of from three to four months,’ and most importantly that ‘Eisenstein furthermore agrees that all pictures made or directed by him in Mexico, all negative film and positive prints, and all story and ideas embodied in said Mexican picture, will be the property of Mrs. Sinclair…’ A codicil to the contract later added, allowed that the ‘Soviet Government may have the [finished] film free for showing inside the U.S.S.R.’ Reportedly, it was verbally clarified that the expectation was for a finished film of about an hour’s duration.

Eisenstein was en route to Mexico by train, accompanied by Aleksandrov and Tisse. Later he produced a brief synopsis of the six-part film which would come, in one form or another, to be the final plan Eisenstein would settle on for his project. The title for the project, ‘¡Que viva México!’ (‘Living Mexico!’), was decided on some time later still. While in Mexico Eisenstein mixed socially with Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera. Eisenstein admired these artists as much as Mexican culture in general, and they inspired Eisenstein to call his films ‘moving frescoes.’ After a prolonged absence, Stalin sent a telegram expressing the concern that Eisenstein had become a deserter. Under pressure, Eisenstein blamed Mary Sinclair’s younger brother, Hunter Kimbrough, who had been sent along to act as a line producer, for the film’s problems. Eisenstein hoped to pressure the Sinclairs to insinuate themselves between him and Stalin, so Eisenstein could finish the film in his own way. The furious Sinclair shut down production and ordered Kimbrough to return to the United States with the remaining film footage and the three Soviets to see what they could do with the film already shot.

For the unfinished filming of the ‘novel’ of ‘Soldadera,’ without incurring any cost, Eisenstein had secured 500 soldiers, 10,000 guns, and 50 cannons from the Mexican Army, but this was lost due to Sinclair’s cancelling of production. When Eisenstein arrived at the American border, a customs search of his trunk revealed sketches and drawings of Jesus caricatures among other lewd pornographic material. His re-entry visa had expired, and Sinclair’s contacts in Washington were unable to secure him an additional extension. Eisenstein, Aleksandrov, and Tisse were allowed, after a month’s stay at the U.S.-Mexico border outside Laredo, Texas, a 30-day ‘pass’ to get from Texas to New York, and thence depart for Moscow, while Kimbrough returned to Los Angeles with the remaining film. Eisenstein toured the American South, on his way to New York. In mid-1932, the Sinclairs were able to secure the services of Sol Lesser, who had just opened his distribution office in New York, Principal Distributing Corporation. Lesser agreed to supervise post-production work on the miles of negative — at the Sinclairs’ expense — and distribute any resulting product. Two short feature films and a short subject — ‘Thunder Over Mexico’ based on the footage, ‘Eisenstein in Mexico,’ and ‘Death Day’ respectively — were completed and released in the United States in 1933 and early 1934. Eisenstein never saw any of the Sinclair-Lesser films, nor a later effort by his first biographer, Marie Seton, called ‘Time in the Sun.’ He would publicly maintain that he had lost all interest in the project.

Eisenstein’s foray onto the west made the staunchly Stalinist film industry look upon him with a suspicion that would never completely disappear. He apparently spent some time in a mental hospital in Kislovodsk in 1933, ostensibly a result of depression born of his final acceptance that he would never be allowed to edit the Mexican footage, turned over by Sinclair to Hollywood editors, who would irreparably alter the negatives. He was subsequently assigned a teaching position with the film school GIK (now Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography) where he had taught earlier. He was put in charge of the writing curriculum. Eisenstein married filmmaker and writer Vera Atasheva in 1934 and remained married until his death in 1948, though there is some speculation about his sexuality. In 1935, he began another project, ‘Bezhin Meadow,’ but it appears the film was afflicted with many of the same problems as ‘Que Viva Mexico’— Eisenstein unilaterally decided to film two versions of the scenario, one for adult viewers and one for children; failed to define a clear shooting schedule; and shot film prodigiously, resulting in cost overruns and missed deadlines. Even though Soviet film executive Boris Shumyatsky encouraged Sinclair in undermining Eisenstein it was derailed not as much as ‘Bezhin Meadow’ by the Soviet film industry, but by its American backers.[51] The thing which appeared to save Eisenstein’s career at this point was that Stalin ended up taking the position that the ‘Bezhin Meadow’ catastrophe, along with several other problems facing the industry at that point, had less to do with Eisenstein’s approach to filmmaking as with the executives who were supposed to have been supervising him. Ultimately this came down on the shoulders of Boris Shumyatsky, ‘executive producer’ of Soviet film since 1932, who in early 1938 was denounced, arrested, tried and convicted as a traitor, and shot.

Eisenstein was thence able to ingratiate himself with Stalin for ‘one more chance,’ and he chose, from two offerings, the assignment of a biopic of Russian Orthodox Saint Alexander Nevsky, with music composed by Sergei Prokofiev. This time, he was assigned a co-scenarist, Pyotr Pavlenko, to bring in a completed script; professional actors to play the roles; and an assistant director, Dmitri Vasilyev, to expedite shooting. The result was a film critically received by both the Soviets and in the West, which won him the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Prize. It was an obvious allegory and stern warning against the massing forces of Nazi Germany, well played and well made. The script had Nevsky utter a number of traditional Russian proverbs, verbally rooting his fight against the Germanic invaders in Russian traditions. This was started, completed, and placed in distribution all within the year 1938, and represented not only Eisenstein’s first film in nearly a decade but also his first sound film. Within months of its release, Stalin entered into a pact with Hitler, and ‘Nevsky’ was promptly pulled from distribution. Eisenstein returned to teaching and was assigned to direct Richard Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ at the Bolshoi Theater. After the outbreak of war with Germany in 1941, ‘Nevsky’ was released into wide distribution and earned international success. With the war approaching Moscow, Eisenstein was one of many filmmakers evacuated to Alma-Ata (in present day Kazakhstan), where he first considered the idea of making a film about Czar Ivan IV. Eisenstein corresponded with Prokofiev from Alma Ata, and was joined by him there in 1942. Prokofiev composed the score for Eisenstein’s film and Eisenstein reciprocated by designing sets for an operatic rendition of ‘War and Peace’ that Prokofiev was developing.

Eisenstein’s film, ‘Ivan The Terrible, Part I,’ presenting Ivan IV of Russia as a national hero, won Joseph Stalin’s approval (and a Stalin Prize), but the sequel, ‘Ivan The Terrible, Part II’ was criticized by various authorities and would go unreleased until 1958. All footage from the still incomplete third film was confiscated, and most of it was destroyed. Eisenstein’s health was also failing: he was struck by a heart attack during the making of this picture, and soon died of another at the age of 50. Eisenstein was a pioneer in the use of montage, a specific use of film editing. He and his contemporary, Lev Kuleshov, two of the earliest film theorists, argued that montage was the essence of the cinema. His articles and books — particularly ‘Film Form’ and ‘The Film Sense’ — explain the significance of montage in detail. His writings and films have continued to have a major impact on subsequent filmmakers. Eisenstein believed that editing could be used for more than just expounding a scene or moment through a ‘linkage’ of related images. Eisenstein felt the ‘collision’ of shots could be used to manipulate the emotions of the audience and create film metaphors. He believed that an idea should be derived from the juxtaposition of two independent shots, bringing an element of collage into film. He developed what he called ‘methods of montage’: Metric, Rhythmic, Tonal, Overtonal, and Intellectual.

In his initial films, Eisenstein did not use professional actors. His narratives eschewed individual characters and addressed broad social issues, especially class conflict. He used stock characters, and the roles were filled with untrained people from the appropriate classes; he avoided casting stars. Eisenstein’s vision of communism brought him into conflict with officials in the ruling regime of Joseph Stalin. Like many Bolshevik artists, Eisenstein envisioned a new society which would subsidize artists totally, freeing them from the confines of bosses and budgets, leaving them absolutely free to create, but budgets and producers were as significant to the Soviet film industry as the rest of the world. Due to the fledgling war, the revolution-wracked and isolated new nation didn’t have the resources to nationalize its film industry at first. When it did, limited resources — both monetary and equipment — required production controls as extensive as in the capitalist world.

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