Sergei Eisenstein is best known as the director of "The Battleship Potemkin" and the father of film montage.
The Mexican painter Roberto Montenegro depicted Sergei Eisenstein on the fresco The New World as a Spanish conquistador of the 16th century, as a conqueror of the world – but with a film between his fingers, the instrument of his conquest.
Eisenstein is expected to become an architect like his father, but the Revolution interferes with these plans. He experienced the Revolution as his personal liberation and become a director.
At 27, Eisenstein was known as a Revolutionary artist around the world.
At 50, he died as an illustrious but banned academic.
“The slogan ‘Me too’ is the basic formulae of my activity in the field of art. This sort of ‘malice’ forced me to learn how to make passable architectural sketches, shoot films, stage theatrical productions, learn to write articles, ceaselessly be inventing some significant thing or other, without fail to ‘discover’ something in the field of artistic method, etc. etc. The objects of my jealousy are completely unexpected.” Eisenstein
In Eisenstein's films, children must die violent deaths.
Eisenstein built into the play a short film, entitled "Glumov’s Diary" which was made it in the manner of his beloved American series "The Exploits of Elaine."
The performance resembled a circus act. Moscow merchants were turned into political clowns and depicted as French generals, Russian émigrés, or Italian Fascists.
After his first experience with film, Eisenstein discovered that he could apply his montage of attraction more effectively in the new art. In "Strike," the masses in front of the camera were dressed as Russian proletarians. Their actions unfolded in the spaces of industrial modernity: in factories, on bridges, in the city.
Eisenstein’s radical montage was the innovation. He jumped from shots of an ox being slaughtered to the massacre of workers. The horror experienced through witnessing a real death was transposed onto the scene of the human massacre.
“I am a civil engineer and a mathematician by profession. I approach the creation of a film in the same way I would the design of a poultry farm or the installation of water pipes. My attitude is thoroughly utilitarian, rational and materialistic. Our psychological method is taken on the one hand from the teaching of the great Russian scientist, Pavlov, who tested the principle of reflexes in practice, and on the other, from the teachings of Freud." Eisenstein
"The Winter Palace is exotic.This is unbelievably rich cinematic material.Its own electric station. Wine cellars. Reception rooms. One bedroom is worth 300 icons and 200 porcelain Easter eggs. A bedroom that no contemporary psyche could stand.” Eisenstein discovered the perversion and absurdity of power in the perversion of the seized things. The revolution would lead to the liberation from this absurd world of objects.
In "October", Eisenstein invented a new language that visualized thought. He called his new theory ‘intellectual film’. People needed to be taught to ‘see’ intellectual film just as they were taught how to read and write. In 1928 he planned to film "Capital" and apply James Joyce’s associative inner monologue to Marx illustrating the dialectic of history.
The shot accumulated conflicts of foreground and background, of lines, contours, volumes, spots of light, masses, direction of movement, lighting, of an event and its temporal depiction in slow motion or time-lapse. Conflicts ‘tore apart’ the image and on the intersection of two pictures lead to something that cannot be graphically represented: an idea.
Eisenstein combined Freud and Constructivism: machines should experience orgasm, and animals should copulate in the manner of mythical beasts. His camera cut the Russian landscapes into the most eccentric angles. The montage followed the syncopated rhythms of American jazz.
In early September 1929, Eisenstein attended the Congress of Independent Filmmakers in La Sarraz, in Switzerland. He made a film with the congress participants called "The Storm over La Sarraz," a playful allegory about the struggle of independent film against commercial cinema. Eisenstein himself played Don Quixote. With hindsight, this role looks like a carnivalesque precursor of his later battles against the windmills of Hollywood.
In Zurich Eisenstein, Alexandrov and Tissé made an educational film "Frauennot—Frauenglück", "Women’s Misery—Women’s Happiness," about abortion film ordered by a Swiss producer Lazar Wechsler. They spent a week shooting at the gynecological clinic in Zurich. Eisenstein later denied that he had directed this movie, although several photographs taken on set contradict his account. .
Kiki, the famous model of many Montparnasse artists, painted in Paris a portrait of Eisenstein that was published on 12 February 1930 in the magazine "Pour Vous." Kiki gave Eisenstein the oil painting with the dedication: “Car moi aussi j'aime les gros bateaux et les matelots”, “For I also love big ships and sailors."
First experiment with sound film: “We have written in or drawn in sound, increased and reduced the tempo; we have made the sound go backwards, regulated it in special ways and recorded sound to pre-exposed film. Our work with sound deformation and the creation of new, previously non-existent sounds was successful and created an unusually strong physiological effect.” Eisenstein
"Paramount and I parted ways. But I wasn’t left destitute. I carried away with me the concept that I had discovered through this work, the principle of the inner monologue in film. Joyce in literature, O'Neill in drama, we in cinema! In literature – good, in drama – bad, in cinema – best.” Eisenstein
Instead of the four months in Mexico envisaged in the contract, Eisenstein remained for fourteen and was unable to finish the film: shortage of money, chaos in the production, the intrigues of Sinclair’s brother-in-law, who was acting as production manager, and illness all took their toll. Then Sinclair brought the shooting to a halt. The film was released in a versions edited by Sol Lesser, Marie Seton and Paul Burnford that Eisenstein never saw.
The cycle “Duncan’s death” consists of 150 drawings. Eisenstein practiced this serial technique and understood it as a conscious experiment that allowed him to develop an automatism in line-drawing and to free himself from mimetic depiction in favor of abstraction. The sketches were a kind of écriture automatique, a stream of the unconscious, a graphic anticipation of his thoughts. Eisenstein practiced this sketching technique to outline his figures in a single uninterrupted movement of the pencil. He worked with geometrical lines and with oval, fluid forms. The first become instruments of death (the cross or the sword) around which amorphous bodies are entwined.
“Bullfighting is also a merging with the totem, at first by killing it (to eat it later in a restaurant!) with an equal risk of being killed. Bullfighting envisages at its turning point the transition from devouring to being devoured. The piercing of the animal by the hunter’s spear is simultaneously a mystical merging. A ritual element here + a practical one. We can say that the first (ritual moment) survived in this form and in bullfighting.” Eisenstein
On 9 December 1931, Stalin received a file with press cuttings about Eisenstein. Amongst other things it contained this excerpt from the Berlin "Film Kurier": “Hollywood is Making a Stalin Film: Is Eisenstein Collaborating?” The script was written by a well-known Trotskyite, Isaac Don Levine. A telegram signed by Stalin was dispatched to Sinclair: “Eisenstein has lost the trust of our comrades in the Soviet Union and is regarded as a deserter.” It demanded his return. Eisenstein obeyed.
Eisenstein started a film "Bezhin Meadow," based on a real story: A 14 year old boy denounced his father to the GPU and was murdered by him. Eisenstein believed that he could ennoble the story through his art and raise the plot above current politics onto a mythological plane: the Oedipal revolt of the son or the ritual revenge of a father trying to save his own flesh and blood from the state.
The Central Committee of Communist Party intervened and stopped the production. The critics attributed Eisenstein’s misinterpretation to his fascination with myths, to the interweaving of the archaic and the modern. This propensity had led him to anthropomorphize nature and to present a clear case of class warfare as a Hellenistic tragedy in the spirit of Nietzsche, as a mystery play with choruses and mythological figures who succumbed to irrational fate: “Nietzsche, Lévy-Bruhl and Joyce are of no help to a Soviet artist.”
In his films, Eisenstein produced powerful images of cruelty and was able to stage large-scale scenes of massacre. Could Eisenstein’s art inspire this violence? Was it mere chance that Goebbels demanded a “National Socialist 'Battleship Potemkin’” from his artists? Eisenstein knew about these dangers and was aware of their extent. At the beginning of the 1930s he was on the point of giving up “this shameful business of art”.
In Eisenstein’s eyes, the Mexicans were the most attractive because the men had not lost their feminine aspect and the women looked like men. Images of women-like-men and men-like-women are superimposed on both his male and female characters.
The central episode of the film, the battle on the ice of Lake Peipus, was filmed during a July heat wave. 40 stuntmen were used for the mounted battle. The film was a box office hit, but Eisenstein knew what he had sacrificed. Some colleagues mockingly called "Nevsky" a daytime two-penny opera. Eisenstein’s diary entry for April 1939 reads, in French and English: ‘Traumatisme d’Alexandre. It is the first film in which I abandoned the Eisenstein touch… You ought to be ashamed of yourself, dear Master of Art!”
Prokofiev’s ability to filter rhythm from a given image and offer a musical equivalent remained a fascinating mystery for Eisenstein. They were bonded over their enthusiasm about Disney.
“In drawings of the accompanying type (very similar to the Macbeth-series) there is yet another 'plasmatic' factor: the figures 'hover' in space; that is, the atavism in them belongs to the period before being set upon solid ground, to the amoebic-plasmatic stage of movement in liquid. This is the graphic equivalent to the sensation of 'flight' among ecstatics: an identical uterine sensation of gyroscopicness and the identical phylogenetic pre-stage—the floating of the amoebic-protoplasmatic state in a liquid environment.” Eisenstein
“I think it’s the first time in my life that I am completely content with the way a book of mine has been published. They could not have done a better job. The cover is even just the way I wanted it: boulevard yellow and black, like a detective story. Against that background, my face with an absolutely indecent look in my eyes and a Mona Lisa smile.” Eisenstein
“How does one become Eisenstein?” his students asked. He offered several explanations. First: philosophy, like cocaine, kills joy but releases from pain. Second: the legend of a warrior who saves all his strength for a future deed and suffers humiliation in the meantime: Third: George Bernard Shaw’s Soldier, which cooled his youthful bent for pathos with irony. “And then I spent my whole life with screen ‘canvases’ in the heroic style!”
Eisenstein filmed the drinking orgy of the hangmen Oprichniki as a pattern of red-gold-black-blue. The gold of their shirts slowly turn to red as the murder plans develop. Then red is swallowed up by black when the executioners don black robes over their red atlas shirts. This color dramatization intensifies this frightening orgy, which is followed by a murder.
On September 4 1946, the Central Committee resolved to ban "Ivan the Terrible," Part Two: “Sergei Eisenstein has revealed his ignorance in his portrayal of historical facts, by representing the progressive army of Ivan the Terrible's Oprichniki as a gang of degenerates akin to the American Ku-Klux-Klan; and Ivan the Terrible, a strong-willed man of character, as a man of weak will and character, not unlike Hamlet."
The 'producer' in the Kremlin rewarded Eisenstein with the Stalin Prize for Part One and banned Part Two. Eisenstein had a heart attack. When he recovered, Stalin discussed with him various changes: Ivan should be more ruthless in eradicating his enemies; Eisenstein was too attracted to shadows; the film was too mystical; the director distracted the audience with Ivan’s beard. Eisenstein could re-shoot the film. But he died some months after the conversation in the Kremlin without changing anything. He remained true to his art, not to his patron.
The Russian State Archive for Literature and Art, Moscow, Russia; Museum for Literature and Music, Riga, Latvia; Alexander Bakhrushin State Theater Museum, Moscow, Russia; The Russian State Documentary Film & Photo Archive, Krasnogorsk, Russia
Curators: Oksana Bulgakowa & Dietmar Hochmuth
Sources for quotation:
Sergei Eisenstein. The Film of the Masses. Translation by Richard Abraham of ‘Massenkino’, "Die Weltbühne" 1927, No. 49; Eisenstein. Selected Writing. Volume 1. Edited and translated by Richard Taylor. London: BFI 1988; Sergei Eisenstein. Beyond the Stars: The Memoirs. Edited by Richard Taylor, translated by William Powell. London: BFI 1995; Oksana Bulgakowa. Sergei Eisenstein A Biography. Translated by Ann Dwyer. Berlin: PotemkinPress 2000; Sergei Eisenstein. Disney. Edited by Oksana Bulgakowa and Dietmar Hochmuth, translated by Dustin Condren. Berlin: PotemkinPress 2012.