Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein ( 22 January 1898 – 11 February 1948) was a Soviet film director and film theorist, a pioneer in the theory and practice of montage. He is noted in particular for his silent films Strike (1925), Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928), as well as the historical epics Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1944, 1958). In its 2012 decennial poll, the magazine Sight & Sound named his Battleship Potemkin the 11th greatest film of all time.
Young Sergei with his parents Mikhail and Julia Eisenstein
Sergei Eisenstein was born on 22 January 1898 in Riga, Latvia (then part of the Russian Empire in the Governorate of Livonia), to a middle-class family. His family moved frequently in his early years, as Eisenstein continued to do throughout his life. His father, the famous architect Mikhail Osipovich Eisenstein, was born in Kiev Oblast, to a Jewish merchant father, Osip, and a Swedish mother.
The father had converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. The mother, Julia Ivanovna Konetskaya, was from a Russian Orthodox family. She was the daughter of a prosperous merchant. Julia left Riga the same year as the 1905 Russian Revolution, taking Sergei with her to St. Petersburg. Her son would return at times to see his father, who joined them around 1910. Divorce followed and Julia left the family to live in France. Eisenstein was raised as an Orthodox Christian, but became an atheist later in life. Among the films that influenced Eisenstein as a child was The Consequences of Feminism (1906) by the first female filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché.
At the Petrograd Institute of Civil Engineering, Eisenstein studied architecture and engineering, the profession of his father. In 1918, he left school and joined the Red Army to serve in the Russian Revolution, although his father Mikhail supported the opposite side. This brought his father to Germany after the defeat of the Tsarist government, 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 was exposed to Kabuki theatre and studied Japanese, learning some 300 kanji characters, which he cited as an influence on his pictorial development.
With Japanese kabuki actor Sadanji Ichikawa II, Moscow, 1928
Eisenstein moved to Moscow in 1920, and began his career in theatre working for Proletkult, an experimental Soviet artistic institution which aspired to radically modify existing artistic forms and create a revolutionary working-class aesthetic. His productions there were entitled Gas Masks, Listen Moscow, and Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man. He worked as a designer for Vsevolod Meyerhold. Eisenstein began his career as a theorist in 1923, by writing "The Montage of Attractions" for art journal LEF. His first film, Glumov's Diary (for the theatre production Wise Man), was also made in that same year with Dziga Vertov hired initially as an instructor.
Strike (1925) was Eisenstein's first full-length feature film. Battleship Potemkin (also 1925) was critically acclaimed worldwide. Mostly owing to this international renown, he was then able to direct October: Ten Days That Shook the World, as part of a grand tenth anniversary celebration of the October Revolution of 1917, and then The General Line (also known as Old and New). While critics outside Soviet Russia praised these works, Eisenstein's focus in the 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. This forced him to issue public articles of self-criticism and commitments to reform his cinematic visions to conform to the increasingly specific doctrines of socialist realism.
Travels to western Europe
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 the three to learn about sound motion pictures and to present themselves as Soviet artists in person to the capitalist West. For Eisenstein, however, it was an opportunity to see landscapes and cultures outside the Soviet Union. He spent the next two years touring and lecturing in Berlin, Zürich, London, and Paris. In 1929, in Switzerland, Eisenstein supervised an educational documentary about abortion directed by Tisse, entitled Frauennot – Frauenglück.
Aleksandrov, Eisenstein and Tisse with Walt Disney in June 1930
In late April 1930, film producer Jesse L. Lasky, on behalf of Paramount Pictures, offered Eisenstein the opportunity to make a film in the United States. He accepted a short-term contract for $100,000 ($1,500,000 in 2017 dollars) and arrived in Hollywood in May 1930, along with Aleksandrov and Tisse. Eisenstein proposed a biography of arms dealer 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 Blaise Cendrars, but on all accounts failed to impress the studio's producers. Paramount proposed a film 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 by the start of October 1930, but Paramount disliked it and, additionally, they found themselves attacked by Major Pease, president of the Hollywood Technical Director's Institute. Pease, an virulent anti-communist, mounted a public campaign against Eisenstein. On October 23, 1930, 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 faced with being seen a failure in the USSR. The Soviet film industry was solving the sound-film issue without him; in addition, his films, techniques and theories, such as his formalist film theory, were becoming increasingly attacked as "ideological failures". Many of his theoretical articles from this period, such as Eisenstein on Disney, have surfaced decades later.
Eisenstein and his entourage spent considerable time with Charlie Chaplin, who recommended that Eisenstein meet with a sympathetic benefactor, the 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 admired each other, and between the end of October 1930 and Thanksgiving of that year, Sinclair had secured an extension of Eisenstein's absences from the USSR, and permission for him to travel to Mexico. Eisenstein had long been fascinated by Mexico and had wanted to make a film about the country. As a result of their discussions with Eisenstein and his colleagues, Sinclair, his wife Mary, and three other investors organized as the "Mexican Film Trust" to contract the three Soviets to make a film about Mexico of Eisenstein's design.
On 24 November 1930, Eisenstein signed a contract with the Trust "upon the basis of his desire to be free to direct the making of a picture according to his own ideas of what a Mexican picture should be, and in full faith in Eisenstein's artistic integrity." The contract stipulated that the film would be "non-political", that immediately available funding came from Mary 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 allowed that the "Soviet Government may have the film free for showing inside the U.S.S.R.
By 4 December, Eisenstein was traveling to Mexico by train, accompanied by Aleksandrov and Tisse, and also by Mrs. Sinclair's brother, Hunter Kimbrough, a banker with no prior experience in motion picture work, who was to serve as production supervisor. At their departure Eisenstein had not yet determined a direction or subject for his film, and only several months later produced a brief outline of a six-part film; this, he promised, would be developed, in one form or another, into a final plan he would settle on for his project. The title for the project, ¡Que viva México!, was decided on some time later still. Whilst in Mexico, he mixed socially with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; Eisenstein admired these artists and Mexican culture in general, and they inspired him to call his films "moving frescoes". The left-wing U.S. film community eagerly followed his progress within Mexico, as is chronicled within Chris Robe's book Left of Hollywood: Cinema, Modernism, and the Emergence of U.S. Radical Film Culture.
Filming was not accomplished in the 3-4 months agreed to in Eisenstein's contract, however, and the Trust was running out of money; and the Soviets' prolonged absence from the USSR led Joseph Stalin to send a telegram to Sinclair 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. Unable to raise further funds, and under pressure from both the Soviet government and the majority of the Trust, 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; estimates of the extent of this range from 170,000 lineal feet with Soldadera unfilmed, to an excess of 250,000 lineal feet.
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 amongst 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 instead of going directly 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 Trust's expense — and distribute any resulting product. Two short feature films and a short subject—Thunder Over Mexico based on the "Maguey" footage,Eisenstein in Mexico, and Death Day respectively—were completed and released in the United States between the autumn of 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, released in 1940. He would publicly maintain that he had lost all interest in the project. In 1978, Gregori Aleksandrov released – with the same name in contravention to the copyright – his own version, which was awarded the Honorable Golden Prize at the 11th Moscow International Film Festival in 1979. Later, in 1998, Oleg Kovalov edited a free version of the film, calling it "Mexican Fantasy".
Return to Soviet Union
Eisenstein's foray into 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 July 1933, ostensibly a result of depression born of his final acceptance that he would never be allowed to edit the Mexican footage. He was subsequently assigned a teaching position at the State Institute of Cinematography where he had taught earlier, and in 1933 and 1934 was in charge of writing the curriculum.
In 1935, Eisenstein was assigned another project, Bezhin Meadow, but it appears the film was afflicted with many of the same problems as ¡Que viva México!. 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. Boris Shumyatsky, the de facto head of the Soviet film industry, called a halt to the filming and cancelled further production. What 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 Shumyatsky,who in early 1938 was denounced, arrested, tried and convicted as a traitor, and shot.
Eisenstein was able to ingratiate himself with Stalin for 'one more chance', and he chose, from two offerings, the assignment of a biopic of 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 well-received by both the Soviets and in the West, which won him the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Prize. It was an 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 Eisenstein's first film in nearly a decade and his first sound film.
Within months of its release, Stalin entered into a pact with Hitler, and Alexander Nevsky was promptly pulled from distribution. Eisenstein returned to teaching, and was assigned to direct Richard Wagner's Die Walküre at the Bolshoi Theatre. After the outbreak of war with Germany in 1941, Alexander Nevsky was re-released with a wide distribution and earned international success. With the war approaching Moscow, Eisenstein was one of many filmmakers evacuated to Alma-Ata, where he first considered the idea of making a film about Tsar 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 Ivan the Terrible 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 Stalin's approval (and a Stalin Prize), but the sequel, Ivan The Terrible, Part II, was criticized by various authorities and went unreleased until 1958. All footage from Ivan The Terrible, Part III was confiscated whilst the film was still incomplete, and most of it was destroyed, though several filmed scenes exist.
Director Grigori Aleksandrov in his 20s
In 1934, in the Soviet Union, Eisenstein married filmmaker and screenwriter Pera Atasheva (born Pearl Moiseyevna Fogelman; 1900 – 24 September 1965). There have been debates about Eisenstein's sexuality, with a film covering Eisenstein's homosexuality allegedly running into difficulties in Russia. According to film critic Vitaly Vulf, the 10-years-long Eisenstein-Aleksandrov "friendship is still a subject of speculation and gossips, although there is no evidence they had had a sexual relationship. Aleksandrov himself took these rumors calmly: 'Maybe he was infatuated by me ... I've never been infatuated by him.' Eisenstein, for the rest of his life, believed Aleksandrov had betrayed him when he married Orlova."
Eisenstein confessed his asexuality to his close friend Marie Seton: "Those who say that I am homosexual are wrong. I have never noticed and do not notice this. If I was homosexual I would say so, directly. But the whole point is that I have never experienced a homosexual attraction, even towards Grisha, despite the fact I have some bisexual tendency in the intellectual dimension like, for example, Balzac or Zola."
Eisenstein suffered a heart attack on 2 February 1946, and spent much of the following year recovering. He died of a second heart attack on 11 February 1948, at the age of 50. His body had lain in state in the Hall of the Cinema Workers before being cremated on 13 February, and his ashes were buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.
Eisenstein was among the earliest film theorists. He briefly attended the film school established by Lev Kuleshov and the two were both fascinated with the power of editing to generate meaning and elicit emotion. Their individual writings and films are the foundations upon which Soviet montage theory was built, but they differed markedly in their understanding of its fundamental principles. Eisenstein's 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—as Kuleshov maintained. 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":
El Desastre en Oaxaca
Frauennot - Frauenglück
Ivan The Terrible, Part I)