Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) has become one of those filmmakers, like D.W. Griffith or Robert Flaherty, more spoken of than seen, in danger of becoming a purely historical figure whose work is mostly experienced only in a classroom setting and even then often in excerpted form. While this is true of many directors who began in the silent era, it is especially unfortunate in Eisenstein’s case, because a rich body of work risks getting reduced to one word: “montage.” Eisenstein certainly deserves the place reserved for him in the cinematic pantheon as one of the first filmmakers, alongside his Soviet colleagues Pudovkin and Vertov, to unlock the power of editing to bring the cinematic image roaring to life. But he also demonstrated a powerful visual style and a wide-ranging intellect in a truncated career that produced only nine feature films.
After a bourgeois childhood, Eisenstein arrived in Moscow in 1920 in the heady days of political and artistic ferment after the revolution. He was involved in designing for the experimental theater of Vsevolod Meyerhold, and a move to filmmaking followed shortly, with his feature debut, Strike, appearing in 1925. Released at the end of that same year, Eisenstein’s second film, Battleship Potemkin, rocketed him to international fame. Remaining his best-known work, the film makes a convincing argument for the power of montage. Its portrayal of collective action and eschewal of an individual protagonist brought it praise from the political left worldwide.
The problems that would mark the rest of Eisenstein’s career began with his very next film, October, about the Russian Revolution. While well-received internationally, the film was much more complex than Potemkin and not as warmly embraced by audiences. This left Eisenstein open to criticism at home that his work was too intellectual and formalist at a time when the movement that would result in the censure and even arrest of so many Soviet avant-garde artists was already beginning. As a result, his next film, Old and New, was re-edited by the authorities.
By that time, Eisenstein had already been sent to Western Europe to research sound cinema technology and to act as a cultural ambassador from the Soviet Union. He eventually traveled as far as Los Angeles where his attempts to make a film in Hollywood came to naught. There he did find support for a film about Mexico, but after a year of shooting, funding was withdrawn before the film was completed. Eisenstein was called home by Stalin himself and was never given access to his Mexican footage. This failure haunted Eisenstein for the rest of his life.
Back in the Soviet Union, Eisenstein found a film industry kept on a short leash by the government, and he spent much of the 1930s teaching and writing the essays on cinematic form still read by film students today. The one film that he did make in this period, Bezhin Meadow, was immediately shelved by the censors and then destroyed in a bombing raid during World War II.
Eisenstein managed a comeback of sorts in 1938 with the nationalist epic Alexander Nevsky. This success led to his being granted permission to make an ambitious trilogy of films on the life of Ivan the Terrible. Eisenstein worked feverishly on the first part during the dark days of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, but with Part Two, he once again ran afoul of Stalin. He was found dead of a heart attack in his Moscow apartment at the age of fifty.
Eisenstein was something of a renaissance man; he was extremely well-read and erudite. His writings include voluminous references to a wide variety of artists and to thinkers in all of the human sciences: anthropology, literature, folklore, religion, psychology and history. He seems to have regarded the moving image as a medium that could unite these fields of knowledge and modernize the human fascination for images by channeling powerful religious and sexual impulses. Despite his reputation as a primarily formalist filmmaker, the films contain sexual imagery ranging from the allegorical to the sadomasochistic to the homoerotic. They also exhibit a sly wit and even a terrific draftsmanship; the vividly graphic quality of the images demonstrates Eisenstein’s skill at drawing and caricature. This complete retrospective magnificently illustrates Eisenstein’s multifaceted work in all its glorious complexity.
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. With Maksim Shtraukh, Ivan Klyukvin, Grigori Alexandrov
USSR 1925, 35mm, b/w, silent, 82 min
Eisenstein’s first film follows the progress of a workers’ strike at a factory in pre-Revolutionary Russia from worker dissatisfaction and organization to a violent denouement. True to Eisenstein’s ideological resistance to the reliance on heroic individuals in mainstream cinema, the focus shifts among a number of groups: provocateurs, strikebreaking troops, an arrogant ruling class and of course the workers themselves. To keep his lesson in the rise of the proletariat entertaining, Eisenstein utilizes all number of attention-getting devices or “attractions” – physical action, heart-tugging melodrama, comic and grotesque exaggeration. Thus, Strike not only announces Eisenstein as a master of montage, it also serves as a valentine to his beloved forms of popular theater: the circus and the music hall.
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. With Marfa Lapkina, M. Ivanin,
USSR 1929, 35mm, b/w, silent, 120 min
Already faced with mounting criticism of his overly avant-garde tendencies, Eisenstein stepped out of his usual practice by building Old and New around an individual protagonist. Meant to glorify the Soviet practice of merging single farms into large collectives, the film focuses on a young woman who seeks to convince her neighbors that collectivization will benefit them all. Out of potentially dry subject matter, Eisenstein constructs a warmly folkloric film with genuine charm. The film also contains masterful montage sequences and evinces Eisenstein’s fascination with the subsistence of the primitive pagan world beneath modernity, a theme that would come to the fore in the plans for his Mexican film.
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. With Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Ivan Brobrov
USSR 1925, 35mm, b/w, silent, 75 min
The mutiny on the Potemkin in 1905 was seen as a harbinger of the Revolution to come, and Eisenstein seized on the opportunity to make a name for himself among Soviet filmmakers by making a film for the mutiny’s tenth anniversary. Gone are the vaudevillian eccentricities of Strike, replaced by a taut and moving pageant of injustice, rebellion and massacre, capped by an extremely suspenseful and supremely skillful showdown between the battleship and the rest of the fleet. The Odessa Steps sequence has earned the countless homages and pastiches it has inspired over the decades, and yet its power is undimmed; it remains a terrifying depiction of a military turning against its own citizens. But this sequence is best appreciated as one movement in an exquisitely constructed whole, presented here with the stirring score written for its Berlin premiere by Edmund Meisel. Print courtesy Kino International.
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. With Vasili Nikandrov, Vladimir Popov,
USSR 1928, 35mm, b/w, silent, 103 min
After the success of Potemkin, Eisenstein was commissioned, along with Pudovkin, to make a film celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Pudovkin made The End of St. Petersburg, andEisenstein’s contribution is a dramatic chronicle of the events leading up to and during the October Revolution. Eisenstein took advantage of the occasion to try a more complex and intellectual film than his previous efforts, including the famous sequence in which a montage of religious images – including an elaborate crucifix devolving into a primitive relic – amounts to a critique of religion. As with Strike and Potemkin, Eisenstein refuses to focus on an individual protagonist. Even Lenin himself is rarely glimpsed among the soldiers, sailors, student agitators and bourgeois counterrevolutionaries who populate the film. Ironically, the one historical figure to emerge most strongly is liberal Alexander Kerensky, who becomes the embodiment of all that is venal and arrogant in the pre-Revolutionary political establishment.
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov. With Félix Balderas, Sara García, Martín Hernández
US/USSR/Mexico 1931-32, 35mm, b/w, 88 min. Russian with English subtitles
In Los Angeles in 1930, after his attempts to make a film in Hollywood had come to naught, Eisenstein found in author Upton Sinclair a patron for a proposed project in Mexico. The film was meant to present a historical pageant of Mexico in several episodes, from the pre-Colombian era to the aftermath of the 1910 Revolution. Shooting progressed off and on for most of 1931, but the production was pre-empted by Stalin’s demand that Eisenstein return to Mexico and by Sinclair’s withdrawal of funding. Decades later, after Eisenstein’s death, his frequent collaborator Gregori Alexandrov used the existing footage and Eisenstein’s scenario to assemble an approximation of the film, albeit without the proposed climactic section depiction of the 1910 Revolution, which was never shot. The result provides a fascinating glimpse at what might have been Eisenstein’s greatest work, a remarkable collage of fiction, documentary and ethnography replete with riveting imagery that presents Mexico itself as a montage of the archaic and the modern.
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. With Viktor Kartashov, Nikolai Khmelyov, Pyotr Arzhanov
USSR 1937, 35mm, b/w, 31 min
Bezhin Meadow seems to have been cursed almost from its inception, and the film’s fate serves as a fitting allegory for the difficulties Eisenstein faced upon his return to the Soviet Union in 1932 after four years abroad. Although its title comes from a Turgenev story, the film is based on the 1932 death of young Pavlik Morozov after informing on his father to the authorities. Although the facts of the case remain murky, the official version held that Morozov was murdered by his family, and Stalin’s regime instantly turned Morozov into a martyr, killed by reactionaries for his ideological fervor. Early versions of the film ran afoul of the authorities precisely as a result of the use of religious imagery and the charge, now seemingly inevitably attached to Eisenstein’s work, of “formalism.” All that remains of the film today is a fragmentary reconstruction set aside for reference during editing, presented as a series of still images.
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. With Nikolai Cherkasov, Ludmila Tselikovskaya, Mikhail Zharov
USSR 1942-45, 35mm, b/w, 103 min/88 min. Russian with English subtitles
During World War II, Eisenstein was granted permission to make a trilogy of films on the life of Ivan the Terrible who ruled Russia from 1533 to 1584. Soviet ideology of the period saw Ivan as a predecessor of Stalin, as a ruler who strengthened and expanded the Russian state. Accordingly, Part One depicts the young tsar as a heroic and progressive figure but one surrounded by enemies, both within Russia and abroad. Part Two illustrates Ivan’s ruthless campaign to eliminate his internal enemies. Already demonstrating his penchant for baroque visual imagery in Part One, Eisenstein depicts the Ivan of Part Two even more illustratively as he descends into madness. With shots that emphasize the graphic qualities of the cinematic image, with lines and curves emphasized as much as volume and depth, Ivan the Terrible has even been compared to animation; Ivan’s elaborate silhouette as a hunched, bearded figure becomes an important part of his characterization.
Eisenstein may have been emboldened by the government’s approval of Part One, but Part Two, easily taken for an implicit critique of Stalin, was banned. Eisenstein died shortly thereafter, having filmed only a few scenes for Part Three.
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. With Nikolai Cherkasov,
Nikolai Okhlopkov, Andrei Abrikosov
USSR 1938, 35mm, b/w, 112 min. Russian with English subtitles
Eisenstein created this rousing nationalist epic of medieval Slavs driving out Teutonic invaders. Despite the screen time devoted to a belabored comic subplot concerning a love triangle, Alexander Nevsky remains one of his most popular and influential films. The film provides endless examples of Eisenstein’s genius not just at combining shots but at composing them as well, while the battle scenes demonstrate his continued mastery at choreographing electrifying action. The use of an extremely low horizon line has influenced such filmmakers as Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman, while the famous “Battle on the Ice” has been copied in countless war films. Perhaps most notable is Eisenstein’s ability to build sequences in tandem with the majestic score by Sergei Prokofiev. Their unprecedented collaboration, which continued with Ivan the Terrible, remains a textbook example of a complete fusion of image and music. Print courtesy Contemporary Films.