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Sergei Eisenstein was a Russian film director, writer, and editor who is widely regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century. Known for his groundbreaking use of montage and other film techniques, he directed some of the most famous films in history, including Battleship Potemkin and The General. Eisenstein’s work has left a lasting impact on the narrative structure and visual language of cinema, and he is often credited with developing many key concepts, including nonlinear storytelling, identification editing, and dynamic continuity.
Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, born on January 22, 1898, in Russia, made profound contributions to the world of cinema as a Soviet film director, screenwriter, film editor, and film theorist. His pioneering work in the theory and practice of montage remains a cornerstone of cinematic artistry. Eisenstein’s silent films, including the impactful Strike (1925) and the iconic Battleship Potemkin (1925), showcased his mastery of storytelling through visual juxtapositions. His repertoire extended to historical epics, such as Alexander Nevsky (1938) and the monumental Ivan the Terrible (1944, 1958).
Eisenstein’s legacy is not only marked by his innovative filmography but also by his lasting influence on cinematic techniques. In Sight & Sound’s 2012 decennial poll, his film Battleship Potemkin earned the distinction of being the 11th-greatest film of all time, a testament to his enduring impact on the world of cinema. Sadly, Sergei Eisenstein passed away on February 11, 1948, leaving behind a cinematic legacy that continues to shape and inspire filmmakers worldwide.
Sergei Eisenstein’s Early life
Sergei Eisenstein, born on January 22, 1898, in Riga, Russian Empire (now Latvia), hailed from a middle-class family with a penchant for relocation. His father, the architect Mikhail Osipovich Eisenstein, had a diverse heritage, with a Jewish merchant father and a Swedish mother, while his mother, Julia Ivanovna Konetskaya, came from a prosperous Russian Orthodox family.
Julia, Sergei’s mother, made a decisive move to St. Petersburg in 1905 amidst the Russian Revolution, taking her son with her. Although Sergei intermittently visited his father, the family dynamics shifted when, around 1910, his father joined them, leading to eventual divorce. Julia later relocated to France.
Raised as an Orthodox Christian, Eisenstein eventually adopted atheism in his later years. His cinematic inspiration began early, influenced by films like The Consequences of Feminism by pioneering female filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché. This snapshot of Eisenstein’s early life sets the stage for the dynamic and influential career that would follow.
Eisenstein’s educational journey took him to the Petrograd Institute of Civil Engineering, where he delved into architecture and engineering, following in his father’s professional footsteps. However, in 1918, at the height of his academic pursuits, he made a significant detour. Leaving school, Eisenstein joined the Red Army to actively engage in the Russian Civil War, a choice that diverged from his father’s political leanings.
The aftermath of the war led to a familial split, with his father relocating to Germany after the defeat of the anti-Bolshevik forces, while Sergei found himself in various Russian cities like Petrograd, Vologda, and Dvinsk. By 1920, his talents in propaganda had earned him a command position in Minsk, marking a pivotal period in his life. During this time, he encountered Kabuki theatre, sparking an interest in Japanese culture. Eisenstein even dedicated himself to studying Japanese, mastering around 300 kanji characters, a pursuit that significantly influenced his artistic development. This phase of his life, marked by a blend of war, politics, and cultural exploration, laid the groundwork for Eisenstein’s future contributions to the world of cinema.
From theatre to cinema
In 1920, Sergei Eisenstein made a significant move to Moscow, where he embarked on a theatrical career with Proletkult, an avant-garde Soviet artistic institution with a mission to revolutionize artistic forms and establish a new working-class aesthetic. His productions, titled Gas Masks, Listen Moscow, and Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man, reflected the institution’s experimental ethos. During this time, he collaborated with Vsevolod Meyerhold as a designer.
Eisenstein’s venture into film theory commenced in 1923 with his article “The Montage of Attractions” for the art journal LEF. The same year saw the creation of his first film, Glumov’s Diary, produced for the theatre production Wise Man, with Dziga Vertov initially serving as an instructor.
His directorial debut, Strike (1925), marked Eisenstein’s entry into full-length feature films, while Battleship Potemkin (also 1925) garnered global acclaim. This recognition allowed him to direct October: Ten Days That Shook the World, a significant contribution to the tenth-anniversary celebration of the October Revolution. Subsequent works like The General Line (also known as Old and New) continued to explore innovative cinematic techniques.
While these films were lauded internationally, Eisenstein faced criticism within Soviet Russia. His focus on structural elements such as camera angles and montage, shared with fellow filmmakers like Vsevolod Pudovkin and Alexander Dovzhenko, led to tensions with the Soviet film community. To navigate this, Eisenstein issued public self-criticisms and committed to adapting his cinematic visions to align with the evolving doctrines of socialist realism. This period of creative exploration and ideological negotiation shaped Eisenstein’s cinematic legacy.
Travels to western Europe
In the fall of 1928, amidst ongoing controversies surrounding October in the Soviet Union, Sergei Eisenstein embarked on a European tour. Accompanied by his longtime collaborator Grigori Aleksandrov and cinematographer Eduard Tisse, the official purpose of the journey was to delve into the realm of sound motion pictures and to personally present themselves as Soviet artists to the Western world.
However, for Eisenstein, the tour became more than a professional mission. It offered a rare chance to explore landscapes and cultures beyond the confines of the Soviet Union. Over the next two years, he traversed cities like Berlin, Zürich, London, and Paris, delivering lectures and immersing himself in the artistic pulse of Western Europe.
During his stay in Switzerland in 1929, Eisenstein took on a different role by supervising an educational documentary on abortion directed by Tisse, titled Frauennot – Frauenglück. This period of international exploration and collaboration added a unique dimension to Eisenstein’s multifaceted career, reflecting his eagerness to engage with diverse perspectives and artistic challenges.
In late April 1930, Paramount Pictures, through film producer Jesse L. Lasky, extended an enticing offer to Sergei Eisenstein, inviting him to create a film in the United States. Accepting a short-term contract for $100,000 (equivalent to $1,500,000 in 2017), Eisenstein, accompanied by Grigori Aleksandrov and Eduard Tisse, arrived in Hollywood in May 1930. Eager to contribute his unique vision, Eisenstein proposed various film ideas, including a biography of arms dealer Basil Zaharoff, a film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, and plans for Sutter’s Gold by Blaise Cendrars.
Despite these creative proposals, Paramount was unimpressed, leading to the studio suggesting an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. Eisenstein, intrigued by the work and having met Dreiser in Moscow, completed a script by October 1930. However, conflicts emerged, with Paramount disliking the script and facing public attacks from Major Pease, a fervent anti-communist.
On October 23, 1930, Paramount and Eisenstein mutually terminated their contract. This perceived setback placed Eisenstein in a challenging position in the USSR, where his absence coincided with the Soviet film industry addressing sound-film challenges without him. Concurrently, his films and theories faced increasing criticism as “ideological failures.”
A turn of fortune occurred when Eisenstein connected with Charlie Chaplin, leading to a meeting with American socialist author Upton Sinclair. Sinclair, impressed by Eisenstein and aware of his admiration for Mexico, secured an extension of Eisenstein’s absence from the USSR and permission for him to travel to Mexico. This laid the foundation for the “Mexican Film Trust,” formed by Sinclair and investors, contracting Eisenstein and his team to create a film about Mexico, realizing Eisenstein’s long-held fascination with the country. This transformative chapter illustrated the resilience of Eisenstein’s artistic journey and the unforeseen opportunities that emerged even in the face of initial challenges.
On November 24, 1930, Sergei Eisenstein entered into a contract with the “Mexican Film Trust,” led by Mary Sinclair, to embark on a cinematic venture in Mexico. The agreement, emphasizing artistic freedom, a non-political approach, and an immediate fund of $25,000 from Mary Sinclair, laid the groundwork for Eisenstein’s creative exploration. The contract also stipulated that all aspects of the film would be the property of Mrs. Sinclair, with a provision for Soviet government access to the finished film within the USSR.
Departing for Mexico on December 4, 1930, accompanied by Grigori Aleksandrov and Eduard Tisse, Eisenstein’s initial plans lacked a clear direction or subject. Months later, he outlined a six-part film, eventually settling on the title ¡Que viva México!. During his Mexican sojourn, Eisenstein immersed himself in the vibrant cultural milieu, mingling with notable figures like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
However, filming extended beyond the agreed 3-4 months, draining the Trust’s funds. Eisenstein’s absence prompted concerns of desertion from the Soviet government. Facing financial constraints and pressure, Eisenstein blamed Hunter Kimbrough, Mary Sinclair’s brother, for the film’s challenges. Eisenstein hoped to use the Sinclair family’s influence to mediate with Stalin and allow him to complete the film on his terms.
As tensions escalated, production ceased, and Kimbrough returned to the U.S. with the remaining footage. Eisenstein, Aleksandrov, and Tisse faced visa issues but secured a 30-day pass to travel from Texas to New York, circumventing customs obstacles. The Sinclair-Lesser collaboration led to the completion and release of short feature films like Thunder Over Mexico, Eisenstein in Mexico, and Death Day in the early 1930s. Eisenstein distanced himself from the Sinclair-Lesser films, maintaining disinterest in the project publicly.
The journey of Eisenstein in Mexico, marked by creative ambition, financial struggles, and geopolitical complexities, reflected the intricate interplay between artistic vision and external circumstances. The subsequent versions and releases of the film underscored the enduring legacy and varied interpretations of Eisenstein’s cinematic odyssey in Mexico.
Return to the Soviet Union
Sergei Eisenstein faced a challenging period after the setbacks in Mexico, experiencing mental health struggles that led to his temporary stay in a Kislovodsk mental hospital in July 1933. The apparent cause was depression stemming from the realization that he would never have the opportunity to edit the Mexican footage. Following his release, he was assigned a teaching role at the State Institute of Cinematography, where he had taught before. In 1933 and 1934, Eisenstein took charge of developing the curriculum.
In 1935, Eisenstein received another assignment for the film Bezhin Meadow. However, this project encountered similar issues as ¡Que viva México!. Eisenstein’s decisions to film two versions of the scenario, lack of a clear shooting schedule, and excessive filming resulted in budget overruns and missed deadlines. Boris Shumyatsky, a key figure in the Soviet film industry, intervened by stopping the filming and canceling further production. Interestingly, Stalin shifted blame away from Eisenstein’s filmmaking approach, attributing the problems to the executives overseeing him. This stance played a crucial role in saving Eisenstein’s career, while Shumyatsky faced severe consequences, being denounced, arrested, tried, convicted as a traitor, and ultimately executed in early 1938.
Eisenstein seized a vital opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of Stalin, opting for the assignment of a biographical film on Alexander Nevsky and his triumph at the Battle of the Ice. This time, he collaborated with scenarist Pyotr Pavlenko, securing a completed script, professional actors, and assistant director Dmitri Vasilyev to streamline the filming process.
The outcome, a film highly praised by both Soviet and Western audiences, earned Eisenstein the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Prize. Serving as an allegory and cautionary tale against the looming threat of Nazi Germany, Alexander Nevsky featured traditional Russian proverbs spoken by the character Nevsky, grounding the narrative in Russian traditions. Completed and distributed within the year 1938, it marked Eisenstein’s return to filmmaking after nearly a decade and his first foray into sound cinema.
However, shortly after its release, Stalin formed a pact with Hitler, leading to the swift removal of Alexander Nevsky from distribution. Eisenstein returned to teaching and directed Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Bolshoi Theatre. When war broke out with Germany in 1941, the film was re-released, achieving international success as Moscow faced the approaching conflict. Eisenstein, evacuated to Alma-Ata, contemplated a film about Tsar Ivan IV. Corresponding with Sergei Prokofiev, who joined him in 1942, Eisenstein directed Ivan the Terrible with Prokofiev composing the score. The first part of the trilogy, depicting Ivan IV as a national hero, gained Stalin’s approval and a Stalin Prize. However, the sequel faced criticism, remaining unreleased until 1958. Regrettably, footage from the third part was confiscated, and most of it was destroyed, leaving only several existing scenes.
The issue of Sergei Eisenstein’s sexuality has been a topic of debate, and a film addressing his homosexuality encountered challenges in Russia.
Although there is no definitive evidence, many of Eisenstein’s contemporaries believed he was gay. An incident during a 1925 interview with Polish journalist Waclaw Solski, where Eisenstein reportedly said, “I’m not interested in girls” and then laughed, left a lasting impression. Solski later understood the context, stating, “Not until later, when I learned what everyone in Moscow knew, did Aleksandrov’s odd behaviour become understandable.”
Upton Sinclair, after customs officials discovered Eisenstein’s pornographic drawings, also concluded that Eisenstein was gay. Sinclair remarked, “All his associates were Trotskyites, and all homos … Men of that sort stick together.”
Despite widespread perceptions, Eisenstein married filmmaker and screenwriter Pera Atasheva seven months after homosexuality became a criminal offense. He asserted his asexuality to his close friend Marie Seton, stating, “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.”
When was Eisenstein Sergei Death??
Sergei Eisenstein faced health challenges in his later years, experiencing a heart attack on 2 February 1946. The following year was dedicated to his recovery. Unfortunately, a second heart attack claimed his life on 11 February 1948, at the age of 50. Eisenstein’s body was honored with a lying-in-state ceremony in the Hall of the Cinema Workers before being cremated on 13 February. His ashes found their final resting place in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery.
There Film theorist
Sergei Eisenstein, a pioneer film theorist, played a crucial role in shaping Soviet montage theory. Collaborating briefly with Lev Kuleshov, both were captivated by the potent impact of editing on meaning and emotion. While sharing the foundations of Soviet montage theory, their perspectives diverged. Eisenstein’s writings, notably “Film Form” and “The Film Sense,” intricately detail the significance of montage.
His enduring influence extends to subsequent filmmakers. Eisenstein’s belief in editing transcended mere scene explication, advocating for a collision of shots to manipulate audience emotions and create film metaphors. He introduced “methods of montage” such as Metric, Rhythmic, Tonal, Overtonal, and Intellectual. As a film-making teacher at VGIK, he shaped curricula, blending literary lessons with technicalities. Eisenstein’s pedagogy, politically charged and infused with Lenin quotes, aimed at fostering individuality and creativity.
In his early films, Eisenstein avoided professional actors, preferring untrained individuals to embody broader social issues. His vision of communism conflicted with Stalin’s regime, as he envisioned artists freed from capitalist constraints. However, practical limitations hindered the immediate realization of such ideals. Eisenstein’s legacy endures as a visionary theorist and filmmaker who left an indelible mark on cinematic expression.
Sergei Eisenstein, a prolific sketch artist, maintained sketchbooks throughout his life. Following his death, his widow, Pera Atasheva, generously donated most of these sketchbooks to the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI). However, Atasheva retained over 500 erotic drawings from the donation. Later, she entrusted these explicit sketches to Andrei Moskvin for safekeeping. After perestroika, Moskvin’s heirs sold the erotic drawings abroad.
Since the late 1990s, these provocative sketches have become the focus of several exhibitions, shedding light on a lesser-known aspect of Eisenstein’s artistic pursuits. Some of these drawings are featured in Joan Neuberger’s essay titled “Strange Circus: Eisenstein’s Sex Drawings.” This unique collection offers a glimpse into the private and intimate expressions of the renowned filmmaker and theorist.
Sergei Eisenstein’s filmography reflects his groundbreaking contributions to cinema, marked by innovative techniques and a keen understanding of montage theory. In 1923, he created “Дневник Глумова” (“Glumov’s Diary”), a short film, followed by the iconic “Стачка” (“Strike”) and “Броненосец Потёмкин” (“Battleship Potemkin”) in 1925, which gained worldwide acclaim. The year 1928 saw the release of “Октябрь «Десять дней, которые потрясли мир»” (“October: Ten Days That Shook the World”), another influential work in Soviet cinema.
Eisenstein collaborated on “Буря над Ла Сарра” (“The Storming of La Sarraz”) in 1929, though the film is lost. “Старое и новое «Генеральная линия»” (“The General Line,” also known as “Old and New”) followed in 1929. His 1930 project, “Romance sentimentale,” marked a departure in France. The director ventured into Mexican cinema with “El Desastre en Oaxaca” in 1931. However, his time in Hollywood in 1930 ended prematurely, leading to unfinished projects such as “Да здравствует Мексика!” (“¡Que viva México!”), later reconstructed in 1979.
In 1938, Eisenstein returned triumphantly to the Soviet Union with “Александр Невский” (“Alexander Nevsky”), earning accolades and the Stalin Prize. The director faced challenges during the war years, including the unfinished “Бежин луг” (“Bezhin Meadow”), reconstructed in the 1960s.
Eisenstein’s notable contributions extended beyond feature films. He worked on “Frauennot – Frauenglück” (“Women’s Misery – Women’s Happiness”) in 1929 in Switzerland. This extensive filmography underscores Eisenstein’s enduring impact on cinema and his ability to transcend borders with his revolutionary approach to filmmaking.