Close Up

1 - 17 January 2016: Close-Up on Sergei Eisenstein


"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." – David Pendleton, Harvard Film Archive programme notes

Sergei Eisenstein
1925 | 82 min | B/W | 35mm

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. 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. read more

Battleship Potemkin
Sergei Eisenstein
1926 | 70 min | B/W | 35mm

Soviet silent film of the 1920s represented a great creative moment in the history of cinema, and Battleship Potemkin is often regarded as its supreme achievement. In rendering his account of the 1905 Black Sea mutiny and the sympathetic response it received from the people of Odessa, Eisenstein makes brilliant use of montage – the juxtaposition of individual shots – both to provide drama through subtle alterations of space and time and to create striking metaphoric relationships that bolster his political arguments. The film’s formal beauty is balanced by the stark power and humanity of its realist depiction of the uprising and its brutal suppression. read more

Sergei Eisenstein
1928 | 116 min | B/W | 35mm

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, and Eisenstein’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. read more

Time in the Sun
Sergei Eisenstein, edited by Marie Seton
1940 | 55 min | B/W | 35mm

In 1931 Eisenstein had gone to Mexico to film what he presumably intended as an epic study of the Mexican people, the title of which was to have been ¡Qué Viva Mexico!. 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. The use of E.Tisse's  photography in Marie Seton's editing of the original footage is so stunning and of such dramatic strength that each individual shot offers an exciting experience. This is the chief distinction of the film – this, and the fact that it should make an end to the ¡Qué Viva Mexico! controversy... read more

Bezhin Meadow
Sergei Eisenstein
1937 | 30 min | B/W | 35mm

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. read more

Alexander Nevsky
Sergei Eisenstein
1938 | 111 min | B/W | 35mm

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. read more

Ivan the Terrible
Sergei Eisenstein
1944 | 187 min | B/W | 35mm

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. read more