A Promise to Eisenstein

By Jonty Claypole

que-viva-mexico-sergei-eisenstein-6.jpgQue Viva Mexico, 1979

Lutz Becker is a filmmaker and art historian. His many documentaries include Art in Revolution, Double Headed Eagle, Lion of Judah, Vita Futurista, The Silence Behind Words, The Honeytrap, George Black – Doubleagent, and Art and Power. In the 1970s he discovered the home movies shot by Eva Braun. He has been consultant on many exhibitions including Art in Revolution, The Romantic Spirit in German Art, and Art and Power, all at the Hayward Gallery, London. His own work has been shown in various exhibitions. A few weeks ago, he told young writer and film-maker Jonty Claypole that he had made… A promise to Eisenstein

The story of Que Viva Mexico is one of the great tragedies of cinema history. After a frustrating and unproductive stint in Hollywood during the early 1930s, Sergei Eisenstein was offered the chance to make a film in Mexico by the American left-wing novelist Upton Sinclair. A Hungarian bookseller in Hollywood, who had fought with Pancho Villa, suggested the sum of $25,000 to Eisenstein as adequate for making such a film, and so began Que Viva Mexico. Over a year later, having spent nearly four times that amount, Eisenstein found his funds cut off only a few weeks from finishing – Sinclair was bankrupt, and pressure to close Eisenstein’s production came from sources as far afield as Stalin. Sinclair promised to send the footage to Eisenstein in Moscow – a promise which was not fulfilled. Eisenstein kept Sinclair’s note on his desk for the rest of his life. Writing to a friend two years later he reflected: “This whole affair has broken my heart.”

que-viva-mexico-sergei-eisenstein-1.jpgSetting up…

Yet Eisenstein’s year in Mexico was undoubtedly one of the happiest in his life. He started drawing again – airy Matisse-like single line sketches, sometimes beautifully economical, sometimes obscene and grotesque. Anyone who has seen the published outlines, stills, and study reels of Que Viva Mexico will know it as a work of remarkable beauty. Eisenstein’s scenario, written as always in that impassioned free verse (closer to the poetic style of Mayakovsky than a Hollywood screenplay) is one of the most mesmerising ever written.

que-viva-mexico-sergei-eisenstein-2.jpgQue Viva Mexico, 1979

An early proposal of the film promises “a rhythmic and musical construction and an unrolling of the Mexican spirit and character”; it was to be divided into six episodes, each representing an aspect or period of Mexican culture and history, providing a loose narrative to give focus. Certain themes unite the film: the ever changing and fluctuating shape of the Mexican cultural amalgam, the plight and emancipation of the indigenous people (particularly seen in the women), but behind it all is something more abstract – a sensual aesthetic which explores the light and shadows of Mexico, the arid shades of the landscape, the muscular and graceful bodies of its people.

In one of the episodes, called “The Maguey”, a young Indian finds his fiancée raped by a local landowner and leads an uprising at a hacienda. Eisenstein describes how, in the battle scene, the bullets “pierce the succulent leaves of the Maguey plant” causing the juice “like tears” to trickle down the trunk, so that Mexico itself seems to weep at its civil bloodbath. It is a fine example of the way in which the particular in Que Viva Mexico always simultaneously has a general or symbolic significance, investing the work with a breathtaking visionary quality. Likewise, the young boy at the end of the film who takes off his skull mask during the Day of the Dead to reveal “a contagious smile” is, “the new growing Mexico.”

sergei-eisenstein.jpgSergei Eisenstein

Stills and study reels from the footage show that Eisenstein and Edouard Tisse, his cinematographer, were being more than usually ambitious. If the scenarios and the images could be united as Eisenstein intended, there is little doubt that the result would be a masterpiece. The problem is trying to work out what exactly it was that Eisenstein – cryptic at the best of times – intended. Various attempts to edit the film have been depressingly inadequate. Sol Lesser’s crass Thunder Over Mexico (1933) bullied the film into TexMex western format, Marie Seton’s Time in the Sun (1939) was a simplistic showcase for some of the images, while Alexandrov’s version of the 1970s was a bland travelogue crippled by limited access to the footage.

It is only now – sixty years on – that the possibility of seeing Que Viva Mexico in a more comprehensive state is a real possibility. For Lutz Becker – film-maker and film-historian – a life-long obsession is rapidly becoming a reality. If the necessary funding comes through, he will produce a sympathetic edit of the film using Eisenstein’s notes and scenarios as his guide. Speaking to Becker in his Bayswater flat, you see how personal a project it is. His walls support paintings he has made based on his experiences in Mexico following Eisenstein’s trail, and above his bookcase is a sugar skull with a giant “Sergei” written on the forehead – a souvenir from last year’s Day of the Dead celebrations.

que-viva-mexico-sergei-eisenstein-4.jpgQue Viva Mexico, 1979

Editing Que Viva Mexico has been Lutz Becker’s dream ever since, as a boy, he was taken by an uncle to an Eisenstein conference: “That was the first time I saw images of Que Viva Mexico”, he explains. “My uncle said, ‘Listen, you must come with me. You will see something you will never see again.’” As it turned out, it was just the start of a long involvement with the work. His first attempt to edit Que Viva Mexico in 1971 was abandoned as a result of Alexandrov’s commencing on his own version. It wasn’t until 1986 that Becker began to discuss the project as a collaboration with Jay Leyda – Eisenstein’s assistant on Bezhin Meadow. Leyda’s death, however, brought that attempt to a halt. Since 1996, Becker has been engrossed in his third attempt, which has, so far, proved extremely promising.

The question is, with the film incomplete anyway, how possible is it to bring the picture alive, really to provide an insight into Eisenstein’s vision? Many argue that it would be better to be content with the memory of what could have been. Becker is determined this will not be the case, though he admits there are problems. Five of the six episodes were completed. As Eisenstein reflected, without the sixth: “It’s as if Ophelia were ripped out from Hamlet” – which, while telling us what we can expect to find absent from Que Viva Mexico, also informs us of the treasures to be uncovered. 

Certainly Becker’s version of the film has the best chance of bringing these gems to light. “There are over fifty hours worth of film material”, says Becker, “and nobody has ever pulled these materials together for the purpose of making a film. What I offer is the most comprehensive version in terms of embracing Eisenstein’s complete idea.” In addition to the material previously known, 52 cans of uncatalogued film were discovered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last year. Becker plans to begin a process of digitising the footage, transferring it to computer so that images can be cleaned and steadied. As Becker says: “This will allow for a clear, beautiful image, which really is as Eisenstein intended it to be. Incredibly clear, incredibly monumental, full of the sun and darknesses of Mexico.”

que-viva-mexico-sergei-eisenstein-5.jpgQue Viva Mexico, 1979

Since Eisenstein conceived the film to include sound, Becker has commissioned a Mexican composer – Gabriela Ortiz – to write a musical score, while ambient sounds and dialogues will be recorded in various parts of the country. All this is testimony to Becker’s conviction that his version of Que Viva Mexico will not be a sad reminder of a terrible miscarriage, but a complete and finished work in itself. This is particularly important since Que Viva Mexico represents a unique point in Eisenstein’s career – an experiment never to be repeated. Speaking to Becker, you realise that he is a man who has acquired a profound understanding of the film, and with it a new and exciting insight into Eisenstein himself.

“I think Que Viva Mexico will create a new interest in Eisenstein on a wider basis”, he says, “and probably would get us away from this current definition of Eisenstein as a purely political film-maker.” The sensuality of the images and the improvised manner in which they were shot certainly does provide a new angle on how Eisenstein is commonly perceived. In addition, the attention to women — and one of the central themes is the development of the female figure in Mexico from dependency to emancipated revolutionary — will provide, along with The Old and the New (whose central figure is the peasant Marfa), a useful antithesis in the work of a man who is known for his male dominated visions of historical battles. The vital role Que Viva Mexico must play in any understanding of Eisenstein’s work is, of course, one of the most important arguments in defence of editing it. Without it, the Eisenstein oeuvre lacks its necessary synthesis, becomes a one-sided discourse.

Becker has observed a radical development in Eisenstein’s style which, he says, “will be quite a surprise for people who have a preconception of Eisenstein as the man of the fast montage.” Many of the shots in the footage are held for extremely long periods of time, and this alone is revealing of the way in which Eisenstein may have been intending to edit it. “In Que Viva Mexico”, says Becker, “Eisenstein develops the principle of internal montage. Through particular plotting of camera movements, he internalises the cut.” That is to say that the force of an image does not lie in its contrast with other images – the principle behind Eisenstein’s “Montage of Attractions” theory – but in itself: the way the camera moves during the shot, the length for which it is held. To those who see Eisenstein as a dated innovator, a sometimes impenetrable theoretician, the use of the internal montage in Que Viva Mexico will provide evidence of how far ahead of his time he was.

lutz.jpgLutz amongst the Toltecs

To explain this development, Becker has traced a number of influences, particularly the Japanese artist Hiroshige, the Mexican muralists (some of the episodes in Que Viva Mexico were based on murals by Orozco and Siqueiros), and the Russian avant-gardists. “There was the powerful influence of Kasimir Malevich”, continues Becker, “who created – with his Black Square on the White Canvas or the White Cross on the White Canvas – icons of the Twentieth Century. Eisenstein develops in Que Viva Mexico a geometry of light. The diagonal and the triangle, the square and the oblong, occur in powerful compositions. To replace the dynamic editing of Eisenstein’s early films, Becker believes: “There is a quality of stillness, a stillness which we come across in Murnau’s Tabu, or to another extreme extent in the films of Yasujiro Ozu.”

There is a meditative quality, therefore, to the film: “Be it just the wind picking up some dust or shaking the leaves in the tree, Eisenstein’s compositions try to achieve a quality of stillness and timelessness, a quality which is at the heart of the Russian Orthodox icon — and I think at this point Eisenstein and Malevich are the closest.” In other words, what Becker is suggesting, but cautiously refrains from elaborating upon, is that Eisenstein rediscovers in Que Viva Mexico a spiritual dimension which had been lost in the fervour of the Revolution.

No wonder that Eisenstein was never allowed to complete the film. Becker’s research into the history of Que Viva Mexico has produced some challenging insights. The traditional story states that Sinclair maliciously lied to Eisenstein and never intended to send the footage to him. “This story is still being told”, says Becker, “that American capitalism destroyed a masterpiece.” From examining notes of Marie Seton’s and from conversations with Sinclair’s daughter-in-law, he has found evidence that Sinclair made several attempts to send the footage to Eisenstein, but that it was rejected by the Soviet film industry (behind this was Boris Shumyatsky, whose career of cultural destruction climaxed in 1937 when he banned Eisenstein’s Bezhin Meadow after shooting had been completed). It was only then, bankrupted and at a loss, that Sinclair sold the footage to Sol Lesser on the condition that he could preserve the material for Eisenstein to one day edit it himself. It was the meditative quality of Que Viva Mexico that Stalin and Shumyatsky would have objected to – a quality which they made sure was never indulged in his work again. Que Viva Mexico is the only evidence as to the direction Eisenstein’s work might have taken if freed from Stalin’s shackles.

After the interview, Lutz took me outside and showed me his paintings, lining them up against the white, wet walls by his garage. Large Pollockesque canvases, but more controlled, more patterned; explosions of vibrant colours and darting shapes. These represent Lutz’s thoughts and reflections on the Mexican landscape and bullfights; the pleasures, insights, and frustrations the past three years have provided him. One more piece of evidence that if anybody is to achieve the right aesthetic understanding of Que Viva Mexico in order to edit it, Lutz Becker is the man. So far he has worked on the project by himself, but the digitising and post-production process needs major funding. Lutz is not daunted. “I cannot tell you how exciting Mexico has been for me”, he says, “And so I have an obligation to give Eisenstein his film. That is our deal. Eisenstein has given me Mexico, Eisenstein will get his film from me.