The 1928 silent dramatization of the Russian revolution wasn’t easily swallowed upon its domestic release. Sergei Eisenstein had been commissioned to make the epic after his 1925 epic Battleship Potemkin caused a sensation, often cited as virtually inventing what we now call “montage” editing.
But his resulting film, October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928), attracted the ire of fierce Soviet powers. Where he had earlier excelled with a lush, sweeping visionary narrative far beyond his years, the director’s experimental style was now seen as unintelligible to mainstream audiences and vaguely pretentious.
Like many great and underappreciated talents after him, Eisenstein was forced into a series of edits, but he was always destined for trouble under Stalin’s rule. He was a genius of his craft, and certainly no mere propagandist.
So how in blazing history did a Russian auteur find himself in bed with another man in Mexico, circa 1930? That’s the elusive question underpinning writer and director Peter Greenaway’s flamboyant new film, Eisenstein in Guanajuato, and it’s something he’s been pondering for decades.
“This isn’t a flash in the pan idea that I dreamt up 18 months ago. I’ve been fascinated by Eisenstein probably all my career. I discovered him when I was an adolescent studying painting in London. So there’s a way in which I’ve been thinking about this man and what he stood for for a very long time.”
There’s scarcely a filmmaker working today who doesn’t owe a morsel of their craft to the great grandfather of Soviet cinema. But Greenaway’s affection for Eisenstein stretches far beyond the lessons of a film studies lecturer.
“I think in the 120 years of cinema that we’ve had so far, there have been very few important visionary film directors. I think you can count them on the fingers of two hands, and I would put Eisenstein right at the very top.”
Greenaway’s distaste for realism in the cinema ought to be legendary. Ask him why so many of his settings appear arranged with almost absurd finesse and he purrs with a mix of childlike enthusiasm and cranky annoyance.
“You know the old testament says ‘in the beginning it was the word’? Rubbish! Not true.”
Though he’s also credited as the writer of his new film, he makes no secret of fury at the weight placed upon the written word. After hissing at a sheet of notes on the desk in-front of him, he chastises the lack of filmmakers working today who pay close enough attention to the work of painters.
“In the beginning it was the image, and you can’t have a word without an image. And we’ve created a cinema which is incredibly text based.”
Then, listing some of his favorite artists and artworks, he smiles. He’s not shaken, but he makes no time for criticisms over the accuracy of his portrayal of Eisenstein. Absolute realism is impossible, he says. What he strives for is art. And he’s certainly achieved that.
Ben Rylan hosts The Cinema Show on Monocle 24. These quotes were taken from his interview with Peter Greenaway which is featured on the latest episode of the show.