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Notebook Primer: Sergei Eisenstein

A hugely influential filmmaker and theorist, Sergei Eisenstein epitomized the uneasy, if often dynamic, synthesis of art and politics.
Jeremy Carr
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history. 
Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, born January 23, 1898, in Latvia, was, for better and worse, a distinct product of his time. At the turn of the century, the Russian Empire was a vast, volatile region of intense sociopolitical upheaval, technological innovation, and artistic inspiration, cultural facets that would define and dramatically impact Eisenstein’s subsequently tremulous life and career.
Intending to follow in the footsteps of his father, Eisenstein was admitted to the Petrograd Institute of Civil Engineering in 1915. But with the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, he enlisted in the Red Army and became a designer for its theatrical unit. Enamored by the heady influence of the Bolshevik uprising, Eisenstein was also inspired by assorted manner of creative expression, including Kabuki theater, opera, and comic strips. After joining the Proletkult Theatre in Moscow, working with famed director Vsevolod Meyerhold, Eisenstein put his aesthetic views in writing, penning, most famously, “The Montage of Attractions” in 1923, for the art journal Lef. He also enacted many of these same notions in diverse theatrical productions: The Mexican, from 1921, portraying a boxing match, had the fictitious audience onstage cheering for the champion while the real audience cheered for the revolutionary underdog; his 1923 staging of Do You Hear, Moscow? was a vigorously rebellious work inciting the spectator to action; The Wiseman, in 1923, resembled a circus arena replete with somersaulting acrobats and clowns; and Gas Masks, from 1924, was performed in a Moscow gasworks, feeding off the authentic placement of industrial sights and sounds. The overriding objective was to directly engage the audience with signified exploits that would elicit strong physiological responses and spark fervent debate. And it was as interlude for The Wiseman that Eisenstein also directed the short film, Glumov’s Diary, a parody that made the production a resourceful multimedia experience.
Above: Strike
The cinema in Russia had long been a dominant subject of theoretical consideration, where patriotic resolutions were often entwined with an indebtedness to the implications of montage technique. Fundamentally born from the experiments conducted by Lev Kuleshov, who determined that a relationship between two essentially disparate shots could achieve a new meaning when joined in the editing process, Soviet montage theory underwent further elaboration and diversion as its practitioners advanced the formula’s principle potential. Dziga Vertov, for example, adopted these techniques in the service of documenting everyday life, while also merging with his quest for “film truth” a variety of editorial techniques to augment the visualization of his subjects, as perhaps best seen in his 1929 masterwork Man with a Movie Camera. Vsevolod Pudovkin, meanwhile, starting with his 1925 comedy Chess Fever, explored the capacity of montage to manipulate the boundaries between reality and fiction and the perceived range of spatiotemporal relations. In effect, Soviet montage primarily eschewed traditional forms of continuity editing and instead favored the affixing of conflicting or congruent images to develop stimulating statements and concepts, usually supported by a social or political bearing and otherwise unrealized as isolated shots.
It was within this twofold milieu that Eisenstein directed his first feature, Strike, in 1924. Depicting the 1903 strikes at Rostov-on-the-Don, Strike was conceived of as part of a never finished seven-film series entitled “Toward the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” Although it was the only one of the series to be made, the essential aim of the whole was adequately exemplified by Eisenstein’s entry. He was then enlisted to participate in an anniversary project ordered by the Central Executive Committee of the U.S.S.R., which assigned productions to celebrate the 1905 revolution. Eisenstein’s contribution, Battleship Potemkin (1925), was a central episode in the series and, like Strike, ultimately became the only feature produced. Arranged in a five-act structure, Battleship Potemkin follows the mutiny of sailors and the resulting response by brutal Tsarist soldiers, and also like Strike, the film emphasized the collective over a solitary hero, employing “typage” casting to develop emblematic characters who were eminent yet largely figurative. With both films, Eisenstein sought to communicate his message in a largely visual form of engagement, imparting an overriding sociopolitical assertion even if it meant accepting the revision of certain facts and essentially combining the entirety of the revolution into all-inclusive features. While Strike was seen, in the words of silent film critic Lea Stans, as being “[d]ynamic and intensely creative, as if Eisenstein was trying to get as many ideas on nitrate as possible before exploding,” the resulting film displeased certain Proletkult leaders who expressed concern over its overt formalism and cinematic gimmickry. Likewise, though Battleship Potemkin was not at first a success in Russia, its international approval converted domestic critics and the film became one of the landmarks of world cinema.
Above: October
After Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein embarked on a film about the Communist party policy of collectivizing Soviet agriculture. That project was dropped, however, in favor of another commemorative work, this time marking the tenth anniversary of the October 1917 revolution. October (later released internationally with the subtitle, Ten Days that Shook the World) was a swiftly produced celebration, considered more “intellectual” than Eisenstein’s prior work, particularly in its conspicuously abstract use of symbolic imagery. The film aligned with the ideological ambitions of the time but for many, its formal constitution diminished its dogmatic message. “If the film was sometimes inspired,” wrote professor Jean Mitry, “it was also disparate, chaotic, and often confused.” Aside from accusations of historical inauthenticity, self-indulgence, and a failure to connect with the region’s scarcely educated masses, Eisenstein also found himself beholden to the ever-fluctuating politics of the day (as he often was). He was forced, for example, to excise most references to former minister of defense Leon Trotsky, who had been expelled from the Communist party before the film was finished. Somewhat less contentious, though certainly audacious, October also dared to depict the revered and feared Joseph Stalin, which had rarely, if ever, been done in a fictional film.
Eisenstein then returned to the project originally considered prior to October, a film inspired by Vladimir Lenin’s push for agrarian reform. Initially titled The General Line, but released in 1929 as The Old and the New, the picture was altered during production when, according to a biographical entry in Baseline’s Encyclopedia of Film, “the party policy toward peasantry had drastically changed from persuasion to coercion, and the film’s surrealistic imagery and sophisticated montage […] were considered inappropriate.” At this point, despite his burgeoning reputation in terms of talent, Eisenstein was regarded with suspicion by the Soviet government, which was starting to facilitate socialist realism and felt his work was too experimental. While the necessary cuts were made to The General Line, Eisenstein and a cadre of collaborators set off on a succession of travels and what followed was a time of great uncertainty for the beleaguered director.
Above: Que viva México!
Eisenstein toured extensively throughout Europe, learning about new sound technology, visiting UFA studios in Germany, and holding lectures in London and elsewhere. Then, in 1930, he was invited to Hollywood by Paramount Pictures mogul Jesse L. Lasky. Eisenstein accepted a short-term contract to produce an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, but the script was rejected and the alliance ended. At the behest of Charlie Chaplin, Eisenstein next met with socialist author Upton Sinclair, who invited the wayward Russian to Mexico where he was to direct a feature in conjunction with the Mexican Film Trust. Que viva México!, a rather nebulous, multi-part film, was to be Eisenstein’s first sound feature, an intricate showcase of Mexican history and contemporary culture with mammoth sets and scores of extras. But as Eisenstein’s loyalty was questioned back home, where his prolonged absence caused governmental consternation, budgetary concerns and numerous obstacles hindered the production at seemingly every turn. The film was never completed and in 1932 Eisenstein was ordered back to Russia. He was also obliged to part with the footage, which over the succeeding years underwent multiple reconstructions, frequently taking the content out of its intended context and releasing the jumbled results under different titles. In 1979, Grigory Aleksandrov, an Eisenstein colleague, edited the footage in accordance with Eisenstein’s original outline and produced the polemic film in its most satisfying form yet. 
Upon his return to Russia, Eisenstein faced mounting skepticism from Soviet authorities; he was vilified in the press and suffered from increasingly poor health. He bided his time as a film instructor and theorist and in 1935 was assigned another project, Bezhin Meadow. The historical basis of Bezhin Meadow was, according to scholar Julia Vassilieva, an episode “in which a young boy, Pavlik Morozov, informed on his father for sabotaging a decision of the Soviet authorities, and was murdered by his uncles for betraying his father.” The story, adds Vassilieva, “was quickly turned into a modern Soviet myth in popular culture and propaganda celebrating the victory of the new social order over blood ties.” But after being screened as a work-in-progress, the film was criticized and cancelled. Still, a reconstruction of surviving stills, produced by Naum Kleiman, demonstrates Eisenstein’s incorporation of wide-angle photography, rear projection, and a range of iconic and historical references.
After much discussion concerning Eisenstein and his future role in the perpetually changing Soviet film industry, he returned to Stalin’s good graces with Alexander Nevsky (1938), a somewhat conventional historical epic about the 13th century prince and his valiant efforts to combat Teutonic knights. Eisenstein was to be kept in line by ostensibly more obedient collaborators and the oversight apparently worked, as Stalin liked the film and supposedly proclaimed, “Sergei Mikhailovich, you are a good Bolshevik after all!” The stirring picture was well received, earning Eisenstein the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Prize. This cautionary allegory, Eisenstein’s first completed feature in nearly ten years (he had directed or co-directed several shorts), fit the national climate at the time as Russia was again facing a potential German invasion. But after Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Adolf Hitler, Alexander Nevsky was pulled from distribution until 1941, when war with Germany broke out and the film again served a propagandistic purpose.
Above: Ivan the Terrible
During World War II, Eisenstein began a trilogy of films about the life of Ivan the Terrible, the 16th-century czar who was perceived as something of a predecessor to Stalin, a ruler who, according to a promotional piece for London’s Close-Up Film Centre, “strengthened and expanded the Russian state.” Part One depicts Ivan as a young man, “a heroic and progressive figure but one surrounded by enemies, both within Russia and abroad,” while Part Two illustrates Ivan’s “ruthless campaign to eliminate his internal enemies.” The first part, released in 1944, was a triumph and Eisenstein was again applauded for his work, but the second was harshly derided by Stalin, who raged against the sequel’s parallels, intended or not, with his own “reign of terror.” The latter film was shelved and not shown until 1958, and all footage from Part III, of which there wasn’t much, was confiscated and most of it destroyed. What exists of Ivan the Terrible, as a collective unit, is a complex examination of dictatorial devotion and destruction, a baroque tale of divided national interests and violent campaigns. It is arresting for its integration of visual texture and ornamental detail, its contrast in camera placement, and for its dance of the oprichnina, a sequence described by Vassilieva as “an explosive experiment in colour, rhythm, movement, music and song, connoting in different ways the topoi of blood and fire, and depicting oprichnina as a force that descends into hell.” Regularly plagued by a heart condition, Eisenstein was working on his influential theoretical writings and attempting to complete the Ivan trilogy when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1948, just weeks after his fiftieth birthday.
Above: Ivan the Terrible
RECOMMENDED VIEWING
  • Strike (1924): Strike’s fragmentary narrative is propelled by word of escalating discontent, conspiracy, and tragedy, and the drudgery of industrial work is juxtaposed with the purity of the countryside, while the oppressed and dehumanized are in constant opposition with the detached, ruling elite. With stunning cinematography by Edward Tisse, an invaluably stalwart Eisenstein associate, Strike is an expertly crafted debut, raising the public consciousness and rendering its psychological impact with expressionistic lighting, skewed camera angles, shadow play, trick photography, and recurrent geometric and scenic motifs. As described by Vassilieva, suggesting just how much Eisenstein managed to pack into his first film, Strike is distinguished by its “strikingly composed shots, visual metaphors and rapid editing […] a dense set of intertextual allusions [as well as] vaudevillian episodes depicting dwarves and buffoonish spies, and concluding with a now-famous parallel cutting that intersplices the massacre of the striking workers and the slaughter of a bull in an abattoir…”
Above: Battleship Potemkin
  • Battleship Potemkin (1925): As he launches a succession of kinetic, tense, and violent set pieces, culminating in the shocking and justly celebrated Odessa steps sequence, Battleship Potemkin combines many of Eisenstein’s most innovative editing techniques. Although he frequently fell out of favor with Communist party authorities, he was committed to the mission, and with Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein confirmed his doctrinal capacity while simultaneously enlivening his various film theories. The picture is a realized exhortation of Eisenstein’s thoughts concerning editorial collision, the essence of a shot’s assimilation of light, movement, and volume, and the schematic linkage of images to generate an entirely new representational concept. Shooting from compound perspectives and repeating action for emphatic effect, Battleship Potemkin is Eisenstein’s most calculated achievement in rhythmic, tonal, allegorical, and cathartic montage.
  • The General Line (1929): Often disregarded due to its compromised nature, The General Line is a beautiful, lyrical film, and while it may be seen as dubiously rigid in its adherence to proscribed principle, it is also, rare to that point for Eisenstein, a compassionate and engaging work revolving around a singular, emotionally invested character. The peasant woman Marfa, the only female character of note in Eisenstein’s filmography, is played by Marfa Lapkina. As Stans remarks, Lapkina was a farm worker since the age of nine and only showed up at a casting call “out of curiosity, thinking she might be able to earn some money.” She had no acting experience and agreed to star in the film “on the condition that she could bring her baby son with her, which Eisenstein allowed.” This humble backstory carried over to her poignant performance, expressing vulnerability, endurance, and an unfailingly pleasant demeanor.
Above: The General Line
  •  Que viva México!: Although Eisenstein was never able to complete Que viva México! and had essentially no sway over the film in even its most accomplished form, the film is a noteworthy inclusion in his oeuvre, if only for the enthusiastically consummated regard he had for Mexican art and culture. Set against sundry regional backdrops and depicting assorted aspects of Mexican life, Que viva México! is a fascinating historical survey, a symbolic, episodic consideration of village existence with a vivid focus on desire, sensuality, and celebratory expression. “Compared to Eisenstein’s films of the earlier Soviet period,” states Vassilieva, the film “demonstrates a new interest in the bodily and erotic; in myth, ritual and ethnography; in the grotesque and carnivalesque. It also marks a shift towards a different attitude to religion, which Eisenstein here acknowledges and explores as a powerful cultural force.”
  •  Alexander Nevsky (1938): Complemented by Sergei Prokofiev’s rousing score, this sweeping pageant is a meticulous platform for Eisenstein’s attuned aural dynamism as well as his advancing knack for symmetrical framing, axial cutting, and inspired compositional strategy. Although Eisenstein’s editing faculties were limited on Alexander Nevsky, and the result is a comparatively static film, he nevertheless reinforced a superior eye for graphic ingenuity. And while “its beauty is monumental, unimpassioned, and utterly cold,” as Waclaw Solski, a former employee at Sovkino in Moscow, contends, Alexander Nevsky is one of Eisenstein’s most outstanding films, highlighted for its stunning ice top battle, an often-cited sequence demonstrating the filmmaker’s audio-visual prescience.
Above: Alexander Nevsky
RECOMMENDED READING
  • “Eisenstein: ‘Intellectual Montage’, Poststructuralism, and Ideology,” by Jason Lindop: Primarily discussing Eisenstein’s “idea of creating an ‘intellectual cinema,’” as evinced in his theoretical essays, Lindop’s systematic analysis looks at how the director conceived “a series of images [that] can, when correctly composed by the filmmaker and then interpreted by the viewer, produce an abstract concept not strictly present in each of the composite images.” In examining Eisenstein’s essays, which Lindop states “often feel more like brainstorming sessions then presentations of clearly formulated ideas,” the critic, writing for Offscreen, presents an analysis that “reveals three possible kinds of ideas or mental representations: objects in reality, immaterial aspects of reality, and abstract concepts.”
  • “Great Directors: Sergei Eisenstein,” by Julia Vassilieva: Vassilieva’s exceptional Senses of Cinema profile studies not only Eisenstein’s films and writing but also the diverse interpretations of his work. As she observes, “For a long time, Peter Wollen’s verdict on Eisenstein, that ‘we cannot separate the ideas which he developed from the matrix in which they were formed, the matrix of the Bolshevik Revolution’ seemed to be definitive of Eisenstein’s legacy.” But in recent years, “scholars have developed more nuanced views of Eisenstein’s achievements and influence as a filmmaker, film theorist and intellectual.” This multifaceted approach to Eisenstein is diligently explained by Vassilieva, who surmises, “Eisenstein was one of the creative and intellectual giants of the twentieth century, a polymath comparable to the renaissance figures such as Leonardo or Michelangelo – a comparison he himself welcomed.”
  • “Eisenstein’s Methods of Montage Explained,” by Ryan Charles: This video essay by editor and filmmaker Ryan Charles “explores […] Eisenstein’s famous Methods of Montage contained in his seminal work, ‘Film Form.’” Presenting exemplary clips from Eisenstein’s cinema alongside more contemporary examples from Raging Bull (1980), Requiem for a Dream (2002), and The Untouchables (1987), which blatantly nods to the Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin, this informative visual introduction successfully “lays out Eisenstein’s five Methods [of Montage] and how they can be used to affect an audience.”
  • The Film Sense and Film Form, by Sergei Eisenstein: The writing of Eisenstein himself is perhaps the most discerning and revealing source when it comes to his methodology, ratified in his films and remaining as theoretical considerations. As Vassilieva points out, while producing his four silent films, Eisenstein “elaborated the tenets of his montage theory, tackling specific issues related to montage in numerous focused essays […]. His ideas on montage were introduced to Anglophone audiences though two volumes edited and translated by Jay Leyda, ‘The Film Sense’ (1942) and ‘Film Form’ (1949).” The essays collected here are accordingly absorbing, inspiring works of reflection and devoted enquiry, frequently illuminating the manifold properties of Eisenstein’s complex corpus.
  • The Cinema of Eisenstein, by David Bordwell: Preeminent film scholar David Bordwell provides one of the most exhaustive and insightful studies of Eisenstein’s filmography and his evolving technique. Breaking down the films in a detailed, oftentimes shot-by-shot investigation, Bordwell’s discernment is complemented by many (absolutely necessary) frame enlargements, presenting a “picture of Eisenstein’s legacy unmatched in clarity, depth, and scope.” Bordwell also differentiates between Eisenstein’s “‘biographical legend’” and “political facts,” a muddled if unavoidable overlap given the complexities of the director’s life story, which was at times inflamed by conjecture and exaggeration while also being limited due to political restrictions of the time.

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