Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (born January 22, 1898, Riga, Latvia, Russian Empire—died February 11, 1948, Moscow, Russia, USSR), Russian film director and theorist whose work includes the three film classics ‘Potemkin’ (1925), ‘Alexander Nevsky’ (1938), and ‘Ivan the Terrible’ (released in two parts, 1944 and 1958). In his concept of film montage, images, perhaps independent of the “main” action, are presented for maximum psychological impact.
The son of an affluent architect, Eisenstein attended the Institute of Civil Engineering in Petrograd as a young man. With the fall of the tsar in 1917, he worked as an engineer for the Red Army. In the following years, Eisenstein joined up with the Moscow Proletkult Theater as a set designer and then director. At the same time, he developed a strong interest in the Kabuki theatre of Japan, which was to influence his ideas on film. For his production of ‘The Wise Man’, an adaptation of Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s play, he made a short film, ‘Glumov’s Diary’, which was shown as part of the performance in 1923. Soon afterward the cinema engaged his full attention, and he produced his first film, ‘Strike’, in 1924, after having published his first article on theories of editing in the review Lef, edited by the great poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. He said there that in place of the static reflection of an event, expressed by a logical unfolding of the action, he proposed a new form: the “montage of attractions”.
The world of silent Soviet cinema may be daunting enough without the added weight of Eisenstein’s exalted reputation as the ‘father of montage’. His ideas about how film editing techniques could be used to convey far more than narrative helped to shape the future of the medium. One of his most famous essays revolved around the five ‘methods of montage’, which described the different ways that shots could be compiled to achieve various outcomes (‘metric’, ‘rhythmic’, ‘tonal’, ‘overtonal’, ‘intellectual’). The effect of these ideas can be seen in the rapid cutting of modern action sequences, or the rhythmic edits of music videos.
Thus, the filmmaker should aim to establish in the consciousness of the spectators the elements that would lead them to the idea he wants to communicate; he should attempt to place them in the spiritual state or the psychological situation that would give birth to that idea.
The period in which Eisenstein was operating can be another potential barrier, both in terms of getting to grips with early cinema, and with regards to the overtly propagandist nature of his work, given that he was, despite international acclaim, producing films within the Soviet state system.
In the realistic films that he undertook, however, such a technique is effective only when it utilizes the concrete elements implicit in the action; it loses validity when its symbols are imposed upon reality instead of being implied by it. Thus, in ‘Strike’ (1924), which recounts the repression of a strike by the soldiers of the tsar, Eisenstein juxtaposed shots of workers being mowed down by machine guns with shots of cattle being butchered in a slaughterhouse. The effect was striking, but the objective reality was falsified.
Possessed by his theory, Eisenstein was bound to succumb often to this failing. ‘Potemkin’, also called ‘The Battleship Potemkin’, happily escaped it. Ordered by the Central Executive Committee of the USSR to commemorate the Revolution of 1905, the film, made in the port and the city of Odessa in 1925, had a momentous impact and still remains among the masterpieces of the world cinema. In 1958 it was voted the best film ever made by an international poll of critics.
Having by this accomplishment earned recognition as the epic poet of the Soviet cinema, Eisenstein next made a film entitled ‘October’, or ‘Ten Days That Shook the World’, which in the space of two hours dealt with the shifts of power in the government after the 1917 Revolution, the entrance on the scene of Lenin, and the struggle between the Bolsheviks and their political and military foes. If the film was sometimes inspired, it was also disparate, chaotic, and often confused.
Also uneven, but better balanced, was ‘Old and New’ (originally titled ‘The General Line’), filmed in 1929 to illustrate the collectivization of the rural countryside. Eisenstein made of it a lyric poem, as calm and as expansive as ‘Potemkin’ had been violent and compact.
In 1929, putting to profit a visit to Paris, he filmed ‘Romance sentimentale’ (Sentimental Melody), an essay in counterpoint of images and music. Engaged by Paramount studios in 1930, he left for Hollywood, where he worked on adaptations of the novels ‘L’Or’ (“Sutter’s Gold”), by Blaise Cendrars, and ‘An American Tragedy’, by Theodore Dreiser.
Though the film never was completed. Budgetary concerns, combined with Stalin’s displeasure at the length of Eisenstein’s stay in Mexico and a host of other factors, scuttled the production. Eisenstein’s relationship with Sinclair—already strained by production delays and communication problems—was destroyed when US customs officials discovered homoerotic drawings and photographs, some of which included religious imagery, in a combined shipment of his and Sinclair’s belongings. Though Eisenstein’s sexual inclinations were never confirmed, he had long been suspected of being homosexual, a theory corroborated by the materials discovered.
The nearly 300,000 feet (91,440 metres) of footage shot for ‘Que viva Mexico!’—banned from importation to the USSR was cut and released in the United States as the films ‘Thunder over Mexico’, ‘Eisenstein in Mexico’, and ‘Death Day’ (1933–34). In 1939 a fourth film, entitled ‘Time in the Sun’, was made from the footage. A series of educational films about Mexico were also compiled by using extracts from the reels. None of those efforts bears more than a distant resemblance to the original conception. Sinclair donated a large portion of the footage to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1954. Filmmaker Jay Leyda compiled Eisenstein’s Mexican Film: ‘Episodes for Study’ (1958) from that footage. Eisenstein’s former collaborator Grigory Aleksandrov edited it in rough accordance with Eisenstein’s original outline and released it as ‘Que viva Mexico!’ (1979).
After his return to Moscow in 1933, Eisenstein undertook ‘Bezhin Meadow’. Several weeks before its completion, however, he was ordered to suspend its production. The scenes already shot were put together by Eisenstein, but the film, which was never released, was attacked as “formalistic” because of its poetic interpretation of reality. Eisenstein thus suffered from the same governmental policies toward art that had embroiled the composer Sergey Prokofiev, the writer Isaac Babel, and many other artists in difficulties with Soviet officialdom.
Having expressed contrition for the errors of his past works, Eisenstein was able to make a film recounting the medieval epic of Alexander Nevsky, in accordance with Stalin’s policy of glorifying Russian heroes. Made in 1938, this film transfigured the actual historical events, majestically leading to a final resolution that represented the triumph of collectivism. As in medieval epics, the characters were the strongly stylized heroes or demigods of legend. Produced in close collaboration with Prokofiev, who wrote the score, the film represented a blend of images and music into a single rhythmic unity, an indissoluble whole.
During World War II Eisenstein achieved a work of the same style as Alexander Nevsky and even more ambitious—‘Ivan the Terrible’—about the 16th-century tsar Ivan IV, whom Stalin admired. Begun in 1943 in the Ural Mountains, the first part was finished in 1944, the second at the beginning of 1946. A third part was envisaged, but Eisenstein, suffering from angina pectoris, had to take to his bed for several months. He was about to return to work when he died, only a few days after his 50th birthday.