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In perspective: Sergei Eisenstein, film director 1898-1948

A film essay and review of the special centenary edition of The Eisenstein Collection (Tartan Video, Faber & Faber) by Anna Chen

This essay, profile and review of film director Sergei Eisenstein originally appeared in a left periodical in 1998. I have updated it and made minor alterations for this website.

 

The feature films directed by Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein during the 1920s provided much of the defining imagery of the Russian Revolution. Described as the father of film montage, he was certainly the first major theorist of cinema. The year 1998 marks the centenary of his birth. It is also 50 years since he died, leaving behind an invaluable legacy of writings but with very few of his scripts actually produced. A boxed set of videos of his 'Revolution' trilogy - Strike, The Battleship Potemkin and October,1 which includes his first collection of essays and articles, The Film Sense, published in 1943 - has been released to commemorate Eisenstein's centenary.

A prolific writer yet an underproduced film maker with only eight mostly monochrome epics completed, why is this director considered so important even today? What power was unleashed in The Battleship Potemkin which led UK authorities to ban it until 1954? Why do mainstream Hollywood directors pay him homage through direct reference, pastiche and even parody? In Spielberg's black and white feature film Schindler's List a small girl is picked out in red as she tries to escape her Nazi persecutors, the same device also finding its way into a TV ad for Peugeot. It was first seen, however, in The Battleship Potemkin, wherein the the director himself painstakingly hand tinted the flag, frame by frame, a flaming revolutionary red. Coppola's powerful use in Apocalypse Now, of the bull's slaughter from the end of Strike signifies, not the victim's pain - as with the 1,800 strikers killed at the end of the Russian film - but the horror that has fed the megalomania of Brando's Kurtz, extinguished only when he is hacked to death by Martin Sheen's Marlow.

Ken Russell filches Alexander Nevsky's knights on ice battle spectacular for Billion Dollar Brain, whilst De Palma shamelessly and thoroughly pastiches the Odessa Steps sequence from The Battleship Potemkin in The Untouchables. Naked Gun is by no means the silliest of many other screen references: the cliché of the baby carriage careering down the Odessa Steps (of which there were only 120, not the hundreds of the cinematic illusion Eisenstein created through rapid repetitive intercutting) is now instantly recognisable even to people who have never watched an Eisenstein movie.

When reading Eisenstein's own words, what strikes you is how driven he was as an artist. Possessed of a dazzling intellect that drew from sources as diverse as da Vinci, Dickens, Disney, Shakespeare, Goethe and Haiku poetry, Eisenstein's eclectic interests fuelled his search for a definitive theory of cinema. Pursuing his obsession in the early years of the Russian Revolution, when cinema was barely crawling from the womb and the creative possibilities of the first generation of Russian artists were seemingly without limit, Eisenstein turned pioneer and hunted down evidence for his theories, trawling western and eastern culture for clues. He called on Marx for support, quoting his 'definition of the course of genuine investigation'2 in The Film Sense: 'Not only the result, but the road to it also, is a part of truth. The investigation of truth must itself be true, true investigation is unfolded truth, the disjuncted members of which unite in the result'.3

 

 

Eisenstein was born in Riga in 1898 to 'a tyrannical Papa', the architect and civil engineer Mikhail Osipovich, who fought for the White Russians during the civil war and died in Berlin in 1920. In an attempt to reclaim Eisenstein for liberals, his biographer, Ronald Bergan, tries to rescue him from his claim 'to be a Marxist all his life'4 by seizing on the oedipal nature of Sergei's relationship with this small minded philistine. Bergan's psychologism privileges this one internal aspect and denies Eisenstein's capacity to transcend his own personal interests. His case seems to be sustained by Eisenstein's own account of his conflict with his father: 'The reason why I came to support social protest had little to do with the real miseries of social injustice, or material privations, or the zigzags of the struggle for life, but directly and completely from what is surely the prototype of every social tyranny - the father's despotism in a family, which is also a survival of the basic despotism of the head of the "tribe" in every primitive society'.5

But, as for many people from a similar background who joined the international revolutionary movement, claustrophobia and rebellion against the middle class family were only the beginning of a profound transformation. Eisenstein had, after all, witnessed government troops brutally clearing demonstrators from Nevsky Prospect in 1917. Even Bergan himself produces evidence which contradicts his case, quoting Eisenstein's foreword to his 1946 memoirs, Beyond the Stars:

The revolution gave me the most precious thing in life - it made an artist out of me. If it had not been for the revolution I would never have broken the tradition, handed down from father to son, of becoming an engineer... The revolution introduced me to art, and art, in its own turn, brought me to the revolution...6

Whether or not the transformation proved to be profound and permanent would be demonstrated in his actions and his art.

It was Yulia Ivanovna, his mother, who grounded Sergei in bourgeois culture. She surrounded him with books, bought him a camera, took him to the theatre and, in 1907, treated him to a memorable trip to Paris. But, according to Peter Wollen, it was the extraordinary upheavals of the 1917 revolution, when Sergei was 19, that brought his interest in art to fruition. At a time when 'authentic intelligentsia' was ousting 'academic hierarchy':

He was not prepared for the overthrow of the existing order of society, the collapse of his ideology and the dissolution of his family... The revolution destroyed him, smashed the co-ordinates of his life, but it also gave him the opportunity to produce himself anew...he was compelled to become an intellectual, to construct for himself a new world-view, a new ideological conception both of society and art...we cannot separate the ideas which he developed from the matrix in which they were formed, the matrix of the Bolshevik Revolution.7

 

Bloody Sunday, St Petersberg, 1905

 

Eisenstein was steeped in accounts of the 1905 Revolution, and in particular 'Bloody Sunday', when troops opened fire upon a peaceful demonstration at the Tsar's Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Because of 'the wild outburst of reaction and repression...the brutality in my pictures is indissolubly tied up with the theme of social injustice, and revolt against it...'8 His early working years included stints with the Petrograd militia, as a cartoonist for the Petersburgskaya Gazeta, decorating the agitprop trains leaving for the front, and as an engineer in the Red Army during the civil war, serving on the Eastern Front. 'The melting pot of the civil war and military engineering work at the front...' gave him '...a fascinating sense of history in the making, which had made a deep impression with the broad canvas of the fates of nations and epic ambitions, and was then realised in the thematics of future films of monumental scale'.9

Eisenstein's studies at the Institute of Civil Engineering in Petrograd were disrupted by the 1917 revolution. Any thoughts of renewing them were rapidly eclipsed by his fascination with theatre, especially that of his future mentor, the actor and theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who ran the Proletkult Theatre in Moscow. Along with the poet Mayakovsky, and the artists Malevich and Tatlin, Meyerhold reassessed the Futurist and Symbolist movements in the pre-revolution years and came up with Constructivism, which would 'be a branch of production, in the service of the revolution' rather than 'pure' art.10 Meyerhold had rejected the naturalism of Stanislavsky's acting methods at the 'monolithic' Moscow Arts Theatre, which would later be 'enshrined as the apogee of Stalinist art'.11 He sought instead to prove the 'primacy of physiological gesture over psychological emotion'12 (as Pavlov was attempting to establish through his experiments concerning reflex conditioning at the time). Subscribing to William James's dictum that 'we weep not because we are sad; we are sad because we weep,' Meyerhold used circus spectacular and body mechanics and drew from commedia dell'arte in order to produce a 'non-verbal, stylised, conventional theatre'. Even F W Taylor, whose time and motion studies in American factories led directly to the deepening of workers' exploitation, exerted an influence. Theoretical faultlines cracked wide open as Stanislavsky sank deeper into mysticism, exploring the Hindu concept of 'prana' and trying to get people to feel radiation rays emitted from his actors' fingertips, provoking an attack by Meyerhold for being 'out of key with the epoch of the machine, the mass, urbanism and Americanism'.13

However, the Proletkult movement was hardly beyond criticism itself. Some have pointed out that one of the chief aims of the revolution according to Trotsky was the 'awakening of human personality in the masses - who were supposed to possess no personality'.14 The passionate cultural debates in post-war revolutionary Russia centred around raising the masses out of the quagmire of illiteracy, giving them the confidence that would prevent the growth of a cultured bureaucracy. Otherwise 'this would push the masses back into passivity and and lead to the degeneration of the revolution'.15 The adherents of Proletkult wanted to cut free from the existing culture, rather than bring it to the masses, because they thought it 'was the last refuge of the bourgeoisie in retreat'.16 (The Italian Formalists had similarly cast off their cultural roots, but were absorbed into the ideology of fascism.) In 1919 Lenin was scathing:

Proletarian culture is something that suddenly springs from nobody knows where, and is not invented by people who set up as specialists in proletarian culture. Proletarian culture is the regular development of those stores of knowledge which mankind has worked out for itself under the yoke of capitalist society, of feudal society, of bureaucratic society.17

Trotsky acknowledged that because the bourgeoisie 'owned both physical and mental means of production...they possessed the comfort and abundance necessary for art to grow and become subtle'.18 But Proletkult's ideology demanded both the rejection of this wellspring and the fetishisation of an imagined proletarian culture that would replace it. Trotsky also asserted that 'the proletarian regime is temporary and transient,' and not a permanent edifice, its purpose being to lay 'the foundations of a culture which is above classes and which will be the first culture that is truly human'.19 Besides, there was little point in cutting the umbilical cord to a bourgeois culture to which the tiny Russian proletariat was not even attached in the first place.

 

 

Against the background of this controversy and attracted by the freeing up of artistic experimentation, the young Eisenstein set out to join Meyerhold's avant-garde group. Starting work as a set designer for the Proletkult Theatre in 1920, he rapidly progressed to directing stage productions, which gave him the preparation he needed for his first foray into film.

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© 1998 Anna Chen