The Soviet film director and cinema theoretician Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (1898-1948) achieved fame for his emotionally inflammatory political epics of the Russian Revolution.
Born in Riga, the son of a wealthy shipbuilder, Sergei Eisenstein went as a young man to St. Petersburg, where he studied architecture and engineering. During the Russian Revolution he constructed trenches and also acted in plays for the Bolshevik army. Shortly after the civil war, he managed a carnival and a small workers' theater in Moscow. Following service with the engineering corps during World War I, Eisenstein was appointed assistant director and chief dramatist for the Proletcult Theater. His most celebrated avant-garde productions included a dramatization of Jack London's story, Mexicalia, of A. N. Ostrovsky's Much Simplicity in Every Wise Man, and an experimental play, Anti-Jesus.
Frustrated by the stage's inability to achieve total realism, Eisenstein abandoned theater for the incipient Soviet film industry, directing his first motion picture, Strike, in 1924. With Potemkin (1925) the director was able to exploit effectively his sadistic fantasies, culminating in the apocalyptic violence of the Odessa steps scene.
Ten Days That Shook the World (1927), based on John Reed's classic account of the early days of the Russian Revolution, proved ineffective both as cinema art and as political propaganda. Critics later raised serious doubts about the historical reliability of the film and justifiable questions regarding the character of its creator. The scene in Ten Days That Shook the World in which a student is attacked by vicious aristocratic women and subsequently murdered, his body lying on the waterfront, his neck lacerated, his torso exposed, appeared to have more erotic than political significance for its creator. Eisenstein was not criticized so much for his homosexuality as for the frequently disconcerting emotional excesses and moral obliquities it invariably produced in his work.
Eisenstein's final revolutionary epic, The General Line (1929), was a leisurely and often evocative ode to the joys of agricultural collectivism. It found favor with Stalin, and that year Eisenstein was granted permission for an extended tour abroad. After a brief teaching assignment at the Sorbonne in Paris, the director went to Hollywood, intending to undertake an American production. Under contract to Paramount studio he composed a script, Sutter's Gold, subsequently rejected by the studio as morally indecent. Next he began intensive work on a film adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. His decision to present the novel in the form of an interior monologue, in opposition to the commercial ideas of the producers, resulted in his peremptory dismissal from the project.
Eisenstein then attempted to write and direct a film on location in Mexico. He was intoxicated by the warm sensuality and primitive spontaneity of Mexican life. Que Viva Mexico took shape, sections of the complex scenario being composed for each day's shooting. Eisenstein was unwilling to conclude the picture after its allotted budget had been expended. The film was confiscated and turned over to a Hollywood editor who divided the footage into three separate pieces. On the basis of the hypnotic beauty and visionary power evident in several sequences from the mutilated epic (released in the United States as Time in the Sun, Thunder over Mexico, and Day of Death), it can be said that had Eisenstein been permitted to complete the production the result would have possessed considerable poetry and depth.
Upon returning to the Soviet Union in 1932, Eisenstein was confronted with a restrictive philistinism even more oppressive than the lack of understanding he had encountered in the United States. His nearly completed film Bezhin Meadow, based on Ivan Turgenev's tale of peasant life, was condemned and suppressed for its religious mysticism and "formalistic excesses." Also disparaged was Eisenstein's theory of montage. Eisenstein responded by publishing an article, "The Mistakes of Bezhin Meadow," in which he repudiated his former esthetic commitments, vowing to "create films of high quality, worthy of the Stalinist epoch." The result, Alexander Nevsky, was a simpleminded and vapid historical pageant depicting the heroic overthrow by the Russian people of their 12th-century Teutonic oppressors. Although the film was praised at first for its patriotism and its anti-German virulence, the treaty signed by the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany in 1939 necessitated its immediate withdrawal from circulation.
In 1940 Eisenstein wrote his finest study of film esthetics, Film Form, which contains a brilliant analysis of parallels between cinematic and novelistic techniques. The same year Eisenstein began composing the scenario for Ivan the Terrible, a massive historical epic with contemporary overtones; although subtler and richer in psychological nuances than his previous work, this biographical parable of Russia's first dictator-despot possesses a claustrophobic opacity that is at times physically intolerable.
While attending a party celebrating the premiere of Ivan the Terrible (Part I) the director collapsed from a heart attack. During his early convalescence Eisenstein was informed that the already filmed Part II of Ivan the Terrible would not be shown in the U.S.S.R. Ravaged by physical deterioration and the emotional torments of a lifetime, Eisenstein spent his remaining months preparing a second theoretical study, Film Sense, and teaching classes in cinema technique at the Soviet Cinema Institute.
Further Reading on Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein
The authorized biography is Marie Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein (1952). Other valuable biographical sources are Vladimir Nizhniy, Lessons with Eisenstein (1962); and Ivor Montagu, With Eisenstein (1968). Intelligent critical analyses of his work can be found in Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture (1962); James Agee, Agee on Film (1964); Eric Rhode, Tower of Babel: Speculations on the Cinema (1966); and Dwight Macdonald, Dwight Macdonald on Movies (1969). For perceptive discussions of Eisenstein's film theory see Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art (1957), and André Bazin, What Is Cinema?, essays selected and translated by Hugh Gray (1967).
Additional Biography Sources
Eisenstein, Sergei, Beyond the stars: the memoirs of Sergei Eisenstein, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1995.
Eisenstein, Sergei, Immoral memories: an autobiography, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
Seton, Marie, Sergei M. Eisenstein: a biography, London: Dobson, 1978.