January 23, 1898– Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein
Film History class, I loved it. A big “If I could do it over again” for me would be why I chose Theatre over Film for my undergraduate degree. I received better marks for my work in Film classes than in my own major. Ah, youth. Soon, we will all be taking classes in Russian Film History!
Sergei Eisenstein was a revolutionary Russian film director and film theorist, now mostly known for his stunning, visually inventive silent films: Strike (1925), Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Oktober (1928). His work had a major influence on early American filmmakers with his innovative use of the montage. Eisenstein felt these scenes could be used to manipulate the emotions of the audience and create visual metaphors. His theories continue to be taught in film schools to this day, and the montage remains a persuasive, if to somewhat cliched technique.
Eisenstein’s version of Communism brought him into conflict with officials in the ruling regime of that despot with the impressive mustache, Joseph Stalin. Bolshevik artists like Eisenstein dreamed the new society would subsidize artists, breaking them free of bosses and budgets, leaving them with an environment to be creative. We know how that worked out.
Eisenstein’s popularity and influence in Russia changed with the success of his films and the passage of time. The critics from outside Russia praised them, but in Russia, Eisenstein’s focus on structural technique such as camera angles, crowd movements and the montage, brought him under fire within the Soviet film community forcing him to issue public pronouncements of self-criticism along with a commitment to change his cinema to conform to socialist ideals. The constraints of Stalinism moved Eisenstein to accept offers to work in the USA and Mexico.
His friend John Reed was born and grew up in his grandmother’s mansion in my city, Portland, Oregon, in the neighborhood we now call Goose Hollow. A memorial bench in Washington Park overlooks a site near his birthplace. If you know Reed at all, and you really should, he was America’s most noted radical. You might know him from Warren Beatty‘s truly great masterpiece Reds (1981). Eisenstein’s influential silent film Oktober was based on Reed’s book, Ten Days That Shook The World (1919), not to be confused with my own book, Nine Farts That Shook My World (2018).
He married twice under political pressure, but the relationships were never consummated. His memoir Immortal Memories (1941), recounts his infatuations with many young men, including his assistant, Grigori Alexandrov. His desires were almost always for young straight guys. His drawings include many details of sexual activity between dudes.
Throughout his career, he betrayed the closet. There are those nearly naked sailors below deck in the opening scenes of Battleship Potemkin and the hot, shirtless Mexicans in ¡Que viva México!. His films are filled with scenes that make obvious that Eisenstein had a yen for youthful guys.
In 1930, Paramount Pictures offered Eisenstein the opportunity to make a film in the USA. He accepted a short-term contract for $100,000 ($1,600,000 in 2021 dollars) and he arrived in Hollywood in with Aleksandrov and his gay cinematographer Eduard Tisse in tow.
Eisenstein proposed a biopic of Greek arms dealer Basil Zaharoff, known as the “merchant of death”, and, at the time, the richest man on the planet. Eisenstein also pitched a film version of the play Arms And The Man by George Bernard Shaw, but the studio’s producers weren’t digging it. Paramount proposed a film of Theodore Dreiser‘s An American Tragedy. Eisenstein read and liked the novel and had met Dreiser one time in Moscow. Eisenstein completed a script, but Paramount hated it and were also intimidated by Frank Pease, president of the Hollywood Technical Director’s Institute, an anti-communist activist group during the 1930s. Due to Pease’s campaign against the Russian filmmaker, the Fish Committee (predecessor to the House Un-American Activities Committee) investigated Eisenstein for contaminating American cinema with communist propaganda.
Paramount and Eisenstein declared their contract null and void, and Eisenstein and party were treated to return tickets to Moscow at Paramount’s expense. Eisenstein was faced with returning home a failure.
Eisenstein and his entourage hung out with Charlie Chaplin, who introduced Eisenstein with American socialist author Upton Sinclair. Sinclair secured an extension of Eisenstein’s time away from Russia, and permission for him to travel to Mexico. The reason for the trip was so that Eisenstein could make a film produced by Sinclair’s wife, Mary Craig Kimbrough Sinclair.
The contract stipulated that the film be “non-political”, and that the shooting schedule would be no longer than four months, and most importantly, that Eisenstein agreed that any film made or directed by him in Mexico, all negative film and positive prints, and all story ideas would be the property of Mrs. Sinclair. Plus, it stipulated that the films would be charged no fee for showing inside the USSR. ¡Que viva México! came from that arrangement.
While in Mexico Eisenstein hung out artists with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. They inspired Eisenstein to call his films “moving frescoes”.
He took so long with the shoot that Stalin sent a telegram expressing the concern that Eisenstein had become a deserter. Eisenstein pressured the Sinclairs to act on his behalf with Stalin, so Eisenstein could finish the film his way. The furious Sinclairs shut down production.
Eisenstein had arranged for 500 soldiers, 10,000 guns, and 50 cannons from the Mexican Army for the movie, but with Sinclair’s cancelling of production, no one got paid. When Eisenstein arrived at the American border, custom officials found sketches of Jesus Christ among some pornography. His re-entry visa had expired and Eisenstein, Aleksandrov, and Tisse were held for a month at the USA-Mexico border in Texas (hopefully not in cages). They finally got a pass to get to New York City so they could depart for Moscow, while Sinclair returned to Los Angeles with the film. Eisenstein returned to the USSR after failing to make a single American film. With anti-Communism on the rise in the USA, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with him.
Eisenstein In Guanajuato (2005) is romantic-comedy-drama film written and directed by Peter Greenaway that looks at the whole nutty Mexico adventure, with Finnish actor Elmer Bäck as Eisenstein.
Eisenstein died of a second heart attack in 1948, at 50-years-old. His body lay in state in the Hall of the Cinema Workers before being cremated.
Much of his work was destroyed or confiscated by the Soviets, but he remains one of their most important filmmakers. It’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to shoot a pee tape.
There is a legend that Russian scientists preserved his brain, said to be much larger than a normal human brain, which the Russian scientists took as a sign of genius. I wish that they had preserved his hair.