Sergei Eisenstein 1898-1948
Russian director, scriptwriter, and film theorist.
Eisenstein was an innovative filmmaker whose aesthetic theory and visual technique helped to revolutionize film as an art form throughout the world. Among his best known works are Bronenosets "Potyomkin" (The Battleship Potemkin), Aleksandr Nevskii (Alexander Nevsky), and Ivan Groznyi (Ivan the Terrible).
Eisenstein was born into an upper-middle-class family in Riga, a Baltic port city in Latvia. His father was a civil engineer, and Eisenstein himself studied architectural engineering at the School of Public Works in Petrograd from 1914 to 1917. While in school he became interested in the aims of Bolshevism, and he joined the Red Army at the age of twenty. During his time in the military he also helped to promote communist ideology through his work as a poster painter and theatrical designer. After the establishment of the Soviet Union, Eisenstein moved to Moscow, where he worked in the theater as a set and costume designer, and ultimately a director, at the Proletkult, a government-sponsored theater. Eisenstein's stage work convinced him that live drama was too limiting for his visual imagination, and that only film could provide Soviet communism with the revolutionary art form that it needed to further its ideology of collectivism. His early films, Stachka (Strike) and Potemkin, were generally well received in the Soviet Union, but the director was forced to alter or abandon several of his later films for political reasons: while Eisenstein defined himself as a patriot loyal to the goals of the communist revolution, his artistic individualism was considered suspect by the Soviet government. From 1929 to 1931, Eisenstein visited the United States with the intention of directing films in Hollywood, but Paramount studios, to whom the director was under contract, failed to produce any of Eisenstein's proposed film scenarios, including one for a film version of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. Abandoning Hollywood, Eisenstein traveled to Mexico and shot footage for a historical drama about the struggles of Mexican peasants, but the film was never completed. In 1932 Eisenstein returned to the U.S.S.R., where he spent some time teaching at the Film Institute in Moscow before returning to filmmaking. He went on to complete Staroie i novoie (Old and New), Alexander Nevsky, and parts I and II of Ivan the Terrible. Despite the small number of films he actually completed, Eisenstein's work and his theories of filmmaking made him one of the foremost directors in the world. He died in 1948.
Eisenstein's second and most important film, Potemkin, which is based on a 1905 mutiny aboard a Russian battleship, earned the director international acclaim. This work has been praised both for its compelling narrative and for its use of the editing technique Eisenstein called montage. The term has since come to refer to many types of editing, but Eisenstein's concept of montage referred specifically to the juxtaposition of images in order to create dramatic and visual tension. He theorized that film viewers watching a montage sequence would absorb a single, composite impression that was synthesized from separate images and which altered the individual meaning of single shots. After the enthusiastic reception of Potemkin, Eisenstein began work on several other film projects, many of which were suppressed by the Soviet government or altered in order to conform to Communist Party ideology. Old and New, which began its production under the title "The General Line," was re-edited and retitled in order to bring the film's ideology into agreement with Joseph Stalin's agricultural policy. During the latter part of his career, after he was forbidden by Stalin's government to use the montage technique he pioneered, Eisenstein turned his attention to ornate costume dramas with elaborate sets. These works include Alexander Nevsky, which interprets a medieval Russian folk hero as a precursor of the communist revolution, and Ivan the Terrible, an uncompleted trilogy.
Despite his persecution by the Soviet government, Eisenstein remained an enthusiastic supporter of collectivism throughout his life. All of his works sought to express this Soviet ideal and to build a mythology around it. While some critics dismiss Eisenstein as a simple propagandist, most admit that his visually striking and intellectually complex approach to making films helped to raise the status of the motion picture from simple entertainment to complex art form. His aesthetic theory, expressed in his many written commentaries on filmmaking and visual art in general, continue to influence both filmmakers and critics.
Stachka [Strike] (film) 1924
Bronenosets "Potyomkin" [The Battleship Potemkin] (film) 1925
Oktyabre [October: Ten Days That Shook the World] (film) 1927
Staroie i novoie [Old and New] (film) 1929
Aleksandr Nevskii [Alexander Nevsky] (film) 1938
The Film Sense (essays) 1942
Ivan Groznyi [Ivan the Terrible, Part One] (film) 1944
Ivan Groznyi: Boyarskii zagovor [Ivan the Terrible, Part Two: The Boyars' Plot] (film) 1945
Notes of a Film Director (essays) 1947
Film Form: Essays in Film Theory (essays) 1949
Que Viva Mexico! (screenplay) 1951
Izbrannye proizvedeniaa v shesti tomakh. 6 vols. (autobiography, criticism, essay, and scenarios) 1964-71
Film Essays with a Lecture (essays) 1968
The Complete Films of Eisenstein, Together with an Unpublished Essay by Eisenstein (screenplays and essay) 1974
Immoral Memories: An Autobiography (autobiography) 1983
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SOURCE: An excerpt from Movies and Methods: An Anthology, edited by Bill Nichols, University of California Press, 1976, pp. 17-20.
[In the following essay, which first appeared in the Soviet journal New Lef, Brik charges that Eisenstein's October falsifies historical facts.]
Sergei Eisenstein has slipped into a difficult and absurd situation. He has suddenly found himself proclaimed a world-class director, a genius, he has been heaped with political and artistic decorations, all of which has effectively bound his creative initiative hand and foot.
In normal circumstances he could have carried on his artistic experiments and researches into new methods of film-making calmly and without any strain: his films would then have been of great methodological and aesthetic interest. But piece-meal experiments are too trivial a concern for a world-class director: by virtue of his status he is obliged to resolve world-scale problems and produce world-class films. It comes as no surprise therefore that Eisenstein has announced his intention to film Marx's Capital—no lesser theme would do.
As a result there have been painful and hopeless efforts to jump higher than his own height of which a graphic example is his latest film, October.
It would, of course, be difficult for any young director not to take advantage of all those material...
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SOURCE: Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, edited and translated by Jay Leyda, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949, pp. 115-20, 163-66.
[In the following essay, Eisenstein discusses Battleship Potemkin.]
To return anew to the question of purity of film form, I can easily counter the usual objection that the craft of film diction and film expressiveness is very young as yet, and has no models for a classic tradition. It is even said that I find too much fault with the models of film form at our disposal, and manage with literary analogies alone. Many even consider it dubious that this "half-art" (and you would be surprised to know how many, in and out of films, still refer to the cinema in this way) deserves such a broad frame of reference.
Forgive me. But this is the way things are.
And yet our film language, though lacking its classics, possessed a great severity of form and film diction. On a certain level our cinema has known such a severe responsibility for each shot, admitting it into a montage sequence with as much care as a line of poetry is admitted into a poem, or each musical atom is admitted into the movement of a fugue.
There are plenty of examples that may be brought in from the practice of our silent cinematography. Not having the time to analyze other specimens for this present purpose, I may be allowed to bring here a sample analysis from...
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SOURCE: "Strike," in New Statesman, Vol. LVI, No. 1439, October 11, 1958, pp. 490-91.
[In the following excerpt, the critic describes Strike as cinematic poetry and likens its symbolism to that used by T S. Eliot in The Wasteland.]
Minor poetry is often met with in the cinema, and now and then major poetry, for the duration of a sequence. Strike stands apart from other films: it hammers the nerves and exalts the spirit as intensely as Oedipus or Lear, and it goes on so doing as relentlessly.
If the sustained empathy which Strike induces is like that induced by the great tragedies, it is, of course, quite unlike any tragedy of the stage in that it has neither a hero nor a coherent narrative. Its method is closely analogous to that of a poem with which it is almost exactly contemporary—The Waste Land. It is alike in that it operates through the rhythmic relationship of scattered images, each of them precisely concrete yet also symbolic, the juxtaposition of which startles and surprises, yet not because the connection is purely irrational (as in surrealist montage) but because it reveals itself only as the whole thing works itself out, which it does, not in a continuous narrative, but symphonically, in a series of self-contained but thematically related movements. It is, again, like The Waste Land in that it has no hero and heroine but...
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SOURCE: "Two-Thirds of a Trilogy," in Film Quarterly, Vol. XII, No. 3, Spring, 1959, pp. 16-22.
[Leyda is an American critic, filmmaker, and the translator of several of Eisenstein's works on film theory. In the following essay, he analyzes Eisenstein's political goals and influences as reflected in his two films about Russian czar Ivan the Terrible.]
Eisenstein's several aims in making Ivan the Terrible have continued and will continue to be defined and argued. The theories find no common ground and do little to resolve the many questions the film evokes. For more than a decade we had only three pieces of evidence—the released version of Ivan, Part One; the published script of the whole two-part (later three-part) film; and denunciations and rumors of the unreleased Ivan, Part Two. On this basis were formed the political interpretation (Ivan IV shown as a prototype of Stalin), the psychological interpretation (explored, in detail, through Chapter XV of Marie Seton's biography of Eisenstein), the artistic interpretation (usually presented as the formal freezing of a too deliberate artist), and other side issues or private phobias. Now we have another important piece of evidence, the released version of Ivan, Part Two. (The sequences filmed for Part Three will probably remain uncut and unshown.) A last piece of evidence will, I hope, become generally available soon:...
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SOURCE: "The Closed Mind of Sergei Eisenstein," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, Fall 1961, pp. 687-94.
[In the following essay, Pechter questions the validity of Eisenstein's reputation as a great filmmaker.]
The great success of the 1925 Moscow film season was not Potemkin, but some undistinguished Hollywood colossus; some thirty-five years later, Eisenstein had his season in New York. His huge presence looms even larger now than then; somehow, the twilight casts a more enhancing shadow than the dawn. The Museum of Modern Art Film Library is perforce becoming a mausoleum. Where will one today find a work so vast, so ambitious, as to challenge the pre-eminence of the early classics? Is it only twilight that descends, or some more permanent darkness?
Which is, perhaps, a somewhat elaborate way of saying that things are not so good, and, perhaps, suggesting that they were not ever so good as it may now seem. The Museum of Modern Art's retrospective...
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SOURCE: "Eisenstein's Aesthetics: A Dissenting View," in Sight and Sound, Vol 43, No. 1, Winter, 1973-74, pp. 38-43.
[An American educator and critic, Seydor is the author of a study of the westerns of director Sam Peckinpah. In the following essay, he contends that Eisenstein was a purveyor of doctrine whose films manipulate through excessive emotionalism, and whose aesthetic deliberately "keeps reality at arm's length."]
Everybody 'seriously interested' in film pays obeisance to Sergei Eisenstein in one way or another. Even those few critics, scholars and knowledgeable lay moviegoers who don't like his work feel compelled to preface or conclude unfavourable remarks about even its gross defects by praising his style, his craftsmanship, his cinematic sophistication and—this always—his genius (although some of the less generous among this dissenting contingent may qualify that with 'misguided' or similar euphemisms). Many auteuristes and other self-appointed taste-makers are more certain: Eisenstein is simply the greatest filmmaker who ever lived, Potemkin the greatest film ever made. And so by the time one gets round to seeing Potemkin, the first of his movies one usually does see, one is suitably prepared. James Agee, among others, found parts of it 'as brilliantly organised as a movement in a Beethoven symphony.'
What one may be unprepared for is an...
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SOURCE: "The Evolution of Eisenstein's Old and New," in Cinema Examined, edited by Richard Dyer MacCann and Jack C. Ellis, E. P. Dutton, 1982, pp. 185-201.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1974 in Cinema Journal, Kepley examines Eisenstein's reworking of his film Old and New in compliance with the demands of evolving Soviet agricultural policy.]
Soviet cinema is often shaped by Communist Party politics rather than audience tastes, and when the dictates of the Party leadership change, the film industry may be left in a difficult position. From Lenin's death in 1924 to Stalin's ultimate triumph in the power struggle that followed, the Soviet Union experienced a period of uncertainty, and Bolshevik policy was subject to radical alterations. Sergei Eisenstein's Old and New is an example of a film caught in the complexities of changing Soviet agricultural policy. [In a footnote, the critic adds: "For those who have not seen the film, a plot synopsis is in order. Marfa Lapkina, a peasant woman in a poor village, is determined to overcome the backward farming methods of the area. The local kulaks refuse to help her. When a Soviet agriculture specialist proposes the formation of a dairy cooperative, Marfa is an enthusiastic supporter, but most peasants are suspicious and refuse to join. The backward peasants try to fight a drought by forming a religious procession, but...
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SOURCE: "Potemkin," in his Living Images: Film Comment and Criticism, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975, pp. 290-98.
[Kauffmann is a noted American theater and film critic. In the following essay, he analyzes Eisenstein 's Potemkin as an expression of the director's political and artistic vision.]
Sometimes one imagines that there is a small but constant supply of genius throughout the world and that a particular juncture of circumstances in any one place touches the local supply to life. Otherwise, how explain the sudden flowering of Athenian architecture or Elizabethan drama or Italian Renaissance painting? Can one believe that there had been no previous talent and that geniuses were born on cue? It almost seems that the right confluence of events brings dormant omnipresent genius awake; without those events, nothing. Possibly the man with the greatest potential genius for symphonic composition lived in New Guinea five hundred years ago, but there was nothing in his world to make him know it.
This theory, admittedly fanciful, gets some support from what happened in Soviet Russia in the 1920s. A new revolutionary state was born as a new revolutionary art emerged, and that combination brought forth at least three superb creators in the new art: Vsevolod Pudovkin, Alexander Dovzhenko, and—the most important because the most influential—Sergei M. Eisenstein. Conjecturally, all...
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SOURCE: "Potemkin," in his Ten Film Classics: A Re-Viewing, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. 1978, pp. 1-17.
[Murray is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, he summarizes Eisenstein's theory of montage and analyzes the composition of Potemkin.]
Sergei Eisenstein will be remembered not only as a major filmmaker—his Potemkin has often been called "the greatest film ever made"—but also as one of the most important theorists of the cinema. Although he had provocative things to say about acting, sound, color, and film as a synthesis of all the arts and sciences, Eisenstein's most significant contribution to film study centers on his conception of montage.
The word "montage" comes from the French; it means "mounting" or "putting together." Sometimes montage is used loosely as a synonym for editing. Among Western film-makers, montage often means an impressionistic sequence of short shots intended to convey a sense of time passing. For Eisenstein, however, montage had a wholly different signification.
As an engineering student, Eisenstein had learned the definite laws governing the construction of roads, bridges, waterways, and the principles involved in the management of machinery. With rigorous analysis, he maintained, one could also discover the laws which determined all forms of art. From the beginning, the Soviet film was linked to the 1917...
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SOURCE: "October" and "Alexander Nevsky" in his Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, Croom Helm, 1979, pp. 92-102, 116-30.
[In the following excerpt, Taylor analyzes the content and structure of Eisenstein's October and examines Alexander Nevsky as a study in film technique and Soviet propaganda.]
After Battleship Potemkin, October is bad.
Soviet critics, 1928
October is without doubt a film of great revolutionary and artistic importance. It is good in its revolutionary content, good in its execution.
These two comments are typical of the reception that greeted Eisenstein's third film and typical of the arguments that surrounded the film maker's career as a whole. Eisenstein was commissioned to make a film of the revolutionary events of 1917 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Revolution: similarly Pudovkin was commissioned to make The End of St Petersburg and Shub made The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty and The Great Way. Eisenstein had already completed Strike, which had been attacked for its experimental nature and its obscure symbolism, and Battleship Potemkin which, despite its immense popularity in Berlin, had failed to move Soviet audiences in large numbers, probably for similar...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Nonindifferent Nature by Sergei Eisenstein, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. vii-xxi.
[In the following essay, Eagle provides an overview of Eisenstein's critical writings and demonstrates how the director's theories were exemplified in his films.]
Sergei Eisenstein dedicated Nonindiffferent Nature to "poor Salieri," who, in Alexander Pushkin's dramatic poem, laments: "… True tone I smothered, dissecting music like a corpse; I test with algebra pure harmony.…" It was Eisenstein's intent, though, to vindicate Salieri by arguing that the spontaneous and intoxicating act of artistic creation must be followed by "ever-increasing, precise knowledge about what we do." Thus, Nonindifferent Nature not only represents the most advanced stage of Eisenstein's thinking on the structure of film, but it is the creator's attempt to demonstrate, once again, the validity of his own personal lifelong synthesis of creative art and theoretical analysis, a synthesis not always viewed positively by official Soviet criticism.
Eisenstein's films of the 1920s, Strike, Battleship Potemkin, October (Ten Days that Shook the World), The Old and the New (The General Line), captured the attention of the world with their daring approach to film montage. Eisenstein clearly was not satisfied to represent the world from without, as if through an...
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Leyda, Jay. "The Published Writings (1922-1964) of Sergei Eisenstein." In Film Essays, by Sergei Eisenstein, edited by Jay Leyda, pp. 188-216. London: Dennis Dobson, 1968.
Comprehensive list of Eisenstein's published writings in Russian, with notes on their English translations.
—. "Bibliography of Eisenstein's Writings Available in English." In The Film Sense, by Sergei M. Eisenstein, translated and edited by Jay Leyda, pp. 269-76. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1942.
Annotated bibliography of Eisenstein's writings available in English.
Montagu, Ivor. With Eisenstein in Hollywood. New York: International Publishers, 1969, 356 p.
Details Eisenstein's stay in Hollywood during the 1930s. This volume also includes scenarios for two of Eisenstein's unfinished film projects: Sutter's Gold and An American Tragedy.
Seton, Marie. Sergei M. Eisenstein. London: Dennis Dobson, 1978, 533 p.
Biography of Eisenstein based on primary sources, including Eisenstein's own letters. Appendices include Eisenstein's introduction to the scenario for the uncompleted Que Viva Mexico! and his correspondence with American novelist Upton Sinclair.
Wilson, Edmund. "Eisenstein in Hollywood." In his The American...
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