Sergei Eisenstein Essay - Critical Essays

Eisenstein, Sergei

Introduction

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Criticism

O. Brik (essay date 1929?)

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 and organisational opportunities that flow from the title of genius, and Eisenstein has not withstood the temptations.

He has decided that he is his own genius-head, he has made a decisive break with his comrades in production, moved out of production discipline and begun to work in a way that leans heavily and directly on his world renown.

Eisenstein was asked to make a jubilee film for the tenth anniversary of October, a task which from the Lef point of view could only be fulfilled through a documentary montage of existing film material. This is in fact what Shub has done in her films, The Great Road, and The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. Our position was that the October Revolution was such a major historical fact that any 'play' with this fact was unacceptable. We argued that the slightest deviation from historical truth in the representation of the events of October could not fail to disturb anyone with the slightest cultural sensitivity.

We felt therefore that the task that Eisenstein had been set—to give not the film-truth (kinopravda), of the October events, but a film-epic, a film-fantasy—was doomed in advance. But Eisenstein, who in some areas has moved towards the Lef position, did not share the Lef viewpoint in this instance—he believed that it was possible to find a method of representing October, not as documentary montage, but through an artistic 'play' film. Eisenstein of course rejected the idea of straightforward historical reconstruction from the start. The failure of [Boris Barnet's 1927 film] Moscow in October—a film based purely on the reconstruction of events—showed him to be right in this regard. What he needed was an artistic method for the representation of October events.

From the Lef standpoint such a method does not exist and indeed cannot exist. If Eisenstein had not been loaded down by the weighty title of genius, he could have experimented freely and his experiments might have brilliantly demonstrated the impossibility of the task set him. Now however, alongside pure experiment, he was obliged to create a complete jubilee film, and therefore to combine experiments with form and trite conventions in a way that sits curiously in one and the same work. The result is an unremarkable film.

While rejecting straightforward reconstruction, Eisenstein was obliged one way or another to deal with Lenin, the central figure of the October Revolution, in his jubilee film. To do so he resorted to the most absurd and cheapest of devices: he found a man who resembled Lenin to play the role of Lenin. The result was an absurd falsification which could only carry conviction for someone devoid of any respect or feeling for historical truth.

Eisenstein's film work on the heroic parts of his film is analogous to the operations of our cliche painters, like...

(The entire section is 1784 words.)

Sergei Eisenstein (essay date 1949)

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...

(The entire section is 2709 words.)

David Sylvester (essay date 1958)

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...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Jay Leyda (essay date 1959)

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...

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William S. Pechter (essay date 1961)

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...

(The entire section is 3281 words.)

Paul Seydor (essay date 1974)

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...

(The entire section is 6680 words.)

Vance Kepley, Jr. (essay date 1974)

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...

(The entire section is 7510 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann (essay date 1975)

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...

(The entire section is 3500 words.)

Edward Murray (essay date 1978)

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...

(The entire section is 4937 words.)

Richard Taylor (essay date 1979)

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.

Krupskaya, 1928

...

(The entire section is 10060 words.)

Herbert Eagle (essay date 1987)

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...

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