Article abstract: Universally regarded as one of the greatest directors in the history of the cinema, and an influential theorist and teacher as well, Eisenstein pioneered a method of film editing known as montage. As the result of political censorship, he completed only six films in his lifetime, three of which—Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky, and Ivan the Terrible—are considered classics.
Sergei Eisenstein was born on January 23, 1898, in Riga, Latvia, the son of a wealthy shipbuilder of Jewish descent. In 1910, Eisenstein and his family moved to St. Petersburg. Several facets of Eisenstein’s childhood were to play an important role in his subsequent creative work. His nurse introduced him to fables and legends, some of which received artistic expression in films such as Staroye i Novoye (1929; The General Line), a fable, and Alexander Nevsky, a legend. As a child, Eisenstein developed a penchant for sketching, a talent that was to stand him in good stead years later when he planned scenes for films. Eisenstein’s childhood reading of novels by Alexandre Dumas, père, and Victor Hugo prepared his sympathies for the Russian Revolution and for the victims of social injustice, both of which he used as subjects of his films years later. The origin of Eisenstein’s preoccupation with revolution can also be traced to the terrifying and shocking events that he witnessed as a child in Riga during the political turmoil of 1905-1906. The source of Eisenstein’s fascination for dramatic spectacle can be found in his infatuation with the circus and in his fondness for staging war games with his friends.
After being enrolled at the Institute of Civil Engineering in 1916, Eisenstein helped manage an experimental theater and a circus in Moscow at the same time that he was studying engineering. He had just decided on a career in the plastic arts when the Russian Revolution erupted. In 1917, he interrupted his education and enlisted in the Red Army. Although he started by building trenches and dugouts, he eventually was given a chance to indulge his artistic sensibilities when he was assigned the task of organizing theatrical performances for the Red Army and painting and designing the scenery. These tasks revived his interest in the Japanese theater, and he was inspired to begin a study of the Japanese language.
Having found his true vocation, Eisenstein enrolled in the Academy of the General Staff in Moscow after being discharged from the army at the age of twenty-two. While he was at the academy, he specialized in the “Japanese section” and formulated his theory of film editing from his studies of the pictographic or ideographic element in the Japanese writing system, imported by the Japanese from China. He envisioned a type of editing that would bring together independent images to create a new meaning or image not implicit in any of its individual components, just as the Chinese character meaning “east,” for example, is said to be formed by combining the character meaning “sun” with the character meaning “tree.” (In fact, like many Westerners, Eisenstein misunderstood Chinese—hence Japanese—writing, greatly exaggerating its ideographic element while underestimating its phonetic element, but in his case the misunderstanding was fruitful.)
Early in the 1920’s, Eisenstein became associated with the Proletkult Theater in Moscow, which was devoted to the promotion of proletarian art. As art director of the Proletkult, he sought to infuse the theater with his own evolving concepts of what he called “Soviet realism.” Eisenstein left the Proletkult briefly to work with the director of the newly formed Meyerhold Theater, then returned to produce a comedy by the nineteenth century dramatist Alexander Ostrovsky, Na vsyakogo mudretsa dovolno prostoty (1868; Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man, 1923). His last production before going into films, S. M. Tretyakov’s Protivogazy (1924; gas masks), was so realistic that it was staged in a factory instead of a theater. This effort to carry dramatic realism to the utmost convinced Eisenstein that the theater could not adequately portray life, and he turned his efforts fully to the cinema.
In 1924, Eisenstein published his first article on his revolutionary theories of film editing, which he put into practice six months later in his first full-length film, Stracha (1925; Strike). In this film, which recounts the repression of a strike by the soldiers of the czar, Eisenstein attempted to place the audience in the psychological situation that would produce the emotions and the political convictions that he wanted to communicate. His symbolic juxtaposition of unequal images (for example, matching the murder of workers with the slaughter of cattle) was shocking, but obvious and artificial.
Impressed by Eisenstein’s accomplishments in Strike, the Russian government commissioned him to make a film, Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925; Potemkin) commemorating the abortive revolution of 1905. In this dramatized documentary of a famous mutiny of sailors aboard a battleship, Eisenstein showcased his greatest editorial discovery, which was the discrepancy between screen time and real time. The cinematic expansion of time, which was repeated at crucial moments in the film, reached its fullest expression in the scene depicting the massacre on the Odessa steps. Even though the film was an obvious piece of propaganda, it is so well crafted that it ranks among the masterpieces of the cinema.
In his next three films, Eisenstein experimented with many of the editing techniques that he had introduced in Potemkin. In a film that was commissioned in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Oktyabr’ (1927; October: Or, Ten Days That Shook the...
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