Sergei Eisenstein Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.