The father of the film montage, director and film theorist Sergei Eisenstein achieved the perfect blend of avant-garde artistry with state-minded propaganda in becoming a master filmmaker. Eisenstein was first and foremost a dedicated Communist who saw the advantages of using art to propel political ideas soon after the Russian Revolution in 1917. Using a variety of forms, from circuses to Kabuki theater, he directed a few short films before launching his first seminal work, "Strike" (1924), which depicted in almost manipulative fashion, a 1903 strike of factory workers. With his very first film, Eisenstein invented the film montage, where he used rapid editing between two divergent images in order to maximize shock value. Following the success of "Strike," he directed one of the greatest propaganda films ever made, "Battleship Potemkin" (1925), which contained the iconic "Odessa Steps" sequence. His subsequent films, "October" (1928) and "The General Line" (1929), were condemned by party leaders, leading to a tour of Europe and Hollywood. Upon his return, Eisenstein faced a drastically changed political landscape, but triumphed with the surprisingly straightforward "Alexander Nevsky" (1938) and the highly-regarded "Ivan the Terrible, Part I" (1944). But with "Ivan the Terrible, Part II" (1946), Eisenstein faced harsh censorship once again, only to soon die of a heart attack before completing "Part III." Despite his relatively small output, Eisenstein lived on as one of cinema's chief architects whose influence transcended national and political boundaries.
Born on Jan. 23, 1898 in Riga, Latvia, Eisenstein was raised in a strong middle-class home by his father, Mikhail, an architect and civil engineer, and his mother, Julia, who was from a Russian Orthodox family headed by a prominent merchant. His early years were filled with uncertainty as his mother moved him around because of the Russian Revolution in 1905, finally settling in St. Petersburg without his father. Though his father would join them later, Eisenstein's parents ultimately divorced and his mother abandoned the family to settle in France. In 1914, he followed in his father's footsteps and attended the Institute of Civil Engineering in Petrodrad - previously St. Petersburg and later Leningrad - before Russia was thrown into revolt in 1917, leading to the ousting of Tsar Nicholas II and instituting Communist control. Around this time, Eisenstein sold his first political cartoons - which he signed Sir Gay - to several magazines. He also served in the volunteer militia and in the engineering corps of the Russian army. Although there was little record that Eisenstein was immediately affected by the events of that year, he did volunteer with the Red Army in the spring of 1918 - a move that divided him from his father.
As his father sided with the White movement during Russia's Civil War, thus pitting himself against his son, Eisenstein managed to combine his service as a technician with study of theater, philosophy, psychology and linguistics. He staged and performed in several productions, for which he also designed sets and costumes, which led to him leaving the army in 1920 for the General Staff Academy in Moscow, where he joined the First Workers' Theater of Proletcult as a scenic and costume designer. Also around this time, Eisenstein took an interest in the Japanese language and Kabuki theater, which eventually led to his traveling to the country later in the decade. Meanwhile, after he gained fame from his innovative work on a production of "The Mexican," adapted from a Jack London story, Eisenstein enrolled in his idol Meyerhold's experimental theater workshop and collaborated with several avant-garde theater groups. While there, he developed his skills for propaganda by using so-called low art forms - circuses, sports, music halls - to educate a largely illiterate populace about the alleged virtues of Communism.
After working on several theater productions, Eisenstein turned his attention to film theory in 1923 with The Montage of Attractions, while his production of "The Stage" that same year led to making the short film parody, "Glumov's Diary" (1923). He went on to direct his first feature-length film, "Strike" (1924), an obvious piece of Communist propaganda that depicted a 1903 strike of factory workers and deftly used the symbolism of cattle being led to slaughter by crosscutting with the workers being violently oppressed. Being fully committed to Communist ideology, Eisenstein believed it was his duty as an artist to contribute to the forging of the new life for his country and eagerly embraced film as the most efficient tool of propaganda. With "Strike," Eisenstein was able to put on display for the first time a bold new cinematic technique - the montage, a series of conflicting shots that served as words and sentences endowed with the maximum power of persuasion. Although his command of the new technique was shaky - some sequences did not convey his intended message - "Strike" nonetheless was a ground-breaking accomplishment that harbingered greater things to come.
With only his second effort, "Battleship Potemkin" (1925), Eisenstein directed a landmark achievement that balanced experimental and traditional narrative forms while becoming one of the most influential and inspected films ever made. Commissioned by the Soviet government, Eisenstein focused his attention on a mutiny staged by the crew of the battleship Potemkin after suffering cruelties from their superior officers that included being forced to eat maggot-infested meat. The revolt sparks a wider revolution on land, leading to an ultimately failed citizens' uprising against the Tsarist regime. At the centerpiece of the films is the famous "Odessa Steps" sequence, where the Tsar's Cossack army opens fire on a crowd, massacring men, women and children alike. The sequence, which brilliantly portrayed the crowd's suffering through the indelible image of a young mother being killed and her baby rolling down the steps in a carriage, was Eisenstein's crowning achievement and was later imitated routinely throughout the ensuing decades, most notably by Brian De Palma in "The Untouchables" (1987). More immediately for the director, "Battleship Potemkin" sparked outrage among Russian citizens who thought they were watching actual newsreel footage - in reality, such an incident never occurred - and underscored his ability to use dramatic images to foment political solidarity.
Infusing his films with more formalist literary theory, Eisenstein's work became more complex and raised the ire of ideologues who called for art to be accessible to the masses while flexible enough to illustrate the latest party line. But the director was too deeply involved with his personal research to follow everyday politics, which led him to direct the ideologically pure, but structurally messy "October" (1928), which depicted the events of October 1917 and the overthrowing of the Tsarist system by the Bolsheviks. Melding documentary realism with narrative metaphors, Eisenstein made a film that was criticized by party leadership for being excessive and unnecessarily convoluted. Making matters worse, Joseph Stalin ordered Eisenstein to remove all references to his chief political adversary, Leon Trotsky. After "October," Eisenstein was able to resume work that had been interrupted on "The General Line" (1929), a film meant to demonstrate the advantages of collective labor in the village. But during the production of "October," the party policy toward peasantry had drastically changed from persuasion to coercion, and the film's surrealistic imagery and sophisticated montage were considered inappropriate toward those ends, leading to drastic cuts once again ordered by Stalin.
At the time "The General Line" was released and facing scathing reviews, Eisenstein was out of the country in Europe where he was well-received. While there, he solidified his opinion that he could be both avant-garde artist and creator of popular and ideologically correct films. In every country he visited, Eisenstein was hailed by radical students and intellectuals, and he made the acquaintance of some of the heavyweight artists and intellectuals of his day, including James Joyce, Jean Cocteau, Abel Gance, Filippo Marinetti, Albert Einstein, and Gertrude Stein, all of whom were excited about his work. In May 1930, he made his way to the United States and lectured at several Ivy League schools before arriving in Hollywood, where he hoped to make a film for Paramount. Although he was welcomed by leading Hollywood figures, including Douglas Fairbanks, Josef von Sternberg, Walt Disney and especially Charlie Chaplin - who became his close friend - his proposal for an adaptation of "An American Tragedy" was rejected as too complicated, as were several other highly original projects.
Just before he left America, Eisenstein was encouraged to make a film about Mexico and in December 1930, with funding from writer Upton Sinclair, he began "Que Viva Mexico." The film, which promised to become his most daring work, was shut down when both Sinclair - who cited financial concerns- and Stalin - who feared Eisenstein might defect - ended their support. Although he was told the footage would be sent to Moscow for editing, Eisenstein would never lay hands on it again. Upset by the loss and shocked by the radical change in political climate, Eisenstein suffered a nervous breakdown that required a stay at a mental institution in Kislovodsk in 1933. Meanwhile, he taught writing at a film school in Moscow and married filmmaker Vera Atasheva, while trying and failing to make his first talkie, "Bezhin Meadow," a true story of a young Communist vigilante that attempted to focus on the themes of duty to country over duty to family. Eisenstein went on to make "Alexander Nevsky" (1938), a film about a 13th-century Russian prince's successful battle against invading German hordes. This monumental costume epic starring familiar character actors was a striking departure from Eisenstein's principles of montage and casting non-professionals in leading roles. "Nevsky" was a deliberate step back in the direction of the old theater and opera productions which he had fiercely opposed in the 1920s. Still, the film demonstrated Eisenstein in top form in several sequences, such as the famous battle scene on the ice, and even paid passing homage to the cartoons of Walt Disney via Sergei Prokofiev's memorable score.
Because "Nevsky" was a huge success both in the Soviet Union and abroad, partially due to growing anti-German sentiment, Eisenstein won both the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Prize, and was able to secure a position in the Soviet cinema at a time when many of his friends were being arrested. Shortly thereafter, he embarked on a new project, "The Great Fergana Canal," hoping to create an epic on the scale of his aborted Mexican film. Yet after intense pre-production work the project was cancelled, while the signing of the non-aggression treaty between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany forced "Nevsky" to be quietly shelved as well. In February 1940, in a Radio Moscow broadcast to Germany, Eisenstein suggested that the pact provided a solid basis for cultural cooperation. At that time he was commissioned to stage Wagner's opera, "Die Walkure," at the Bolshoi Theater. The premiere occurred in November 1940 with the German diplomats in Moscow, who left dismayed by Eisenstein's artistry and accused him of being sympathetic to Jews. Yet when the Nazis attacked Russia less than a year later, the tables turned and "Die Walkure" was banned while "Nevsky" was once again seen on screen.
In 1941, Eisenstein was commissioned to do an even larger historic epic, a three-part film glorifying the psychopathic and murderous 16th-century Russian czar, Ivan the Terrible. The first, "Ivan the Terrible, Part I" (1944), was an enormous success and Eisenstein was awarded the Stalin Prize, thanks to his depiction of Ivan as a national hero. But once again, he ran into political censorship with "Ivan the Terrible, Part II" (1946), which portrayed the czar as a bloodthirsty tyrant and the unmistakable predecessor of Stalin. Naturally, "Part II" was banned and the footage of "Part III" destroyed. Meanwhile, Eisenstein was hospitalized with a heart attack, but he soon recovered and petitioned Stalin to be allowed to revise "Part II" as the bureaucracy saw fit. He was summarily dismissed. But that mattered little, since Eisenstein was too weak to resume shooting anyway. He died on Feb. 11, 1948 from a second heart attack, surrounded by unfinished theoretical works and plans for new films. He was 50 years old. A decade later, "Ivan the Terrible Part II" was shown for the first time on the 60th anniversary of his birth. In 1988, at the international symposium at Oxford marking Eisenstein's 90th anniversary, Naum Kleiman, the director of the Eisenstein Museum in Moscow, showed a scene from "Part III" that managed to survive. In it, Ivan interrogates a foreign mercenary in a manner resembling one of Stalin's secret police.
With the abundance of literature on Stalin's crimes later available even in the waning years of the Soviet Union, the significance of "Ivan the Terrible Part II" as a document of its tragic time has diminished, but as a work of art it was still significant. In his last completed film, Eisenstein achieved what he had dreamt of since 1928 when he saw a Kabuki troupe performance: the total synthesis of gesture, sound, costume, sets and color into one powerful, polyphonic experience. Both "Nevsky" and "Walkure" were steps in that direction, but only the celebrated danse macabre of Ivan's henchmen came close to the synthesis of the arts which haunted artists for ages. Eisenstein's death prevented him from summing up his theoretical views in the areas of the psychology of creativity, the anthropology of art and semiotics. Although not many filmmakers followed Eisenstein the director, his essays on the nature of film art were translated into several languages and studied by scholars of many nations. Soviet scholars published a six-volume set of his selected works in the 1960s, while in 1988, a new English-language edition of his writings was published.
By Shawn Dwyer