January 23,1898, Riga, Latvia
d. February 11, 1948, Moscow, USSR

Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) is known to film history as a “revolutionary Russian director”, a title justified by his contributions to the creation of the foundational myth of the Soviet State through his films Stachka (Strike, 1924), Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) and Oktyabr (October, 1927). In commentaries ranging from early biographical accounts by his students, such as Marie Seton, to later assessments by Kirstin Thompson, David Bordwell, Richard Taylor and Anna Bohn,1 Eisenstein’s oeuvre has been described as “indissolubly linked to the project of the construction of socialism”.2 For a long time, Peter Wollen’s verdict on Eisenstein, that “we cannot separate the ideas which he developed from the matrix in which they were formed, the matrix of the Bolshevik Revolution” seemed to be definitive of Eisenstein’s legacy.3 In recent years, scholars have developed more nuanced views of Eisenstein’s achievements and influence as a filmmaker, film theorist and intellectual.4 As Ann Nesbett argues, we can now begin to acknowledge that “Eisenstein is never clearly one thing over another, never philosopher enough or fool enough to be easily categorised, and his political attitudes, too, resist pigeonholing even as they seem to invite it”.5

As the 120th anniversary of Eisenstein’s birth approaches (in January 2018), there are several compelling reasons to carry this re-thinking of his legacy further – beyond the frame of early 20th-century revolutionary politics. While the project of building socialism in Russia by and large failed, Eisenstein’s own project of creating new cinema has magnificently and persuasively survived. Furthermore, over the last two decades, our understanding of Eisenstein’s legacy has been reshaped by publications and translations of his previously unpublished major theoretical writings (Metod, Musei Kino, 2002; Notes for a General History of Cinema, Amsterdam University Press, 2016; The Primal Phenomenon: Art, Potemkin Press, 2017), while critical understanding of his creative work has been expanded through exhibitions of his drawings and unfinished film projects. New archival research has demonstrated the extent of Eisenstein’s interdisciplinary work and his informal networks of collaboration with artists and scholars around the world. These fresh developments allow us to construct a richer understanding of Eisenstein’s vision and accomplishments, as an artist who belonged to the world as well as to his homeland, and who anticipated much of the problematics of 21st-century cinema and film theory.

Silent films and montage theory

Sergei Eisenstein was born into an upper-middle-class family in Riga in 1898. His father, Mikhail Osipovich Eisenstein, was an architect and his mother, Julia Ivanovna Konetskaya, was the daughter of a successful merchant. Moving between Riga, St Petersburg, Moscow and Paris and educated both at home and at a Realschule, Eisenstein’s formative years equipped him with knowledge of three European languages, an appreciation of world literature and art history, expertise in piano-playing and drawing, and significant exposure to the plastic and visual arts.

Sergei Eisenstein

A young Sergei Eisenstein with his parents

In 1915, Eisenstein enrolled in the Petrograd Institute of Civil Engineering to study architecture and engineering, following in his father’s footsteps. The 1917 revolution disrupted that trajectory, presenting Eisenstein with both unimaginable freedom and unfathomable challenges. While his father supported the old Tsarist regime, Sergei joined the Russian Army and spent three years (1917-1920) working first on military engineering projects and later on propaganda for the young Soviet state. In 1920 he moved to Moscow and joined the first workers’ theatre, Proletkult, initially as a set designer and later becoming an artistic director. In 1921 he enrolled in directing courses led by Vsevolod Meyerhold, who would become his mentor and surrogate father figure. Thus Eisenstein’s directorial career was launched. He would later reflect in his memoirs that “the revolution gave me the most precious thing in life – it made an artist out of me. If it had not been for the revolution I would never have broken the tradition, handed down from father to son, of becoming an engineer… The revolution introduced me to art, and art, in its own turn, brought me to the revolution…”.6 Yet, as this statement demonstrates, it was not only the political agenda of the October revolution that was at stake for Eisenstein; in grappling with one of the main historical events of the 20th century he was also grappling with a revolutionary transformation of the arts themselves, the freedom to experiment and renew, the idea that art could contribute powerfully to the social transformation of the world and consciousness.

Eisenstein’s first venture into film was a transitional piece, a short film entitled Dnevnik Glumova (Glumov’s Diary, 1923), made for use in a stage production – his version of Ostrovsky’s Enough Simplicity for Every Wise Man in 1923 – which we would now describe as a multimedia work. During the same year Eisenstein started to get a grasp of editing techniques by working with Esfir Shub on re-cutting Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (Dr Mabuse the Gambler, 1922) for Soviet release. The creative possibilities inherent in editing as a medium-specific technique of cinema were to become the cornerstone of Eisenstein’s early theory and practice – his much celebrated method of montage, which remains to this day the best-known aspect of his work.

Eisenstein made his first feature, Strike, in 1925. This film announced his overriding focus on history as the subject matter of cinema and his relentless motivation to experiment with the expressive means of the new medium of film. Set in 1903, Strike was a commemoration of a series of strikes in Rostov-on-Don and it drew on Eisenstein’s earlier theatrical efforts, on the principle of montage as outlined by Lev Kuleshov, and on constructivist aesthetics and other facets of what Camilla Gray later called the Great Russian Experiment in the visual and plastic arts.7 This cinematic tour de force, combining strikingly composed shots, visual metaphors and rapid editing with a dense set of intertextual allusions, is rightly described in critical literature as the best example of Eisenstein’s early method of a “montage of attractions” – by which he meant the combination and dramatic juxtaposition of any emotionally effective elements.8 Opening with a scene of a worker’s suicide (modelled compositionally on a Pietà), passing through almost vaudevillian episodes depicting dwarves and buffoonish spies, and concluding with a now-famous parallel cutting that intersplices the massacre of the striking workers and the slaughter of a bull in an abattoir, the emotional diapason of Strike ranged from the comic and carnivalesque to the tragic and blood-curdling. Thematically, Strike announced Eisenstein’s recurring concern with the pleas of the oppressed and their crushing by brutal dehumanising forces.

Sergei Eisenstein

Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925)

 

Strike was followed by Battleship Potemkin (1925), a dramatised account of the 1905 mutiny on the battleship called Prince Potemkin Tavrichesky. The film was executed in a more controlled and calculated manner than Strike and harnessed the possibilities of montage for greater emotional and intellectual impact. Potemkin’s centrepiece – the massacre on the Odessa steps – has become the most widely referenced sequence in film history and demonstrated the overlapping use of metric, rhythmic and tonal montage central to Eisenstein’s early directorial work and cinema theory. The film also delivers some of the most direct and unsettling images of merciless killing and bodily agony, foregrounding the idea that history is forged through cruelty and violence – one of the central themes of Eisenstein’s oeuvre.

Following Potemkin, Eisenstein began to work on a film about the transformation of a Russian village after the revolution, initially entitled The General Line but released in 1929 under the title Staroye i novoye (The Old and the New). Eisenstein’s interest in the project was inspired by Lenin’s idea that in rural areas of Russia several historical formations coexisted, from the primitive agrarian mode of production, through the capitalist, to the emerging socialist way of life. The film revealed Eisenstein’s interest in another aspect of history: what endures and reveals itself through co-existing layers and traces of previous epochs.

Sergei Eisenstein

The Old and the New (Eisenstein, 1929)

His work on The General Line was interrupted when Eisenstein was commissioned to make October, in 1927, as part of the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Addressing the founding event of the then-brief history of the USSR, Eisenstein took both his concept of historical film and his experiments with montage to a new level. October would explore the possibility of what he called intellectual montage, intended to communicate abstract conceptual meaning through the juxtaposition of visual images.9 To achieve this effect, October interrupts its largely linear narrative development with quasi-diegetic montage sequences intended to provide commentary on the ideological, political or social implications of the events depicted. One of the most frequently analysed examples of intellectual montage in October is the sequence commenting on the patriotic slogan, “For God and Country”. The sequence consists of a progression of images of deities drawn from various religious traditions, culminating in the substitution of a wooden pagan idol for a baroque statue of Christ, intended to ridicule the idea of the existence of God.10 Another part of the sequence is supposed to demonstrate the hollowness of the idea of the nation by reducing it to a meaningless parade of purely ornamental military regalia.

Reaction to the film was divided. While some critics gave their qualified support to the idea of intellectual montage, others argued that Eisenstein’s formal experimentation in October became self-indulgent and the result was largely unintelligible for the Soviet masses. Another point of contention was the issue of historical authenticity, highlighted by Esfir Shub in her verdict: “You must not stage a historical fact because staging distorts the fact”.11 This criticism led to a protracted polemic between Eisenstein, Shub and Dziga Vertov on the relationship between historical facts and representation – a debate that in some ways anticipated later, post-structuralist discussions of the issue of historical truth versus narrative truth.

Controversies also swirled around Eisenstein’s strategy of using what in Russian is known as “typage”, the use of certain physical types to represent social groups or class identities, especially his decision to cast a worker, Nikandrov, in the role of Lenin. Earlier, Strike and Potemkin also used a broad range of typage performed by non-actors emphasising features of group identity and social types. By this means, Eisenstein created a mass protagonist, an apt device to construct an image of “the time when the masses entered into history and history entered into the masses”.12 Later, Eisenstein’s use of typage and a mass protagonist opened his treatment of character to a critique with far-reaching philosophical implications regarding personal identity versus collective identity and the role of the individual in the making of history.

Sergei Eisenstein

Nikandrov as Lenin in October (Eisenstein, 1927)

While producing his four silent films, Eisenstein also elaborated the tenets of his montage theory, tackling specific issues related to montage in numerous focused essays: “The Montage of Film Attractions” (1924), “The Problem of the Materialist Approach to Form” (1925), “The Dramaturgy of Film Form” (1929), and “The Fourth Dimension in Cinema” (1929). His ideas on montage were introduced to Anglophone audiences though two volumes edited and translated by Jay Leyda, The Film Sense (1942) and Film Form (1949). The core of Eisenstein’s montage theory is the idea that montage represents a system of production of meaning through juxtaposition of independent shots. The tension, collision or conflict between such shots “gives rise to an idea”, enacting, or so Eisenstein believed, the thought process by which ideas themselves are arrived at. But there is an inherent tension in the montage model: the meaning produced through montage is not stable. Eisenstein tried to address this problem through his notion of the “dominant”, proposing that the “dominant” of a shot is not “independent, absolute and invariably stable” but “variable and profoundly relative”, and concluding: “a shot will never become a letter, but remains a polysemous hieroglyph”.13 A given shot may lend itself to a variety of “dominant” effects, meanings or interpretations. Thus, while a great deal of emphasis has been placed on how montage editing in Eisenstein’s films serves to realise a particular theme or idea, there is also another possibility – that of montage opening up a multiplicity of interpretations or readings

The prevalent reading of Eisenstein’s silent films and montage in film studies in the West is well illustrated by David Bordwell’s influential view that “Eisenstein’s films of the 1920s are, in both content and form, paradigms of Marxist art”.14 Bordwell further insists that while at the level of themes and issues these films illustrate “the Bolshevik version of history, which places class struggle at the centre of change”, at the micro level they “exemplify a politicized conception of cinematic narrative” by subordinating actions of individual characters (represented through typage) to a larger dynamic of social struggle between opposing classes.15 Bordwell stresses the close fit between the content and form of these films. While their content is shaped by Marxism’s materialist understanding of history, the montage theory that typifies their form is anchored in Eisenstein’s understanding of Engels’s dialectics. By connecting the central idea of montage theory – namely, that juxtaposition of conflicting images gives rise to a new meaning – exclusively to Engels’s emphasis on unity emerging from a struggle of opposites, Bordwell cements the idea that Eisenstein’s theory and practice of the silent era were little more than an expression of Bolshevik Marxism.

With various qualifications and nods to the opaque, fragmentary and contradictory character of Eisenstein’s theoretical writings, a view that Soviet Marxism represents the epistemic and ethical horizon of Eisenstein’s work has become widespread and achieved almost axiomatic status. And yet, there is another philosophical perspective on Eisenstein that has emerged gradually through scattered writings by Raymonde Hebraud-Carasco, Jacques Aumont, Georges Didi-Huberman, and Jacques Rancière.16 This perspective interprets Eisenstein’s theory and practice as an “explosive force, as welling-up, as outpouring”,17 aligning him more closely with certain tendencies within continental philosophy running from Martin Heidegger to Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy, rather than with dialectical materialism.

Such a view has also been gaining ground in Eisenstein’s homeland. Presiding over the publication of Eisenstein’s archival texts and restoration of his lost films, the leading Russian authority on Eisenstein’s heritage, Naum Kleiman argues that Eisenstein’s early films conceived of social change and political cinema in broader terms, far exceeding the confines of class struggle. In his article “What Modelled Eisenstein’s Art?”, Kleiman hypothesises that Eisenstein’s revolutionary trilogy modelled a revolution and a strike in general, and are concerned with broader themes of innocence, dignity, violence and justice.18 Kleiman demonstrates this at several levels: Eisenstein’s understanding of the construction of historical film, its formal and compositional levels, and his use of intertextual references. Kleiman argues that Eisenstein developed and implemented a unique understanding of historical film: not only does what was normally presented as historical background for the actions of human protagonists come to the foreground in his films, but also the general historical laws that reveal themselves in these developments are scrutinised, while at the same time the singularity of their occurrence is addressed through the formal composition of the film.

Sergei Eisenstein

Strike (Eisenstein, 1924)

Sergei Eisenstein

“Formula of the Revolution” by Pavel Filonov (1925)

While Potemkin was more tightly linked to a particular historical event, at least at the level of narrative, Strike was explicitly designed by Eisenstein as a composite image of several historical strikes across Russia. Although the action was based upon the 1903 strikes at Rostov-on-Don, and the closing intertitle refers to a number of strikes that occurred in Russia between 1903 and 1915, the imagery was abstracted from any geographical or historical particularity. In his later reflections on Strike, Eisenstein described his method as “a method of reconstruction under the sign of typical behaviour in a typical situation”, which was also the reason for figuring characters as generalisations: “the factory owner”, “the provocateur”, “the committee”. In his search for an abstract formula underpinning a particular historical development Eisenstein reveals the same impulse as his compatriot Pavel Filonov, a towering figure of the Russian avant-garde, who produced works entitled “Formula of the Universe” (1922), “Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat” (1924) and “Formula of the Revolution” (1925) around the same time.

Similar tendencies towards generalisation can be detected in October. As many scholars note, Eisenstein’s fascination with French revolutionary history led to his use of numerous intertextual allusions linking the events of 1917 in Russia with the French revolutions of 1789 and 1830. Among these references is the little figure of Hugo’s Gavroche on the barricades; the images of “two Napoleons” – the real Napoleon and Kerensky, the head of the failed Provisional Government between the February and October revolutions; and references to Zola’s Germinal. Most importantly, however, the climactic moment of the Revolution, the storming of the Winter Palace, is staged by Eisenstein along the lines of the storming of the Bastille, rather than as reflecting anything that happened in Petrograd.19

Balancing the universal and the particular, Eisenstein focuses on enduring historical tendencies, on generalisation, on the underlying mechanics, which can bring about revolution as such, beyond any historical particularity. At the same time, however, Eisenstein’s efforts can be seen as an attempt to model Event, in the Heidegerrian sense that the term has acquired towards the end of the 20th century and that has shifted its emphasis from representation to rupture. Eisenstein strives to map forces that in their dynamics can create a possibility for a change, to capture the explosion of the New. Thus, Eisenstein’s overriding goal can be understood as an attempt to juxtapose the repetitiveness of description (historicism) with the singularity of occurrence (historicity proper) – a conceptual montage of higher order.

Eisenstein’s unfinished projects

After completing his “revolutionary tetralogy” Eisenstein had to wait almost ten years for a successful film project. This was his period of unrealised plans and aborted enterprises. Admittedly, Eisenstein’s unfinished film projects occupy a peculiar place in film history: they stand like ghosts just on the threshold of materialisation and yet, even from this liminal position, they manage to exert a powerful influence.

One of the most ambitious of these was his idea of filming Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, which preoccupied Eisenstein during 1927-1929. Believing that films of the future “will have to do with philosophy”,20 he envisaged Capital as a new form of cinema – that of the “film treatise”, using a new, “discursive” type of cinematic language. October had represented a departure from narrative/descriptive cinema towards a more “discursive” cinema, paving the way for the more radical type of intellectual montage that Eisenstein planned for Capital – a montage capable of communicating abstract conceptual meaning and philosophical ideas. Importantly, the new “film treatise” would provide not only new representational and expressive strategies but also “their rationalization which takes these strategies into account”. The “film treatise” thus becomes reflexive in a very fundamental sense – it is the film that simultaneously “thinks” its theme (capital) and ‘thinks itself’, that is, reflects on the cinematic process.

While the project of filming Capital was never realised, the idea – as a limit case of modelling cinema’s capacity to express and articulate thought – still hasn’t exhausted its generative potential. The project also acquired an interesting after-life in the magisterial recent essay-film by Alexander Kluge, News from Ideological Antiquity: Marx/Eisenstein/Capital (2008) – an eight-hour meditation on Marx’s and Eisenstein’s heritages. Less directly, the legacy of the idea of the cinematic treatise can also be seen in the current explosion of interest in the form of the essay-film, particularly as a genre of film criticism.

With the idea of filming Capital, Eisenstein’s exploration of the possibilities of intellectual montage reached its peak and probably also faced an impasse. Beginning in early 1930, he expanded the scope of his analysis of film’s expressive means and turned to a broader exploration of how cinema engages the senses and the sensorium – encompassing all the categories of perception, ranging from the cognitive and intellectual to the sensory and carnal. This agenda inspired two projects that were started early in the 1930s: a film, Que viva Mexico! and Eisenstein’s formidable but unfinished theoretical study, Method, on which he would continue working until his death.

In 1929 Eisenstein travelled abroad with his assistant Grigory Alexandrov and cameraman Eduard Tisse to study the new technology of sound film. Following a tour of Europe they arrived in the US, where Eisenstein tried, without success, to secure a contract with one of the major studios. However, in 1930 Upton Sinclair expressed an interest in his work and offered financial support for Eisenstein’s historical film about Mexico. In 1932, Stalin, suspecting the trio of defecting, ordered Eisenstein, Alexandrov and Tisse to return to Russia. On the way back, Eisenstein became separated from his footage for Que viva Mexico! and the film remained unfinished.

Sergei Eisenstein

Eisenstein shooting Que viva Mexico! (Eisenstein, 1931-1932)

Eisenstein explained that he conceived Que viva Mexico! as “a big poem about life and death”, covering three millennia of Mexican history. The scenario involved six episodes – Prologue, Sandunga, Fiesta, Maguey, Soldadera (the only episode that was not completed) and Epilogue. The episodes were to be set in different regions and to focus on different aspects of Mexican history and culture, ranging from the ancient Mayan to the present-day. The key focus of the film was on exploring the fascinating and paradoxical simultaneous co-existence of various historical epochs and cultural formations that Eisenstein witnessed in Mexico.

The film was supposed to stage the temporal polyphony of Mexico in a variety of ways. A prologue features dark Indian faces and figures wearing serapes next to the ruined monuments and stone sculptures. “The time of prologue is eternity. It might be today. Or twenty years ago. Or it might well be a thousand,” wrote Eisenstein.21 The first episode, Sandunga, is set in a village where the way of life has remained unchanged for millennia and “time flows slowly”. There is a focus on naked human bodies, and the emergence of a completely new theme for Eisenstein, an interest in sexual desire. Throughout the Fiesta episode Eisenstein explores the legacy of Cortes’s invasion of Mexico in the 16th century with an elaborate juxtaposition of codes and symbolic imagery from pre- and post-colonial eras. The Feast of the Virgin reworks cults of much more ancient gods, predating colonisation. In the Easter ceremony of the Stations of the Cross Eisenstein shows a line of pilgrims crawling on their knees up the thousand steps of a great monastery that used to be a pyramidal Mayan temple. The imagery can be read in different ways: as an attempt to emphasise that there is a continuity in Mexican culture from pre-Columbian times to the present – surviving in essence but taking on different forms – or as revealing a tension between the present and an ultimately irrepressible traumatic past. The Epilogue features some of the most memorable and unnerving images Eisenstein created in Mexico: death masks, skulls and skeletons interspersed with smiling children’s faces and fairground merriments, all participating in celebrating the day of the dead – the carnivalesque victory of life over death – but at the same time, a macabre reminder of the proximity to annihilation.

Compared to Eisenstein’s films of the earlier Soviet period, Que Viva Mexico! demonstrates a new interest in the bodily and erotic; in myth, ritual and ethnography; in the grotesque and carnivalesque. It also marks a shift towards a different attitude to religion, which Eisenstein here acknowledges and explores as a powerful cultural force. Eisenstein’s new outlook also encompassed his interest in drawing that re-emerged in Mexico and resulted in a massive cycle of confronting works that blend religious, erotic and obscene references.

At the same time, Eisenstein started the major theoretical study Method, his magnum opus, dedicated to formulating a unified method of art, on which he worked until his death in 1948. Unlike his earlier preoccupation with montage, which is often and legitimately aligned with structuralist analysis, Method can be seen as a departure from and a critique of structuralism. The distinct feature of the approach Eisenstein adopted in Method is his consistent and determined historicism, while paying equal attention to the synchronic and the diachronic aspects of works of art. At the core of his theorising in Method, Eisenstein positioned what he called the Grundproblem, the German term he used to define the central problem of art, which he saw as the paradoxical coexistence of two dimensions or axes in any work of art: the logical and sensuous, cognitive and emotional, rational and irrational, conscious and unconscious. He suggested that the “laws” regulating the psychological operation of various evolutionary stages of human life were crystallised in brain structures and mechanisms that remain present in later stages of development. The human mind operates on several evolutionary levels simultaneously. Eisenstein further hypothesised that, in general, a work of art is fundamentally congruent with properties of the world and of human consciousness: “The basic structure of consciousness is exactly the same in its organisation as my formula of two indissolubly united parts as a foundation for the dialectical organisation of the image”.22 Moreover, art is effective because the laws of aesthetic form are determined by the laws of earlier forms of human psychological functioning, which Eisenstein defined variously as archaic, pre-logical or magical.

The exploration of the Grundproblem became, for Eisenstein, an exploration of such archaic forms of thinking and operating. In uncovering the evolutionary sources of such forms, Eisenstein looked back not only to earlier stages of human history, but to the evolution of Homo Sapiens as a species and the very emergence of life as such. In Method he explored such mechanisms under the rubrics of the “ways of regress” and “shifts in time”, which included inner speech, “magical thinking”, synaesthesia (non-differentiated multimodal perception), Mutterleibsversenkung (the urge to return to the womb), androgynies, as well as rhythmic organisation of biological processes.

In contemporary terms, Grundproblem addresses the relationship between cinema, meaning-making and the brain-body system. This line of inquiry in Eisenstein’s research anticipates film theory’s current interest in the embodied aspects of cinematic perception. At the same time there is another research question that Eisenstein pursues in Method: he investigates how expressive means of artistic media other than cinema – literature, dance, painting, music – correspond or contrast with the specific devices and techniques of cinema. As such, this aspect of Method represents a detailed study of cinema’s intermedial relationship with other arts and its transmedial capacities to engage the viewer.

The central ideas of Method were presented by its author at a major Soviet filmmakers conference, the All Union Creative Congress, in 1935. They were judged incompatible with the newly adopted doctrine of Soviet Socialist Realism. As a result, Method had to wait more than fifty years for publication (the study was first published in Russian in 2002). In the same year, 1935, Eisenstein began working on his first sound feature, Bezhin lug (Bezhin Meadow, 1936), which he conceived as a practical exploration of the issues addressed theoretically in Method. However, the Soviet authorities declared Bezhin Meadow a failure and banned the film.

Sergei Eisenstein

Bezhin Meadow (Eisenstein, 1936)

The historical basis of Bezhin Meadow was an episode in which a young boy, Pavlik Morozov, informed on his father for sabotaging a decision of the Soviet authorities, and was murdered by his uncles for betraying his father. The story was quickly turned into a modern Soviet myth in popular culture and propaganda celebrating the victory of the new social order over blood ties. Eisenstein’s decision to make a film on the topic is customarily interpreted by film historians as another propagandist act, a response to social and ideological pressures, in which formal experimentation went wrong and made the release of the film impossible. However, close analysis of surviving stills from the film and Eisenstein’s notes allows for another interpretation: by engaging with this new Soviet myth, Eisenstein may have been attempting to explore and understand what such a readiness on the part of a society to accept human sacrifice means. As Kleiman’s reconstructive work with surviving stills demonstrates, the film was shot through with religious iconography, historical allusions and intertextual references.23 Two central reference points in Bezhin Meadow are the Old Testament myth of Abraham commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac and the New Testament narrative that it typologically prefigures, that of God sacrificing His son to save humanity. Bezhin Meadow’s image of its central protagonist, the young boy Stepok, alludes to the image of Christ, while, as Eisenstein pointed out in his apologetic article, “The Mistakes of Bezhin Meadow” its “portrayal of the father’s ‘execution’ of his son’” was “more reminiscent of Abraham’s ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac”.24

Just as the story of Abraham and Isaac exposes the tension between the ethical and the religious, the story of Pavlik Morozov exposes the tension between the ethical and the ideological. Hence, the central question that Eisenstein raises in Bezhin Meadow can be seen as the question of the ethics of sacrificing human lives – for ritual, religious or ideological purposes.

Late works and legacy

Eisenstein’s last two films take up the figure of the sovereign as their key locus of historical analysis. His interest in a strong personality – in contrast to the early focus on a mass protagonist – emerged gradually over the 1930s. While in the US Eisenstein considered several films exploring the rise and fall of strong protagonists: Sutter’s Gold, about Captain Sutter, a key pioneer of the Californian Gold Rush, who amassed and then lost enormous wealth; and Black Majesty, about Henri Christophe, a former slave and leader in the Haitian Revolution, who turned dictator after its victory. The structure of these – unrealised – works was based on tragedy, ending with the hero’s death. What was of particular interest to Eisenstein in these scenarios is the notion of hubris and the limits of power, an issue that acquired heightened urgency in Russia in the mid-1930s. Stalin’s ideology was shifting from emphasis on the global community of true believers to emphasis on the importance of the state, leading to the emergence of a brutal totalitarian power-structure presided over by a dictator. While Eisenstein’s last two films, Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan Groznyy (Ivan the Terrible, 1943-1945), are customarily read in film history as delivering a pro-authoritarian message and lending support to Stalin’s cult of personality (hence their success and the accolades they earned for the director), the broader underlying conception of these films suggests a more complex take on leadership and that the charge of propaganda is a problematic one.

Sergei Eisenstein

Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein, 1938)

Alexander Nevsky focuses on Prince Alexander (1220-1263) and his struggle for Russian territorial sovereignty – the patriotic theme that had an immediate relevance for Russia just three years prior to Hitler’s invasion. It is worth noting, however, that the Russian Orthodox Church made Alexander Nevsky a saint in 1547, and through his figure Eisenstein was also inevitably tapping into another theme – the preservation of Orthodoxy at the core of a national consciousness.

The film opens with Alexander facing multiple threats – the despotic rule of Tatar Khan in the East and persistent German campaigns from the West. Alexander decides to fight the invasion of Teutonic knights and defeats them in the scene of the famous Ice battle. However, what Eisenstein envisaged happening after this victory is more revealing: encouraged by his success, Alexander is tempted to take on the Tatars but then realises that his forces are not strong enough and shows restrain by pledging his loyalty to Batu Khan, the grandson of Ghengis Khan and the leader of the Horde. On his return from Khan’s camp, Alexander has a vision of the decisive battle that would occur two centuries later and in which Russia would overthrow the Tatar occupation and regain its independence under the leadership of his descendant, Dmitri Donskoy. However, the projected ending of the film was not to be celebratory, but tragic – Alexander was to die of poisoning by lesser Russian princes jealous of his success and threatened by his growing power. Work on the film was closely supervised by another scriptwriter, Pyotr Pavlenko, assigned to the production and controlled by Stalin himself. After reading Eisenstein’s original script Stalin drew a red line through the scene of Alexander’s death and wrote “Such a good prince shouldn’t die!” Following Stalin’s directives, Eisenstein duly turned Nevsky from tragedy into epic, a historical spectacle with a streamlined narrative and a simplified range of themes.25 Nevsky enjoyed a generally positive reception in Russia on its release, even though Eisenstein regarded the film as his least accomplished.

Sergei Eisenstein

Eisenstein shooting Ivan the Terrible (1943-1945)

Following the success of Nevsky, Eisenstein was allowed to embark on another project: in 1941 he started work on Ivan the Terrible. While he was developing the script, Nazi Germany invaded Russia in June of 1941, and Mosfilm had to be evacuated to the central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, where Part I of Ivan was completed in 1943. It was favourably received by the Soviet authorities and Eisenstein and his team were awarded the prestigious Stalin prize. While celebrating the award in February 1946 Eisenstein suffered a heart attack. “Living on borrowed time”, as he put it, after the attack, he tried desperately to finalise several of his theoretical works while completing Part II of Ivan and starting on Part III. The completion of Part II became a disaster for Eisenstein: Stalin was furious at the unavoidably obvious parallels the film implicitly drew between Ivan’s atrocities and Stalin’s own reign of terror, Eisenstein was accused of a misleading historical representation of Ivan, shown not “as a progressive statesman, but as a maniac and like a scoundrel who behaves in a crazy manner”.26 The film was shelved and not shown until 1958, and Part III was never completed. Eisenstein died of a second, massive heart attack in February 1948, shortly after his fiftieth birthday.

In its conception and partial execution, the film follows Ivan IV, a contemporary of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, in his efforts to consolidate power in the hands of the Tsar and create a strong state. Part I depicts Ivan’s struggle with the Boyars, the aristocrats who shared power with the Tsar; his successful assumption of the throne; and his achievements in terms of territorial expansion and strengthening of Russia. Part II brings with it a tragic turn: Ivan is transformed from strong ruler into dictator; places himself above religious, legal and human law; becomes paranoid in his clinging to power; and creates the notorious oprichnina, his secret police and bodyguard. His paranoia leads to killing of his friends and supporters, and he ends up in isolation, loneliness and madness. The tragedy of Ivan is a tragedy of power turning in on itself; of sovereignty draining itself in violence; of taking on the right to kill and disregarding the value of human life. As Eisenstein stated in his analysis of Ivan, “In this picture [the basic theme] is the theme of power”.27

Sergei Eisenstein

Ivan the Terrible (Eisenstein, 1943-1945)

Stylistically, the film is characterised by excess, as has been demonstrated by Kristin Thompson in her neo-formalist analysis of Ivan.28 Elements that are not necessary for the articulation and progression of the story but which, on the contrary, destabilise and complicate narrative at every turn abound in the film. They include the rich ornamental interiors, the biblical frescoes, the religious symbolism, and more formal elements – the shadows, the contrast between light and dark, the juxtaposition of close-ups and long plane, the tense, tight framing and the contrapuntal use of sound. For Eisenstein himself, however, the key issue of style in Ivan was not excess but ekstasis – the heightened and self-amplifying emotional effect of the work of art, as exemplified by the finale of Part II. This is most clearly realised in the famous scene of the macabre dance of the oprichnina, an explosive experiment in colour, rhythm, movement, music and song, connoting in different ways the topoi of blood and fire, and depicting oprichnina as a force that descends into hell.

In his parallel theorising in Nonindifferent Nature (1939) and Method (1932-1948), Eisenstein posits ekstasis as a broad aesthetic principle encompassing any work of art which is supposed to make the subject “leave himself behind”, “transcend himself” or “lose himself”.29 Ekstasis represents the final stage in Eisenstein’s exploration of the problem of art’s effectiveness, which he had previously addressed through the notions of a “montage of attractions” and pathos. The genesis of these three categories is crucial for understanding not only the aesthetics, but, more importantly, the ethics of Eisenstein’s art. The military rhetoric of his early trope of hitting the spectator’s psyche with the “cine-fist” has often been linked with the Pavlovian stimulus-response model by critics who charge Eisenstein’s cinema with instrumentality and the manipulation of viewers’ emotions. However, his transition from a montage of attractions to ekstasis suggests that Eisenstein increasingly conceptualised the encounter between art and viewers as creating a space for the emergence of new forms of subjectivity, rather than for manipulation. While working on Battleship Potemkin he had already started to figure effectiveness as pathos, a term which in his usage not only retains its traditionally positive, indeed heroic, Russian connotations but also becomes loaded with the additional function of transformation and re-orientation of the viewer. Finally, through the work on Que Viva Mexico!, Alexandr Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, he replaces pathos with ekstasis. As the notion of ekstasis in Nonindifferent Nature and Method demonstrates, the process of engagement with the work of art allows not only the transport of a viewer to a new level, but also the transcendence of the limits of actuality: “The leap outside oneself (=ek-stasis, ectasy) is necessarily the passage to something else, to something of a different quality, something contrary to what proceeds.”30 This leap can also be thought of as an expression of ultimate freedom.

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No doubt, Eisenstein was one of the creative and intellectual giants of the twentieth century, a polymath comparable to the renaissance figures such as Leonardo or Michelangelo – a comparison he himself welcomed. His vast heritage is still being mapped, explored, appropriated. Assessing almost a century of Eisenstein scholarship, Salazkina and Mihailovich comment that: “The reception of Eisenstein’s theoretical writings and his appropriation into the discourses of film studies reflect the development of the discipline and its shifting theoretical foundations.”31 Indeed, dialogue with Eisenstein’s heritage defined some key issues in film studies – such as André Bazin’s discussion of realism, Noël Burch’s analysis of formal dialectics in cinematic expression, Gilles Deleuze’s theorisation of movement-image and Vivian Sobchack’s embodied account of cinematic experience.32 This process continues now with new studies positioning Eisenstein as a forerunner of the discourses of media archaeology, intermediality and neuroscientific approaches to cinema.

Reflecting on these “protean” transformations in our understanding of Eisenstein, Ian Christie recently noted:

Does this mean that Eisenstein is essentially being refashioned as (a) a prophetic figure, looking forward to television and stereoscopic cinema superseding conventional film; or (b) an historian or meta-historian, identifying “the place of cinema in the general history of the arts”; or (c) as a theorist/cultural critic, concerned with fundamental issues of expression and representation, of which cinema is only a part? Is there in fact an underlying struggle among scholars over whether he should be considered as a late product of the Russian Symbolist tradition; a refined and sophisticated product of Soviet Communism; or a forward-facing prototype for a thoroughly modern intellectual? Or indeed still predominantly important as a filmmaker?33

These debates are bound to rage well into the 21st century, confirming the continuous relevance of Eisenstein’s oeuvre. As such, Eisenstein’s legacy remains a powerful and generative source for film theory and film practice.

Filmography:

Dnevnik Glumova (Glumov’s Diary, 1923)
Stachka (Strike!, 1924)
Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925)
Oktyabr (October, 1927)
Staroye i novoye (The Old and the New, originally known as The General Line (1929) also known as Old and New
Women’s Misery – Women’s Happiness (1930, Switzerland, co-directed with Grigory Alexandrov, not released)
Romance Sentimentale (1930, France); co-directed with Grigory Alexandrov
Earthquake in Oaxaca (1931, not released)
Que viva Mexico! (1931–32) incomplete; cut by Sol Lesser 1933; Marie Seton and Paul Burnford 1939; Jay Leyda 1957; Grigory Alexandrov 1977)
Bezhin lug (Bezhin Meadow, 1936, unfinished, lost).
Alexander Nevsky (1938)
Ivan Groznyy I (Ivan the Terrible, Part 1, 1943, released 1945)
Ivan Groznyy II (Ivan the Terrible, Part 2, 1945, released 1958)

Endnotes

  1. See Marie Seton, Sergei M Eisenstein (London: Dennis Dobson, 1978); Kristin Thompson, Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible: A Neoformalist Analysis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); David Bordwell, The Cinema of Eisenstein (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Richard Taylor, Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. (London: I.B.Tauris, 2006); Anna Bohn, Film Und Macht: Zur Kunsttheorie Sergej M. Eisensteins, 1930-1948 (Munich: Diskurs Film Verlag Schaudig & Ledig, 2003).
  2. Annette Michelson, “Eisenstein at 100: Recent Reception and Coming Attractions”, October 88 (Spring 1999): 69-85, here p. 85.
  3. Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (Secker & Warburg, 1969), p. 19.
  4. See, for example, Ronald Bergan, Sergei Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict. (Woodstock/New York: The Overlook Press, 1999), Anne Nesbet, Savage Junctures: Sergei Eisenstein and the Shape of Thinking (New York: I.B. Taurus, 2003), Joan Neuberger, Ivan the Terrible (New York: I.B. Taurus, 2003), Robert Robertson, Eisenstein on the Audiovisual (New York: I.B. Taurus, 2009).
  5. Anne Nesbet, Savage Junctures, op. cit., p. 2.
  6. Sergei Eisenstein, Beyond the Stars: The Memoirs of Sergei Eisenstein (London: BFI Publishing, 1995), p. 45.
  7. Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922, revised ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986).
  8. Sergei Eisenstein, “The Montage of Film Attractions” in Richard Taylor (ed.), Sergei Eisenstein Selected Works vol. I: Writings, 1922-1934 (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010), pp. 39-59.
  9. Sergei Eisenstein, “The Principles of the New Russian Cinema”, in Taylor (ed.), Writings vol. I, op. cit., pp. 195-203.
  10. Sergei Eisenstein, “The Dialectical Approach to Film Form”, in Taylor (ed.), Writings, Works vol. I, pp. 151-161.
  11. Esfir Shub, “This work cries out!” in Ian Christie and Richard Taylor (eds.), The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896-1939 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 217.
  12. Robert A. Rosenstone, “October as History”, Rethinking History 5:2 (2001): 255-274.
  13. Sergei Eisenstein, “The fourth dimension in cinema” in Taylor (ed.), Writings vol. I, op. cit., pp. 181-194, p. 182.
  14. David Bordwell, “Sergei Eisenstein” in Paisley Livingston and Carl Platinga (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film (Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2008), pp. 378-386, here p. 379.
  15. Ibid.
  16. See Raymonde Carasco, Hors-cadre Eisenstein (Paris: Macula, 1979); Jacques Aumont, Montage Eisenstein, trans. Lee Hildreth, Constance Penley, and Andrew Ross (London: BFI/Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987); Georges Didi–Huberman, La Resemblance Informe ou le Gai Savoir Visual selon Georges Bataille (Paris: Macula, 1995), pp. 280-333; and Jacques Rancière, Film Fables, trans. Emiliano Battista (Oxford & New York: Berg Publishers, 2006).
  17. Annette Michelson, “Eisenstein at 100: Recent Reception and Coming Attractions”, op. cit., p. 72.
  18. Naum Kleiman, Formula Finala (Moskva: Eisenstein-Centre, 2004).
  19. For a detailed discussion of deviation from historical record in October see Robert. A. Rosenstone “October as History”, op. cit.
  20. Sergei Eisenstein, letter to Leon Moussinac in Jay Leyda and Zina Voynov (eds.), Eisenstein at Work (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 35.
  21. Sergei Eisenstein, ‘First outline of Que Viva Mexico!’ in Jay Leyda (ed.), The Film Sense (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1947), pp. 251-258, here pp. 251-252.
  22. Russian Government Archive of Literature and Art, item 1923-2-256.
  23. Kleiman, Formula Finala, op. cit., pp. 123-53.
  24. Sergei Eisenstein, “The Mistakes of Bezhin Meadow”, in Richard Taylor (ed.), Sergei Eisenstein Selected Works vol. III: Writings: 1934-1947 (London: I.B.Tauris, 2010), pp. 100-106, here p. 101.
  25. Sergei Eisenstein, Memoirs vol. II (Moscow: Museum of Cinema, 1997), p. 289.
  26. Culture and Life, special publication by the Department of Agitation and Propaganda of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, July 1946.
  27. Sergei Eisenstein, Nonindifferent Nature, trans. H. Marshall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 324.
  28. Kristin Thompson, Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible: A Neoformalist Analysis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).
  29. Eisenstein, Nonindifferent Nature, op. cit., pp. 50–71.
  30. Ibid., p. 61
  31. Masha Salazkina and Katarina Mihailovic, “Sergei Eisenstein”, Oxford Bibliographies, http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0134
  32. See André Bazin, What Is Cinema?, 2 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967–1972); Noël Burch, Theory of Film Practice (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973.); Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986); and Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
  33. Ian Christie, “The Graph of Eisenstein’s Reputation”, NECS, June 28-July 1 2017, Paris.

About The Author

Julia Vassilieva is Senior Research Fellow based in Film and Screen Studies, School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University. She is working on the project “Cinema and the brain: Eisenstein-Vygotsky-Luria’s collaboration” supported by an ARC DECRA. She is an author of two monographs and numerous publications that appeared in Camera Obscura, Film-Philosophy, Film Criticism, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, Screening the Past, Critical Arts, Kinovedcheskie Zapiski, Rouge, Lola, Senses of Cinema, History of Psychology and a number of edited collections.