Eisenstein, Sergei (1898–1948)

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Russian film director and theorist.

The son of a prominent architect and civil engineer, Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein began to study engineering in his native Riga but was called up for service in World War I. In the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and civil war, Eisenstein fought with the Reds. In 1920 he settled in Moscow, where he began to study under and work with the outstanding modernist theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold. Eisenstein also worked independently in the theater and had a stint with the Proletkult (short for "proletarian culture") Workers Theater where, as part of the 1923 avant-garde staging of a nineteenth-century Russian play, he created a short film piece called Glumov's Diary (Dnevnik Glumova). He then began to concentrate on film, and in 1925 he made Strike (Stachka), his first full-length work. Depicting a workers' uprising and its violent suppression, Strike reflects Eisenstein's tendency in his first films to make sharp propaganda statements that reflect Bolshevik ideology. The brilliant cinematography, which features scenes that are unforgettable in their vividness and brutality, is by Eduard Tisse, who worked on all of Eisenstein's films.

Eisenstein's next work, The Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1926), is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Made to commemorate the 1905 uprising in Russia, it too deals with a rebellion and the harsh suppression of the masses, though it ends on a far more optimistic note. While the film is loosely based on actual events, the famous Odessa steps scene, in which advancing soldiers gun down civilians during a sequence that lasts significantly longer than real time, was Eisenstein's invention. Notable qualities include striking crosscuts, contrasts in mood between violence and almost idyllic quiet, and the use of shapes and lighting to create symbolic effect. October (Oktyabr, 1927; U.S. title Ten Days That Shook the World, 1928), served to mark the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. In depicting the storming of the Winter Palace, Eisenstein provided a convincing mass spectacle that gave his exaggerated version of the events an aura of authenticity; as with the fictional Odessa steps sequence, his film account became the historical reality for many viewers. By now Eisenstein's theory of montage—essentially the bold use of cutting to emphasize mood or meaning through the juxtaposition of shots—had evolved; rather than just crosscutting between scenes to create visual and emotional contrasts, he wrote about and in his films employed what he termed "intellectual montage," where editing creates metaphors. Thus in October shots of the proud prime minister, Alexander Kerensky, are intercut with those of a mechanical peacock.

Eisenstein had political difficulties with his next film, originally called The General Line (Generalnaya liniya). That title refers to the Bolshevik policy for the countryside, which at first was to have peasants gather voluntarily into collectives. The policy shifted toward a harsher line while the film was being made, and thus it was recut and released as The Old and the New (Staroye i novoye, 1929). That was to be the last of his silent films and his last released project for nine years. He left for Europe and the United States in 1929, but his efforts to find support for projects in Hollywood came to naught. Financed by Upton Sinclair, he shot the footage for Qué viva México! on location. A souring relationship with Sinclair resulted in Eisenstein's never receiving the footage to edit the film, which has been released by others over the years in several versions and under various titles. After returning to Russia in 1932 he had growing difficulties with the authorities, who were now trying to exert greater ideological control over film as well as the other arts. The original script for Bezhin Meadow (Bezhin lug), which treated collectivization, came in for sharp criticism; even the rewrite resulted in a film that was never released. The only remaining copy perished in World War II.

Eisenstein's career revived with Alexander Nevsky (1938), on the thirteenth-century victory by the eponymous hero against Teutonic invaders, a topical subject in the late 1930s. Besides the famous Battle on the Ice sequence, the film featured a fruitful collaboration between Eisenstein and Sergei Prokofiev, who composed the score. Eisenstein's last works were again historical: the two parts of Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Grozny). IfPart1premieredin1945togreat acclaim, Part 2 was too obvious in drawing historical parallels between Stalin and an increasingly megalomaniacal and isolated Ivan, and was not released until 1958. A planned third part was not completed. The Ivan the Terrible films, with their probing psychological depictions and their remarkable visual texture (including the final segment of Part 2, the only scene Eisenstein ever shot in color) are widely regarded as his crowning achievement. Eisenstein's pioneering filmmaking and insightful theoretical writings have assured enduring fame for the person who brought Soviet cinema to world attention.

See alsoCinema.


Bordwell, David. The Cinema of Eisenstein. Cambridge, Mass., 1993.

Goodwin, James. Eisenstein, Cinema, and History. Urbana, Ill., 1993.

LaValley, Al, and Barry P. Scherr. Eisenstein at 100: A Reconsideration. New Brunswick, N.J., 2001.

Nesbet, Anne. Savage Junctures: Sergei Eisenstein and the Shape of Thinking. London and New York, 2003.

Barry P. Scherr

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Eisenstein, Sergei (1898–1948)

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