Eisenstein, Sergei

views updated Jun 11 2018


Nationality: Russian. Born: Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein in Riga, Latvia, 23 January 1898. Education: Educated in St. Petersburg and at gymnasium in Riga; Institute of Civil Engineering, St. Petersburg (studied architecture), 1914–17; studied Japanese at General Staff Academy, Moscow, 1920. Family: Married Peta Attasheva. Career: Sent for officer training, 1917; poster artist on front at Minsk, then demobilized, 1920; scenic artist, then co-director of Proletkult Theatre, Moscow, 1920; designer for Vsevolod Meyerhold's "directors' workshop," 1922; directed Stachka, 1925; made professor at State Institute for Cinema, 1926; with Grigori Alexandrov and Edouard Tisse, travelled to Hollywood, 1929; signed for Paramount, but after work on various scripts, contract broken, 1930; refused a work permit by State Department, went to Mexico to work on Que Viva Mexico!; refused reentry permit to United States, after financier Upton Sinclair halts shooting and keeps uncut film; returned to USSR, 1932; began teaching at Moscow Film Institute, 1933; Behzin Meadow project denounced, production halted, 1937; worked on Pushkin film project, named artistic director of Mosfilm Studios, 1940; after finishing Ivan the Terrible, suffered heart attack, 1946; prepared a third part to Ivan, to have been made in color, 1947. Awards: Gold Medal, Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, for Strike!, 1925; Order of Lenin, 1939; Stalin Prize, 1st Class, for Ivan the Terrible, Part I, 1946. Died: In Moscow, 11 February 1948.

Films as Director:


Kinodnevik Glumova (Glumov's Film Diary) (short film inserted in production of Ostrovsky's Enough Simplicity in Every Wise Man, Proletkult Theater, Moscow) (+ sc)


Stachka (The Strike) (+ co-sc, ed); Bronenosets Potemkin (The Battleship Potemkin) (+ sc, ed)


Oktiabr (October; Ten Days That Shook the World) (co-d, co-sc)


Staroe i novoe (Old and New) [film produced as Generalnaia linia (The General Line), title changed before release] (co-d, co-sc)


Romance sentimentale (co-d, sc)


Thunder over Mexico (unauthorized, produced by Sol Lesser from Que Viva Mexico! footage, seen by Eisenstein in 1947 and disowned); Death Day and Eisenstein in Mexico (also unauthorized productions by Sol Lesser from Que Viva Mexico! footage)


Aleksandr Nevskii (Alexander Nevsky) (+ co-sc, set des, costume des, ed)


Time in the Sun (produced by Marie Seton from Que Viva Mexico! footage); The Ferghana Canal (short documentary out of footage from abandoned feature subject on same subject) (+ sc)


shorts edited by William Kruse for Bell and Howell from Que Viva Mexico! footage: Mexico Marches; Conquering Cross; Idol of Hope; Land and Freedom; Spaniard and Indian; Mexican Symphony (feature combining previous five titles); Zapotecan Village


Ivan Groznyi (Ivan the Terrible, Part I) (+ sc, set des, costume des, ed)


Ivan Groznyi II: Boyarskii zagovor (Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyars' Plot) (+ sc) (completed 1946); Eisenstein's Mexican Project (+ sc) (unedited sequences of Que Viva Mexico! assembled by Jay Leyda)


Bezhin Lug (Bezhin Meadow) (+ sc) (25-minute montage of stills from original film assembled by Naum Kleiman, with music by Prokofiev)

Other Films:


Doktor Mabuze—Igrok (co-ed) (Russian version of Lang's Dr. Mabuse der Spieler)


Everyday (Hans Richter) (role as London policeman)



The Soviet Screen, Moscow, 1939.

The Film Sense, edited by Jay Leyda, New York, 1942.

Notes of a Film Director, Moscow, 1948.

Film Form, edited by Jay Leyda, New York, 1949.

Charlie Chaplin, Zurich, 1961.

Que Viva Mexico, London, 1951.

Drawings, Moscow, 1961.

Ivan the Terrible: A Screenplay, New York, 1962.

Sergei Eizenshtein, Izbrannye proizvedeniya (6 vols.), edited by P.M. Atasheva and others, Moscow, 1964–71.

Film Essays with a Lecture, edited by Jay Leyda, London, 1968.

Potemkin, New York, 1968.

The Battleship Potemkin, text by Andrew Sinclair, London, 1968.

Notes of a Film Director, New York, 1970.

Collected Works of Sergei Eisenstein, edited by Herbert Marshall, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971.

The Complete Works of Sergei M. Eisenstein, edited by Marcel Martin, Guy Lecouvette, and Abraham Segal, New York, 1971.

Eisenstein: Three Films, edited by Jay Leyda, New York, 1974.

The Complete Films of Eisenstein, New York, 1974.

Immoral Memories: An Autobiography, translated by Herbert Marshall, Boston, 1983.

October and Alexander Nevsky, edited by Jay Leyda, New York, 1984.

Iz tvorcheskogo naslediya S.M. Eizenshteina, edited by L. Kozlov and N. Kleiman, Moscow, 1985.

Nonindifferent Nature, edited by Herbert Marshall, Cambridge, 1987.

Eisenstein: Selected Works, Volume 1: Writings 1922–1934, edited by Richard Taylor, London, 1988.

S.M. Eisenstein: The Psychology of Composition, edited by A.Y. Upchurch, London, 1988.

Eisenstein: Selected Works, Volume 2: Toward a Theory of Montage, edited by Richard Taylor and Michael Glenny, London, 1991.

By EISENSTEIN: articles—

"Mass Movies," in Nation (New York), 9 November 1927.

"Mexican Film and Marxian Theory," in New Republic (New York), 9 December 1931.

"The Cinematographic Principle and Japanese Culture," in Experimental Cinema, no. 3, 1932.

"Through Theatre to Cinema," in Theatre Arts (New York), September 1936.

"The Mistakes of Bezhin Lug," in International Literature (Moscow), no. 1, 1937.

"My Subject Is Patriotism," in International Literature (Moscow), no. 2, 1939.

"Charlie the Kid," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1946.

"Charlie the Grownup," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1946.

"The Birth of a Film," in Hudson Review (Nutley, New Jersey), no. 2, 1951.

"Sketches for Life," in Films and Filming (London), April 1958.

"One Path to Colour: An Autobiographical Fragment," in Sight andSound (London), Spring 1961.

Interview, in Interviews with Film Directors, edited by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1967.

"La Quatrième Dimension du cinéma," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September/October 1976.

"Sergei Eisenstein, Wilhelm Reich Correspondence," edited by F. Albera, in Screen (London), vol. 22, no. 4, 1981.

"A Postcard and a Letter from S.M. Eisenstein to Renaud De Jouvenel," in Film Culture (New York), nos. 70–71, 1983.


Rotha, Paul, Ivor Montagu, and John Grierson, Eisenstein 1898–1948, London, 1948.

Arnheim, Rudolph, Film as Art, Berkeley, California, 1957.

Leyda, Jay, Kino, London, 1960.

Mitry, Jean, S.M. Eisenstein, Paris, 1961; revised edition, 1978.

Montagu, Ivor, With Eisenstein in Hollywood, New York, 1969.

Nizhny, Vladimir, Lessons with Eisenstein, New York, 1969.

Geduld, Harry, and Ronald Gottesman, Sergei Eisenstein and UptonSinclair: The Making and Unmaking of "Que Viva Mexico!," Bloomington, Indiana, 1970.

Moussinac, Léon, Sergei Eisenstein, New York, 1970.

Brakhage, Stan, The Brakhage Lectures, Chicago, 1972.

Mayer, D., Eisenstein's Potemkin: A Shot-by-Shot Presentation, New York, 1972.

Barna, Yon, Eisenstein, Bloomington, Indiana, 1973.

Shlovskii, V., Eizenshtein, Moscow, 1973.

Fernandez, Dominique, Eisenstein, Paris, 1975.

Swallow, N., Eisenstein: A Documentary Portrait, London, 1976; New York, 1977.

Ropars-Wuilleumier, Marie-Claire, and others, Octobre, Ecriture etidéologie, Paris, 1976.

Barthes, Roland, Image/Music/Text, New York, 1977.

Marshall, Herbert, editor, Sergei Eisenstein's "The BattleshipPotemkin," New York, 1978.

Seton, Marie, Sergei M. Eisenstein, London, 1978.

Aumont, Jacques, Montage Eisenstein, Paris, 1979.

Ropars-Wuilleumier, Marie-Claire, and others, La Révolution figurée, Paris, 1979.

Thompson, Kristin, Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, a NeoformalistAnalysis, Princeton, 1981.

Leyda, Jay, and Zina Vignow, Eisenstein at Work, New York, 1982.

Marshall, Herbert, Masters of the Soviet Cinema: Crippled CreativeBiographies, London, 1983.

Polan, Dana B., The Political Language of Film and the Avant-Garde, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1985.

Yurenev, R., Sergei Eizenshtein, Zamysli, Fil'my, Metod, Vol. 1:1898–1929, Moscow, 1985; Vol. 2: 1930–1945, Moscow, 1988.

Aumont, Jacques, Montage Eisenstein, London, 1987.

Christie, Ian, and David Elliot, editors, Eisenstein at 90, London, 1988.

Christie, Ian, and Richard Taylor, editors, Eisenstein Rediscovered, London, 1991.

Karetnikova, Inga, in collaboration with Leon Steinmetz, Mexicoaccording to Eisenstein, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1991.

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

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

Lövgren, Håkan, Eisenstein's Labyrinth: Aspects of a CinematicSynthesis of the Arts, Stockholm, 1996.

Law, Alma, and Mel Gordon, Meyerhold, Eisenstein, andBiomechanics: Actor Training in Revolutionary Russia, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1996.

On EISENSTEIN: articles—

Wilson, Edmund, "Eisenstein in Hollywood," in New Republic (New York), 4 November 1931.

Montagu, Ivor, "Sergei Eisenstein," in Penguin Film Review (London), September 1948.

Seton, Marie, "Eisenstein's Images and Mexican Art," in Sight andSound (London), September 1953.

Harrah, D., "Aesthetics of the Film: The Pudovkin-Arnheim-Eisenstein Theory," in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, December 1954.

Knight, Arthur, "Eisenstein and the Mass Epic," in The Liveliest Art, New York, 1957.

Sadoul, Georges, "Entretiens sur Eisenstein," in Cinéma (Paris), 1960.

Leyda, Jay, "Care of the Past," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1961/62.

Leyda, Jay, "Missing Reel," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1965.

Yourenev, Rostislav, "Eisenstein," in Anthologie du Cinéma, Paris, 1966.

Siegler, R., "Masquage, an Extrapolation of Eisenstein's Theory of Montage-as-Conflict to the Multi-Image Film," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley, California), Spring 1968.

Wollen, Peter, "Eisenstein: Cinema and the Avant-Garde," in ArtInternational (Lugano), November 1968.

Henderson, Brian, "Two Types of Film Theory," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1971.

Pleynet, M., "The 'Left' Front of Art: Eisenstein and the Old 'Young' Hegelians," in Screen (London), Spring 1972.

Kuleshov, Lev, "Kuleshov, Eisenstein, and the Others," in FilmJournal (New York), Fall/Winter 1972.

Levaco, R., "The Eisenstein-Prokoviev Correspondence," in Cinema Journal (Evanston, Illinois), Fall 1973.

Seydor, P., "Eisenstein's Aesthetics: A Dissenting View," in Sightand Sound (London), Winter 1973/74.

"Eisenstein Issue" of Cine Cubano (Havana), no. 89–90, 1974.

Barthes, Roland, "Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein," in Screen (London), Summer 1974.

Bordwell, David, "Eisenstein's Epistemological Shift," in Screen (London), Winter 1974/75 (see also Bordwell letter in Screen, Spring 1975).

Perlmutter, R., "Le Gai Savoir: Godard and Eisenstein: Notions of Intellectual Cinema," in Jump Cut (Berkeley, California), May/July 1975.

"Eisenstein Issue" of Cinema Journal (Evanston, Illinois), Fall 1977.

Gallez, D.W., "The Prokoviev-Eisenstein Collaboration," in Cinema Journal (Evanston, Illinois), Spring 1978.

Goodwin, J., "Eisenstein: Ideology and Intellectual Cinema," and H. Marshall, "A Note on Eisenstein's Shot Montage . . . ," in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (Pleasantville, New York), Spring 1978.

Burch, Noel, "Film's Institutional Mode of Representation and the Soviet Response," in October (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Winter 1979.

Gutiérrez Alea, T., "Alienation and De-Alienation in Eisenstein and Brecht," in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), July/August 1981.

Goodwin, J., "Plusiers Eisenstein: Recent Criticism," in QuarterlyReview of Film Studies (New York), Fall 1981.

Selden, D.L., "Vision and Violence: The Rhetoric of Potemkin," in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (New York), Fall 1982.

"Alexander Nevsky Section" of Film Culture (New York), no. 70–71, 1983.

Perry, T., "Sergei Eisenstein: A Career in Pictures," in AmericanFilm (Washington, D.C.), January/February 1983.

Bordwell, David, "Narrative and Scenography in the Later Eisenstein," in Millenium Film Journal (New York), Fall 1983-Winter 1984.

Hogenkamp, Bert, "De russen komen! Poedowkin, Eisenstein en Wertow in Nederland," in Skrien (Amsterdam), November/December 1985.

Taylor, Richard, "Eisenstein: 1898–1948-1988," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and TV (Abingdon, Oxon), Summer 1988.

Christie, Ian, "Eisenstein at 90," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1988.

"Eisenstein Lives," in National Film Theatre Booklet (London), September, October, and December 1988.


Aslem, Henk, Eisenstein in Nederland (Eisenstein in Holland), Holland, 1930.

Attasheva, Pera (directed and scripted by), In Memory ofEisenstein, USSR.

Seton, Marie, and John Minchinton, Eisenstein Survey, Great Britain, 1952.

Katanyan, V., S.M. Eisenstein (Sergei Eisenstein Film Biography), USSR, 1958.

Eisenstein Directs Ivan (derived from previous film), Great Britain, 1969.

Hudsmith, Philip, Eisenstein in Mexico, Canada, 1977.

Eisenstein, S., "Le 'Metamorfosi' di Walt Disney," in Filmcritica (Italy), vol. 36, no. 359–360, November-December 1985.

Bulgakawa, O., "Eisenstein und die Deutschen Psychologen," in Beiträge zur Film- und Fernsehwissenschaft (Potsdam), vol. 29, no. 32, 1988.

Klegman, J., and others, "Kino totalitarnoj epohi," in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), vol. 2, February 1990.

Ropars, M.-C., "Relire Eisenstein: Le montage en expansion et la penseé dehors," in Filmcritica (Italy),vol. 41, n. 410, December 1990.

Almendros, N., "Fortune and Men's Eyes," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 27, no. 4, July-August 1991.

Taylor, G.T., "'The Cognitive Instrument in the Service of Revolutionary Change': Sergei Eisenstein, Annette Michelson, and the Avant-Garde's Scholarly Aspiration," in Cinema Journal (Austin, Texas), vol. 31, no. 4, Summer 1992.

Kepley, V., Jr., "Eisenstein as Pedagogue," in Quarterly Review ofFilm and Video (Reading), vol. 14, no. 4, August 1993.

* * *

Sergei Eisenstein is generally considered to be one of the most important figures—perhaps the most important figure—in the history of cinema. But he was not only the leading director and theorist of Soviet cinema in his own lifetime, he was also a theatre and opera director, scriptwriter, graphic artist, teacher, and critic. His contemporaries called him quite simply "the Master."

Eisenstein's reputation as a filmmaker rests on only seven completed feature films, but among them The Battleship Potemkin has consistently been regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. The pivotal scene in the film—the massacre on the Odessa Steps—has become the most famous sequence in film history and a paradigm of the montage techniques that were central to Eisenstein's theories of filmmaking.

Like many early Soviet filmmakers, Eisenstein came to cinema by a circuitous route. Born in Riga, then a largely German-speaking provincial city of the Russian Empire, he saw his first film on a visit to Paris with his parents when he was only eight: Les 400 farces du diable by Méliès. He was educated at a technical grammar school so that he would follow his father's career as an engineer. Despite, or perhaps because of, his artistic bent, he was consistently given low marks at school for his drawing. Conversely, he consistently did his best in the subject of religious knowledge. In 1909 his parents separated and his mother went to live in St. Petersburg. On various visits to her, Eisenstein was entranced by his first taste of the circus and intrigued by his clandestine reading of her copies of Venus in Furs by Sacher-Masoch and Mirabeau's The Torture Garden. Reflections of this can be detected in his later work.

In 1915 Eisenstein entered the Institute for Civil Engineering in Petrograd, where he saw his first Meyerhold productions in the theatre. After the Revolution he abandoned his courses and joined the Red Army. He was assigned to a theatrical troupe, where he worked as a director, designer, and actor. In 1920 he was demobilised to Moscow and rapidly became head of design at the First Proletkult Workers Theatre. His first sets were for a production of The Mexican, written by Jack London, Lenin's favourite writer. In 1921 he joined Meyerhold's theatre workshop (he was later to describe Meyerhold as his "spiritual father") and worked on designs for Puss in Boots. Eisenstein's first stage production, a version of Ostrovsky's Enough Simplicity for Every Wise Man in 1923, included his first venture into cinema, Glumov's Diary. This was inspired by the use of a short film in the Kozintsev and Trauberg production of Gogol's The Wedding, which he had seen the year before. His production of Tretyakov's Gas Masks in 1924 staged in the Moscow gasworks was an attempt to bridge the gap between stage "realism" and the reality of everyday life. It failed and, as Eisenstein himself put it, he "fell into cinema."

Eisenstein had already worked with Esfir Shub re-editing Fritz Lang's Dr Mabuse for Soviet audiences in 1923, but he made his first full-length film—The Strike, set in 1905—in 1925. In this film he applied to cinema the theory of the "montage of attractions" that he had first developed in Enough Simplicity for Every Wise Man. Eisenstein was not the first to develop the notion of montage as the essence of cinema specificity: that honour belonged to Lev Kuleshov in 1917. Unlike Kuleshov, however, Eisenstein thought that montage depended on a conflict between different elements from which a new synthesis would arise. This notion developed partly from his study of Japanese ideograms and partly from his own partial understanding of the Marxist dialectic. It followed from the primacy accorded to montage in this theory that the actor's role was diminished while the director's was enhanced. Eisenstein's view of the primacy of the director was to cause him serious problems on both sides of the Atlantic.

In his silent films Eisenstein used amateur actors who were the right physical types for the part, a practice he called "typage": hence an unknown worker, Nikandrov, played the role of Lenin in October, released in 1927. Most of the parts in his second full-length film, The Battleship Potemkin, released in 1926, were played by amateurs. Even the local actors who appeared in the Odessa Steps sequence were chosen not for their professional training, but because they looked right for the parts. It was Potemkin that secured Eisenstein's reputation both at home and abroad, especially in Germany, where it was a spectacular commercial success and attracted far greater audiences than in the USSR itself. Potemkin put Soviet cinema on the world map.

After Potemkin Eisenstein started work on a film about collectivisation, The General Line, but broke off to make October for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. It was with this film that his serious problems with the authorities began. Critics were divided about the film. Some enthused about the birth of a new "intellectual cinema," based on "intellectual montage," which, like Brecht's "alienation effect," stimulated audiences to think rather than to react solely with their emotions. Other critics were troubled by what they saw as an overabundance of abstract symbolism that was, in the (officially inspired) catch-phrase of the times, "unintelligible to the millions."

When Eisenstein returned to The General Line and completed it in 1929, the Party's general line on agriculture had changed and Trotsky had fallen from grace: the film therefore had to be re-edited to reflect these developments, and it was finally released under the title of The Old and the New. The political problems Eisenstein encountered with this project were to recur in all his subsequent film work in the Soviet Union.

In 1929 Eisenstein went abroad with his assistants Alexandrov and Tisse, ostensibly to study the new medium of sound film. In his "Statement on Sound," published in the summer of 1928, he had warned against the dangers of purely illustrative sound, as in the "talkies," and argued for the application of the techniques of the montage of attractions to produce what he called "orchestral counterpoint." It was to be another ten years before he had the chance to put these ideas into effect.

Eisenstein first visited Western Europe and then travelled to Hollywood to work for Paramount. From the outset he was subjected to a hostile press campaign characterising him as a "red dog" and a Bolshevik. After rejecting several of his film projects, Paramount cancelled his contract. He went on to start filming Que Viva Mexico! with funds provided by the socialist millionaire novelist Upton Sinclair. Eisenstein spent most of 1931 working on the film, but Sinclair was not satisfied either with the pace of progress or the escalating cost. Material for three-quarters of the Mexican film had, however, been shot when the project collapsed in acrimonious exchanges. Eisenstein returned to the Soviet Union in May 1932. He had accepted assurances from Sinclair that the raw footage would be shipped to Moscow so that he could edit it, but this assurance was never honoured.

The Soviet Union that Eisenstein returned to was significantly different from the country he had left three years earlier. The political and economic changes associated with the first Five-Year Plan had led to concomitant changes in Soviet cinema, which was now run by an Old Bolshevik, Boris Shumyatsky, who was determined to create a "cinema for the millions." After several abortive projects, including Moscow, a history of the capital, The Black Consul, which would have starred Paul Robeson, and a film version of Karl Marx's Das Kapital, Eisenstein began making his first sound feature, Bezhin Meadow, in 1935. The film focused on the generational conflict engendered by the collectivisation programme, but it too was dogged with problems and was eventually stopped on the orders of Shumyatsky in March 1937. Eisenstein was forced to confess his alleged errors in public. This submission, together with the dismissal of Shumyatsky in January 1938, enabled him to start filming again.

The result was Eisenstein's most popular film, Alexander Nevsky, made in record time and released in 1938, but it was also the film that he regarded as his least successful. Nevertheless, it contains the best, and most famous, illustration of his technique of "orchestral counterpoint" in the sequence of the Battle on the Ice. On the other hand, Nevsky to some extent gave Eisenstein the reputation of "court filmmaker," particularly after he was awarded the Order of Lenin. It was because of this that, after the signature of the Nazi-Soviet Pact—and the subsequent withdrawal of Nevsky from distribution—Eisenstein was asked to direct a new production of Wagner's Die Walküre at the Bolshoi Theatre.

When not filming, Eisenstein taught at the State Institute of Cinema, where he had been head of the directing department since his return to the Soviet Union and where he was made professor in January 1937, shortly before the final crisis with Bezhin Meadow. He also devoted an increasing amount of time and energy to his theoretical writings, but his magnum opus on Direction, like his other works on Mise-en-Scène and the theory of montage, remained unfinished at his death.

Eisenstein's last film, arguably his masterpiece of masterpieces, was also unfinished: filming of the first part of Ivan the Terrible was begun in 1943 in Alma-Ata, where the Moscow studios had been evacuated because of the war, and released in 1945. The film was an instant success and earned Eisenstein and his associates the Stalin Prize. While celebrating this award in February 1946, Eisenstein suffered a heart attack, a development that encouraged his premonitions of an early death at the age of fifty. He threw himself into a flurry of frenzied activity, completing his memoirs and Part 2 of Ivan and starting on Part 3. In Part 2, however, the historical parallels between Ivan and Stalin became too obvious and, although completed, the film was not shown until 1958.

Eisenstein died of a second, massive heart attack in February 1948, just past his fiftieth birthday. He died very much under a cloud in his own country, but has since been universally acknowledged as one of cinema's greatest creative geniuses and a towering figure in the culture of the twentieth century. Some of his most important theoretical texts are only now being properly assembled and published, both in the Soviet Union and abroad.

—Richard Taylor

Eisenstein, Sergei Mikhailovich

views updated May 11 2018


(18981948), film director, film theorist, teacher, arts administrator, and producer.

Sergei Eisenstein, born in Riga, was the most accomplished of Russia's first generation of Soviet filmmakers. Eisenstein both benefited from the communist system of state patronage and suffered

the frustrations and dangers all artists faced in functioning under state control.

The October Revolution and the civil war allowed Eisenstein to embark on a career in theater and film. His first moving picture was Glumov's Diary, a short piece for a theatrical adaptation of an Alexander Ostrovsky comedy. Between 1924 and 1929 he made four feature-length films on revolutionary themes and with revolutionary cinematic techniques: The Strike (1924), The Battleship Potemkin (1926), October (1928), and The General Line (also known as The Old and the New, 1929). In Potemkin Eisenstein developed the rapid editing and dynamic shot composition known as montage. Potemkin made Eisenstein world-famous, but at the same time he became embroiled in polemics with others in the Soviet film community over the purpose of cinema in "the building of socialism." Eisenstein believed that film should educate rather than just entertain, but he also believed that avant-garde methods could be educational in socialist society. This support for avant-garde experimentation would be used against him during the far more dangerous cultural politics of the 1930s. His last two films of the 1920s, The General Line and October, were influenced by the increasing interference of powerful political leaders. All of Eisenstein's Russian films were state commissions, but Eisen-stein never joined the Communist Party, and he continued to experiment even as he began to accommodate himself to political reality.

From 1929 to 1932 Eisenstein traveled abroad and had a stint in Hollywood. None of his three projects for Paramount Pictures, however, was put into production. The wealthy socialist writer Upton Sinclair rescued him from the impasse by offering to fund a film about Mexico, Qué Viva México! Eisenstein thrived in Mexico, but Sinclair became disgruntled when filming ran months over schedule and rumors of sexual escapades reached him. When Stalin threatened to banish Eisenstein permanently if he did not return to the Soviet Union, Sinclair seized the opportunity to pull the plug on Qué Viva México! Eisenstein never recovered the year's worth of footage and he was haunted by the loss for the rest of his life.

The Moscow that Eisenstein found on his return in May 1932 was more constricted and impoverished than the city he had left. His polemics of the 1920s were not forgotten, and Eisenstein was criticized by party hacks and old friends alike for being out of step and a formalist, which is to say he cared more about experiments with cinematic form than with making films "accessible to the masses." Political attacks on the director culminated in 1937, at the height of the Great Terror, as Eisenstein was nearing completion of Bezhin Meadow, his first film since returning from abroad. Boris Shumyatsky, chief of the Soviet film industry, had the production halted; he proceeded to denounce Eisenstein to the Central Committee and then directly to Stalin, inviting a death sentence on the filmmaker. After barely surviving this attack, and after ten years of blocked film projects, Eisenstein wrote the required self-criticism and was given the opportunity to make a historical film. Alexander Nevsky, a medieval military encounter between Russians and Germans, would become his most popular film; however, Eisenstein was ashamed of it, and except for its "battle on the ice," it is generally considered to be his least interesting in technical and intellectual terms. The success of Alexander Nevsky catapulted him to the highest of inner circles; he won both the Order of Lenin and, in 1941, the newly created Stalin Prize. Then, in a restructuring of the film industry, Eisenstein was made Artistic Director of Mosfilm, a prestigious and powerful position.

In 1941, just months before World War II began in Russia, Eisenstein accepted a state commission to make a film about the sixteenth-century tsar, Ivan the Terrible. He worked on Ivan the Terrible for the next six years, eventually completing only two parts of the planned trilogy. Eisenstein's masterpiece, Ivan the Terrible is a complex film containing a number of coordinated and conflicting narratives and networks of imagery that portray Ivan as a great leader, historically destined to found the Russian state but personally doomed by the murderous means he had used. Part I (1945) received a Stalin Prize, Part II (1946, released 1958) did not please Stalin and was banned.

Eisenstein was one of few practicing film directors to develop an important body of theoretical writing about cinema. In the 1920s he wrote about the psychological effect of montage on the viewer; the technique was intended to both startle the viewer into an awareness of the constructed nature of the work and to shape the viewing experience. During the 1930s, when he was barred from filmmaking, Eisenstein wrote and taught. A gifted teacher, he relied on his wide reading and sense of humor to draw students into the creative process. Work on Ivan the Terrible in the 1940s stimulated his most productive period of writing. He produced several volumes of theoretical works in Method and Nonindifferent Nature, as well as a large volume of memoirs. This work developed his earlier concept of montage by broadening its scope to include sound and color as well as imagery within the shot.

By nature Eisenstein was a private and cautious man. He could be charming and charismatic as well as serious and demanding, but these were public masks; he guarded his private life. It seems clear that he had sexual relationships with both men and women but also that these affairs were rare and short-lived; he consulted with psychoanalysts on several occasions about his bisexuality in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1934, just after a law was passed making male homosexuality illegal in the Soviet Union, Eisenstein married his good friend and assistant, Pera Atasheva. It is fair to say that Eisenstein's sexuality was a source of some dissatisfaction for him and that his private life in general brought him considerable pain. He suffered from periodic bouts of serious depression and from the 1930s onward his health was also threatened by heart disease and influenza.

Eisenstein suffered a serious heart attack just hours after finishing Part II of Ivan the Terrible. He never recovered the strength to return to film production, but he wrote extensively until the night of February 11, 1948, when he suffered a fatal heart attack.

See also: censorship; motion pictures


Bordwell, David. (1994). The Cinema of Eisenstein. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bulgakowa, Oksana. (2001). Sergei Eisenstein: A Biography. San Francisco: PotemkinPress.

Neuberger, Joan. (2003). Ivan the Terrible: The Film Companion. London: I. B. Tauris.

Taylor, Richard. (2002). The Battleship Potemkin: The Film Companion. London: I. B. Tauris.

Taylor, Richard. (2002). October. London: British Film Institute.

Joan Neuberger

Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein

views updated May 17 2018

Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein

The Soviet film director and cinema theoretician Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (1898-1948) achieved fame for his emotionally inflammatory political epics of the Russian Revolution.

Born in Riga, the son of a wealthy shipbuilder, Sergei Eisenstein went as a young man to St. Petersburg, where he studied architecture and engineering. During the Russian Revolution he constructed trenches and also acted in plays for the Bolshevik army. Shortly after the civil war, he managed a carnival and a small workers' theater in Moscow. Following service with the engineering corps during World War I, Eisenstein was appointed assistant director and chief dramatist for the Proletcult Theater. His most celebrated avant-garde productions included a dramatization of Jack London's story, Mexicalia, of A. N. Ostrovsky's Much Simplicity in Every Wise Man, and an experimental play, Anti-Jesus.

First Films

Frustrated by the stage's inability to achieve total realism, Eisenstein abandoned theater for the incipient Soviet film industry, directing his first motion picture, Strike, in 1924. With Potemkin (1925) the director was able to exploit effectively his sadistic fantasies, culminating in the apocalyptic violence of the Odessa steps scene.

Ten Days That Shook the World (1927), based on John Reed's classic account of the early days of the Russian Revolution, proved ineffective both as cinema art and as political propaganda. Critics later raised serious doubts about the historical reliability of the film and justifiable questions regarding the character of its creator. The scene in Ten Days That Shook the World in which a student is attacked by vicious aristocratic women and subsequently murdered, his body lying on the waterfront, his neck lacerated, his torso exposed, appeared to have more erotic than political significance for its creator. Eisenstein was not criticized so much for his homosexuality as for the frequently disconcerting emotional excesses and moral obliquities it invariably produced in his work.

Activities Abroad

Eisenstein's final revolutionary epic, The General Line (1929), was a leisurely and often evocative ode to the joys of agricultural collectivism. It found favor with Stalin, and that year Eisenstein was granted permission for an extended tour abroad. After a brief teaching assignment at the Sorbonne in Paris, the director went to Hollywood, intending to undertake an American production. Under contract to Paramount studio he composed a script, Sutter's Gold, subsequently rejected by the studio as morally indecent. Next he began intensive work on a film adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. His decision to present the novel in the form of an interior monologue, in opposition to the commercial ideas of the producers, resulted in his peremptory dismissal from the project.

Eisenstein then attempted to write and direct a film on location in Mexico. He was intoxicated by the warm sensuality and primitive spontaneity of Mexican life. Que Viva Mexico took shape, sections of the complex scenario being composed for each day's shooting. Eisenstein was unwilling to conclude the picture after its allotted budget had been expended. The film was confiscated and turned over to a Hollywood editor who divided the footage into three separate pieces. On the basis of the hypnotic beauty and visionary power evident in several sequences from the mutilated epic (released in the United States as Time in the Sun, Thunder over Mexico, and Day of Death), it can be said that had Eisenstein been permitted to complete the production the result would have possessed considerable poetry and depth.

Later Career

Upon returning to the Soviet Union in 1932, Eisenstein was confronted with a restrictive philistinism even more oppressive than the lack of understanding he had encountered in the United States. His nearly completed film Bezhin Meadow, based on Ivan Turgenev's tale of peasant life, was condemned and suppressed for its religious mysticism and "formalistic excesses." Also disparaged was Eisenstein's theory of montage. Eisenstein responded by publishing an article, "The Mistakes of Bezhin Meadow," in which he repudiated his former esthetic commitments, vowing to "create films of high quality, worthy of the Stalinist epoch." The result, Alexander Nevsky, was a simpleminded and vapid historical pageant depicting the heroic overthrow by the Russian people of their 12th-century Teutonic oppressors. Although the film was praised at first for its patriotism and its anti-German virulence, the treaty signed by the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany in 1939 necessitated its immediate withdrawal from circulation.

In 1940 Eisenstein wrote his finest study of film esthetics, Film Form, which contains a brilliant analysis of parallels between cinematic and novelistic techniques. The same year Eisenstein began composing the scenario for Ivan the Terrible, a massive historical epic with contemporary overtones; although subtler and richer in psychological nuances than his previous work, this biographical parable of Russia's first dictator-despot possesses a claustrophobic opacity that is at times physically intolerable.

While attending a party celebrating the premiere of Ivan the Terrible (Part I) the director collapsed from a heart attack. During his early convalescence Eisenstein was informed that the already filmed Part II of Ivan the Terrible would not be shown in the U.S.S.R. Ravaged by physical deterioration and the emotional torments of a lifetime, Eisenstein spent his remaining months preparing a second theoretical study, Film Sense, and teaching classes in cinema technique at the Soviet Cinema Institute.

Further Reading

The authorized biography is Marie Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein (1952). Other valuable biographical sources are Vladimir Nizhniy, Lessons with Eisenstein (1962); and Ivor Montagu, With Eisenstein (1968). Intelligent critical analyses of his work can be found in Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture (1962); James Agee, Agee on Film (1964); Eric Rhode, Tower of Babel: Speculations on the Cinema (1966); and Dwight Macdonald, Dwight Macdonald on Movies (1969). For perceptive discussions of Eisenstein's film theory see Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art (1957), and André Bazin, What Is Cinema?, essays selected and translated by Hugh Gray (1967).

Additional Sources

Eisenstein, Sergei, Beyond the stars: the memoirs of Sergei Eisenstein, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1995.

Eisenstein, Sergei, Immoral memories: an autobiography, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

Seton, Marie, Sergei M. Eisenstein: a biography, London: Dobson, 1978. □

Eisenstein, Sergei Mikhailovich

views updated Jun 08 2018


EISENSTEIN, SERGEI MIKHAILOVICH (1898–1948), Russian film director, son of a Jewish father who converted to Christianity and a non-Jewish mother. Eisenstein's work, revolutionary both in technique and in subject matter, was a major contribution to the modern art of the cinema. He was originally trained as a civil engineer, and served the Red Army in this capacity during the Russian civil war. In 1920, however, Eisenstein took up stage work, joining first the Proletkult Theater in Moscow and then the avant-garde company of V. Meyerhold. He was a disciple of Meyerhold in stage direction. After deciding that the theater was not close enough to the masses, he turned his attention to the cinema. His first film was The Strike (1924), followed in 1925 by Battleship Potemkin, which had an immediate impact on contemporary film making. It demonstrated a new approach, the dramatic handling of crowd scenes, and the use of nonprofessional actors for greater realism. Eisenstein further developed his methods in October (1926), a film about the Russian Revolution, and The General Line (1929), which extolled Soviet agriculture. He was invited to Hollywood in 1931, but his scenarios proved unacceptable there. With the assistance of the novelist Upton Sinclair he spent 14 months in Mexico making a film on the Mexican revolution but he was recalled to the U.S.S.R. before its completion. Parts were edited in Hollywood as Thunder Over Mexico (1933), evoking much criticism as being untrue to Eisenstein's principles. Another section of the film was issued in 1940 as Time in the Sun. In the 1930s he encountered difficulties with the authorities, who saw film as an important propaganda tool. They criticized his esthetic approach, and he was unable complete some of his works. In Russia, after these difficulties, he won the Order of Lenin for Alexander Nevsky (1938). Of his Ivan the Terrible trilogy, part 1 was shown in 1946, part 2 was suppressed until 1958, and part 3 was not shot. He expounded his theories in lectures and in two books, The Film Sense (1942) and Film Form (1949). Though he never affirmed his Jewish ancestry, he agreed to appear together with other known Jewish cultural activists in antifascist meetings on August 24, 1941, and in 1942. Eisenstadt's memoirs, called Beyond the Stars and written in 1946, appeared as volume 4 of his selected works in 1997 (published by the British Film Institute). A previous version had appeared in 1983 as Immoral Memories.


M. Seton, Sergei Eisenstein (Eng., 1952). add. bibliography: O. Bulgakowa, Sergei Eisenstein, a Biography (2002); A. Nesbit, Sergei Eisenstein and the Shape of Thinking (2003); R. Bergen, Sergei Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict (1999).

Eisenstein, Sergei

views updated Jun 11 2018

Eisenstein, Sergei (1898–1948) Soviet film director and theorist. Although he completed just six films in 25 years, he is one of the most influential artists in the history of cinema. He developed a strong political and aesthetic style, enhanced by the use of creative editing (see montage) for narrative and expressive effect. His films include The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (or Ten Days That Shook the World, 1928).

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