Sergei Eisenstein  

Eisenstein the tortured?
Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein
Published in ERATO, Spring 1998

ergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, film director and theoretician, was born 23rd January 1898 in Riga, Latvia of a Russian mother and a father of German-Jewish origin. By the age of ten he could speak Russian, English, German and French and had developed a talent for drawing. After his parents separated he spent most of the time with his father in Riga or St. Petersburg.

He began to study civil engineering in Petrograd in 1915, but his passion was the theatre and "used" the February 1917 Revolution to break with the vocation his father intended for him.

Following is a recent (2001) interesting film about Eisenstein, which was shown at the Berlinale.

Sergei Eisenstein

Although the film is controversial for some people, because it "plays" with fact a little, I think it excellent. The film deals with an eternal problem of the conflict between King and conscience, in this case between Stalin and Eisenstein's Personality. To illustrate this the film shows the rise and fall of the Russian revolutionary filmmaker. It is a very good film even if - as the director Renny Bartlett admitted in a post -showing discussion he creates a myth out of Eisenstein.

Eisenstein spent two years in the Red Army during 1918/1920. His father served in the White Army. Sergei soon transferred to a theatrical troupe. After leaving the army, a childhood friend, the actor Maxim Strauch, took him under his wing while the two were looking for work in the new worker's theatres.

Innovations in Russian life, including the arts, were on the order of the day. While at the Proletkult Theatre his original ideas became the talk of Moscow's theatre-world and in autumn 1922 he set about putting them into practice. Eisenstein, who had been a film fan since his student days, attended a film workshop, helped a friend edit several films, and on this basis started his first film. He was fortunate to have as cameraman Edward Tissé who not only captured Eisenstein's imagery but also taught him about film technique. They worked together most of Eisenstein's career.

The reaction to Strike was mixed, the Russian public didn't like it, but Pravda called it "the first revolutionary creation of our cinema". The film was intended as part of a series which didn't materialise, but The Battleship Potemkin did. Criticised in Russia as above the heads of the audiences, the film played to half empty houses. Abroad its imagery, pictorial composition and editing lead it to be voted on several occasions as the best film ever.

In Berlin (1926) the Potemkin was launched in a small cinema in Bahnhof-Friedrichstraße. Following a ban and police actions, the film rapidly became a success. Prometheus (the film's distributors) wrote to Eisenstein: "Please accept our hearty congratulations for yourself and your friend Tissé, on the great success which the film Battleship Potemkin has achieved. Hardly were the reviews of the premier in print than we had a regular storm of theatre owners at our door. ... Each wanted to show Potemkin. "

Eisenstein was given carte blanche to use Leningrad, palaces and population, to make a film to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. The film (October) was ready for November 1927, but Leon Trotsky fell from grace and extensive last-minute cuts were "necessary". His next film The General Line, was ready in April 1929 but public showing was postponed for several months to allow for changes – on Stalin's orders. Again it was criticised for formalism. Eisenstein, like many Soviet artists was having increasing difficulties with the Soviet authorities. But abroad he was recognised as one of the leaders of the new cinema. He also had another problem – his homosexual feelings which he wanted to suppress.

He had planned a trip to the USA since Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford had promised him help when they visited Moscow in 1926. Eisenstein travelled with Edward Tissé and Grigori Alexandrov. While film enthusiasts and makers welcomed him, he was an object of suspicion for state authorities.

In Berlin Eisenstein was given a great welcome. He went to Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Science and later told an American writer: "Had it not been for Leonardo, Marx, Lenin Freud and the movies I would in all probability have been another Oscar Wilde."[1] He travelled on to Zurich, where he attended a film congress, gave several lectures – and was asked to leave the country. After visits to London, Belgium and the Netherlands, he was in Paris in time to witness a controversy around his film The General Line. One screening was stopped for "security" reasons. In summer 1930 his arrival in the USA was greeted by a smear campaign to get him deported. He also had problems with getting the Hollywood Studios to approve his projected films, including Theodore Dreisser's  "An American Tragedy", although Dreisser himself enthused over the script. Finally, Paramount bought him a ticket back to Moscow.

Through the mediation of Charlie Chaplin, however, Upton Sinclair the novelist, headed a group to provide finances for Eisenstein, who left for Mexico. Eisenstein's new project was called Que Viva, Mexico! The preparations dragged on for months and Sinclair became impatient although he was pleased with the rushes sent to Hollywood.

Under pressure from his partners Sinclair cut off money and ordered the shooting stopped. Eisenstein, was stuck in Mexico, without money, and unable to get even a transit visa for the USA. Kenneth Rexroth reports a conversation with Eisenstein in which he admitted being forced to return to the Soviet Union by a threat to expose his sex life and Karlinsky quotes Edmund Wilson: Upton Sinclair denounced Eisenstein "to Stalin when Sinclair found out about the director's sex life." Eisenstein was shattered over the failure of the Mexico project. He arrived home to criticism of his long absence and was attacked for deviating from Socialist Realism.

In January 1934 there were mass arrests of gays – including many actors, musicians and artists. Homosexuality became a crime in the same category as counter-revolutionary activities. No wonder Eisenstein later told his friend and biographer Marie Seton,  "I have never felt any such desire ... though I think I must in some way have a bisexual tendency ..."

As Simon Karlinsky puts it, "most gay men who wanted a career in the arts or the government had to resort to a tactic practiced to this day – marriage to a woman – in order to deflect suspicions. This practice was unknown in Russia prior to the October Revolution."[2]

Eisenstein married a woman with who had been a friend for years.

With projects rejected and offers unacceptable, the difficulties reached a high point when at the All Union Conference of Cinematic Workers,(1935) he was attacked by his colleagues. His answer was to make Bezhin Meadow, based on a Turgenev story, but the shooting was interrupted by his illnesses. Despite attempts to meet criticism, work on the film was stopped, a vicious attack published in Pravda, and a special conference called to condemn the film! He publicly "confessed" his mistakes.

Political developments in Europe gave a boost to patriotism. The result was a film on Prince Alexander Nevsky, who led the Russians against a Teutonic invasion in the 13th century. Almost operatic in style, and blessed with a score by Sergei Prokofiev it was a major success – but withdrawn after the German-Soviet Pact (1939).

He taught and wrote about his theories, a central theme of which was "art is conflict". For Eisenstein, film was a way of developing the social consciousness of the audience. During 1940 he directed Wagner's "Die Walkure" at the Bolshoi, and soon after the opening started work on Ivan the Terrible. Filming started in April 1943 and it was completed at the end of 1944. In February 1946 he had hurriedly completed part II but was rushed to hospital with a heart attack. During his long convalescence Ivan Part II was shown to Stalin. It was denounced at a Central Committee meeting and not shown publicly until 1958.

After a meeting with Stalin he was given permission to produce Ivan Part III, but Eisenstein continued could only teach and write as his health deteriorated. Filming was not resumed. He died on February 11th 1948, just 50 years old.

His Battleship Potemkin ,with the much copied Odessa Steps sequence, is recognised as one of the masterpieces of movie history.

I would like to thank Homodok (Netherlands) for their help with information on Eisenstein.

C. de la Motte-Sherman
March 1998

[1] Out of the Past: Gay & Lesbian History from 1869 to the present day, Neil Miller, Vintage Books London, 1995

[2] Russia Gay Literature and Culture:  The Impact of the October Revolution in Hidden from History. 1989

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© 2001 Colin de la Motte-Sherman