Even in a less exaggerated description, any verbal account of a person is bound to find itself employing an assortment of waterfalls, lightning rods, landscapes, birds, etc.
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Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (January 23, 1898-February 11, 1948) was a Soviet theatrical scenic designer-turned-filmmaker and film theorist noted in paticular for his silent films Strike, Battleship Potemkin and Oktober, which vastly influenced early documentary and narrative directors owing to his innovative use of montage.
Eisenstein, who was born in Riga, Latvia, was a pioneer in the use of editing. He believed that film editing was more than merely a method used to link scenes together in a movie; he felt that careful editing could actually be used to manipulate the emotions of the audience. He performed long research into this area, and developed what he called Intellectual montage. His published books The Film Form and The Film Sense explain his theories of montage, and they have been highly influential to many directors.
In his initial films, Eisenstein did not use professional actors. His narratives eschewed individual characters and addressed broad social issues, especially class conflict. He used stock characters, and the roles were filled with untrained people from the appropriate class backgrounds.
Eisenstein's vision of Communism brought him into conflict with officials in the ruling regime of Joseph Stalin. Like a great many Bolshevik artists, Eisenstein envisioned the new society as one which would subsidize the artist totally, freeing him from the confines of bosses and budgets, thus leaving him absolutely free to create. The reality was, budgets and producers were as much a part of the Soviet film industry as of the rest of the world: the fledglling, war- and revolution-wracked, and isolated new nation simply hadn't the resources to even nationalize its film industry at first; and later, when it did, limited resources - both monetary and equipment-wise - still necessitated production controls on the artists every bit as extensive as in the Capitalist world. Furthermore, Eisenstein's experimentalistic films, while significantly critically popular abroad, were not terribly interesting to Soviet film audiences, who wanted action films with comprehensible stories. The hero should be a Communist, the villain a Capitalist, but the average Soviet simply wanted a Communist version of The Mark of Zorro or Metropolis. Additionally, as Stalinism infiltrated Soviet film criticism and film theory during the mid- to late 1920s, the product of the Soviet film industry were dictated to be in the form of socialist realism, which viewed film as a highly propagandized script filmed simply and literally by the director: the scenarist was to be considered the auteur (indeed, for decades, the scenarist would hold the first screen credit after the main title, followed by the director).
Eisenstein's popularity and influence in his own land thus waxed and waned with the success of his films and the passage of time. The Battleship Potemkin was a critical hit worldwide and a popular hit in the Soviet Union. But it was mostly his international critical renown which influenced Eisenstein being selected to direct "The General Line" (aka "Old and New"), and then "October" (aka "Ten Days That Shook The World") as part of a grand 10th anniversary celebration of the October Revolution of 1917. The critics of the outside world praised them, but at home, Eisenstein's focus in these films on structural issues such as camera angles, crowd movements and montage, brought him under fire within the Soviet film community - along with likeminded others, such as Pudovkin and Dovzhenko - forcing him to issue public articles of self-criticism and commitments to reform his cinematic visions to conform to socialist realism's increasingly specific doctrines.
In the Fall of 1928, with "October" still under fire in many Soviet quarters, Eisenstein left the Soviet Union for a tour of Europe, accompanied by his perennial film collaborator Grigori Alexandrov and cinematographer Eduard Tisse. Officially, the trip was supposed to allow Eisenstein and company to learn about sound motion pictures and to present the famous Soviet artists, in person, to the Capitalist West. For Eisenstein, however, it was also an opportunity to see landscapes and cultures outside those found within the Soviet Union. He spent the next two years touring and lecturing in Berlin, Zurich, London and Paris where, in late April, 1930, he was approached by Jesse L. Lasky on behalf of Paramount Pictures to make a film in the United States. He accepted a short-term contract for $100,000 and arrived in Hollywood in May, 1930.
Unfortunately, this arrangement failed. Eisenstein's idiosyncratic and artistic approach to cinema was incompatible with the more formulary and commercial approach of American studios. Eisenstein proposed a biography of munitions tycoon Sir Basil Zharov and a film version of Arms And The Man by George Bernard Shaw, and more fully developed plans for a film of Sutter's Gold by Jack London, but on all accounts failed to impress the studio's producers. Paramount briefly suggested a film of The War Of The Worlds by H. G. Wells, and finally settled on a movie version on Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. This enthused Eisenstein, who had read and liked the work, and had met Dreiser at one time in Moscow. Eisenstein completed a scenario by the start of October, 1930, with his two associates and the British author Ivor Montagu; but Paramount disliked it completely and, additionally, found themselves intimidated by the American fascist agitator Major Pease, who had mounted a public campaign against Eisenstein. Seventeen days later, by "mutual agreement", Paramount and Eisenstein declared their contract null and void, and the Eisenstein party were treated to return tickets to Moscow, at Paramount's expense.
Eisenstein was thus faced with returning home an image of failure: he had failed to 'conquer Hollywood' as an artist, the Soviet was solving the sound-film issue without him, and his films, techniques and theories were becoming increasingly attacked as 'ideological failures' and prime examples of formalism at its worst by the Stalinists as the Soviet film industry came increasingly under their sway. A last minute reprieve came from Charlie Chaplin, who arranged for Eisenstein to meet with a sympathetic benefactor in the person of American Socialist author Upton Sinclair. Sinclair's works had been accepted by and were widely read in the USSR, and were known to Eisenstein. Conversely, Sinclair was a major fan of Eisenstein's film work and looked forward to the opportunity to assist the artist. Between the end of October, 1930, and Thanksgiving of that year, Sinclair had secured an extension of Eisenstein's (and Alexandrov's and Tisse's) absences from the USSR, and permission for him to travel to Mexico to make a film to be produced by Sinclair and his wife, Mary Craig Kimbrough Sinclair, and three other investors organized as the Mexican Film Trust.
Since at least 1920, visions of Mexico had occupied a special place in Eisenstein's imagination. The prospect of travelling there, and making a film about the land, overjoyed him. On 24 November, he signed a contract with the Trust "upon the basis of Eisenstein's desire to be free to direct the making of a picture according to his own ideas of what a Mexican picture should be, and in full faith in Eisenstein's artistic integrity". The contract also stipulated that the film would be "non-political", that immediately available funding came from Mrs. Sinclair in an amount of "not less than Twenty-Five Thousand Dollars", that the shooting schedule amounted to "a period of from three to four months", and most importantly that "Eisenstein furthermore agrees that all pictures made or directed by him in Mexico, all negative film and positive prints, and all story and ideas embodied in said Mexican picture, will be the property of Mrs. Sinclair..." A codicil to the contract, dated 1 December, allowed that the "Soviet Government may have the [finished] film free for showing inside the U.S.S.R." Verbally, it was clarified that the expectation was for a finished film of about an hour's duration. By the 4th of December, 1930, Eisenstein was happily en route to Mexico by train, accompanied by Alexandrov and Tisse. Preceding them was Mary Sinclair's younger brother, Hunter Kimbrough, sent along to act as a line producer.
But if Eisenstein's experience in Hollywood had seemed a failure, his journey to Mexico was destined to be an utter fiasco. Mexico was a right-wing dictatorship with no diplomatic ties to the Soviet Union, and had insisted on censorship rights over all footage shot as a condition of admitting the Soviet filmmakers to Mexico: the process devised was to have every reel of negative sent back to Los Angeles for development, a print struck and returned to the Mexican authorities for review and comment, which they were not inclined to do in any hurry. Hunter Kimbrough was a young banker with no prior involvement in the motion picture industry, much less production. Eisenstein only knew about the subject country from what he could read, hear and see within the Soviet Union, and was rapidly, if happily, overwhelmed by the history, cultural diversity and splendor which he found upon his arrival. He had no story or subject in mind for a film about Mexico, however, even when he left Los Angeles; and embarked on a full-scale photographic expedition, filming anything and everything of personal interest without clear idea what he would be doing with it in fulfillment of his contract. He planned, however, to create something without use of a script, to utilize local "types" rather than professional actors for any human role, and to shoot the film silent. A problem with Tisse's camera was discovered when the first negatives to reach Los Angeles were developed, and ongoing delays due to adverse weather and health problems cropped up early in the game.
Eisenstein should have, by contract, returned with the finished film by the end of April, 1931. Instead, by the 15th of that month, he could only offer up a sketchily written, abstraction-based, somewhat poetic impression of what the finished film might be. It was six months later before he produced a brief synopsis of the six-part film which would come, in one form or another, to be the final plan Eisenstein would settle on for his project. The title for the project, Que Viva Mexico! was decided on some time later still.
As the months dragged on, Eisenstein continued to film at apparent random, completing no one of the six parts before moving to another, meticulously staging individual shots and having them photographed from various angles, and travelling to various scenic locales around the country. The Sinclairs, by this time, had managed to raise a total budget of $65,000 in dollars and pledges, with the plan of keeping $15,000 aside for post-production expenses once Eisenstein had returned to Los Angeles, where it was intended he would edit the film. Sinclair put increasing pressure on Eisenstein to define the film's "plot" and finish the filming as more and more of the money was requested from him for the party's expenses. Eisenstein responded by continuing to expose film prolifically, leaving each section in part unfinished, and not being further explicit to his producers exactly what the final product was supposed to be.
Sinclair relaxed a little when, in November, 1931, he got an agreement from Amkino Corp., the Soviet film distributor in the United States, to put $25,000 into the venture, mostly for post-production work. He joyfully notified Eisenstein of this turn of events, and Eisenstein immediately got him to release the remaining $15,000 originally set aside for that purpose, for use in continued shooting. One month later, the Soviet film industry underwent a major reorganization, which impacted Amkino, whose new director repudiated their investment contract absolutely.
In the meantime, Eisenstein had gotten wind that the Soviet film industry was pressing Stalin to have Eisenstein declared a deserter, due to his prolonged absence from the Soviet Union, and that Stalin was not resisting that pressure. At that point, Eisenstein chose to contact Sinclair and lay blame for the failure of the film to be long ago completed and so much money to have to be spent, on the head of Kimbrough. He accused Kimbrough, in a letter to Sinclair, of drunkeness, debauchery, and extravagant personal spending by way of explaining why the film wasn't complete yet despite expending almost all of the original budget. Between this and the Amkino double-cross, first Mary, then Upton Sinclair became ill enough from stress to require hospitalization. Sinclair finally ordered Kimbrough back to Los Angeles to discuss the accusations with the Trust. Eisenstein continued to film and spend. Satisfied by Kimbrough's version of events, the Trust returned Kimbrough to Mexico with instructions to Eisenstein to submit entirely and directly to Kimbrough in all matters regarding the film. Eisenstein was compelled to complete shooting on five of the six segments of his film which, by this time, Sinclair had concluded Eisenstein was conceiving as a series of six features.
Almost nothing had been shot yet on one part, which was to be about the Mexican Revolution and serve as the fifth segment of the six in the completed film. Eisenstein did complete the other five segments, and planned to start on the sixth. Kimbrough supported him in this matter. However, on 5 February, 1932, Sinclair received a telegram from Soyuzkino, to forward to Eisenstein, ordering the latter immediately back to the U.S.S.R, leaving Alexandrov and Tisse to finish the film without him. On the same day, Sinclair learned that Eisenstein was still blaming Kimbrough, and now also himself and his wife, for the film's problems in correspondence to mutual acquaintances, in the hopes of getting them to pressure the Sinclairs to insinuate themselves between him and Stalin, and let him finish the film in his own way. The furious Sinclair therewith shut down production and ordered Kimbrough to bring himself, the remaining negatives, and the three Soviets back to the United States to make what they could of the film on hand: at this point, the tally of footage exposed by Eisenstein amounted to somewhere between 182,000 and 250,000 (sources vary) linear feet of film!
To cap things off, when Eisenstein arrived at the American border, a customs search of his trunk revealed, along with several reels of negatives, sketches of bizarre sexual fantasies. Kimbrough was barely able to prevent their arrest and confiscation of the entire cargo. Simultaneously, it was determined that Eisenstein's re-entry visa had expired, and Sinclair's contacts in Washington were unable to secure him an additional extension. Eisenstein, Alexandrov and Tisse were, after a month's stay at the Mexican border outside Laredo, Texas, allowed a 30-day "pass" to get from Texas to New York, and thence depart for Moscow, while Kimbrough returned to Los Angeles with the remaining film.
Eisenstein planned to edit the film in Moscow, and Sinclair was inclined to allow this. However, Eisenstein took the entire 30 days to tour the American South, and repeated his blaming of Kimbrough to the Soviet film people in New York. Additionally, once Eisenstein had left the USA, the Soviets agreed to allow him to cut the film in Moscow but expected the Mexican Film Trust to pay for the duplicate negatives and shipping of the material, then began insisting on the original negative being sent. Mary Sinclair, on behalf of herself and the other trust members, balked entirely at that juncture. The Trust was virtually broke, and all trust by the investors toward Eisenstein was also broken. Eisenstein was officially "off the project"; someone else, in the USA, would be found to edit the film. Only Upton Sinclair remained somewhat ambivalent about finding a way to let Eisenstein cut the film, and was therewith replaced by his wife as spokesman for the Trust in all future matters regarding the project.
It took another year to find someone to deal with the vast amount of Eisenstein's Mexican footage. Other than two general descriptions of each part of the film, Eisenstein had provided Sinclair with no descriptive material to work from. Indeed, he had never developed the film's structure on paper anywhere beyond this most general of stages. The major studios were not interested in either trying to figure out a continuity for the mass of film or to market a silent picture. Another, American-made "photographic expedition" to Mexico had already been shown in New York. Finally, in mid-1932, the Sinclairs were able to secure the services of Sol Lesser, who had just opened his own distribution office in New York, Principal Distributing Corp., and was marketing documentaries and docudramas (including a large number of titles taken over from the collapsed Talking Picture Epics Inc.). Lesser agreed to supervise post-production work on the miles of negative - at the Sinclairs expense - and distribute any resulting product, and brought in a story editor and film editor to do the creative work. Two short feature films and a short subject - Thunder Over Mexico, Eisenstein in Mexico, and Death Day, respectively - were completed and released in the USA between the Fall of 1933 and early 1934. Sinclair's refusal to let Eisenstein work on the films made at least the first title an object of ire and scorn among American Communists and other Eisenstein-ophiles, and came out with some attendant publicity in the form of public controversy and protest. However, none of the films did very well, perhaps did not even return the original investments to the investors. Sinclair modified his political stance from that of an American Socialist to a more modest Social Democrat. Lesser went on to begin producing his own films, starting with two serials, Tarzan the Fearless starring Buster Crabbe and featuring music composed by Hugo Riesenfeld for Thunder Over Mexico, and The Return of Chandu starring Bela Lugosi, which utilized the same story editor and film editor as Thunder.
Eisenstein never saw any of the Sinclair-Lesser films, nor a later effort by his first biographer, Marie Seton, called Time In The Sun. He would publicly maintain that he had lost all interest in the project. Eisenstein's foray into the west made the now-staunchly Stalinist film industry look upon him with a more suspicious eye, and this suspicion would never be completely erased in the mind of the Stalinist elite. He apparently spent some time in a Soviet mental hospital in Kidslovosk, in July 1933, ostensibly a result of depression born of his final acceptance that he would never be allowed to edit the Mexican footage. He was subsequently assigned a teaching position with the film school, GIK. He explored with the Soviet film industry three or four projects, but was denied permission to begin serious work on any of them. Finally, in 1935, he was allowed to undertake direction of another's project, Bezhin Meadow but it appears the film was afflicted with many of the same problems as Que Viva Mexico: Eisenstein unilaterally decided to film two versions of the scenario, one for adult viewers and one for children; failed to define a clear shooting schedule; shot film prodigeously, resulting in cost overruns and missed deadlines. When he was sidetracked with a case of smallpox, the Soviet producers and critics began examining the product, and found it awash in formalism. Production was stopped, furious debate ensued over whether the film could be salvaged to the government's expectations, it was decided it could not, Eisenstein was publicly excoriated and all but a few stills and footage samples were destroyed.
The thing which appeared to save Eisenstein's career at this point was that Stalin ended up taking the position that the Bezhin Meadow catastrophe, along with several other problems facing the industry at that point, had less to do with Eisenstein's approach to filmmaking as with the executives who were supposed to have been supervising him. Ultimately this came down on the shoulders of Boris Shumyatsky, "executive producer" of Soviet film since 1932, who in early 1938 was denounced, arrested, tried and convicted as a traitor, and shot. (The production executive at Kinostudiya "Mosfilm", where Meadow was being made, was also replaced, but without loss of life.)
Eisenstein was thence able to ingratiate himself with Stalin for 'one more chance', and he chose, from two offerings, the assignment of a biopic of Alexander Nevsky. This time, however, he was also assigned a co-scenarist, Pyotr Pavlenko, to bring in a completed script; professional actors to play the roles; and an assistant director, Dmitry Vasiliev, to expedite shooting. The result was a film critically received by both the Soviets and in the West, an obvious allegory and stern warning against the massing forces of Nazi Germany, well-played and well-made. This was started, completed, and placed in distribution all within the year 1938, and represented not only Eisenstein's first film in nearly a decade, but also his first sound film.
Unfortunately, within months of its release, the mercurial Stalin entered into his infamous pact with Hitler, and Nevsky was promptly pulled from distribution. Thwarted again on the morning of triumph, Eisenstein returned to teaching and had to wait until Hitler's double-cross sent German troops pouring across the Soviet border in a devastating first strike, to see "his" success receive its just, wide distribution and real international success.
With the war approaching Moscow, Eisenstein was one of the many filmmakers based there who was evacuated to Alma-Ata, where he first considered the idea of making a film about Czar Ivan IV, aka Ivan the Terrible, whom Stalin happened to admire and came to see, in his imagination, as the same sort of brilliant, decisive, successful leader as he (Stalin) fancied himself.
His film, Ivan The Terrible, Part I, presenting Ivan IV of Russia as a national hero, won Stalin's approval (and a Stalin Prize), but the sequel, Ivan The Terrible, Part II was not approved of by the government. All footage from the still incomplete Ivan The Terrible: Part III was confiscated, and most of it was destroyed (though several filmed scenes still exist today).
Eisenstein suffered a hemorrhage and died at the age of 50. An unconfirmed legend in film history states that Russian scientists preserved his brain and it supposedly was much larger than a normal human brain, which the scientists took as a sign of genius.
He is buried at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.
- The Battleship Potemkin (1925)
- Strike (1925)
- October (1927)(aka "Ten Days That Shook The World" - 1928 U.S. title)
- Strike (1925)
- The General Line (1929) (aka "Old And New" - 1930 U.S. title)
- Que Viva Mexico! (unfinished) (1930-1932)
- Thunder Over Mexico (1933)
- Eisenstein In Mexico (1933)
- Death Day (1933)
- Bezhin Meadow(unfinished, 1935-1937)
- Eisenstein In Mexico (1933)
- Alexander Nevsky (1938)
- Time In The Sun (1940)
- Ivan The Terrible, Part I (1945)
- Ivan The Terrible, Part II (1946 / 1958)
- Ivan The Terrible, Part III (1946, unfinished)
- Time In The Sun (1940)
- Que Viva Mexico (1979)