Based on Richard Taylor's Eisenstein: A Soviet Artist in: The Eisenstein Reader (2009)
Sergei Eisenstein the maker of classic films like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October was not only a great director but also a fervent communist. As the communist he dreamt about artistic revolution which was to be an integral part of social revolution. Unfortunately his hopes were in vain. Despite many marvelous achievements he experienced lots of harm and suffered humiliation from Stalin's bureaucracy which had left the idea of any revolution.
According to Richard Taylor (2009), Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein was born on 23 January 1898 in tsarist Riga. His mother was Russian and his father was of German-Jewish descent connected with the tradition of his home town. Mikhail Eisenstein -an architect- had great influence on intellectual development of his son. Young Sergei was fluent at French, German and English. Under the influence of his parents he decided to take up studies at the Institute of Civil Engineering in Petrograd - alma mater of his father. The studies did not cause any difficulties for him as his great artistic talent had already disclosed in his childhood. Then being the third-year student of architecture he decided to interrupt studies and enlist the Red Army. The choice meant that he distanced himself from his father, who took the White's side and finally decided to emigrate. The son, fascinated with the idea of revolution, engaged all of his talents in its defense. Even earlier, during his studies he published propaganda drawings in the Bolshevik press to win the revolution supporters. After joining the ranks of the Red Army he discover his another great passion -theatre- a fascination which was to be a prelude to the later film work.
After leaving the army, Eisenstein came to Moscow, where he took up studies in General Headquarters Academy. Eisenstein explored the secrets of Japanese as well as getting to know the culture of the distant country. In that period he got to know the traditional Japanese theatre kabuki and the interest had an immense influence on his later work. Financial problems caused Eisenstein left studies and associated with Proletcult Theater - Soviet artistic movement remaining under the influence of Constructivism and Futurism. During that time he was creating scenery and costumes gaining publicity while working on play, Mexican by Jack London. During this production Eisenstein was working with great theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold. Later he described him as a 'spiritual father'.
However, the destiny of Eisenstein was the cinema as the most important media among other artistic forms. It gave more opportunities to have his artistic ideas realized. In 1924 he realized his debut picture Strike, in which he applied the conception of montage of attractions. Apparently the film was an artistic success bringing clear ideological message as well. The great load of propaganda was in the scene in which the director juxtapose the pictures of working-class massacre with the take from slaughterhouse. The transmission was electrifying.
The next Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin, filmed in 1925 turned out to be even more successful. In that picture the director was able to balance avant-garde and tradition in narration. The scene of massacre of civilians on the Odessa Steps is now an immortal classic of the cinema. Nethertheless the film as a whole turned out to be a great artistic and ideological success to such an extent that in capitalist countries where the film was widespread scuffles broke out between working class representatives and soviet police.
The third picture by Eisenstein was the film made on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution titled of course October. In the film there were no professional actors. All the characters were player by amateurs and the main part- revolution was casted by not single persons but revolutionary masses of workers and soldiers. October was also an example of new Eisenstein's conception, so called intellectual montage -presenting two contrasting ideas causes the third idea appears, but the idea is not visible in the frame. The work although met with criticism from the party. The fact has to be connected with more and more dominating role of Stalin in the USSR, There was a time when Stalin become more important person in the Soviet Union and the film presented him in accordance with historical truth, in a very negligible extent. Eisenstein, who had during the filming of the movie
lost in a blind corridor of the Winter Palace, was accused of
sins of formalism, which was a visible sign of approaching social realism.(Taylor, 2009, p.10)
Undeterred Eisenstein took up making another production entitled Old and New showing the benefits of collective work in the countryside. During the work on the picture it came to change the political vision of the countryside and it caused disfavor of Stalin. The formal side of the work was also attacked- surrealistic pictures as well as experimental montage. Stalin demanded radical changes, but the director and his co- worker Grigori Aleksandrow made only minor amendments. The movie was criticized as well. There was a time the public in Soviet Union needed
simple, realistic pictures with clear plot.(Taylor, 2009, p.11)
It is perfectly understandable that in such a situation Eisenstein, Grigorij Aleksandrov and their third co-worker Eduard Tisse decided to leave the Stalinist Soviet Union. They visited many countries in Western Europe, being enthusiastically greeted by crowds of students and leftist intellectuals in each place. Then Eisenstein met i.e. Joyce, Marinetti, Einstein, Le Corbusier, Brecht and Gertrude Stein.
It came about that they met the representatives of Hollywood's Paramount Pictures. They offered Eisenstein making a movie in America. They wanted to film the literary works of Shaw, Wells and London. Finally it was decided to carry out the screening of "American tragedy" by Theodore Dreiser, whose Eisenstein had met earlier in Moscow. In America the right-wing campaign against the Soviet author started. Americans didn’t understand innovative concepts of intellectual cinema. Those two issues caused the Paramount Pictures bought three tickets to Moscow. Eisenstein and his colleagues, however, decided not to return to the USSR. At Charlie Chaplin’s instigation they stayed in the USA. Charlie Chaplin introduced Eisenstein to a socialist writer Upton Sinclair and to another artist fascinated by communism- Diego Rivera. They suggested Eisenstein to make a movie about Mexico- Diego Riviera's homeland. Unfortunately the film Que Viva Mexico! was never completed by the director himself, which he considered as his greatest artistic failure.
After three years Eisenstein decided to come back to USSR. The changes in Soviet Union especially the cult of Stalin and destruction of all forms of criticism overwhelmed him and caused he had a nervous breakdown. After his recovery he decided to produce a new film Bezhin Meadow (1937)- the first sound film directed by Eisenstein. The plot of the movie was based on one of the novels of the nineteenth-century novelist Ivan Turgenev. The director added another story to the plot. The story was about Pawka Morozov a boy who informed on his parents and then was murdered. After his death the boy became national hero. The poems, play, symphonies and operas were written about him. Eisenstein also wanted to present the topic. His attitude to the boy's drama did not meet with Stalinist approval. The film was also criticized because of its reference to the Bible.
Before long Eisenstein was back in favour of the party and Stalin who ordered the production of historical film Alexander Nevsky. Novgorodians under Alexander Jaroslavic called Nevsky defeats the Teutonic Knights in the Battle on Ice on Lake Peipus in 1242 .The film was a step back in Eisenstein's innovative concepts. But it went down in history as an important work especially because of polyphonic montage which is a synthesis of image, words and music. Eisenstein has called it a film opera. Within months of its release, the Stalin entered into a pact with Hitler, which provided for non-aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union. The film was therefore pulled from distribution within a few weeks of its highly successful opening within and outside the Soviet Union. Meanwhile Eisenstein was assigned to direct Richard Wagner's Die Walküre at the Bolshoi Theatre, however, his interpretation did not gain popularity among German diplomats in Moscow. Then the situation was reversed dramatically in 1941 after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and the film Alexander Nevsky was rapidly returned to Soviet and western screens.
The Party was content with the work so even more important historical production about the reign of tsar Ivan The Terrible, Part I, presenting Ivan IV of Russia as a national hero. The film won Joseph Stalin's approval and a Stalin Prize, but the sequel, Ivan The Terrible, Part II: The Boyars' Plot was criticized by the authorities and went unreleased until 1958. 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's health was also failing: he was struck by a heart attack during the making of this picture, and soon died of another at the age of 50. He is buried at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. He died surrounded by never realized films, plans and visions.
The life of Eisenstein show the truth about history of the first half of XX century. The great director dreaming about artistic revolution was destroyed by those who caused the collapse of social and political revolution. Nevertheless his life was rough and dramatic Eisenstein has left us his splendid artistic legacy and it fills with optimism.