These notes accompany the Eisenstein Double Bill program, which screens on March 3, 4, and 5 in Theater 3.
Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) is a special case in many ways. He was undeniably one of the geniuses of the early cinema. As a theoretician, he wrote voluminously, positing his theory of montage (editing), derived from the work of D. W. Griffith (most notably from Intolerance). Eisenstein’s theory, which directly contradicted the German Expressionist approach most successfully promulgated by F. W. Murnau, was enormously influential on countless directors, although it did not always produce satisfactory results.
Eisenstein was the great chronicler of the Bolshevik Revolution and its antecedents. His Strike, Battleship Potemkin, and October (Ten Days That Shook the World) shook the film world in Europe and elsewhere. There was room in the 1920s for a kind of simpleminded optimism, and nobody captured this spirit more famously than Eisenstein. Even in America, the exploits of the Red Army, of Lenin, and of Trotsky seemed far more appealing than the smarminess of Warren Harding and the smugness of Calvin Coolidge. Many of the people I most admire (Charles Chaplin, Paul Robeson, Upton Sinclair) could be supportive of the Russian experiment—although mostly from a safe distance.
Auteur theory posits that the genuinely great directors can, in addition to other virtues and talents, use their films to express their own personalities, their obsessions, their vision of the world. Sergei Eisenstein was a highly educated cosmopolite, a student of languages (he spoke English among others) and literature, a sophisticated and intrinsically bourgeois Jew. (He reminds me of his near contemporary, the highly acclaimed writer Isaac Babel, whose firsthand chronicles of the glories of the revolution—and the civil war in its aftermath—did not prevent him from running afoul of Stalin’s purges and dying in obscurity in a Siberian prison in 1941). One cannot imagine Eisenstein himself spending his life driving a plow or milking a cow as the good Soviets do in his ode to the collective farm, The General Line (Old and New). He was far more comfortable on the tennis courts of Hollywood with Chaplin and Lubitsch, or with the available boys in Mexico. Regarding the former, he had been invited to California by Paramount to work on an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. (The film was actually made by Josef von Sternberg, but MoMA has Eisenstein’s script among his papers in our Library.) Regarding the latter, Upton Sinclair sent him south of the border to make the epic Que Viva Mexico, but eventually the puritanical Sinclair’s patience—and his wife’s money—ran out, and Eisenstein was forced to succumb to Stalin’s demand that he return to Moscow. (We have preserved something like 120 miles of spectacular footage that was shot, some of which is viewable by the public.)
His first venture back in Russia, Bezhin Meadow, was suppressed. There is nothing wrong with his next film, the beautiful medieval epic, Alexander Nevsky (1938), made as a warning to the Nazis that the Russians had kicked German butts before and were quite willing to do it again. (As we know, the warning went unheeded.) And his multi-part, cryptically anti-Stalinist Ivan the Terrible is a wonderful film, but it seems to totally violate the director’s early insistence on montage as the root of film art.
I guess my point is that, impressive as his films are, Eisenstein never truly had the opportunity for genuine self-expression. As oppressive as the Hollywood studios may have been at times, men like Ford, Hitchcock, and Hawks could game the system. Even George Cukor and Vincente Minnelli could use the resources of M-G-M for their own purposes. Louis B. Mayer didn’t play in the same league as Stalin. Eisenstein must have been under constant stress for being a thinker, for being gay, for being an artist. It is a tragedy that his genius could never be applied to more personal and less party-friendly projects. I think there is little doubt that this contributed significantly to his fatal heart attack shortly after his fiftieth birthday.