Sergei Eisenstein was born in 1898 and died, at the age of 50, 63 years ago last week. By the age of 30 he was world-renowned for his theory of montage, as applied to his youthful masterpieces Strike, Battleship Potemkin, and October (Ten Days That Shook the World). These films found heroics in collectives (among workers, sailors, or, in the case of his 1929 Old and New, farmers) and in stick-figure commemoration of the Bolshevik Revolutionaries. In 1930, he was invited to come to Hollywood by Paramount Pictures, and during his time there he pursued several aborted projects, including a film version of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (which was finally made in 1931 by Josef von Sternberg, vacationing from Marlene Dietrich). To delay returning to Russia, Eisenstein persuaded Upton Sinclair and his wife to finance the intended epic Que Viva Mexico!
Eisenstein and his crew lingered in Mexico, with the director reputedly enjoying the charms of the local boys and occasionally shooting some film. Finally the Sinclairs ran out of patience and money, and Eisenstein had to return to Moscow. He and Joe Stalin made an effort to get Sinclair to send him the footage that had been shot so that it could be edited. I found out only recently that the Soviet representative in these negotiations was a young man named Thomas J. Brandon. (Brandon eventually became the entrepreneur behind Brandon Films, the most successful of non-theatrical/16mm film distributors, and his enormous catalog contained many European, Japanese, and Russian classics, although as a “fellow traveler,” he also distributed Soviet bloc items like Apple Blossom Time in Poland. This all has personal resonance because I was one of his last employees. In his capitalist disguise, Brandon took his cue from the Wizard of Oz, sending illegible tirades each day to staff from his estate in Westchester, to which a lucky few were invited for the privilege of raking his leaves. Rarely, he would personally descend upon the office, usually arriving around 5:25 p.m., as if to defy anyone to leave.) Anyway, TJB (as he fashioned himself) failed; only years after Eisenstein and Stalin were long gone did MoMA preserve the Que Viva Mexico! footage (much of which is exquisite) and dutifully send duplicates to Gosfilmofond, our Moscow-based colleagues in the International Federation of Film Archives.
Upon his return to Moscow, Eisenstein found that he was out of favor. His second collectivist farm epic, Bezhin Lug (Bezhin Meadow) was destroyed. Fortunately for film historians, one frame of each shot was saved, and Jay Leyda—onetime Eisenstein assistant, briefly a member of the MoMA staff, and later a distinguished professor of cinema studies at NYU—assembled the surviving stills into the short we are showing in this program. It was only when Boris Shumyatsky, czar of the Soviet film industry, was fired by Stalin that Eisenstein’s career experienced a rebirth.Stalin was increasingly anxious about Hitler’s ascendancy in Germany and his expansionist inclinations, and Alexander Nevsky was made in part to remind the Germans that the Medieval butt-kicking they received from Russia in the 13th century could be repeated 700 years later. Nevsky was the great hero who had saved Russia and (unlike Eisenstein) became a saint; a television poll two years ago declared him the greatest of all Russians. (Scarily, Stalin placed third). The amazing thing is that Nevsky’s victories came when he was 20 or 21 years old. (But then, what else could one expect from the grandson of Vsevolod the Big Nest?) Nikolai Cherkassov, the film’s star, was nearly twice that age. Cherkassov specialized in playing great men (Ivan the Terrible, Gorky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, even Franklin Delano Roosevelt), and he is mythologically perfect for Eisenstein, who had little experience with creating heroic leads. The resulting film is one of the greatest historical epics in cinema.
It has been observed by many that Leo Tolstoy renounced much of his early work in his later life. In some ways this could be said for Eisenstein (although he never reached an advanced age). Alexander Nevsky is more sedate and slower paced than his silent films, saving much of its montage for the climactic Battle on the Ice scene (where the Germans do, indeed, get their butts kicked). That battle sequence is rivaled perhaps only by Orson Welles’s Battle of Shrewsbury in Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff) (1966). The quality of Soviet sound recording at the time was not great, and central to the film is the beautiful score by Sergei Prokofiev. In recent years, the soundtrack was rerecorded, but the newer version lacks the hauntingly archaic quality that, to me, helps suggests the strangeness of the Middle Ages. MoMA’s print has the original track intact.