Eisenstein’s Mexican Film: Episodes for Study (Part One). 1930–32 (shot), 1955 (compiled). Mexico. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Assembled by Jay Leyda. 16mm. 120 min.
Eisenstein journeyed to Mexico in late 1930 to begin shooting a film. With backing provided by Upton and Mary Craig Sinclair, the great Soviet auteur planned to make an epoch-spanning pageant of Mexico’s political history and cultural iconography, moving from the pre-Columbian era through colonization and, finally, revolution. But the picture was ill-fated. With the project running over budget after a year of work, in which more than 200,000 feet of rushes had been shot, funding was pulled by the Sinclairs and the film was shut down.
Sinclair eventually deposited the film materials at MoMA in 1953, at which point the scholar Jay Leyda assembled and annotated the shots, ordering them according to the filmmaker’s plans and presenting the images just as they had been shot. These rarely screened reels are extraordinary, not in spite of their unedited form but precisely because of it. The contrapuntal force of Eisenstein’s montage is typically so powerful that there lies a danger of subordinating all other elements in his films to the editing. Here, however, one is given the opportunity to attend to Eisenstein in an entirely different way, and aspects that might otherwise be overshadowed come to the fore: the way he works with nonprofessional actors, for example, or the striking mise-en-scène. In the ruins of ¡Que viva México!, we discover Eisenstein anew.
The film was of one of particular consequence for the young Lincoln Kirstein. He met Eisenstein in the spring of 1932 through Alfred Barr and Jere Abbott, while the director was passing through New York, and Kirstein was even in the room when Eisenstein viewed his rushes for the very first time. “If anything should happen to ¡Que viva México! between now and the time it is cut and shown to rob it of Eisenstein's final fingering, it would be a loss of staggering dimensions,” he proclaimed in a breathless report of the encounter. “There are no catalogues of the Alexandrian Library which Caesar’s fire ignited, and we have only the Rubens copy to show us what Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari may have been. For us their loss would have been less crippling than this film of the heart of a consciousness, this testimony of extreme distinction.”