Eisenstein, Sergei: Legendary Soviet Filmmaker (Also Relevant to Jewish, Gay)

Sergei Eisenstein, in full Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, was born January 22, 1898, Riga, Latvia, Russian Empire and died February 11, 1948, Moscow, U.S.S.R.

The output of this Soviet director and theorist includes at least three film classics Battleship Potemkin (1925), Alexander Nevsky (1938), and Ivan the Terrible (released in two parts, 1944 and 1958).

In his concept of montage, images, perhaps independent of the “main” action, are presented for maximum psychological impact.


Eisenstein, who was of Jewish descent through his paternal grandparents, lived in Riga, where his father, Mikhail, a civil engineer, worked in shipbuilding until 1910, when the family moved to St. Petersburg.
After studying in 1916–1918 at the Institute of Civil Engineering, Eisenstein decided on a career in the plastic arts and entered the School of Fine Arts.

With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of 1917, he enlisted in the Red Army and helped to organize and construct defenses and to produce entertainment for the troops.

He entered, in 1920, the Proletkult Theatre (Theatre of the People) in Moscow as an assistant decorator. He rapidly became the principal decorator and then codirector. As such, he designed the costumes and the scenery for notable productions.

He developed a strong interest in the Japanese Kabuki theater, which would influence his ideas on film. For his production of The Wise Man, an adaptation of Ostrovsky’s play, he made a short film, Dnevnik Glumova (“Glumov’s Diary”), which was shown as part of the performance in 1923.

Soon afterward the cinema engaged his full attention, and he produced his first film, Stachka (Strike), in 1925, after having published his first article on theories of editing in the review Lef, edited by the poet Mayakovsky. He held that in place of the static reflection of an event, expressed by a logical unfolding of the action, a new form: the “montage of attractions”—in which arbitrarily chosen images, independent of the action, would be presented not in chronological sequence but in whatever way would create the maximum psychological impact.

The filmmaker’s aim should be to establish in the spectators’ consciousness the elements he wants to communicate; he should attempt to place them in the spiritual state or the psychological situation that would give birth to that idea.

In the realistic films, such a technique is effective only when it utilizes the concrete elements implicit in the action; it loses validity when its symbols are imposed upon reality instead of being implied by it.

In Strike, which concerns the repression of a strike by the Tsar’s soldiers, he juxtaposed shots of of workers being mowed down by machine guns with shots of cattle being butchered in a slaughterhouse. The effect was striking, even if the objective reality was falsified.

Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, also called Potemkin), ordered by the Central Executive Committee of the U.S.S.R. to commemorate the Revolution of 1905, was made in the port and the city of Odessa in 1925.
It had a huge impact and still remains a masterpiece of the world cinema. In 1958 it was voted the best film ever made by an international poll of critics. Its greatness lies in the depth of humanity, its social significance, its formal rhythm and editing.

Cashing in on his earned recognition as the epic poet of the Soviet cinema, Eisenstein next made a film entitled Oktyabr (October, or Ten Days That Shook the World), which in the space of two hours dealt with the shifts of power in the government after the 1917 Revolution, the entrance on the scene of Lenin, and the struggle between the Bolsheviks and their political and military foes. If the film was sometimes inspired, it was also disparate, chaotic, and often confused.

Also uneven, but better balanced, was Staroye i novoye (Old and New, also called The General Line), filmed in 1929 to illustrate the collectivization of the rural countryside. Eisenstein made of it a lyric poem, as calm and as expansive as Battleship Potemkin had been violent and compact.

In 1929, while visiting Paris, he filmed Romance sentimentale (1930; Sentimental Romance), an essay in counterpoint of images and music.

Hired by Paramount studios in 1930, he left for Hollywood, where he worked on adaptations of the novels L’Or (“Sutter’s Gold”), by Blaise Cendrars, and An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser.

However, refusing to modify his scripts to meet studio demands, he broke the contract and went to Mexico in 1932 to direct Que viva Mexico!, largely financed by the novelist Upton Sinclair.

The film never was completed. Budgetary concerns, combined with Stalin’s displeasure with Eisenstein’s lengthy stay in Mexico and other factors, scuttled the production.


Eisenstein’s relationship with Sinclair—already strained by production delays–was destroyed when U.S. customs officials discovered homoerotic drawings and photographs, some of which included religious imagery, in a shipment of his and Sinclair’s belongings.

Though Eisenstein’s sexual orientation was not confirmed, he had long been suspected of being homosexual, which was supported by the materials discovered.

The nearly 300,000 feet (91,440 metres) of footage shot for Que viva Mexico!—banned from importation to the U.S.S.R.—was cut and released in the US as the films Thunder over MexicoEisenstein in Mexico, and Death Day (1933–34).

In 1940 a fourth film, entitled Time in the Sun, was made from the footage. A series of educational films about Mexico were also compiled by using extracts from the reels. None of those efforts reflects the original conception.

Sinclair donated a large portion of the footage to the Museum of Modern Art in 1954. Filmmaker Jay Leyda compiled Eisenstein’s Mexican Film: Episodes for Study (1958) from that footage.

Eisenstein’s former collaborator Grigory Aleksandrov edited it in accordance with Eisenstein’s original outline and released it as Que viva Mexico! (1979).

After his return to Moscow in 1933, Eisenstein undertook Bezhin lug (Bezhin Meadow). Weeks before its completion, however, he was ordered to suspend its production. The scenes already shot were put together by Eisenstein, but the film, which was never released, was attacked as “formalistic” because of its poetic interpretation of reality.

Eisenstein suffered from the same restrictive governmental policies toward art that had embroiled the composer Prokofiev, the writer Isaac Babel, and other artists.

After expressing contrition for the errors of his past works, Eisenstein made a film recounting the medieval epic of Alexander Nevsky, in accordance with Stalin’s policy of glorifying Russian heroes. Made in 1938, this film transfigured the actual historical events, leading to a final resolution that represented the triumph of collectivism.  The characters were the stylized heroes or legendary demigods. Produced in close collaboration with Prokofiev, who wrote the score, the film represented a blend of images and music into a single rhythmic unity, an indissoluble whole.

During WWII, Eisenstein achieved a work of the same style as Alexander Nevsky and even more ambitious—Ivan Grozny (Ivan the Terrible)—about the 16th-century tsar Ivan IV, whom Stalin admired. Begun in 1943 in the Ural Mountains, the first part was finished in 1944, the second in 1946. A third part was planned, but Eisenstein suffered from angina pectoris and was in bed for months. He was about to return to work when he died, after his 50th birthday.

Though Eisenstein’s three greatest films stand above the others, all of his work is significant.


Jean Mitry, Encyclopaedia Britannica