Sergei Eisenstein: ‎Life and Films to Watch

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Who was Sergej Eisenstein? He was certainly one of the most famous directors in the history of cinema, capable of restructuring and inventing the language of cinema. In the world, tens of thousands of people know him above all for his most important film, the second of his filmmaking career after the Strike, The battleship Potemkin, but not for the extraordinary quality of the film.

Those who are not Italian will probably find it hard to believe it. Eisenstein and the whole world of art cinema should thank the writers of the comic film Fantozzi, an amusing adaptation of the term puppet, intended as a puppet man, subject to the clerical and ministerial mechanisms of the environment in which he works.

The hugely popular character of the Italian comedy Fantozzi, super blockbuster, in a famous and hilarious scene, seen by millions of Italians, leads the revolt of his servile office colleagues, forced by force to watch the film in the dictatorial film club of the head of the company they work for. At a certain moment Fantozzi explodes with anger and frustration, and shouts: “The battleship Potemkin is a crazy shit!”

Unwittingly, in satirizing corporate leaders and a certain leftist intellectual culture, the writers of the film created a powerful tool for spreading film culture. At least for those who, after seeing Fantozzi’s film, became curious and tried to know more. Not on those who assumed it was a long and boring propaganda film for left-wing intellectuals anyway. A crazy shit, in fact.

One of the rare moments in the film franchise where the accountant Fantozzi stops being a servile coward to become the leader of a small revolution. A state of frustration in which millions of people have identified themselves.

In reality, the fame of the Russian director in the world and in the history of cinema is enormous and goes far beyond the character played by Paolo Villaggio in Italy. Battleship Potiomkin is not a crazy shit, as Fantozzi said in his outburst of revolt. It is one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of cinema, inspiration for generations of directors.

Who was Sergej Michajlovič Ėjzenštejn

Eisenstein

Eisenstein was born in Riga, Latvia, on January 23, 1898, under the sign of Aquarius. Like many other great directors of the early history of cinema he is an eclectic and multifaceted character, who goes through traumatic experiences such as war and recycles himself in different professions and activities.

And at the same time director, screenwriter, writer, production designer and above all the editor of your films. Editing, its centrality in cinematographic work, are the fundamental element of the importance and innovations brought to cinema by Sergej Eisenstein and by other directors of the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s, such as Dziga Vertov, the director who pursued reality and who made masterpieces such as The man with a movie camera and Three songs about Lenin.

The young Eisenstein wandered for a long time with his family in the early 1900s, due to the revolutions that tore the country apart. Until he settled in St. Petersburg starting to study art and humanities, while his parents divorced. During the October Revolution he sided with the Communist forces and went to fight on the front with the Red Army, until he distinguished himself as a soldier of valor and received leadership roles.

After the war he moved to Moscow and began attending the most important cultural and theatrical club of the time, the Proletkult, which was focused on art in the service of the proletariat and communist ideals.

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The editing of the attractions

The editing of the attractions, elusive fragmented images, sometimes indecipherable, lasting less than 3 seconds, confuse the ideas of the public and create a sense of bewilderment. The viewer is overwhelmed by a frenzied rhythm without the temporal linearity of the classic narrative and must reconstruct and decipher with his mind what he is looking at.

The shooting choices, the subjects and the angles of the frames create a strong symbolic value of the images, never seen before. One of the most absurd things that happens during the making of The Potemkin Battleship is that the same evening of the premiere the director was still working on the editing, while the projections at the Bolshoi theater of the first reels had already started. The director was just in time to deliver the last reel. It sounds incredible, due to the fast pace and the number of shots, but according to historical sources The Battleship Potemkin was assembled in just 12 days

The film had a good distribution in Russia but didn’t make it to the West. For decades it was banned, first by Hitler and then by the Soviet bloc countries. In Western Europe there were the first screenings in 1960. But it was necessary to wait until the end of the 70s and the early 80s, the end of the Cold War, for the copies of The Battleship Potemkin to be distributed freely, and rarely programmed on television. The full version was nowhere to be found and was released only in the 1980s in home video, in limited edition.

It is not true that the battleship Potemkin, one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of cinema, is an 18 reel monster film as Fantozzi says it goes. It only lasts 75 minutes. But thanks to its overwhelming pace, 75 minutes fly by.

Eisenstein in Hollywood

Eisenstein

In late April 1930, film producer Jesse L. Lasky, on behalf of Paramount Pictures, gave Eisenstein the opportunity to make a film in the United States. The director accepted a short-term contract for $100,000, the equivalent of $1,500,000, and showed up in Hollywood in May 1930, together with Aleksandrov and Tisse. Eisenstein proposed a biography of arms dealer Basil Zaharoff and a film version of Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, and a completed film version of Sutter’s Gold by Blaise Cendrars. Paramount proposed a film variation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. Eisenstein had enjoyed the work and met Dreiser once in Moscow.

Eisenstein finished a script in early October 1930 but Paramount didn’t like it and, moreover, they found themselves being accused by Major Pease, president of the Hollywood Technical Director’s Institute. Pease, a staunch anti-Communist, mounted a public campaign against Eisenstein. On October 23, 1930, with “shared approval”, Paramount and Eisenstein declared their agreement void, and the director was given tickets to return to Moscow. Eisenstein was faced with being considered a failure in the USSR. The Soviet film market was solving the sound film problem without him; moreover, his theories, methods and films, such as his formalist film theory, came to be increasingly attacked as “ideological failures”. Most of his short theoretical articles of this length, such as Eisenstein on Disney, actually appeared years later.

Eisenstein and his entourage spent much time with Charlie Chaplin, who advised Eisenstein to get in touch with the American socialist author Upton Sinclair. Sinclair’s works had been appreciated and widely read in the USSR, and were understood by Eisenstein. The two thought highly of each other, and between late October 1930 and Thanksgiving that year, Sinclair had gotten approval for his trip to Mexico. Eisenstein had long been interested in Mexico and really wanted to make a film about the country. As a result of their conversations with Eisenstein and his colleagues, Sinclair, his wife Mary and 3 other producers agreed as the “Mexican Film Trust” to commission the 3 Soviets to make a film about Mexico in Eisenstein’s style. The American system, where the figure of the producer predominated in the final cut of the film, did not please Eisenstein. It was impossible to reach an agreement and the Russian director did not make the films in Hollywood, which were later assigned to more accommodating directors, such as Josef Von Steirberg.

Eisenstein in Hollywood and Mexico

At the beginning of the 20th century, several European avant-garde experts and musicians were fascinated by Latin America in general, and by Mexico in particular: for the French musician and leader of the surrealist movement André Breton, for example, Mexico was practically the concrete version of Surrealism. Eisenstein was impressed that Mexico actually produced a socialist transformation in 1910.

His attraction to the country dated back at least to 1921, when at the age of twenty-two his creative work began with a Mexican subject, as he staged a variation of Jack London’s tale The Mexican in Moscow. This production is a timeless example of progressive metaphors, an exercise in non-documentary style that recreates the Mexican environment.

A few years later, in 1927, Eisenstein had the opportunity to meet the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who was visiting Moscow for the events of the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Rivera had seen Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin, and also praised it by juxtaposing it with his work as a painter in the Mexican Revolution; he told him about Mexican creative heritage, ancient Aztec and Mayan art. The interest nourished by Diego Rivera’s stories turned into a burning need to make a trip there to Mexico.

Esenstein attempted to make a documentary during his next trip to Mexico, a film called Que viva Mexico. Eisenstein agreed with the producer to receive the film shot in Moscow. He was the greatest editing theoretician that cinema had ever had and for him editing the film was the true creative act. But the film never reaches Moscow. The producer finished editing the film on his own initiative, with the help of writer Upton Sinclair, who had collaborated on the conception and production of Que viva Mexico.

Esenstein then attempted to make a documentary during his next trip to Mexico, a film entitled Que viva Mexico. Eisenstein agreed with the producer to receive the film shot in Moscow. He was the greatest editing theorist cinema had ever had and editing the film was the real creative act for him. But the film never made it to Moscow. The producer completed the editing of his own initiative film, with the help of writer Upton Sinclair, who had collaborated in the conception and production of Que viva Mexico.

Eisenstein under the control of the regime

Eisenstein’s trip to the United States began to arouse suspicion among the leaders of the Soviet regime who ordered him to return home. They commissioned him to make a series of films about the exploits of the Russian national hero Ivan IV, with the supervision of some party members to be sure that the film was made according to their vision. Eisenstein successfully made the first part of the films, Ivan the Terrible, with Stalin’s approval, also receiving the prestigious Stalin Prize, which was created as the Russian answer to the Nobel Prize. But the next two films in the saga did not convince the Stalinists. They halted production and destroyed much of the third film about Ivan the Terrible, of which only a few scenes have survived.

Eisenstein a few years later at just 50 years old for a heart attack on February 11, 1948 in Moscow.

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Eisenstein ‘s theories

Ivan the terrible

Eisenstein is the most important editing theorist in the history of cinema. Many directors have come to understand that editing is the real core of cinematographic creation. But Eisenstein developed his ideas through a series of theoretical studies and publications, in more depth than anyone else had. His idea of ​​cinema is a fragmented representation, where single shots follow one another quickly, by analogy of meanings, by symbols. He gave it the mounting name of the attractions.

The theory of the editing of attractions argued that the editing did not have to tell the story in a traditional and chronologically correct way. But that the combination of different, rapid, traumatic, sometimes symbolic shots should push the viewer to emotion and thought to reconstruct the story he was witnessing.

One of the great directors in the history of cinema who has collected in an exemplary way the theoretical indications on the editing of Eisenstein’s attractions is, for example, Alfred Hitchcock. Eisenstein’s editing manipulation techniques went beyond the temporal linearity of the story and aimed to generate emotion and suspense through the rhythm and associations of ideas provoked by the editing.

The Cine-punch

Eisenstein

The viewer is actively called upon to make an interpretation of the events they watch on the screen. An interpretation that is often subjective. The shots are violent, the close-ups dramatic, the actions fast, engaging and spectacular. Cinema for Eisenstein had to be a punch in the eyes of the public. A theory to which he gave the name of Cine-Punch. The temporal dilation and manipulation through editing perhaps finds its maximum expression in the famous scene from The Potemkin battleship shot on the steps of Odessa. A baby carriage crashes down the stairs in a violent confrontation after the mother is killed.

Eisenstein ‘s legacy

The Odessa staircase scene was picked up many years later by Brian De Palma to shoot the finale of another masterpiece, The Untouchables, with a series of modernized visions, perspectives and time dilations of the scene shot by Eisenstein, set in this occasion in Chicago’s historic station.

Eisenstein was so innovative and modern in his theorizing that he even conceived the basic ideas that many years later, in the sixties, would lead Jean Luc Godard to create his own films. Eisenstein was famous all over the world in the late 1920s. He continued to reflect and theorize about cinema, thinking of it as a tool for philosophical reflection, reflecting on the importance of form over content.

His avant-garde research soon clashed with the needs of Stalin who instead wanted traditional propaganda films. Eisenstein, working for a totalitarian regime, paradoxically planted the seeds of the free cinematic avant-gardes of the 1950s and 1960s. The musical, rhythmic vision of deconstruction of the scene and the fragmentation of the editing, his ideas of asynchronous sound, the images that reject temporal linearity are all ideas that have been taken up in the history of cinema by many directors.

Eisenstein Movies to Watch

Glumov’s Diary (1923)

It’s a silent short film Soviet. It was developed as part of the stage production of Alexander Ostrovsky’s 1868 play Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man and marks Eisenstein’s transition from stage director to film director. Glumov’s Diary was a short film produced as part of the stage production Eisenstein met in 1923 for the Proletkult organization. In the innovative context of the Soviet Union developed a year before 1922, the goal of this organization was to produce new creative aspects. Eisenstein for this reason considerably modified Ostrovsky’s comedy which he simply renamed The Sage. He moved the business into modern Russian émigré circles in Paris, with new names for the characters and offered him a parodic style motivated by the circus and the Commedia dell’arte.

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Strike (1925)

It is a Soviet silent drama film of 1925. Originating as the first in a seven-part recommended collection titled “Towards the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” Strike was a joint collaboration between the Proletcult Theater and the Goskino film studio. Being Eisenstein’s first full-length feature film, it marked his transition from theater to cinema, just as his follow-up film Battleship Potemkin was born out of the exact same film cycle. Organized in 6 parts, the film shows a strike in 1903 by employees of a manufacturing plant in pre-revolutionary Russia. He is best known for a scene in which demonstrations of the strike are crossed with video footage of slaughtered cattle, as well as similar pet allegories are used throughout the film.

Upon launch, Strike was popular with doubters, however numerous target markets were puzzled by its eccentric style. It achieved little worldwide circulation until its re-evaluation in the 1950s and 1960s. It is currently recognized as one of Eisenstein’s most significant works and has also had a significant impact on the history of cinema.

The General Line (1927)

The film was made in 1927 as propaganda for the collectivization of agriculture, promoted by the longtime Bolshevik Leon Trotsky. Wanting to reach a broad target market, the director abandoned his usual practice of highlighting groups by focusing on a lone heroine. Eisenstein briefly gave up this job to film October: Ten Days That Shook the World, in honor of the Revolution’s 10th wedding anniversary. By the time he had the chance to return to this film, the Party’s outlook had changed and Trotsky had fallen out of favour. Because of this, the film was quickly re-edited and released in 1929 under a new title, The Old and the New. Over the next few years, archivists recovered The General Line with Eisenstein’s initial edit.

The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Eisenstein

The Battleship Potemkin is one of the most famous and powerful works in the history of cinema. The Russian answer to David Wark Griffith’s colossals. It was produced by Goskino, the Russian institution that produced, distributed or censored films in the Soviet Union, in 1925.

The protagonists are the crew of the Russian Battleship Potemkin. The film mixes reality and fantasy, historical re-elaborations, recounting the Russian revolution of 1905. It is a commemorative film commissioned by the government and Eisenstein who was chosen thanks to the appreciation of his first film, Strike.

However, being a commissioned film, the young twenty-seven-year-old director was repeatedly warned to respect the strict delivery times of the film. Eisenstein realized that shooting the entire script was not going to be possible. He concentrated on a few episodes, including the most famous one, set on the steps of Odessa. A staircase with geometric shapes that immediately fascinated the formalist Eisenstein.

Eisenstein decided to hire ordinary people, citizens and sailors in Odessa. Only a few theater actors are professionals. He wanted authentic faces that were able to mirror the proletariat. Eisenstein transforms historical chronicle into tragedy in five acts. The shots, the faces, the places are not filmed with a documentary eye but have the light, the expressiveness and the form of an intense drama.

His theoretical ideas of the cine fugno materialize in a succession of shocking, traumatic, overwhelming shots, which follow one another in a rapid and disorienting editing. The director’s goal was to make the viewer feel at the center of the drama unfolding on the screen.

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October (1928)

The success of his first film Battleship Potemkin was such that the Russian government called him to direct the film that was to celebrate the October Revolution of 1917. The title was precisely October, a 1928 Soviet historical film written and directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Alexandrov. It is a celebratory drama of the 1917 October Revolution commissioned for the 10th anniversary of the event. Initially released in the Soviet Union in October, the film was re-edited and released worldwide as Ten Days that Shook the World, following John Reed’s popular 1919 book on the Revolution.

The film opens with the euphoria following the February Revolution and the establishment of the Provisional Government, with the overthrow of the Tsar. The buildup to the October Revolution is dramatized with captions marking the dates of the events. It is a big-budget film in which total artistic autonomy was left, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the October revolution, played by thousands of citizens, soldiers and workers who experienced the days of the October revolution firsthand. But Eisenstein’s experimental style in October, and in the following film, entitled The old and the new, both made in the late 1920s, did not please the regime much, which reassembled it by subjecting it to various cuts. Eisenstein’s grandiose and experimental style could not fail to be noticed by Hollywood studios. They called him to direct two science fiction films, including the first adaptation of War of the Worlds.

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Sentimental Romance (1930)

It is a French film directed by Grigori Aleksandrov and also by Sergei M. Eisenstein. The film opens with a mosaic of catastrophic scenes. The images progressively transform into much more relaxing visions. The first interior shot shows a woman silhouetted against a house window. There are numerous shots of a fireplace and also of clocks and their pendulums. The lady moves from the window of the house to the piano and also begins to sing a Russian melody. Midway through the song, it’s bordered by starbursts. Images of swans are interspersed with images of sculptures by Rodin. Eventually the interior scene returns as before. After a while, sunlight is revealed as it travels across the skies, and the singer completes her song as nature in bloom returns.

Que Viva Mexico! (1930)

It is an incomplete 1930 film by Sergei Eisenstein under contract with the socialist writer Upton Sinclair and various other supporters in the United States. It would surely have been an anecdotal depiction of Mexican society and also national politics from the pre-conquest human to the Mexican Revolution. The production was beset with problems and was abandoned at one point. Perhaps Eisentein’s best cinematic work, but also his greatest personal catastrophe. 

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

He is a historical film 1938 SovietIt shows the attempted intrusion of Novgorod in the 13th century by the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire and their defeat by Prince Alexander, commonly called Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263). Eisenstein made the film in association with Dmitri Vasilyev and with a screenplay by Pyotr Pavlenko; The two were charged by the production to make sure Eisenstein didn’t get lost in “formalism” and to help film on a hands-on schedule.

The film was created by Goskino through the Mosfilm production system, with Nikolai Cherkasov in the title role and a musical arrangement by Sergei Prokofiev. Alexander Nevsky was the first and also the most famous of Eisenstein’s three sound films. Eisenstein, Pavlenko, Cherkasov and Abrikosov were awarded the 1941 Stalin Prize for the film. In 1978, the film was included in the 100 best films ever made according to an opinion poll conducted by the Italian post office Arnoldo Mondadori Editore. It is also considered to be among the best war films ever made. 

Ivan the Terrible (1944)

It is a epic film in two parts written and directed by Sergei Eisenstein. A biopic of Ivan IV of Russia, it was Eisenstein’s last film, nominated by Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, who recognized and appreciated Ivan. Part I was launched in 1944; Part II, although it ended up being produced in 1946, was not released until 1958, as it was prohibited by Stalin, who ended up being incensed at Ivan’s depiction in it.

Eisenstein had indeed created the occasion to request a third part to finish the story, but, with Part II being banned, filming of Part III was halted; after Eisenstein’s death in 1948, what had been finished of Part III was destroyed. The film is in black and white, but has a couple of color scenes towards the completion of Part II.

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