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Sergei Eisenstein - Relative and Silent Genius

SSP Co-Chair Catriona Grant looks at the life of visionary socialist film-maker Sergei Eisenstein.

"The Revolution gave me the most precious thing in life - it made an artist out of me. If it had not been for the Revolution I would never have broken the tradition, handed down from father to son, of becoming an engineer. The Revolution introduced me to art, and art, in its own turn, brought me to the Revolution" Sergei Eisenstein

The circumstances of Sergei Eisenstein's birth are as dramatic as his work. He was born prematurely in Riga, the capital of Latvia, on January 23 1898. His Mother was attending a concert, during which a fight broke out, resulting in the death of one of the men involved. It was said that the shock of seeing the unfolding incident induced her labour.

Eisenstein was without doubt one of the best filmmakers of his time: a real revolutionary, an artist, a unique experience. His films of the 1920's explained not only the politics of the Soviet Union but the aspirations and ideals of socialism. The era of the silent film is a long way away from the era of Harry Potter and Independence Day.

Battleship Potemkin, the uprising of Odessa (1905) is still considered today as one of the most influential films ever made. Few films of its era can boast of such continuing popularity in art house cinemas. Even less are still studied by film students and revered by critics throughout the world.

Revolutionary Film-maker

Eisenstein was a revolutionary. He had been neither Bolshevik nor Menshevik at the time of the Revolution, but soon the middle class 18-year-old engineering student found himself won over by the nature of revolution itself. He along with other students was caught up in the fervour and joined the city militia.

He became fascinated by the events around him, frantically sketching meetings, activists, political events. He looked constantly for imagery. His drawings became political cartoons, and he was soon working as a cartoonist for a local paper under the pseudonym, Sir Gay.

After the October Revolution, he joined the Red Army as a civil engineer. His father, conversely, joined the White Army. He eventually fled to Berlin and was never to see his son again.

Towards the end of 1919 Eisenstein was organising theatre groups in the Military Construction Units, and had begun to direct short plays.

Lenin commissioned the Red Train to tour around the Soviet Union, V.I. Lenin declared, "There is no form of science or art which cannot be linked with the great ideas of Communism and the diverse work of building a Communist economy". Eisenstein was involved in this project, primarily in the painting of a train called The Red Army Solider. The train had a collapsible stage, and plays about the revolution would be acted out for the crowds who would gather on its route.

He studied voraciously: Japanese, French literature, Freud, Leonardo di Vinci's engineering diagrams. He was fascinated by everything and anything connected with his intrigue for images. He later stated that all these things helped him understand the principles of montage.

In 1920 Bolshevik Moscow was teeming with thinkers and artists: philosophers, actors, authors, poets, every credo had its hangouts and cafes. Lenin's view was that art and nothing else could serve as a substitute to religion. If the working class could express themselves through art then they would no longer need the superstition of the church.


Eisenstein became involved in the Proletkult Theatre (Proletarian Culture). It had become an ad hoc union for artists, with over 200 branches, dozens of theatres, literary and music circles. Eisenstein gained instant acclaim with his involvement with Jack London's play The Mexican. He not only directed the play, but also designed the sets and costumes. Eisenstein became a sensation throughout Moscow and well known for his use of caricature in the theatre. It was a natural progression when he started to play with film. The Proletkult were under great pressure to avoid all waste and unnecessary expense, and so attempted to avoid editing as much as was possible. Eisenstein would carefully write down each shot ('Baby/Head of Strauch (close up)/Struach (long shot/Meshanka/legs (close up)'). These individual shots were to play the unique role in the future of Soviet film, as was the use of montage (several shots of images to make up a bigger image). Montage didn't use the same amount of film as filming a scene and it was more dependent on the fantastical imagery that Eisenstein so loved.

Eisenstein took on a project, 'Towards the Dictatorship of the Proletariat', a historical panorama of the Party and the working class movement before 1917 . Battleship Potemkin and October were originally intended as parts of this project. Sadly, the rest of the intended series of films never materialised.

Strike was made in 1924, and depicted a generalisation of a strike, not based on historical facts. Although Eisenstein used actors, for the big strike scenes he used local factory workers; a technique used today by British filmmaker Ken Loach. He made impossible demands on all those involved and was insistent on every detail being correct to his specifications. For example it was required that the splinters of wood be seen when a stool was smashed over a managers head. He also wanted to compare one of the factory owners to a grinning frog, necessitating a frog search on a cold October day. However, when the frogs were brought to him, he didn't feel any of them were suitably reminiscent. He later used the frog image in the film The General Line.

Eisenstein was a committed Marxist and was fascinated by dialectical materialism. He believed that montage was dialectics in action. He demonstrated that cinema was 'The art of comparisons fundamental to cinema.' However, the public did not like Strike, though it opened to critical acclaim throughout the Soviet Union. His essay to accompany the film, Montage of Film Attractions, was excitingly talked about at universities and amongst artists. Strike was one of the first films to depict mass action, and was unique in the fact that it had no hero.

Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin was made in 1923, and was about the mutiny of sailors on the Potemkin in Odessa. The battle scene on the Odessa steps was based on historical facts. The Odessa steps must be the most famous flights of steps in the world (in reality there are only 120 steps not the 300- plus Eisenstein uses). The scene of the bouncing pram has been repeated several times in films, probably most famously in The Untouchables, when a pram bounces down the steps in a train station. The actors in the film were mostly local people, some had even been involved in the uprising themselves!

For Eisenstein, the Odessa Steps Sequence was almost his most perfect. He felt it was dialectical materialism in action: force (thesis) of the navy/army generals colliding with counterforce (antithesis) of the mutineers and the people of Odessa to produce unity (synthesis) the Odessa Uprising. The Odessa Steps Sequence has been compared to great works of art that illustrate state brutality, such as Picasso's Guernica. However, although the massacre of Guernica existed in reality, there was no such massacre on the Odessa Steps.

Although Battleship Potemkin was shown throughout the world, the War Ministry in Germany forbade the armed forces from seeing it, perhaps for fear of it influencing mutiny. The French tried to ban it, burning every copy that could be found. In Pennsylvania USA, it was banned on the grounds that, 'It gave American sailors a blueprint as to how to conduct mutiny'. Charlie Chaplin declared it, 'The best film in the world'.

Eisenstein went on to make other films to world acclaim, though none touched Battleship Potemkin. In 1926 he made October. It was roughly based on the American journalist John Reed's, Ten Days That Shook the World (later made in the 1980's as Reds starring Warren Beatty). The film was about the 1917 October Revolution. He found it difficult to convince the 'actors' to play Mensheviks; everyone wanted to be a Bolshevik! Actors were tricked into playing counter revolutionaries, social revolutionaries and Mensheviks, as the speeches they spoke with great forcefulness were never heard. Instead he cut them into scenes to make them appear as the very people they did not want to be.

More damage was done to the Winter Palace when filming the storming scenes occurred in the real event, and more casualties were caused too. An elderly porter complained after sweeping up the broken glass, 'Your people were more careful the first time they took the palace'.

October was filmed in record time, due to simultaneous film crews and the use of amphetamines. During the cutting of the film, Leon Trotsky was expelled from the party. Eisenstein was ordered by Stalin to cut Trotsky, who had many scenes, and was told there could be no scenes that showed Lenin in an unsatisfactory light. Eisenstein accepted this 'friendly advice'.

Eisenstein announced after making October that his next project would be Karl Marx's Das Kapital. It was, however, never made. His next film, The General Line, was about the agriculture collective.


Eisenstein went to the US and mixed with the darlings of the silver screen, eventually returning to the Soviet Union where he remained making more films. However, social realism took over, and his use of montage baffled the Soviet cinema- goers. It is often stated that Eisenstein capitulated to Stalin, which of course he did, but he was never a Stalinist. He survived the Stalinist purges through his art. He was a principled man, who wrote a letter to Goebbels of Nazi Germany after he had stated in a speech that he wished for a National Socialist Potemkin. Eisenstein replied that, 'The Nazis were unable to create anything the Soviet system created because only truth created the Soviet system.' Eisenstein probably truly believed his polemic to Goebels. Truth, we know, under Stalin had become lies. Eisenstein married Pera Attasheva in 1934 in a lavender marriage due to the laws against homosexuality. In January 1934 homosexuals were being arrested en masse,and were called 'opushchennye': slang for those who had been beaten up and pissed upon.

Eisenstein wanted to make a film about the slave revolt of Haiti and wanted Paul Robeson, the American Black singer and actor to play Toussaint L'Ouverture. However, despite Robeson wanting to play the part it never happened as Stalin wouldn't allow it, and Hollywood refused to fund it. Stalin killed many of his friends, but spared Eisenstein despite being angry with him several times. He confessed several times to 'making errors' in his films, most possibly to avoid Stalin's wrath.

Eisenstein went on to make other films such as Ivan the Terrible Part 1 and 2, which were historically inaccurate due to Stalin's influence and admiration of the historical Tsar. Eisenstein attempted to subvert the plot using homosexuality. His two leading characters are openingly gay, and by showing the despotism of Ivan, again Eisenstein was forced to confess to 'errors' in the film.

Eisenstein died in the night in February 1948. Legend has it that the doctor performing the post mortem asked:

"Who was that man?"
"He was a film director"
"How many films did he direct?"
"What a pity! A man with a brain like that could have discovered a theory of relativity…?"