Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (Russian: Сергей Михайлович Эйзенштейн; 22 January [10 January in the Julian calendar] 1898 – 11 February 1948) was an acclaimed Soviet director, who pioneered the theory and use of montages in film making (the montage in this case being defined by Sergei as "montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots," and where "each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other."). In the 1920s, he was a global icon, at one point considered the most photographed director in the world and was regarded as one of the greatest artists of all time.
Eisenstein was born in Riga, Latvia to a middle-class family and enjoyed a highly pampered upbringing. However he suffered greatly under an abusive father. As a student, Eisenstein joined the Red Army during the Revolution while his father served on the other side. Eisenstein initially worked in the theatre in Moscow, being especially influenced by the likes of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Vladimir Maiakovsky and Andrei Bely. But Eisenstein was already fascinated with the potential of cinema as an artform. He would develop his theories on montage and acting for film in his writings as a critic. He also gained practice by editing films for Russian release, being fascinated with Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler which he cut for local release partly to understand how it was edited. Eisenstein's first film was Strike and already it showed his famous montage approach, his use of visual metaphors and his subversion of conventional narrative features such as a single hero driving the action, instead emphasizing collective will.
His next film was The Battleship Potemkin which was a global success. This film played in virtually every country in the world and made Eisenstein into an overnight success and a virtual household name. The use of montage, the famous scene of the "Odessa Steps" enthralled audiences everywhere, even in the capitalist west where several Hollywood film-makers were fascinated with the film. The film's class content made it potentially dangerous in some countries where the state tried to suppress the film (and later the Soviet Union also made steps to shelve it). Eisenstein's follow-up films October and the more obscure The General Line also gained attention.
Eisenstein's fame and influence was such that he was invited to Hollywood. During this tour he met Walt Disney and Charlie Chaplin whom he befriended. Eisenstein tried to make several scripts in Hollywood, including Sutter's Gold and an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (which was eventually made into an underrated film by Josef von Sternberg) but his content was seen as too political and nascent anti-Communist pressures eventually forced studios to end their brief association. Eisenstein then accepted an offer by author Upton Sinclair to make a film in Mexico. To this end he visited Mexico with his crew and began filming there. However it suffered from Troubled Production. Sinclair was also appalled when Eisenstein was caught at customs with erotic drawings as well as at the fact that Eisenstein was engaged in affairs with Mexican men. After this, Eisenstein had to return home and shortly after he entered into a marriage of convenience so as to hide his homosexuality since it was taboo in the Soviet Union.
Eisenstein's career kept facing further misfortune. His next film Bezhin Meadow was cancelled mid-production, his Alexander Nevsky was a state production made before the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Upon completion, the Pact was revealed and Eisenstein was again disgraced with another film he could not release. When World War II began, Stalin commanded the film release's as a readymade propaganda film. Eisenstein then pitched an ambitious trilogy on the life of Ivan the Terrible for whom Stalin had great admiration. Part I was released to great success, however Part II was shelved and the third part was axed in the middle of production. Eisenstein died in 1948.
In the post-war era, after De-Stalinization, artists in the Soviet Union and the West regarded Eisenstein with a mixture of admiration, skepticism and reproach. Many regarded him as a willing enabler of Stalin's regime, perfectly content in his privilege as a State Artist of high honour which he did not use to protect or help the other artists persecuted during The Purge (including friends and mentors like Meyerhold and Isaac Babel). Others felt that Eisenstein's films are only valuable in terms of formal innovation but are marred by its propaganda content which they felt was ultimately a caricature and not human. Supporters argue that Eisenstein's films were considerably more personal (especially the suppressed Part II of Ivan the Terrible) than believed and that ultimately the propaganda element is not really as dominant as believed. Despite this, his films and influence lives on.
Many animators, most notably Walt Disney, Hugh Harman and Shamus Culhane were heavily influenced by his work. Eisenstein himself was an animation fan and one of the first to recognize its potentials - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was his favorite movie.
- Glumov's Diary
- The Battleship Potemkin
- The General Line
- Que Viva México
- Bezhin Meadow
- Alexander Nevsky
- Ivan the Terrible
- He Also Did: Eisenstein was part of the circle of neuro-psychologists led by Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria. He spent several years researching with them on the links between cinema, psychology and neurology and wrote a long book Method chronicling his researches. Said book is supposed to be one of the most radical theoretical works on the subject.
- What Could Have Been: Historians argue that Eisenstein made the greatest movies that never were, i.e. projects which still sound awesome in concept in terms of ambition, vision and talent:
- Eisenstein had intended to do a feature film on Das Kapital by Karl Marx, using the elaborate montage techniques he developed for his early films to build something abstract and cohesive. The project never attracted interest because the Soviet Film Industry—committed as it was to the socialist revolution—felt that something this abstract would be expensive and uninteresting and besides, what interest would a Communist audience have in learning about capitalism.
- When Eisenstein visited Hollywood, he proposed two film adaptations. One was Sutter's Gold by Blaise Cendrars about the California Gold Rush. Another was An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. This was the early years of The Great Depression and there was some interest in making a popular anti-capitalist film by Paramount, but an anti-communist and anti-semitic backlash by Frank Pease, head of the Hollywood Technical Director's Institute, eventually drove them to cancel their contract and offer Eisenstein tickets back home. Once back home, Eisenstein proposed an adaptation of André Malraux's La Condition humaine about the failed communist revolution and crackdown in 20s Shanghai. He also planned to adapt Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov after he finished Ivan the Terrible.
- Eisenstein also planned to do a science-fiction film called The Glass House, this was intended by him to be a left-wing response to Fritz Lang's Metropolis. He developed full storyboards for the project which survive. His vision was a futuristic world set in a skyscraper made entirely of glass (i.e. walls/ceilings/floors/pipes/beams) where neighbours could see each other above, below, diagonally and from any side and yet continued their apathetic existence of Conspicuous Consumption.