Today’s Google Doodle shines a light on one of the seminal figures in film history: Sergei Eisenstein, whose career is most commonly boiled down in World Cinema 101 classes as being the pioneer behind the Soviet Union’s use of montage in propaganda movies following the October Revolution. Eisenstein, who would have turned 120 years old today, was a true believer in the Bolshevik Revolution — and only 20 years old when he left his architecture and engineering studies to join Vladimir Lenin’s Red Army. Just seven years later he would become the genius young filmmaker and theorist behind Soviet montage, creating historical propaganda films that promoted the tenets of Communism and celebrate the Revolution in films like “Strike,” “October,” and, most famously, “Battleship Potemkin.”
From the beginning of film history, there had been exploration of how the new medium’s unique ability to cut through space with the edit could be used to control and shape the viewer’s point of view. What Eisenstein and fellow theorist/instructor Lev Kuleshov explored was how editing, or montage, was the essence of cinema, the power of which had only been scratched in the first 20 years of film. Using nonprofessional actors and re-staging historical events, Eisenstein put these theories of how montage could be used to manipulate the audience’s emotions into practice in films like “Battleship Potemkin,” which shaped historical events to show how workers and common man righteously seized power in films designed to serve as communist propaganda.
“Potemkin” was instantly seen as something bold and exciting, as Eisenstein became the international poster child for what became known as Soviet montage. What the cinematic movement and theory offered was a radical and effective alternative to “invisible” Hollywood Classical editing, which by the 1920s had been perfected and ingrained into the studio system.
It’s during this period that the simplification of Eisenstein as a man, artist, and film theorist started and masked the conflict he had with Soviet leaders and his belief in the unlimited potential of movies. In his theories and extensive writing about film, the scholarly work on which continues today, he explored the power of editing and ability to liberate the film artist in his or her purest form of expression. To the propaganda ministry he was seen as being too concerned with the use of form and artistic expression; while as a believer in the tenets of Marxism, Eisenstein came increasingly in conflict with the direction of the government with the rise of Joseph Stalin. By the late ’20s this led to an extended period of travel and exploration — seen by the Soviets as a way of spreading the prestige and message of Soviet filmmaking, but for Eisenstein a period of personal, political, aesthetic, and even sexual exploration.
Eisenstein started his extended travels in Western Europe, but by the 1930s ended up in Hollywood, where Paramount — studios used to gobble up hot talent from the outside Los Angeles with big money — gave him a lucrative $100,000 short-term contract. After three failed attempts to get on the same page as studio boss Jesse Lasky on various projects, the contract was terminated.
During his travels, Eisenstein found himself to be more closely aligned and supported by leftist artists and authors like Charlie Chaplin, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Upton Sinclair. Sinclair, an incredibly popular socialist author read in the Soviet Union, and his wife Mary funded the filmmaker’s Soviet-approved journey to Mexico to make a not-entirely well-defined film, or films that have come to be known as “¡Que viva México!” — a multi-part film that captured Mexican culture and politics from pre-Conquest civilization to the Mexican revolution.
Eisenstein shot an estimated 30 to 50 hours of film in Mexico, staging enormous epic scenes involving thousands of extras, but never finished the multiple-part project, having the plug been pulled when the Soviets worried the wayward filmmaker had become a deserter (a problem escalated by being found with erotica and Jesus drawings at the airport), while the Sinclairs became frustrated by what they viewed as a lack of direction.
Sergei Eisenstein with cactus c. 1930-31 pic.twitter.com/xCulyeClzt
— A24 (@A24) April 15, 2015
It is worth noting this period, recently brought to the big screen in Peter Greenaway’s “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” (2015), that it is widely believed Eisenstein explored his homosexuality and had a love affair with his Mexican guide. When he was called back to the Soviet Union he married filmmaker Pera Atasheva and a suspicious Stalin installed him as an instructor in the state film school. The Sinclairs seized the miles of film, which over the following decades has been re-edited and turned into a number of films — none Eisenstein had anything to do with editing or was involved with in any way. The inability of Eisenstein to complete the project, or even edit any of his own footage, is still seen as one of the biggest losses and missed opportunities in film history.
Still in his 30s, Eisenstein — fueled by depression over having been severed from his passion project after having his mind and spirit opened to the world and different modes of filmmaking over the previous years — did some of his most important film writing, in particular his exploration of the films of Disney, which were compiled and published in 1986 (“Eisenstein on Disney,” edited by Jay Leyda). During this era Eisenstein’s dance with Joseph Stalin began, as the Soviet leader fluctuated between patron to severest critic and destroyer of Eisenstein’s films.
Before dying of a heart attack at age 50, Eisenstein’s career to some degree followed the trajectory of Orson Welles. Both men became famous and are celebrated for the work they produced in their mid-20s, but afterwards struggled — partially from a lack of discipline, partially from abrasive relationships with those who tried to control their work — leaving incomplete projects in their wake.
Eisenstein’s seesaw relationship with Stalin resulted in some fascinating films, including his biopic “Alexander Nevsky” — a project Stalin fully supported — to his trilogy of “Ivan the Terrible,” whose first part Stalin loved and whose third part he literally destroyed the footage of. These rich films, while truncated by conflict with the Soviets, show the potential of where Eisenstein could have taken both filmmaking and theory had he been allowed.