Sergei Eisenstein Biography


Biography from Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film

Occupation:     Director, theoretician

Also:   screenwriter, editor

Birth Name:     Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein

Born:   January 23, 1898, Riga, Latvia

Died:   February 10, 1948, Moscow, Russia

Education:      School of Fine Arts, Riga; Institute of Civil Engineering, 

Petrograd (architecture); Officers Engineering School (engineering); General 

Staff Academy, Moscow (Oriental languages); State School for Stage 



  As a youth, Sergei Eisenstein attended the science-oriented Realschule, 

to prepare himself for engineering school. However, he did find time for 

vigorous reading in Russian, German, English and French, as well as drawing 

cartoons and performing in a children's theater troupe which he founded. In 

1915, he moved to Petrograd to continue his studies at the Institute of 

Civil Engineering, his father's alma mater. On his own, he also studied 

Renaissance art and attended avant-garde theater productions of Meyerhold 

and Yevreinov. 


  After the February 1917 Revolution, he sold his first political cartoons,

signed Sir Gay, to several magazines in Petrograd. He also served in the 

volunteer militia and in the engineering corps of the Russian army. Although 

there is little record that Eisenstein was immediately affected by the 

events of October 1917, in the spring of 1918 he did volunteer for the Red 

Army. His father joined the Whites and subsequently emigrated. While in the 

military, Eisenstein again managed to combine his service as a technician 

with study of theater, philosophy, psychology and linguistics. He staged and

performed in several productions, for which he also designed sets and 



  In 1920 Eisenstein left the army for the General Staff Academy in Moscow 

where he joined the First Workers' Theater of Proletcult as a scenic and 

costume designer. After he gained fame from his innovative work on a 

production of The Mexican, adapted from a Jack London story, Eisenstein 

enrolled in his idol Meyerhold's experimental theater workshop and 

collaborated with several avant-garde theater groups, all of whom shared a 

mistrust of traditional art forms and "high" culture in general. The new 

theater's contribution to the revolutionary cause was to destroy the old 

art entirely and create a new, democratic one. The young Soviet artists 

resorted to "low" culture-circus, music hall, sports, fair performances-to 

educate the largely illiterate Russian masses in a "true" communist spirit. 

Eisenstein's studies of commedia dell'arte paid off in his 1923 staging of 

The Sage, a huge success not only as propaganda but also as sheer 

entertainment. For that production he made a short comic film, GLUMOV'S 

DIARY (1923), a parody of newsreels whose hero's grotesque metamorphoses 

anticipated the metaphors of STRIKE (1924), Eisenstein's first feature. 

But even more important for his career as a filmmaker was the structure of 

The Sage. Eisenstein took an old Ostrovsky play and reassembled it as a 

series of effective, circus-like attractions. The assemblage of such 

shocking scenes, as he claimed in his 1923 manifesto, The Montage of 

Attractions, would lead the public's attention in a direction planned by 

the "montageur." 


  Having studied the films of Griffith, Lev Kuleshov's montage experiments 

and Esfir Shub's re-editing techniques, Eisenstein became convinced that in 

cinema one could manipulate time and space to create new meanings, epecially

if the images were not to be merely linked, as Kuleshov suggested, but 

juxtaposed. Because at that time he believed that his duty as an artist was 

to contribute to the forging of the new life for his country, Eisenstein 

eagerly embraced the film medium as the most efficient tool of communist 

propaganda. However, as much as STRIKE was a condemnation of czarism, it was 

also an innovative work of art. With this film, an inexperienced director 

immediately caught up with the work of Soviet, German and French avant-garde 

filmmakers. STRIKE is filled with expressionistic camera angles, mirror 

reflections and visual metaphors. In a story of police spies, the camera 

itself turns into a spy, a voyeur, a trickster. The film was the first full 

display of Eisenstein's bold new cinematic grammar, a montage of conflicting 

shots that served as words and sentences endowed with the maximum power of 

persuasion. Although his command of this new technique was shaky-some 

sequences did not convey the intended message-STRIKE was a ground-breaking 



  As Eisenstein's second film, the enormously successful and influential 

POTEMKIN (1925), demonstrated, his art could be even more powerful when it 

achieved a balance between experimental and traditional narrative forms. If 

STRIKE was an agitated visual poem arousing emotions within a receptive 

audience, POTEMKIN, the story of one of the tragic episodes 

of the 1905 Russian revolution, was a work of prose, highly emotional but 

clear in its logical, public speech. The close-ups of suffering human faces 

and the soldiers' boots in the now legendary "Odessa steps" sequence carried 

such impact that some screenings of the film outside the USSR provoked 

clashes with police when audiences were convinced they were watching a 



  Later in his career Eisenstein would compare the film director's art with 

the craft of a shaman. But in the 20s he was trying hard to find a rational 

basis for it: in Bekhterv's reflexology, in Russian formalist literary 

theory, in Marxist dialectics. As his films became more complex, they 

raised the ire of the new breed of ideologues who called for art accessible 

to the masses and flexible enough to illustrate the latest party line. 

However, Eisenstein was too deeply involved with his personal research to 

follow everyday politics. Thus, OCTOBER, commissioned for the tenth 

anniversary of the October revolution of 1917 was not released until 1928; 

for one thing, all sequences featuring Trotsky, one of the leaders of the 

revolt, had to be deleted. Then too, the authorities were disappointed with 

Eisenstein, for while the edited OCTOBER was considered ideologically 

correct, its confusing structure and abundance of abstract metaphors 

diminished it propagandistic message, and it did not carry the same impact 

as POTEMKIN. Attacking him for the "sins of formalism," critics claimed that 

he "lost his way in the corridors of the Winter Palace" and pointed to the 

more intelligible anniversary films shot by his colleagues on more modest 

budgets and in less time. In a way, the critics were correct; in none of his 

other films was Eisenstein's search for the new cinematic language so 



  After OCTOBER, Eisenstein was able to resume work that had been 

interrupted on THE GENERAL LINE (1929), a film meant to demonstrate the 

advantages of collective labor in the village. However, during the 

production of OCTOBER, the party policy toward peasantry had drastically 

changed from persuasion to coercion, and the film's surrealistic imagery 

and sophisticated montage, which anticipated Godard, were considered 

inappropriate. Stalin summoned Eisenstein and his co-director Grigori 

Alexandrov and ordered them to make radical changes. They made a few cuts 

and immediately embarked on a trip abroad to investigate the new sound 

technology. With Eisenstein out of the country, the film was released under 

the neutral title OLD AND NEW to vicious attacks. His claim that the film 

was an experiment which could be understood by the millions was ridiculed 

as wishful thinking; according to one of his critics, the public needed 

"simple, realistic pictures with clear plot." 


  Meanwhile, Eisenstein's reception in Europe nurtured his opinion that he 

could be both avant-garde artist and creator of popular and ideologically 

"correct" films. In every country he visited he was hailed by radical 

students and intellectuals. He met with Joyce, Cocteau, Abel Gance, 

Marinetti, Einstein, Le Corbusier, and Gertrude Stein, all of whom seemed

excited about his work. In May 1930 Eisenstein arrived in the United 

States, where he lectured at several Ivy League schools before moving on 

to Hollywood, where he hoped to make a film for Paramount. Although he was 

welcomed by leading Hollywood figures, including Fairbanks, von Sternberg, 

Disney and especially Chaplin, who became his close friend, his proposal 

for an adaptation of An American Tragedy was rejected as too complicated, 

as were several other highly original projects. 


  Just before he left America, Eisenstein was encouraged by Robert Flaherty 

and Diego Rivera to make a film about Mexico, and in December 1930, with 

funding from writer Upton Sinclair, he began work on QUE VIVA MEXICO. This 

project, which promised to become Eisenstein's most daring, took a tragic 

turn when Sinclair, caving in to pressures from his family, who cited 

financial reasons, and Stalin, who was afraid that Eisenstein might defect, 

cancelled the film with shooting almost finished. Although Eisenstein was 

told the footage would be sent to Moscow for editing, he was never to see 

it again. 


  Upset over the loss of his footage and shocked at the differences in the 

political and cultural climate that he noticed after three years abroad, 

he suffered a nervous breakdown. One after another, his ideas for projects 

were bluntly rejected, and he became the target of intense hostility from 

Boris Shumyatsky, the Soviet film industry chief whose objective was to 

create a Stalinist Hollywood. With his bitter memories of commercial 

filmmaking and strong ties to European modernism, Eisenstein could not make 

the switch to directing cheerful agitkas and was thus perceived as a threat. 

He took an appointment to head the Direction Department at the Moscow film 

school and became a devoted teacher and scholar. In January 1935, he was 

villified at the All-Union Conference of Cinema Workers but eventually was 

allowed to start working on his first sound film, BEZHIN MEADOW. 


  On this notorious project Eisenstein tried to create a universal tragedy 

out of the true story of a young communist vigilante who informed on his 

father and was murdered in retaliation by the victim's relatives. The 

authorities wanted to demonstrate that family ties should not be an 

obstacle to carrying out one's duty-a theme common to Soviet and 

German cinema of the time. Why Eisenstein agreed to deal with such dubious 

subject matter is not clear, but what has been saved from the allegedly 

destroyed film suggests that he once again confounded the Soviet 

authorities' expectations. After BEZHIN MEADOW was banned, Eisenstein had 

to repent for his new "sins of formalism." As one Soviet film scholar put 

it, "Eisenstein was apologizing for being Eisenstein." 


  As if to save his life, Eisenstein next made ALEXANDER NEVSKY (1938), a 

film about a 13th-century Russian prince's successful battle against 

invading German hordes. This monumental costume epic starring familiar 

character actors was a striking departure from Eisenstein's principles 

of montage and "typage" (casting non-professionals in leading roles). 

NEVSKY was a deliberate step back, in the direction of old theater or, even 

worse, opera productions which Eisenstein has been fiercely opposed to in 

the 20s. Still, the film demonstrated Eisenstein in top form in several 

sequences, such as the famous battle scene on the ice. Also significant 

were his attempts to achieve synthesis between the plastic elements of 

picture and music with the film's memorable score by Prokofiev, possibly 

reflecting Eisenstein's prolonged admiration for the cartoons of Walt 



  NEVSKY was a huge success both in the USSR and abroad, partially due to 

growing anti-German sentiment, and Eisenstein was able to secure a position

in the Soviet cinema at a time when many of his friends were being arrested. 

On February 1, 1939, he was awarded the Order of Lenin for NEVSKY and 

shortly thereafter embarked on a new project, The Great Fergana Canal, 

hoping to create an epic on a scale of his aborted Mexican film. Yet after 

intense pre-production work the project was cancelled, and following the 

signing of the non-aggression treaty between the USSR and Germany, NEVSKY 

was quietly shelved as well. In February 1940, in a Radio Moscow broadcast 

to Germany, Eisenstein suggested that the pact provided a solid basis for 

cultural cooperation. At that time he was commissioned to stage Wagner's 

opera Die Walkre at the Bolshoi theater. At the November 21, 1940, 

premiere, the German diplomats in Moscow, not unlike Stalin's henchman 

before them, were dismayed by Eisenstein's artistry. They accused him of 

"deliberate Jewish tricks." Yet when the Nazis attacked Russia less than a 

year later, it was Die Walkre's turn to be banned while NEVSKY could once 

again be screened. 

  In 1941 Eisenstein was commissioned to do an even larger scale historic 

epic, a three-part film glorifying the psychopathic and murderous 16th-

century Russian czar, Ivan the Terrible. However, IVAN THE TERRIBLE, PART 

ONE (1943) was an enormous success and Eisenstein was awarded the Stalin 

Prize. But IVAN THE TERRIBLE, PART TWO (1946) showed a different Ivan: a 

bloodthirsty tyrant, the unmistakable predecessor of Stalin. Naturally, 

IVAN THE TERRIBLE, PART TWO was banned and the footage of IVAN THE TERRIBLE 

PART THREE destroyed. Eisenstein was hospitalized with a heart attack, 

but he recovered and petitioned Stalin to be allowed to revise IVAN THE 

TERRIBLE, PART TWO as the bureaucracy wanted, only to be dismissed. In fact, 

Eisenstein was too weak to resume shooting, and he died in 1948, surrounded 

by unfinished theoretical works and plans for new films. IVAN THE TERRIBLE, 

PART TWO was first shown in 1958 on the 60th anniversary of Eisenstein's 

birth. In 1988, at the international symposium at Oxford marking 

Eisenstein's 90th anniversary, Naum Kleiman, the director of the Eisenstein 

Museum in Moscow, showed a scene that survived from IVAN THE TERRIBLE PART 

THREE. In it, Ivan is interrogating a foreign mercenary in a manner 

resembling one of Stalin's secret police. 


  With the abundance of literature on Stalin's crimes now available even in 

the USSR, the significance of IVAN THE TERRIBLE, PART TWO as a document of 

its tragic time has diminished, but as a work of art it is still 

significant. In his last completed film, Eisenstein achieved what he had 

dreamt of since 1928, when he saw a Japanese Kabuki troupe performance: the 

synthesis of gesture, sound, costume, sets and color into one powerful, 

polyphonic experience. Both NEVSKY and Walkre were steps in that direction, 

but only the celebrated danse macabre of Ivan's henchmen comes close to the 

synthesis of the arts which has haunted artists for ages. 


  Eisenstein's death prevented him from summing up his theoretical views in 

the areas of the psychology of creativity, the anthropology of art and 

semiotics. Although not many filmmakers have followed Eisenstein the 

director, his essays on the nature of film art have been translated into 

several languages and studied by scholars of many nations. Soviet scholars 

published a six-volume set of his selected works in the 60s. 1988 saw the 

publication of a new English-language edition of his writings.

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