Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein:
by Lauren C. Liebes, February, 2000
Sergei Eisenstein was born in Riga, Latvia in 1848. In addition to becoming an architect, an engineer, a theoretician and an innovator, he grew to be the most influential filmmaker to ever come from Russia. Many argue that Eisenstein, who only made a handful of films and died at age 50, is the most influential and innovative filmmaker in the world.
Born into a Jewish family, he spent most of his childhood in Riga and St. Petersburg. Eisenstein attended a good school and was trained as a civil engineer. He grew up with an immense interest in theatre. When the Bolshevik Revolution erupted, Eisenstein's father sided with the White Guards, while Eisenstein joined the Red Army.
The Red Army gave Eisenstein a chance to explore the world of film. During his service in the army he became part of a developing group of filmmakers including such Russian filmmakers as Tisse, Dziga, Vertov and Pudovkin. Often filmmakers would be assigned to the frontlines to film the action of the Civil War. With a gun in one hand and a camera in the other, the power of film was discovered. "It was cinema that was to prove the most powerful of all and to merit Lenin's comment.that 'of all the arts for us the cinema was the most important'" (WS, 2).
By the end of the Civil War, Eisenstein shifted his interest from engineering to theatre. "The Bolshevik Revolution had ushered in a veritable golden age of the arts. Within the criterion of the support to the Revolution, myriad schools of aesthetics sprang up, each enthusiastically seeking a way to express the power of the revolution through art" (WS, 2). The government wanted to engage the young, structure the country and put Russians back to work - the arts was a perfect media to accomplish all three.
Eisenstein was accepted into the theatre section of the government run art program. He studied under the great Vsevelod Meyerhold. (Meyerhold was killed by Stalin's firing squad in 1939.) Under Meyerhold, Eisemstein explored the different aspects of the theatre, including directing and designing.
In his first film, Strike, Eisenstein glorified the working class. Funded by the Proletkult Theatre, in what was supposed to be the first in eight episodes of the film series Towards the Dictatorship, he depicts the "development and destruction of a strike in Tsarist Russia" (WS, 3). Eisenstein also introduced a concept called "montage." "Montage became for Eisenstein a method of penetrating reality. Montage is the unity and conflict of opposites in art. It was an attack by Eisenstein on the traditional method of constructing a film-the linkage of sequences in smooth, undisturbing manner" (WS, 4).
In 1925, the Communist Party commissioned the film "Potemkin" (also called "Battleship Potemkin") to celebrate the anniversary of the 1905 Revolution. "Potemkin is a conscious, scientifically calculated effort not only to capture on film the movement and spirit of the masses and the brutal reaction of the Tsarist government, but to evoke very powerful emotions in the viewer as well" (WS, 5). Eisenstein achieved this emotional reaction by paying close attention to detail and to history. Eisenstein was acclaimed around the world for his groundbreaking work and to this day is most well known for this film.
After the success of Potemkin, Eisenstein made only a few more films. The film, October, recounts the history of the Revolution of 1917. However, since this film was made during the height of tension between the Left Opposition and the bureaucracy, Eisenstein was forced to edit about one-third of the film to Stalin's standards. It is reported that one night during Eisenstein's editing sessions, Stalin stopped by for a private viewing of scenes from October. Stalin ordered Eisenstein to cut about 3,000 feet of footage, including a speech by Lenin. Stalin is quoted as saying, "Lenin's liberalism is no longer valid today" (Barna, 123).
Unfortunately, Stalin's forced editing of the arts, which were once supported by the government, set the stage of many to follow in Russia. The Moscow Trials purged a generation of artists who were raised the revolutionary schools. It is conjectured that Eisenstein survived because of his high profile in the world.
In 1948, Eisenstein died an untimely death from heart problems. He left a legacy of films that continues to echo loudly throughout Russia and the film industry to this day.
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