- Eisenstein: The Master's House
Even those unacquainted with film history may recognize at least one image from the Odessa steps segment of Battleship Potemkin (1925), a film that brought immediate fame to Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948). It is a close-up of a distraught Russian woman, wearing pincenez glasses, whose face and glasses have been struck by the sword of a Tsarist soldier. That frame is often reproduced, not just as a scene from the movie, but also because it was "quoted" (just as famously) 25 years later by British painter Francis Bacon in his portraits of pontiffs in boxes. As a Marxist, Eisenstein believed in the dialectical process by which the opposition of one force (thesis) by another (antithesis) is resolved by their emergence in a new, unanticipated unity (synthesis). He used a comparable process in film editing (called "dialectical montage"), juxtaposing this moment with that, believing that the audience would synthesize those (at first incompatible) elements in a new, cohesive event. To its credit, this film biography of Eisenstein uses related editing techniques to show us the life of "the master" of montage—a surprisingly short life (he died of a heart attack at age 50) in view of how widespread his influence has been.
The film's title alludes to Eisenstein's architectural training (his father was a prominent architect) and the fact that the film is divided into seven episodes of his life, poetically referred to as his "houses." Born in Latvia, he grew up in St. Petersburg and was an architecture student when the Bolshevik revolution began in 1917. While designing posters and stage sets, he became a follower of avant-garde theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who taught him how to create forms that were both structured and spontaneous. His international renown was established between 1925 and 1928 by four films (Strike; Battleship Potemkin; October, an account of the revolution 10 years earlier; and Old and New), after which he spent four largely fruitless years in Hollywood (under contract to Paramount, while friends with Charlie Chaplin and, of all people, Walt Disney) and Mexico (where he worked on an ill-fated project about Mexican socialism, funded by Upton Sinclair). By the time he returned disillusioned to his homeland, forced collectivization had been established, and experimental art and film had been outlawed in favor of Social Realism. In his final decade, he fought to maintain his artistic integrity (and, surely, his sanity) while dodging the growing restrictiveness of the government censors. His last huge film, never finished, was a reinterpretation of the life of Ivan the Terrible (who had unified Russia in the 16th century). He suffered his first heart attack in 1946 (the year in which part of that film was denounced for suggesting parallels between the historic tsar and Stalin), followed by a second and fatal attack in 1948.
Like the unrestrained dreams of its subject, as well as the ambitious films he produced, this detailed (and often humorous) biography of Eisenstein is at once fascinating and exhausting. Narrated in Russian with English subtitles, it is enriched by the juxtaposition of scenes from historic documentaries, dozens of photographs and film clips of Eisenstein himself, current footage, and excerpts from the master's films. Anyone seriously interested in film history, the Russian Revolution or the rise of Modernism will be delighted by it.
(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review, Vol. 19, No. 1, Autumn 2003.)