Auteur of the Week: Sergei Eisenstein

“Now why should the cinema follow the forms of theater and painting rather than the methodology of language, which allows wholly new concepts of ideas to arise from the combination of two concrete denotations of two concrete objects? -Sergei Eisenstein

Wiki Bio Breakdown:

Sergei Eisenstein was born in 1898 in Riga, Latvia. His father, Mikhail, was an architect of German Jewish and Swedish descent, and his mother Julia was the daughter of a wealthy Russian Orthodox merchant. During the Russian Revolution in 1905, Sergei and his mother moved to St. Petersburg. In 1910 his parents divorced, and his mother abandoned Sergei and moved to France. Eisenstein studied architecture and engineering at the Petrograd Institute of Civil Engineering before joining the Red Army in 1918. Eisenstein had a successful military career because he produced propaganda that supported the Bolshevik October Revolution of 1917.

After his military work, Eisenstein began working in theater for the Proletcult, an organization of Soviet avant-garde artists aimed at creating a revolutionary working class aesthetic in the arts. Eisenstein’s first feature film Strike (1925) was acted by the Proletcult theater and portrayed the terrible factory conditions of pre-revolutionary Russia. His second feature, Battleship Potemkin, premiered later that year, giving Eisenstein international acclaim and the praise of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels for the film’s appeal to audience emotions as a mode to affect political thought.

From 1928 to 1932 Eisenstein toured and lectured in Europe and unsuccessfully pursued filming work in the United States and Mexico. In 1930 he signed a film contract with Paramount Pictures, but Paramount disliked his script and voided the contract after the Hollywood Technical Director’s Institute expressed their fears of Eisenstein’s communist background. Rather than return home a failure, Eisenstein met with socialist writer Upton Sinclair and agreed to make a film in Mexico with his financial backing. During his a long absence from the Soviet Union, Stalin declared Eisenstein a deserter; rather than incite problems with Stalin, Sinclair cancelled the project mid shoot, allowing for Eisenstein’s return to the USSR. Eisenstein never saw his footage, which the Mexican Film Trust compiled into three separate films.While internationally praised, Eisenstein’s works were criticized throughout the Soviet Union because they did not conform to the style of socialist realism. Eisenstein was forced to publish self-criticism and reform his style in order to maintain his status within the Soviet political and artistic communities.

Upon his initial return to the USSR, Eisenstein experienced a state of defeat and depression after numerous failed projects and his peers’ suspicions of his time in the West. In 1938 he made a strong comeback with the historical drama, Alexander Nevsky, and continued a successful career with Ivan the Terrible, Part I and Part II.


Montage Theory:
In 1923, Eisenstein published The Montage of Attractions, an essay on the use of juxtaposition in montage to create a psychological link between two images. Similar to the Kuleshov Effect, Montage Theory utilizes the editing of two or more images together to create a “tertium quid,” or third thing.

For example, the ‘Odessa Steps‘ montage sequence in Battleship Potemkin cuts together many different shots that portray the destruction caused by the oncoming army and the visceral reactions of the common people fleeing. The viewer makes connections between the images based on the order they are shown in.  For instance, a woman’s terrified face followed by a child calling for help suggests the woman is the child’s mother. These three different lion statues (left)  suggest a supernatural change in the lion’s expression as it sees the destruction on the steps. Out of context from the film’s diagesis, the different statues could be perceived as sleeping, snarling, or roaring.

Eisenstein was one of the first filmmakers to theorize and harness the power of montage as a mode of emotional manipulation through pacing, shot order, and the “tertium quid” that is created.  His radical editing style and focus on the juxtaposition of images set his films apart from the standards of Hollywood and established his work as paramount to film history and scholarship.
Eisenstein’s films are available at Facets.

-Miranda Brickner

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