The First Master of Russian Film
By Paul E. Richardson
On February 2, 1946, a banquet was held at Moscow’s House of Film, honoring Stalin Prize laureates. The preeminent Soviet film director, Sergei Eisenstein, who had just turned 48, was among the most feted artists in attendance. He had just completed (in December 1945) the long-awaited Part Two of his three-part epic film, Ivan the Terrible. It was for the enormously successful Part One of Ivan the Terrible that Eisenstein had been awarded his Stalin Prize.
It was a night of regalia for the energetic director, whose film triumphs stretched back twenty years to the Golden Age of early Soviet film -- his 1925 film The Battleship Potemkin is still widely regarded as one of the ten best films of all time. Eisenstein asked the famous actress Vera Maretskaya to dance, then collapsed on the dance floor from a severe heart attack.
Eisenstein’s heart had long been known to be weak. Two decades of Stalin’s manipulation of the arts had taken their toll. Nonetheless, Eisenstein survived the heart attack and undertook a long overdue period of recuperation (he would write in his memoirs that this period of forced rest allowed him, for the first time in his 48 years, to stop and take stock of his life, realizing that he had been so busy rushing to and fro, that he had not really fully tasted any of it).
But just as Eisenstein was recuperating, a critical assault on Part Two of Ivan the Terrible began. And it began at the very top. Joseph Stalin, in a speech in August of 1946 about filmmakers, said that Eisenstein “has diverged from history, adding in something of ‘his own.’ He depicted not a progressive oprichnina [a special group of soldiers directly subordinated to Ivan], but something else -- degenerates. He does not understand [Ivan] the Terrible’s repressions. Russia had been plundered; it wanted for unification ... She was right to punish her enemies ... Ivan the Terrible, as we know, was a man of will and character ... but this is not the sort we have been given ... we have gotten some Hamlet or other ...”
As if that were not enough to seal Eisenstein’s fate, at the end of February 1947, he was summoned to the Kremlin to meet with Stalin (along with Nikolai Cherkasov, who played Ivan in the films, and to whom we owe the retelling of the meeting). Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and Leningrad Party Boss Andrei Zhdanov were also in attendance.
“Have you studied history?” Stalin asked Eisenstein.
“More or less,” answered the perplexed Stalin laureate.
“More or less? Well, I also am a bit familiar with history,” Stalin replied. “You have incorrectly portrayed the oprichnina. The oprichnina were Kremlin troops. As opposed to a feudal army which could, at any moment, roll up its flag and leave a war, a regular army was formed. But you have shown the oprichnina to be something like the Ku Klux Klan ...”
Stalin went on to calmly note that Ivan the Terrible was not a villain, but “a great and wise leader” who, he said, was nothing like the indecisive Hamlet. The vozhd offered many critiques that evening, some more specific.
“One must portray historical figures in the proper style,” he said. “For example, in Part One of the movie, it is not credible that Ivan the Terrible kissed his wife for so long. At that time, it was not permitted to go on for so long.”
At which point Molotov piped in with the observation that, not only did the kissing go on too long, but the tsar’s beard was too long as well.
In the end, Stalin donned a fatherly smile and said, “I am not giving you instructions, but merely expressing the observations of a viewer.”
Needless to say, Stalin’s interests went well beyond that of a simple viewer. Since the rewriting of Soviet history books in the late 1930s, Stalin had taken a personal interest in the refashioning of Ivan the Terrible’s historical image. He sought to draw parallels between himself and Ivan, between the latter’s 16th century battle with and slaughter of the “old guard” boyars and his own purges of the Party [indeed, the high-ranking defector Alexander Orlov asserted that Stalin even used Ivan’s first and patronymic names as a pseudonym in secret correspondences during the purges of the late 1930s]. And, while Part One of Eisenstein’s epic showed Ivan to be a brave fighter for unification of Rus’, Part Two showed Ivan to be a vengeful, vicious tyrant with a mendacious and bloodthirsty oprichnina -- the resonance with Stalin’s reign of terror was too plain to miss.
The “observations” of Viewer Number 1 led to a cascade of recriminations against Eisenstein as a defamer of the classics, a formalist, an intriguer, etc. etc. Part Two was never screened publicly in Eisenstein’s lifetime [it was first shown in 1958, on the 60th anniversary of his birth, receiving rave reviews].
There began to be talk of reshooting Part Two, but when the ailing Eisenstein found out about this, he replied in exasperation, “What reshoots? Can you really not understand that I would die at the very first shoot? I can’t even think about [Ivan] the Terrible without it causing chest pain.”
After a year of vicious attacks, Sergei Eisenstein died on February 11, 1948, having just lived out his fiftieth year.
From Riga to Petrograd
Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein was born January 23, 1898 to a well-to-do Jewish family, in Riga, Latvia. Educated as an engineer, he also studied French, English and German. He arrived in Petrograd in 1915, to study at the Institute of Civil Engineering. In his spare time, he drew political cartoons (he was thought to have a brilliant career as a caricaturist ahead of him), founded a children’s theater troupe and volunteered in the Russian army’s engineering corps. He also took an early interest in the avant-garde theatrical productions of Vsevelod Meyerhold, with whom he would later study.
Recent studies, most notably two recent documentary films, The Secret Life of Eisenstein and Sergei Eisenstein, Autobiography, have shown that his childhood was gravely disrupted by a tyrannical father, his parents’ divorce and, what Eisenstein referred to as an “almost hysterical” religion. This combined in him at once very destructive urges against authority and remarkably creative urges in the arts, to ultimately be played out in film, which he would call “the synthesis of all the arts.”
In 1918 Eisenstein joined the Red Army; his father, meanwhile, joined the White forces and later emigrated. While in the military, Eisenstein continued to study the arts and theater in particular. In 1920, he left the military and became a stage and costume designer for the First Workers’ Theater for Proletcult in Moscow. Gaining some notoriety for his work there, he then studied under Meyerhold and began working with a variety of avant-garde theater production groups. As in the visual arts and literature, the Russian avant-garde movement in theater sought to destroy old ways of doing or thinking about art; it mistrusted authority, “culture” and the idols of autocracy, patriarchy and traditionalism. What is more, art in the milieu of the Bolshevik revolution sought to educate the masses in the virtues of communism, to be more democratic.
Eisenstein’s first film, Glumov’s Diary (1923) was actually made to be part of a theater production The Sage -- a very successful adaptation of an old play by Alexander Ostrovsky. His first feature film, Strike, followed just a year later. It was a sharp criticism of tsarism, but it also, like The Sage, relied on the creative juxtapositions of images, visual metaphors, and unique camera angles to manipulate viewers’ perceptions toward an outcome desired by the director. It made for powerful propaganda.
The Battleship Potemkin, which Eisenstein created in 1925, at the age of 27, far excelled Strike in its power of narrative and use of imagery. Based on a partially fictionalized account of a tragic event in the 1905 Russian revolution, it reaches its masterful climax in the famous Odessa steps scene where innocent civilians are brutally massacred. The montages that shift from human faces spattered with blood to soldiers’ boots to baby carriages rolling down the steps still offer some of the most powerful images on film (reportedly causing riots in some foreign cities where viewers thought the film was a newsreel).
But Eisenstein’s contribution to the art was certainly more than skillful editing. He also introduced the notion of the masses as collective hero -- an innovative way to inculcate the new socialist ideals.
What is little-known is that The Battleship Potemkin, now a gilded classic of world cinema, was actually not originally very popular in Soviet Russia. It initially ran for only two weeks in Russia before being pushed off the screens by the import, Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks. Then, as now, it seems, rollicking entertainment was of more interest to “the masses” than experimental art. Except in Germany perhaps. In Berlin alone, Potemkin played on more screens than it did in the whole USSR. But then up until the late 1920s when the Soviet government imposed restrictions on imported films not to be fully lifted for 70 years, foreign silent films dominated the Russian market.
In the Wilderness
After the artistic success of Potemkin, there followed a 13 year period in Eisenstein’s career where he constantly seemed to catch too late the proper political current, and was able to satisfy neither critics nor audiences. His film created for the 10th anniversary of the October revolution, October (originally Ten Days that Shook the World), had its release delayed until the following year by the need to excise all scenes featuring Trotsky, whose fall was just beginning. Even so, critics saw the movie to be too formalistic and lacking the visual power of Potemkin.
His next film, The General Line, was a treatise on collectivism and village life. Full of the now signature montages and surrealism, the film had to be edited when the Party’s “general line” on collectivism changed from voluntary to forced collectivism. Which meant that simple, irrefutable messages were needed, not complex imagery. Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov (his co-director on the film) began the editing, but then left for Europe to learn about the new technology of “talkies.” The film was released in their absence under the title Old and New and was excoriated in the press for lacking the realism that the new shapers of Russian culture insisted the public wanted.
Abroad, Eisenstein was lionized. He met with leading intellectuals and artists throughout Europe and then in America, where he arrived in 1930. He even traveled to Hollywood, where he hoped to make a movie. But his proposals were repeatedly rejected and he planned his return to Russia. Yet, just before he left, some friends encouraged him to make a film about Mexico, and he received some funding from Upton Sinclair to do just that. The film, Que Viva Mexico, to all indications, would have been Eisenstein’s most daring and provocative film to date, but the film was canceled both by Stalin (who feared Eisenstein might defect) and by Sinclair (who said he could no longer afford it) when it was almost completed. The films were shipped to Moscow for “editing” but the director never saw them again [notably, the films were ‘reconstructed’ in 1979 by Georgi Aleksandrov and the film is available, if incomplete, on video]. Upon return to Moscow, Eisenstein, who apparently could not reconcile the world of filmmaking he had seen in the West with the stifling strictures of socialist realism, suffered a nervous breakdown.
Over the next two years, Eisenstein paid the price for his travels abroad. His ideas for films were all categorically rejected; the avant-garde art he refused to give up on flew square in the face of the agitkas -- realist propaganda films -- that were being churned out by Stalinist filmmakers. He was publicly crucified at the All-Union Conference of Cinema Workers in 1935. The Golden Age of Soviet filmmaking had ended.
The crowning error for Eisenstein in this period was agreeing to undertake his first sound film, Bezhin Meadow. Loosely based on the infamous case of Pavlik Morozov, a peasant boy who informed on his father and then was murdered by uncles, the film’s production quickly got caught up in the coming storm of the Great Purge. Isaac Babel was brought in to rewrite the script to make it palatable -- an exercise that would contribute to his own arrest and execution. In the end, the film was deemed too abstract, the political message unclear and even dangerous. Eisenstein took to a round of private and public self-criticisms in an effort to avert arrest.
What saved Eisenstein was the 1938 film, Alexander Nevsky. A far cry from the experimental work of his earlier years, Eisenstein’s Nevsky is a lushly costumed, traditional theatrical work of the type he and other avant-garde artists fought so hard against. But it was great propaganda (and it was a huge hit with audiences). In particular, the battle on the ice where Prince Nevsky leads the defeat of the Teutonic Knights, was apropos of the times, when anti-German sentiment was rampant (and desirable). Stalin apparently directly interfered with the writing of the script, to make the film’s anti-German and pro-authoritarianism message clear. The film ends with Nevsky freeing some German commanders and saying: “Go and tell anyone in foreign lands that Rus’ lives. Let them come without fear to be our guests. But whoever comes to us with a sword will die by the sword. On this the Russian land stands and will stand!”
From an artistic standpoint, Eisenstein made a major contribution to filmmaking with Nevsky through the well-timed synthesis of the soundtrack -- in the score by Prokofiev -- and the film itself. Perhaps most important for his personal fate, Eisenstein received the Order of Lenin for Alexander Nevsky.
But political winds did not blow in Eisenstein’s, or Russia’s, favor for long. Anti-semitism was brewing as a justification for purges. In May 1939 Isaac Babel was arrested on charges of spying for France. Investigators alleged that he confessed that he was “the leader of a counterrevolutionary organization in literature; in film it was Sergei Eisenstein, and in theater it was Mikhoels [all, interestingly, of Jewish descent].” But then came the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Germany. It may have saved Eisenstein on the anti-Semitic front (Stalin now felt a need to emphasize that this was a German-Russian alliance, not a Fascist-Communist one, so anti-Semitism became off-limits, at least overtly). But the pact also made anti-German sentiments taboo. Alexander Nevsky was removed from Russian movie screens. As if to make the point as obvious as possible, the following year Eisenstein was put in charge of the Bolshoi’s staging of Wagner’s opera, Die Walkure.
When the Germans finally invaded Russia in June 1941, Alexander Nevsky was dusted off and brought back to the screen; the staging of Wagner was quietly forgotten. In August, Stalin paraded the country’s Jewish cultural leaders, the “collaborators” Eisenstein and Mikhoels among them, at an anti-German “rally of the representatives of the Jewish people” in Moscow’s Gorky Park. “Co-conspirator” Isaac Babel did not make the rally; he had been shot in January.
From 1938-1941, Eisenstein put forward many different film ideas, all of them rejected by the powers that were. He envisioned an epic film on The Great Fergana Canal, but the film never got into production. He also sought to make films about Marx’s Das Kapital, about Joyce’s Ulysses, about Pushkin falling in love with the wife of the historian Karamzin, about Lawrence of Arabia and about the Mendel Beilis trial (accusing an innocent Jew of ritual murder). But all came to nothing. Surprised that this latter proposal was rejected at a time when anti-Semitism was equated with the German enemy, Eisenstein asked Andrei Zhdanov what types of film were of interest. Zhdanov’s reply? “Ivan the Terrible.”
The Final Act
Eisenstein began work on Ivan the Terrible in January of 1941. Production work began in October 1942. Because of the war, the epic had to be filmed in Kazakstan, in Alma-Ata. Part One, which chronicles Ivan’s rise to power and proclamation as Tsar of All Russias, is arguably the director’s most significant completed work after Potemkin. It is full of the close-ups and visual allegories the director made famous, and again features a masterful score by Prokofiev. The film opened to rave reviews in January 1945 and earned Eisenstein his Stalin Prize. It also earned him considerable praise abroad. Charlie Chaplin, whom he had befriended when in America, telegrammed Eisenstein in January 1946, just a month before the latter’s heart attack, to praise the monumental film:
“Ivan the Terrible is the greatest historical film every created. Its atmosphere is superb, and its beauty surpasses everything seen on film to this day. Happy New Year!”
Unfortunately (or fortunately, for art’s sake), Eisenstein’s ability to create beautiful, compelling images on screen was not matched by a keenness to political subtleties. Seemingly blind to the political dangers, he rushed to complete Part Two -- where Ivan begins to take revenge on his enemies -- by year’s end, despite his own fragile health.
It seems almost inexplicable that, surviving the purges as he did, Eisenstein could have failed to see the danger of the historical allegories between the oprichnina and Stalin’s secret police, or the danger of portraying allies of Ivan IV -- Stalin’s favorite tsar -- as anything less than “progressive.” Or perhaps he did see all this, but felt that historical distance allowed him, a Stalin Prize laureate, some license. In either event, as happened repeatedly through his short life, Eisenstein made a huge political blunder, but left behind an artistic wonder.
© 1998, Russian Life magazine