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Sergei Eisenstein

Soviet filmmaker

Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein ([Сергей Михайлович Эйзенштейн Sergej Mihajlovič Ejzenštejn] error: {{lang-xx}}: text has italic markup (help); January 23, 1898 – February 11, 1948) was a Soviet Russian movie director and movie theorist. He was known mostly for his silent movies Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October. He was also known for his historical epics Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. His work had a major impact on early movie directors because of his creative use of and writings about montage.

Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Eisenstein 03.jpg
Eisenstein in c. 1910
Sergei Mikhailovich Eizenshtein

January 23, 1898
DiedFebruary 11, 1948(1948-02-11) (aged 50)
Moscow, Soviet Union
Cause of deathHeart attack
Years active1923-1946
Spouse(s)Pera Atasheva (1934-1948)



Early yearsEdit

Young Sergei with his parents Mikhail and Julia Eisenstein.

Eisenstein was born in Riga, Latvia but his family moved a lot in his early years. Eisenstein continued to move often during his life. Eisenstein's father Mikhail Osipovich Eisenstein was of German-Jewish and Swedish[1] descent[2] and his mother, Julia Ivanovna Konetskaya, was from a Russian Orthodox family. He was born into a middle-class family.[3] His father was an architect and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy merchant.[4] Julia left Riga the year of the 1905 Revolution. She brought Sergei with her to St. Petersburg.[5] Sergei would return at times to see his father. His father would later move to join them around 1910.[6] His mother soon divorced his father and moved to France away from the family.[7]

At the Petrograd Institute of Civil Engineering, Sergei studied architecture and engineering, the job of his father.[8] At school with his fellow students however, Sergei would join the military to serve the revolution. His father did not support his joining the army. In 1918 Sergei joined the Red Army with his father, Mikhail, supporting the opposite side.[9] This brought his father to Germany after defeat, and Sergei to Petrograd, Vologda, and Dvinsk.[10] In 1920, Sergei was transferred to a command position in Minsk, after success providing propaganda for the October Revolution. At this time, Sergei studied Japanese. He learned some three hundred kanji characters which he cited as an influence on his pictorial development.[11] This also allowed him to see Kabuki theatre.[12] Because of his studies, he traveled to Japan.

From theatre to cinemaEdit

With Japanese kabuki actor Sadanji Ichikawa II, Moscow, 1928

In 1920 Eisenstein moved to Moscow, and began his career in theatre working for Proletkult.[13] His productions there were named Gas Masks, Listen Moscow, and Wiseman.[14] Eisenstein would then work as a designer for Vsevolod Meyerhold.[15] In 1923 Eisenstein began his career as a theorist,[16] by writing The Montage of Attractions for LEF.[17] Eisenstein's first movie, Glumov's Diary, was also made in that same year. Dziga Vertov hired at first as an "instructor" for the film[18][19] The movie formed part of his theatre production Wiseman.

"Strike" (1925) was Eisenstein's first full-length movie. The Battleship Potemkin (1925) was well liked by critics throughout the world. Because he was known throughout the world, Eisenstein was able to direct October (also known as Ten Days That Shook The World). The movie was part of the tenth anniversary celebration of the October Revolution of 1917. He then directed The General Line (also known as Old and New). People in the outside world praised the movies. However, in the Soviet Union, Eisenstein's focus on structural issues such as camera angles, crowd movements and montage, was not liked by the much of the Soviet movie community.

Travels to EuropeEdit

In the autumn of 1928, Eisenstein left the Soviet Union for a tour of Europe. He was joined by Grigori Aleksandrov and cinematographer Eduard Tisse. The trip was supposed to allow Eisenstein and others to learn about sound motion pictures. It would also show the famous Soviet artists to the capitalist West. For Eisenstein, however, it was also an opportunity to see landscapes and cultures outside those found within the Soviet Union. He spent the next two years touring and lecturing in Berlin, Zurich, London, and Paris.[20] In 1929, in Switzerland, Eisenstein supervised an educational documentary about abortion directed by Edouard Tissé entitled Frauennot - Frauenglück.[21]

American projectsEdit

In late April 1930, Jesse L. Lasky, working for Paramount Pictures, offered Eisenstein the chance to make a movie in the United States.[22] He accepted a short-term contract for $100,000 and arrived in Hollywood in May 1930. However, this agreement failed. Eisenstein's approach to filmmaking did not work with the style and way movies were made in American movie studios.

Eisenstein proposed a biography of munitions invester Sir Basil Zaharoff and a movie version of Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw. He also made plans for a movie of Sutter's Gold by Jack London.[23] But the studio's producers did not like the plan.[24] Paramount then proposed a movie version of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy.[25] This excited Eisenstein, who had read and liked the work, and had met Dreiser at one time in Moscow. Eisenstein completed a script by the start of October 1930.[26] Paramount disliked it completely. They also found themselves intimidated by Major Frank Pease,[27] president of the Hollywood Technical Director's Institute. Pease, an anti-communist, started a public campaign against Eisenstein. On October 23, 1930, Paramount and Eisenstein declared their contract canceled. Eisenstein and his movie partners were given return tickets to Moscow, at Paramount's expense.[28]

Eisenstein was faced with returning home as a failure. The Soviet movie industry was solving the sound-movie issue without him and his movies. His methods and ideas were becoming increasingly attacked as 'ideological failures'. They were called examples of formalism. Many of his theoretical articles from this period, such as Eisenstein on Disney, have been found decades later as important scholarly texts. These are used in movie schools around the world.

Eisenstein spent a large amount of time with Charlie Chaplin.[29] Chaplin recommended that Eisenstein meet American socialist author Upton Sinclair who Chaplin thought might help Eisenstein.[30] Sinclair's works had been accepted by and were widely read in the Soviet Union, and were known to Eisenstein. The two liked each other's work. Between the end of October 1930, and Thanksgiving of that year, Sinclair had gotten an extension of Eisenstein's leave from the Soviet Union. He also received permission for Eisenstein to travel to Mexico to make a movie to be produced by Sinclair and his wife, Mary Craig Kimbrough Sinclair. They joined with three other investors to make the Mexican Film Trust.[31]

Trip to MexicoEdit

On November 24, Eisenstein signed a contract with the Trust. The deal was "upon the basis of Eisenstein's desire to be free to direct the making of a picture according to his own ideas of what a Mexican picture should be, and in full faith in Eisenstein's artistic integrity."[32] The contract also said that the movie would be "non-political." The money first came from Mrs. Sinclair and would be "not less than Twenty-Five Thousand Dollars."[33] The schedule for making the movie would be "a period of from three to four months,".[33] The contract also said that "Eisenstein...agrees that all pictures made or directed by him in Mexico, all negative film and positive prints, and all story and ideas embodied in said Mexican picture, will be the property of Mrs. Sinclair..."[33] An addition to the contract, dated December 1, allowed that the "Soviet Government may have the [finished] movie free for showing inside the U.S.S.R."[34] Reportedly, it was verbally decided that the movie was expected to be an hour long.

By December 4, 1930, Eisenstein was on his way to Mexico by train. He was joined by Alexandrov and Tisse. Later he came up with a short summary of the six-part movie which would come. This would be the final plan Eisenstein would settle on for his project. The title for the project, ¡Que viva México!, was decided on some time later. While in Mexico, Eisenstein mixed socially with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Eisenstein liked these artists and Mexican culture in general. They inspired Eisenstein to call his movies, "moving frescoes."[35]

After a long time away from the Soviet Union, Stalin sent a telegram saying he was worried that Eisenstein had become a deserter.[36] Eisenstein blamed Mary Sinclair's younger brother, Hunter Kimbrough, for the film's problems.[37] Kimbrough had been sent along to act as a line producer on the movie. Eisenstein hoped to pressure the Sinclairs to stop Stalin, so Eisenstein could finish the movie in his own way.

The upset Sinclair shut down production. He ordered Kimbrough to return to the United States with the remaining movie footage. The three Soviets came as well to see what they could do with the movie already shot. For the unfinished filming of the "novel" of Soldadera, Eisenstein had gotten 500 soldiers, 10,000 guns, and 50 cannons from the Mexican Army.[37] This was lost due to Sinclair's canceling of production.

When Eisenstein arrived at the American border, a customs search of his trunk revealed sketches and drawings of Jesus along with other material of a pornographic nature.[38][39] Eisenstein's re-entry visa had expired,[40] and Sinclair's contacts in Washington were unable to secure him an additional extension. Eisenstein, Alexandrov and Tisse were, after a month's stay at the U.S.-Mexico border outside Laredo, Texas, allowed a 30-day "pass" to get from Texas to New York.[40] From there, they would be allowed to leave for Moscow. Kimbrough returned to Los Angeles with the remaining movie.

Eisenstein toured the American South, on his way to New York. In mid-1932, the Sinclairs were able to get the services of Sol Lesser. Lesser had just opened his own distribution office in New York, Principal Distributing Corp.. Lesser agreed to supervise post-production work on the miles of negative — at the Sinclairs' expense — and distribute any finished product. Two short movies and a short subject — Thunder Over Mexico based on the "Maguey" footage,[41] Eisenstein in Mexico, and Death Day respectively — were completed and released in the United States between the autumn of 1933 and early 1934.

Eisenstein never saw any of the Sinclair-Lesser movies, nor a later effort by his first biographer, Marie Seton, called Time In The Sun.[42] He would publicly say that he had lost all interest in the project.

Return to Soviet UnionEdit

Eisenstein's trip to the west made the Soviet movie business look at him with a suspicion that would never completely go away. He apparently spent some time in a mental hospital in Kislovodsk in July 1933.[43] This was possibly a result of depression because he realized that he would never be allowed to edit the Mexican footage which was turned over by Sinclair to Hollywood editors.[44]

He was then given a teaching job with the movie school GIK (now Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography) where he had taught before. In 1933 and 1934 he was in charge of writing the education plan.[45] Eisenstein married filmmaker and writer Pera Atasheva (1900–65) in 1934.[46] They remained married until his death in 1948. There is some question about his sexuality.[47]

In 1935, he began another project, Bezhin Meadow. It appears the movie had many of the same problems as Que Viva Mexico. Eisenstein decided to movie two versions of the plot. One was for adult viewers and one was for children. He failed to set a clear shooting schedule. He also used a lot of film which meant a lot of costs and missed deadlines. The movie ran into problems because it was not fully supported by its American financers.[48]

The thing that may have saved Eisenstein's career at this point was that Stalin ended up saying that the Bezhin Meadow problems, along with several other problems facing the business, had less to do with Eisenstein's approach to filmmaking as with the executives who were supposed to have been watching him. In the end, this made Boris Shumyatsky,[49] "executive producer" of Soviet movies since 1932 to blame. In early 1938, he was denounced, arrested, tried and convicted as a traitor, and shot. (The production executive at movie studio Mosfilm, where Meadow was being made, was also replaced, but without more executions).

Return to successEdit

Eisenstein was then able to impress Stalin again for "one more chance", and he chose, from two offerings, the job of a movie of Alexander Nevsky, with music composed by Sergei Prokofiev. This time, however, he was also given a co-writer, Pyotr Pavlenko,[50] to bring in a completed script. He had professional actors to play the roles. He also had an assistant director, Dmitri Vasilyev, to make the filming faster.[50]

The result was a movie critically received by both the Soviets and in the West. He won the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Prize.[51] It was an obvious allegory and hard warning against the growing forces of Nazi Germany. This was started, completed, and put in theatres all within 1938. It was Eisenstein's first movie in nearly a decade. It also his first movie with sound.

But, within months of its release, Stalin entered into his agreement with Hitler. Nevsky was quickly pulled from distribution. Eisenstein returned to teaching. He was assigned to direct Richard Wagner's Die Walküre at the Bolshoi Theatre.[51] Eisenstein had to wait until Hitler's sent German troops across the Soviet border in a fatal first strike, to see Nevsky receive wide distribution and real international success.

With the war coming to Moscow, Eisenstein was one of many filmmakers evacuated to Alma-Ata. There is where he first considered the idea of making a movie about Czar Ivan IV. Eisenstein wrote letters to Prokofiev from Alma-Ata. Prokofiev joined him there in 1942. Prokofiev composed the score for Eisenstein's movie. Eisenstein designed sets for an opera version of War and Peace that Prokofiev was creating.[52]

Ivan trilogyEdit

Eisenstein's movie, Ivan The Terrible, Part I, showing Ivan IV of Russia as a national hero, was liked by Joseph Stalin (and it won a Stalin Prize).[53] The sequel, Ivan The Terrible, Part II, was not approved of by the government. All the film from the not-finished Ivan The Terrible: Part III was taken away, and most of it was destroyed[54] (though several filmed scenes still exist today).

Eisenstein's health was also failing. He had a heart attack during the making of this movie. He died soon after of another heart attack at the age of 50.[55] He is buried at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.

movie theoristEdit

Eisenstein was one of the first to use montage, a specific form of movie editing. He and Lev Kuleshov, two of the first movie theorists, said that montage was the basis of movies. His articles and books — especially Film Form and The Film Sense — explain the need for montage in detail.

His writings and movies have continued to have a major impact on later filmmakers. Eisenstein believed that editing could be used for more than just explaining a scene or moment through a "linkage" of related images. Eisenstein felt the "collision" of shots could be used to control the feelings of the audience and create movie metaphors. He believed that an idea should be concluded from comparing two different shots. This is what made a collage or montage within movie. He developed what he called "methods of montage":

  1. Metric[56]
  2. Rhythmic[57]
  3. Tonal[58]
  4. Overtonal[59]
  5. Intellectual[60]

Eisenstein taught movie making during his career at GIK. He also wrote the lessons for the directors' course there.[61] His classroom illustrations are reproduced in Vladimir Nizhniĭ's Lessons with Eisenstein. Exercises and examples for students were based on literature such as Honoré de Balzac's Le Père Goriot.[62] Another situation students had to produce was the staging of the Haitian struggle for independence as depicted in Anatolii Vinogradov's The Black Consul,.[63] Eisenstein also taught the specifics of directing, photography, and editing. He encouraged his students' development of individuality, expressiveness, and creativity.[64] Eisenstein's teaching, like his movies, were politically charged and contained quotes from Vladimir Lenin.[65]

In his first movies, Eisenstein did not use professional actors. His narratives did not focus on individual characters. Instead, they addressed broad social issues, especially class conflict. He used basic characters, and the roles were filled with untrained people from the matching classes. He avoided using stars.[66] Eisenstein's vision of communism brought him into conflict with officials in the ruling system of Joseph Stalin. Like many Bolshevik artists, Eisenstein pictured a new society which would pay for artists totally. This would free them from bosses and budgets. It would leave them free to create. But budgets and producers were as important to the Soviet movie business as the rest of the world. The isolated, post-revolution, new nation did not have the resources to nationalize its movie business at first. When it did, limited resources — both monetary and equipment — required production controls as big as in the capitalist world.


List of writingsEdit

  • Selected articles in: Christie, Ian; Taylor, Richard, eds. (1994), The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896-1939, New York, New York: Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-05298-6.
  • Eisenstein, Sergei (1949), Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, New York: Hartcourt. Trans. Jay Leyda.
  • Eisenstein, Sergei (1942) The Film Sense, New York: Hartcourt, Trans. Jay Leyda.
  • Eisenstein, Sergei (1972), Que Viva Mexico!, New York: Arno, ISBN 978-0-405-03916-4.
  • Eisenstein, Sergei (1994) Towards a Theory of Montage, British Film Institute.
In Russian, and available online
  • Эйзенштейн, Сергей (1968), "Сергей Эйзенштейн" (избр. произв. в 6 тт), Москва: Искусство, Избранные статьи.


  1. Sergei Eisenstein
  2. Literaty Encyclopedia Archived 3 October 2012 at WebCite
  3. Эйзенштейн 1968 [1] Archived 3 October 2012 at WebCite
  4. Bordwell 1993, p. 1
  5. Seton 1952, p. 19
  6. Seton 1952, p. 20
  7. Seton 1952, p. 22
  8. Seton 1952, p. 28
  9. Seton 1952, pp. 34-35
  10. Seton 1952, p. 35
  11. Эйзенштейн 1968 [2] Archived 3 October 2012 at WebCite
  12. Seton 1952, p. 37
  13. Seton 1952, p. 41
  14. Seton 1952, p. 529
  15. Seton 1952, pp. 46-48
  16. Seton 1952, p. 61
  17. Christie & Taylor 1994, pp. 87-89
  18. Эйзенштейн 1968 [3] Archived 3 October 2012 at WebCite
  19. Goodwin 1993, p. 32
  20. Eisenstein 1972, p. 8
  21. Bordwell 1993, p. 16
  22. Geduld & Gottesman 1970, p. 12
  23. Montagu 1968, p. 151
  24. Seton 1952, p. 172
  25. Seton 1952, p. 174
  26. Montagu 1968, p. 209
  27. Seton 1952, p. 167
  28. Seton 1952, pp. 185-186
  29. Montagu 1968, pp. 89-97
  30. Seton 1952, p. 187
  31. Seton 1952, p. 188
  32. Seton 1952, p. 189
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 Geduld & Gottesman 1970, p. 22
  34. Geduld & Gottesman 1970, p. 23
  35. Bordwell 1993, p. 19
  36. Seton 1952, p. 513
  37. 37.0 37.1 Geduld & Gottesman 1970, p. 281
  38. Seton 1952, pp. 234-235
  39. Geduld & Gottesman 1970, pp. 309-310
  40. 40.0 40.1 Geduld & Gottesman 1970, p. 288
  41. Bordwell 1993, p. 21
  42. Seton 1952, p. 446
  43. Seton 1952, p. 280
  44. Leyda 1960, p. 299
  45. Bordwell 1993, p. 140
  46. Bordwell 1993, p. 33
  47. Aldrich & Wotherspoon 2002 pp. 170–1.
  48. Leyda 1960, p. 275
  49. Seton 1952, p. 369
  50. 50.0 50.1 Bordwell 1993, p. 27
  51. 51.0 51.1 Bordwell 1993, p. 28
  52. Leyda & Voynow 1982, p. 146
  53. Neuberger 2003, p. 22
  54. Leyda & Voynow 1982, p. 135
  55. Neuberger 2003, p. 23
  56. Eisenstein 1949, p. 72
  57. Eisenstein 1949, p. 73
  58. Eisenstein 1949, p. 75
  59. Eisenstein 1949, p. 78
  60. Eisenstein 1949, p. 82
  61. Nizhniĭ 1962, p. 93
  62. Nizhniĭ 1962, p. 3
  63. Nizhniĭ 1962, p. 21
  64. Nizhniĭ 1962, pp. 148-155
  65. Nizhniĭ 1962, p. 143
  66. Seton 1952, p. 185


  • Bergan, Ronald (1999), Sergei Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict, Boston, Massachusetts: Overlook Hardcover, ISBN 978-0-87951-924-7
  • Bordwell, David (1993), The Cinema of Eisenstein, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0-674-13138-5
  • Geduld, Harry M.; Gottesman, Ronald, eds. (1970), Sergei Eisenstein and Upton Sinclair: The Making & Unmaking of Que Viva Mexico!, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, ISBN 978-0-253-18050-6
  • Goodwin, James (1993), Eisenstein, Cinema, and History, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, ISBN 978-0-252-06269-8
  • Leyda, Jay (1960), Kino: A History Of The Russian And Soviet Film, New York: Macmillan, OCLC 1683826
  • Leyda, Jay (1986), Eisenstein on Disney, London: Methuen, ISBN 978-0-413-19640-8
  • Leyda, Jay; Voynow, Zina (1982), Eisenstein At Work, New York: Pantheon, ISBN 978-0-394-74812-2
  • Montagu, Ivor (1968), With Eisenstein in Hollywood, Berlin: Seven Seas Books, OCLC 8713
  • Neuberger, Joan (2003), Ivan the Terrible: The Film Companion, London; New York: I.B. Tauris, ISBN 978-1-86064-560-0
  • Nizhniĭ, Vladimir (1962), Lessons with Eisenstein, New York: Hill and Wang, OCLC 6406521
  • Seton, Marie (1952), Sergei M. Eisenstein: A Biography, New York: A.A. Wyn, OCLC 2935257
  • Howes, Keith (2002), "Eisenstein, Sergei (Mikhailovich)", in Aldrich, Robert; Wotherspoon, Garry (eds.), Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History from Antiquity to World War II, Routledge; London, ISBN 978-0-415-15983-8
  • Stern, Keith (2009), "Eisenstein, Sergei", Queers in History, BenBella Books, Inc.; Dallas, Texas, ISBN 978-1-933771-87-8


  • The Secret Life of Sergei Eisenstein (1987) by Gian Carlo Bertelli

Other websitesEdit