Cover image for Eisenstein : a life in conflict
Eisenstein : a life in conflict
Bergan, Ronald.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Woodstock, N.Y. : Overlook Press, 1999.

Physical Description:
xvi, 384 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
Originally published: London : Little, Brown and Co., 1997.
Format :


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Material Type
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Central Library PN1998.3.E34 B47 1997 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
Central Library PN1998.3.E34 B47 1997 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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This is the US edition of a critically lauded biography originally published in Britain in 1997. Exploring the life and work of the pioneering filmmaker, it draws on material recently released from Soviet archives, as well as personal letters, diaries, and sketches to discuss his childhood and the influence of his parents, his emergence as a revolutionary artist, and his rise to prominence on the world cinematic scene. Annotation copyrighted by Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

There are two ways to make a movie move, moving the camera and assembling segments of film into a continuity. Both are used in nearly all movies, but the great advocate of the second as the basis of film style was Eisenstein (1898^-1948). The first biography of him in 25 years is the story of a frustrated career, for Eisenstein completed only eight films, and a compromised conscience, for he had to toady to Stalin, who he thought, Bergan all but states, had betrayed the revolution. Eisenstein didn't betray it, making films so wedded to Marxist dialectical development that they require close attention to fully appreciate their political arguments. Fortunately, they are so beautiful and striking that one can admire them without grasping their politics. Bergan's pages are fraught with quotations from Eisenstein's writings and with the observations of the hundreds of artists he worked with and met, in Russia and during his three-year sojourn in western Europe and North America. Cinephiles wouldn't have it otherwise and will treasure the book. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

A colleague of the great Soviet director once remarked, "I am absolutely convinced that Eisenstein was a Leonardo da Vinci of the 20th century." This biography argues for the validity of that claim. Drawing on the many documents that have become available to researchers since the end of the Cold War, Bergan's study ranks as a clear improvement over the last Einsenstein biography published in English, a translation from the Russian that appeared 25 years ago. For instance, Bergan demonstrates, as Eisenstein's previous biographer, Marie Seton, did not, that the director's celebrated development of montage was rooted in a long study of the visual arts, providing him with a mental backlog of images to realize on screen. Quoting heavily from Eisenstein's posthumously published memoirs, Bergan reveals that somewhere between the meticulously organized work of the former engineering student and the inchoate gay sexuality and occasional childishness of the private man lay a sensibility at once polymathic and in touch with the most elemental human emotions. The biographer also examines Eisenstein's abortive sojourns in Hollywood and Mexico with an incisiveness missing from Ivor Montagu's first-hand account of the period. Finally, Bergan presents the most detailed picture yet of Eisenstein's love-hate relationship with the Stalin regime, whose combination of meticulousness, philistinism and cruelty echoed the circumstances of the director's upbringing. Despite Bergan's effort to portray Eisenstein as a human being as well as an artistic icon, something about the director still remains distant and impersonal when the book is finished. But this portrait goes further toward resolving the riddles of Eisenstein's career than its predecessors, and will reward the attention of anyone interested in either film or Soviet history. Photos. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

What more can be said about EisensteinÄfilm pioneer and enfant terrible of Soviet cinemaÄthat countless tomes haven't already covered? The novelty in Bergan's accessible biography lies in newly released correspondence and diaries. This preponderance of primary materials yields insights into the filmmaker's fruitful associations with Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, and Mayakovsky, among others, as well as those that didn't solidify (e.g., with Paul Robeson, Upton Sinclair, and Theodore Dreiser). Eisenstein's relative success at toeing the line under Stalin is chronicled, though on this matter scholarly opinion is divided. Bergan focuses more on the human interactions that influenced Eisenstein's ideas than on the ideas themselvesÄfilm practice as opposed to theory. Nevertheless, we get Eisenstein's own words. Bergan (Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise, LJ 6/1/94) enhances what we already know about the proponent of psychologically based cinema, demystifying Eisenstein's formidable genius to reveal a man whose accomplishments equaled his disappointments with unrealized projects. Recommended for film collections.ÄJayne Plymale, Aiken, SC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Bergan's is the third biography of the great Russian director to appear in English since his death in 1948. Marie Seton's lively Sergei M. Eisenstein (1952) was too dependent on firsthand impressions and vitiated by Seton's penchant for psychoanalysis. Yon Barna's Eisenstein (CH, Jun'74) was the first to plumb Eisenstein's archive and Russian editions of his writings. Since then, the entire archive and papers of close collaborators such as Jay Leyda and Ivor Montagu have become available, and Bergan is the first to quote extensively from them. However, despite revealing interesting new details, Bergan primarily reconfirms a familiar portrait. He relies too much on Eisenstein's autobiography Beyond the Stars (CH, Apr'96); his comments on the films' cultural and political contexts and on Eisenstein's huge body of theoretical speculations are thin indeed. Though his bibliography lists recent British scholarship (e.g., by Ian Christie and Richard Taylor), he does not engage their ideas seriously. Astoundingly, he ignores recent US scholarship--e.g., David Bordwell's insightful The Cinema of Eisenstein (CH, Mar'94) and James Goodwin's Eisenstein, Cinema, and History (CH, Jul'93). Add maddeningly imprecise notes without page numbers and illustrations already published elsewhere and one has a major opportunity sadly missed. Accessible to general readers; cautious use by scholars. S. Liebman; CUNY Graduate School and University Center



Chapter One The Childhood of Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein I had no experience of poverty or deprivation in childhood, nor any of the horrors of struggling for existence. Further on you will encounter descriptions of my childhood -- for the time being, take it on faith! An orchestra was playing at the summer resort of Majorenhof, on the coast just outside Riga. Yulia Ivanovna Eisenstein was seven month's pregnant. The guests at the dacha had had far too much to drink that evening. A fight broke out and someone was killed. Yulia's husband, Mikhail Osipovich Eisenstein, grabbed his revolver in an attempt to restore order. Yulia Ivanovna was terrified and almost gave birth prematurely. As it was, back in Riga, Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein arrived three weeks early, on January 23, 1898, having absorbed, in the womb, a love of gunshots and orchestras.     A couple of years later, the family was again holidaying at Majorenhof. The child Sergei was lying in a small, white bed. A bough of white lilac spilled through the window of the room, its flowers and green foliage cutting across a ray of sunshine above his head. `My first childhood impression was ... a close-up,' he wrote towards the end of his life. It is easy to pass by 6 Valdemara Street in Riga without a second glance. Although large, it is an undistinguished, rectangular, offwhite, four-storey building, the paint peeling off the facade. It contains the offices of an established printing firm. On the wall beside a rather pretentiously tall doorway, a discreet, unpolished plaque is visible. It reads: `Sergets Eisenstein, film artist, was born and lived here between 1898-1916.' Virtually no other evidence exists that Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein was born and brought up in this Baltic seaport, the capital of Latvia. There is an Eisenstein Street, but that is named after Sergei's father, the architect and civil engineer Mikhail Osipovich. It is true to say, that among the general population of Riga, Eisenstein Senior is better known than his film director son.     Now, as at the turn of the century, the house on Valdemara Street (Nicholas Street in Tsarist times) is in an expensive and fashionable part of town. A splendidly spacious and verdant park, a golden church dome and a meandering blue canal can be seen from the windows of the house. Apart from some modern high-rise buildings in the background, this would have been approximately the view that greeted the young Eisenstein through his bedroom window in Flat 7, on the third floor.     The picture of a privileged middle-class child, with his long, fair, shoulder-length hair and his sailor suit, Sergei would go for walks with his beloved nanny, Maria Elksne, in the parks off the pleasant boulevards. In a photograph taken in 1904, the six-year-old Eisenstein is standing in his sailor suit and laced-up boots, holding his large hat in his small right hand. His left hand seems even tinier because it is almost lost in the grip of his father, a portly, officious-looking man, with a trimmed handle-bar moustache. Mikhail Osipovich Eisenstein is proudly wearing the uniform of the senior city engineer in the roads department of the Livonian provincial government. (In most of the surviving photographs he is bedecked in some uniform or other.) The little Sergei, plainly ill at ease, stares tentatively out at the camera. He resembles the description he once gave of himself as an adult: `When I look at myself in complete privacy, the image that most readily springs to mind is that of ... David Copperfield. Delicate, thin, short, defenceless, and very timid.'     Erwin Mednis, a former school classmate, recalled that `physically he was slightly built and rather frail. There was something rather feminine about his appearance, so that he often looked more like a girl than a boy.'     Much to his father's disgust, Eisenstein's mother kept her son's hair in a kind of medieval bob, rather like that of the effeminate Vladimir's in Ivan the Terrible . Eisenstein saw himself as a `well-brought up boy from Riga with the Lord Fauntleroy ringlets and lace collar ... Since my earliest years it was the shackles of cuffs and starched collar instead of torn trousers and ink blots ...' Eventually, when his mother left her husband and went to live in St Petersburg, his father had Sergei's head shaved bare.     Eisenstein was certainly a victim of incompatible parents, bullied and ignored by his father, flattered and pampered by his mother. Yulia Ivanovna was a snobbish woman who regarded her husband as vulgar and was determined that Sergei should grow up to be a man of culture. `She was eccentric. I was eccentric. She was ridiculous. I was ridiculous,' her son remarked. To him, his father represented philistinism and bourgeois values, his mother the arts and refinement. She provided him with a wide culture, while his father incited his rebellion.     Given this situation, it is all too easy for commentators to fall back on psychological commonplaces such as the Oedipus complex when explaining Eisenstein's actions, personality and sexuality -- his antipathy towards his father, his ambivalent love for his mother -- yet in his oblique writings about his emotional life, the self-perceptive Eisenstein encourages this view. Mikhail Osipovich was a powerful, stocky man with a Kaiser Wilhelm moustache, who came from a family of German-Jewish origin which had been baptised and assimilated into Russian society. Not much is known about them. Although Mikhail Osipovich's grave in Berlin is marked `Born St Petersburg', no record of his birth there has been found. It is possible that he was born somewhere close to the city or that he had no wish, for some political or social reason, to divulge his real birthplace. (The name of Eisenstein was quite common in Czechoslovakia and Austria.) Among Sergei Eisenstein's possessions was a souvenir glass on which there is a picture of a church in the town of Eisenstein, somewhere in Europe. Almost nothing is known of his paternal grandparents, though the wife of his cousin once remarked that her husband mentioned that the grandmother was thought to be Swedish.     For Eisenstein, his father exemplified all that was reprehensible in the bourgeois mentality and, it could be argued, that his father's persona informs the bourgeois characters he depicted in his films, such as the fat bosses in The Strike and the heartless double-chinned kulak in The General Line . With this in mind, it is difficult not to see Eisenstein's treatment of Alexander Kerensky in October as not only a political gesture, but a private one. In one visual metaphor, the caricatured Alexander Kerensky is compared, through montage, to a mechanical peacock spreading its metal feathers. The satirical effect is increased in the sequence where the `dictator' Kerensky is made to ascend the same flight of steps several times with the inter-cutting titles denoting ever higher rank. In the same film, a uniformed general is meticulously presented button by button from his oiled-flat hair to his shiny boots. From Eisenstein's own, albeit subjective, testimony of his father, a grotesque Gogolian picture of a pompous, pedantic, rather preposterous man emerges.     `Father had 40 pairs of patent leather shoes ... His valet Ozols, in his greatcoat, would give him the pair he requested with the aid of the list, taking them from what looked like a multi-tiered rabbit hutch which hung in the corridor ... Papa would only wear shiny, black boots with square toes. He did not acknowledge any other sort. And he had a huge collection of them "for every occasion." He even listed them in a register, with any distinguishing feature indicated: "new", "old"; "a scratch". From time to time he held an inspection and roll-call. Then Ozols would slide up and down, opening wide the gates of this boot garage. Vainglorious, petty, too stout, industrious, unlucky, broken -- but still he wore his white gloves (on weekdays!) and his collars were perfectly starched.'     Writing in the last decade of his life, Eisenstein's aversion to his `tyrannical' father was as strong as ever. However, many of his caustic reflections on a man who had died in 1920, could be seen as a transference of his unexpressed and inexpressible private views on `Papa' Stalin. During the most repressive period of Stalin's `paternalistic' rule, it was extremely dangerous to write down one's negative thoughts on the regime, even in one's personal diary, especially for Eisenstein who was always closely watched for any `deviations'. Yet, in 1928, after the leader's interference with October , Eisenstein did confide to his diary his disgust at `the barbarism of Stalin'. It was one of the very few pages destroyed by Eisenstein's widow, Pera Attasheva, out of fear for him, and she collected almost everything of his. Eisenstein's mother, Yulia Ivanovna (née Konyetskaya), who had the simian features, big head and stocky body of her son, resembled Sergei in drag. The resemblance was so striking that the reminiscence of the pain Eisenstein recalled feeling as a child when his mother denied, during an angry exchange, that he was her son, seems hardly credible. If there had been any dispute as to his parentage, it would have been far more likely, given his mother's `oversexed' nature -- she had several affairs before, during and after her marriage -- that his father was not his natural one, a far-fetched notion that Eisenstein enjoyed contemplating.     Yulia Ivanovna was independent-minded, and had travelled to Egypt alone, an unusual undertaking for a middle-class woman in the late 19th century. She was the daughter of a self-made merchant, Ivan Ivanovich Konyetsky, who established a flourishing barge-hauling firm in St Petersburg, which carried freight on the Marinsky canal system which linked the Baltic Sea and the River Neva to the River Volga. Her mother, Iraida Matveyevna Konyetskaya, ran the company after her husband died. Eisenstein, always fond of finding analogies in literature, saw his grandmother as the eponymous character in Maxim Gorky's 1910 play Vassa Zheleznova , a woman who rules her bourgeois family and its shipping empire with a rod of iron. Iraida died of a brain haemorrhage while praying vigorously in the Alexander Nevsky church in Riga. Perhaps she was in the throes of religious ecstasy, a state of mind that theoretically fascinated Eisenstein most of his life, linking it as he did with sexual ecstasy.     In addition, in keeping with a certain pattern of correspondences (some accidental, others predetermined) between Eisenstein's life and work, the `family saint' of the Konyetskies happened to be Alexander Nevsky, the hero of the director's most acceptable film in the Soviet Union. As a child, he would often take walks in the Alexander Nevsky monastery, `the silver shrine of the saint whom I was destined to glorify in film after his country had made him a national hero.'     If one is searching for further associations, the only mother who has a substantial role in his films is Euphrosinia, the monstrous mother in Ivan the Terrible . She smothers (almost literally at times) her weak, epicene son Vladimir, and is prepared to commit any crime to see him become Tsar, despite his reluctance. The mother of Vassili Bouslay, the axe-wielding blond warrior in Alexander Nevsky , tells him, `I thought to see you wedded. You have brought disgrace,' when he gives up Olga to his friend Gavrilo.     At his parents' separation, after staying a short period with an aunt, Eisenstein remained with his father and only saw his mother on infrequent visits to St Petersburg, although he lived with her for two years at No. 9 Tauride Street while he was a student at the Engineering School. When he had embarked on his career as a director, after his father had become an exile in Germany, he was in constant touch, allowing her to share in his triumphs, and sending her cards from wherever he was travelling, later getting her to come to Moscow to be near him.     It was Yulia Ivanovna, who had written a number of unfinished and unpublished novels herself, who first indulged her son's love of books. Her great-uncle, General Botovsky, who was the president of the Russian Olympic Games committee, and had been responsible for Russia joining the Olympic movement, wrote stories for magazines. According to Eisenstein, `He was extremely miserly. He was no less mean in his literary craft. He wasted no time, for example, describing nature. "It was one of those dawns that Turgenev describes so inimitably well ..." This was but one of the literary pearls to roll off the General's pen.'     `Books are attracted to me,' Eisenstein wrote. `They make a beeline for me, and stick to me. I have been so fond of them that at last they have begun to reciprocate. In my hands books burst like ripe fruit. Like magic flowers they unfold their petals to show me the vital thought, the suggestive word, the confirming quotation, the decisive illustration.'     Director Mikhail Romm, visiting Eisenstein's apartment in the early 1930s, remarked, `There were books everywhere. A huge table was covered in books. An entire wall was filled with bookshelves, and Eisenstein used to sit among the books, on the books, under the books.'     His English friend Ivor Montagu had a similar impression when he visited him in 1933. `The one-big-room flat he inhabited was everywhere knee-deep in books. He could, of course, never find a wanted one and, if something had to be looked up, he had each time to buy another copy.'     By his early teens, Eisenstein had read most of the works of Alexander Dumas, Jean Racine, Pierre Corneille, Emile Zola and Stéphane Mallarmé in French, Edgar Allan Poe in English, and Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky in Russian, making copious notes as he did so. It was from books that Eisenstein derived his `first impressions of sadism ... the first situations to suggest themselves to me came not from live or personal experience but were "reflected" and "refracted."' As if to contradict this, Eisenstein relates his earliest memories of thrashings he had received as a small boy. The first was from Ozols, his father's servant.     `My second thrashing came a little later, but before my schooldays began and with much less ceremony. I remember here being half-naked -- only my trousers were down. I remember the "weapon" -- a strap folded three times ... Mama was the executioner. And it had absolutely no effect whatsoever, I laughed cheekily the whole time, although my cheekiness alone deserved punishment. I had been thoroughly obnoxious to my French (or English?) governess on a walk in Strelkovy Park. It was worse for Eton schoolboys.'     Eisenstein then goes on to describe, in some detail and with relish, the punishments at Eton. `In the schoolroom ... stands a small wooden step-ladder with three rungs. The victim kneels on it, bending over obediently. And as he does so, the ancient rule dictates, "there shall be nothing between the birch and the body."'     The sado-masochistic streak in S. M. Eisenstein's character, and a morbid fascination with martyrdom, especially that of St Sebastian, so prevalent in gay iconography, dates back to his childhood reading, later revealing itself in his drawings, films and in his memoirs, particularly in a chapter headed To the Illustrious Memory of the Marquis .     He remembered an article he read as a child in a copy of his father's Petersburg Gazette , which described how a group of drunken butchers took an apprentice into a back room, stripped him, and hung him by his legs from a hook in the ceiling. `They then began to flay him with a double hook, the sort used for hanging carcasses up. Skin came off in chunks ... I expect it was this image that gave rise to my predilection for St Sebastian ... In my Mexican film, I named the peon who was martyred in the fields of agave, Sebastian; he died in excruciating agony, after suffering all manner of torture, being buried up to his shoulders and trampled beneath the hooves of the haciendado's horses.'     At the age of twelve, while visiting his mother in St Petersburg, he came across a number of books which she had hidden under the seats of chairs and sofas. One of them, which he surreptitiously read and took delight in, was the Marquis de Sade's Histoire de Juliette ou Les Prospérités du Vice (The Story of Juliette or Vice Amply Rewarded) , which Eisenstein mistakenly remembered in his memoirs as being called The Stages of Vice . Other representatives of his mother's rather exotic taste were The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau and Venus in Furs by Léopold Sacher-Masoch, the latter being illustrated with `the first pictures of "unhealthy sensuality" that I found.' He also felt that these books aroused `an alarming streak of brutality' within him, and influenced `the ocean of brutalities in which my pictures are steeped.'     The thirteen-year-old schoolboy Eisenstein would stare through the windows of a bookshop in Riga, where the lurid covers of penny dreadfuls were displayed. `The covers had a terrifying, magnetic force. And I remember being unable to take my eyes off those horrors behind the glass, but standing there for ages.' A cover that made a vivid impression was one which depicted detective Nick Carter, his hands and feet tied up, suspended above a sarcophagus filled with molten metal. `On one side was a lady, her dress in disarray, wearing a short skirt, her bodice undone. She had one arm stretched out as she took aim. The caption read: "If Nick doesn't tell her what she wants to know, she'll shoot through the rope." The metal bubbled with hospitality, ready for the doomed Nick.'     Without elaborating, Eisenstein admits that his first erotic dream came from a Nick Carter-inspired fantasy. One summer, at a dacha in Bullen, on the Riga coast, Eisenstein `reconstructed' a Nick Carter cover, getting the young Baron Tusenhausen, the son of a friend of his parents, to strip to the waist and wear a cap, as the captive of a villain who was forcing him to print counterfeit notes.     Another book cover that attracted him was one which displayed various implements of torture, with the neck of a young man, who was stripped to the waist, gripped tightly by an iron collar. These, and other images of torture, were to find their way into some of his produced (and unproduced) screenplays and films. `In fact, people in my films are gunned down in their hundreds; farm labourers have their skulls shattered by hoofs, or they are lassoed and buried in the ground up to their necks (Qué Viva México!) ; children are crushed on the Odessa steps (The Battleship Potemkin) ; thrown from rooftops (The Strike) ; are surrendered to their own parents who murder them (Bezhin Meadow) ; thrown onto flaming pyres (Alexander Nevsky) ; they stream with actual bulls' blood (The Strike) or with stage blood (Potemkin) ; in some films bulls are poisoned (The Old and the New) ; in others, tsars (Ivan the Terrible) ; a shot horse hangs from a raised bridge (October) ; and arrows pierce men lying spread-eagled on the ramparts outside a besieged Kazan (Ivan the Terrible) . And it seems no coincidence that it was none other than Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich the Terrible who ruled my mind and was my hero for very many years.'     He could have added the tower of Timur, in the unrealised Ferghana Canal , constructed from tortured human bodies, and the hundreds of sketches of the beheading of John the Baptist, the murder of King Duncan from Macbeth , and martyred bulls dying at the hands of a matador, that he drew in Mexico.     There is a particular homoerotic image in The Battleship Potemkin that appealed to Eisenstein. After the killing of the leader of the mutiny, `a young lad tears his shirt in a paroxysm of fury' revealing his bare chest. (Actually, it could also be read as the ancient Jewish tradition of tearing one's clothing in mourning). This derived from Eisenstein's reading of reports about a young man who, during the 1917 revolution in St Petersburg, had his shirt torn off his back before being executed -- his `perforated body lay on the granite steps, half submerged in the Neva ... the two halves of the boy's shirt lying on the granite steps near the sphinxes of the Egyptian Bridge.' Revealingly, Eisenstein admits that he was more interested in the section with the boy tearing his shirt than in the hoisting of the red flag in The Battleship Potemkin . The motif reoccurs in Ivan the Terrible , when the Tsar's would-be assassin, a young monk, has his shirt torn off him. Apart from literature and the forbidden delights of serie noire , Eisenstein found both his imagination and rebellion fuelled by history books, particularly Auguste Mignet's History of the French Revolution .     `The history of France was one of the first things to make an impression on me ... By some miracle, "the impressionable little boy" stumbled upon more historical works in his father's bookcases. They seemed out of place there, in the library of this upright citizen who had successfully worked his way up the ranks. But I found 1871 and the Paris Commune there, in a handsomely illustrated French edition. It was kept next to albums about Napoleon Bonaparte, who was my father's ideal -- as he was of any self-made man. (In October , the `democrat' Kerensky, obsessed with power, gazes at a bust of Napoleon).     `My fascination with revolutions, especially French ones, dates from that tender age. First of all it was because of their romance. Their colour. Their rarity. I greedily devoured book after book. The guillotine enthralled my imagination ... I was excited by figures like Marat and Robespierre. I could hear the crack of rifles -- the Versailles firing squads -- and the peal of the Paris tocsin ... Living in Riga I spoke German better than Russian. But in my thoughts I lived French history.'     After the uprising of February 1917, when Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated, Eisenstein expressed a regret, albeit ironically, that a guillotine had not been set up in Znamenskaya Square in St Petersburg, where stood the Alexander III memorial. `I used to imagine that Doctor Guillotine's "widow" stood on top of the granite pedestal ... I wanted so much to be part of history ... but what sort of history was it, if there was no guillotine?'     This romanticising of a bloody revolution imbues much of October , particularly in the storming of the Winter Palace sequence. The film, designed to glorify the Bolsheviks and the revolution of 1917, owes a great deal to Eisenstein's childhood visions of French revolutions, derived as much from his reading of Les Misérables as from history books.     `The romance of the fighting on the barricades was informed with elements of the ideas being fought for. Naive though it may be as far as the profundity of its social programme is concerned, Hugo's sermon on social injustice is nevertheless expressed with passion and pitched at just the right level to inspire anyone young and just beginning to think about life, with similar ideas ...'     It must not be forgotten that Eisenstein spent his childhood in Riga `during the heat of the events of 1905.' Eisenstein was only seven years old when the revolution broke out in St Petersburg, but he was steeped in the stories of the uprising. On January 9, a workers' group moved in a peaceful procession on the Winter Palace in order to claim redress of grievances from the Tsar himself, using revolutionary language. The procession was fired upon by order of one of the grand dukes (Nicholas II was absent from the Palace). The event was termed "Bloody Sunday" and may be considered the beginning of the Revolution of 1905.     Eisenstein remembered a detail of Bloody Sunday that a witness recounted to him. Little boys had sat in the trees of Alexandrovsky Park `just like sparrows', and when the first volley was fired upon the crowd, they jumped. In February 1905, for the first time in the history of modern Russia, millions of people in the cities as well as the villages took part in a genuine mass movement. In late September and early October the movement swelled toward a dramatic climax. Strikes spread everywhere. The result of the struggle was paralysis throughout the economy and panic among the leaders of the government, including Baron Alexander Meller-Zakomelsky, known for his cruel suppression of mutinies during the Revolution of 1905.     `There are as many terrible and brutal impressions as you could wish from all around; the wild outburst of reaction and repression from men like Meller-Zakomelsky and his accomplices. Even more important, the brutality in my pictures is indissolubly tied up with the theme of social injustice, and revolt against it ...'     Yet, Eisenstein, an artist who claimed to be a Marxist all his life, makes an astonishing admission. `The reason why I came to support social protest had little to do with the real miseries of social injustice, or material privations, or the zigzags of the struggle for life, but directly and completely from what is surely the prototype of every social tyranny -- the father's despotism in a family, which is also a survival of the basic despotism of the head of the "tribe" in every primitive society.'     Again, elsewhere, Eisenstein puts the origins of his rebellious or `revolutionary' nature in art as much down to his father as to politics and philosophy. `Father was a pillar of the church and the autocracy ... Father who instilled in me the whole melting-pot of petit-bourgeois, petty passions for self improvement at the expense of others, but was not able to see that an Oedipal [author's italics] protest would make me hate them even though they were part of my baggage. And instead of being invisibly intoxicated by them, the cold eye of the analyst and tally clerk would break down whatever charm they might have held ... I do not represent my late father -- a typical bully about the house, and slave to Tolstoy's ideas of comme il faut -- with a list of grievances. But it is interesting that my protest against what was "acceptable" in behaviour and in art, and my contempt of authority, was certainly linked to him.'     In the second version of the aborted Bezhin Meadow , there is a reversal of the patricidal Oedipus story -- the origin of the Freudian 'Kill the father'. It is the kulak father who kills his young son after declaring, `If a son betray his own father, let him be slaughtered like a dog.'     Two months before his mother's death in 1946, and over two decades after his father's death, Eisenstein wrote: `Perhaps to tell the truth, I never felt a particular love for Mikhail Osipovich according to the Biblical code. But one of the fundamental commands in the Bible is that we "honour" our parents: "Honour thy mother and thy father and thou shalt dwell long on the earth." A reward that was of dubious value. And anyway, why should one be grateful to one's parents.'     Eisenstein's `protest' against his father extended to Mikhail Osipovich's work as an architect. (Sergei also lived to see, but not comment on, the heavy post-war Stalin Gothic skyscrapers.) `Father was one of the most flowery representatives of that architectural decadence -- style moderne . Father was a reckless follower de l'art pompier. Pompier in his behaviour.'     Eisenstein Senior built over fifty houses in Riga in the first decade of the century, three of which have become tourist attractions. These are numbers 2, 4 and 6 Albert Street designed in what Sergei called `the crazy art nouveau style, which so transported my dear parent.' They show a surprising side to Eisenstein's father. The Jugendstil (as art nouveau is called in German) dominates much of the old city centre, most of it unremarkable, but those in Albert Street built by Mikhail Eisenstein have genuine style and imagination, especially the sinuous lines and phallic motifs of the interiors. The facades are encrusted with rather antic statuary -- two nude women who seem to be making the Roman (fascist) `heil' gesture, while two others hold up laurel wreaths. On another corner is the head of a bearded man who bears a resemblance to Nikolai Cherkassov as Ivan the Terrible, being harangued on either side by two shrews. A couple of sphinxes guard the entrance of number 2. Although Jugendstil was becoming fashionable, if not respectable, when these buildings were erected around the turn of the century, they were certainly not the work of the arch-conservative, shoe-obsessed, domineering, uniformed philistine and petty `government inspector' described by his son. Sergei dismissed his father as `a maker of cakes' urging all his friends to `look at the cream on that house's face.'     `Father, who placed statues of human beings one and a half storeys high, stretched out as a decoration, on the corners of the houses. Father, who deployed women's arms, made from iron drainpipes and with gold rings in their hands, beneath the angle of the roof. In bad weather, it was fun watching the rain stream down between their tin legs. Father, who triumphantly entwined in the sky the tails of the plaster lions -- lions de plâtre -- which were piled up on the rooftops. Father himself was a lion de plâtre . And he bequeathed to me an unhealthy passion for winding layer upon layer -- which I tried to sublimate into a fascination for Catholic baroque and the over-elaborate work of the Aztecs.'     His father's (bad?) taste certainly imbues much of the aesthetics of Eisenstein's films, whether it is `sublimated' or treated with mock reverence: the statues of lions ('lions de plâtre'!) leaping up in anger in The Battleship Potemkin ; the succession of gods descending from a baroque Christ through a number of divine images down to a wooden idol in October ; the death masks in Qué Viva México! , and the grotesque murals in Ivan the Terrible .     Eisenstein muses that his memory of his father's statues led him to dismember `the giant statue of Alexander III which such mouthwatering excitement, in the opening episode of October .' He also felt that if the `dismembered and overturned hollow figure of the Tsar served as an image for the overthrow of Tsarism in February, then it is clear that this start to the film ... was about my personal liberty from Papa's authority ... A tyrannical Papa was commonplace in the 19th century. But mine dragged on into the 20th! ... How many times did little Sergei, the exemplary little boy, answer his Papa's questions -- weren't his buildings marvellous? -- in a studied formula of delight like a learned parrot, even though it ran deeply counter to his ideas and convictions!'     Until the October Revolution, which ignited his personal revolt, there was in Eisenstein what he called `my irrational submissiveness and obedience.' Eisenstein's father was in the habit of asking his son to praise him when they had visitors and the boy duly obliged. Years later, when he discovered that Stalin liked to be praised, he repeated this technique, ritualistically rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar's `even though it ran deeply counter to my ideas and convictions!' In both cases, though the penalty for silence ranged from mere disapproval to possible death, silence would have been a sign that he was being contrary.     One enthusiasm which Eisenstein did share with his father was a love of the circus, but with an important difference: `I have adored clowns since I was in my cradle. My father also adored the circus, but what attracted him most of all was what he used to call "high class equestrianship". So I carefully concealed my passion for clowns and pretended to be wildly interested in horses.' For Eisenstein, clowns represented freedom from official life. Later, when he no longer had to hide his fascination with circus clowns, they (or versions of them, such as Pierrot) would make their appearances throughout a variety of his work, from his early stage productions to the clowns acting out the `fiery furnace' parable in Ivan the Terrible: Part II , his final film.     Apart from the great 19th-century French pantomimist Jean-Gaspard Deburau, whose picture he kept on his wall, he considered his friend Charlie Chaplin the finest clown of all. 'Reality is like the serious white clown. It seems earnest and logical. Circumspect and prudent. But in the final analysis it is reality that looks the fool, the object of derision. Its partner, Chaplin, guileless and childlike, comes out on top. He laughs carelessly without even noticing that his laugh slays reality,' Eisenstein wrote in 1943, wishfully hoping to destroy the `earnest and logical' reality with his own laughter.     The `earnest and logical' side to Eisenstein was one of the few positive traits that he inherited from his father -- the engineer's quality of preparedness, the belief in the need for pre-planning, and the merits of construction. He developed intricate, detailed blueprints for each project, as his scripts and sketches testify. As a teacher, he also liked to take a plot apart like a machine to see how it worked.     Erwin Mednis recalled, `If things usually seemed easier for him than for the rest of us, it was largely because of this quality of preparedness. If few things went wrong it was because so few things were left to chance, and if genius is really, or at least partly, "the infinite capacity for taking pains," then Eisenstein was a genius indeed.' Aside from the combined influence, both positive and negative, of his parents, there were other components in Eisenstein's background that doubtless contributed to his `difference' from many of his contemporaries.     Although he considered himself to have only an eighth of Jewish blood he has always been perceived as being of German-Jewish descent. Riga had a fairly large Jewish community, although there was (and is) only one synagogue. Both in Latvia and Lithuania, the Jews were treated as equals under the law. (It was only under the Nazi occupation that the persecution and killing of the Jews began.) In Odessa, however, whose population was 30% Jewish, countless Jews were slaughtered in the streets in 1905 in one of the most terrible pogroms in Russian history, the sort of pogrom that must have driven Eisenstein's paternal grandparents to give up their Jewish heritage. `Down with Jews,' says the sneering bourgeois in Odessa in The Battleship Potemkin , suggesting that he was typical of the attitude held by his class during the Tsarist regime. Of course, the proletarian population react violently to this remark and attack the man. This sequence was obviously influenced by Eisenstein's friend, the Jewish writer Isaac Babel.     While Eisenstein was writing the script of The Battleship Potemkin , he was simultaneously working with Babel on a script of The Career of Benya Krik based on the latter's story in Tales of Odessa . In Babel's story How It Was Done in Odessa (1924), one character asks rhetorically, `Wasn't it a mistake on God's part to settle Jews in Russia so they suffer in Hell?'. There is a further link with Babel (who also co-wrote the second version of Bezhin Meadow with Eisenstein). Babel wrote the intertitles for a Yiddish film called Jewish Luck , made the year before Potemkin , which has a dream sequence shot on the Odessa steps.     Eisenstein learned to use Yiddish slang and Yiddish humour. A Jewish student of his at the G.I.K. (State Cinema Institute) had an elementary English grammar book open on a page on kitchen utensils. As a joke, Eisenstein ringed the word `pots' (putz) meaning penis in Yiddish.     There was also a risky and risqué Jewish joke that Eisenstein liked to tell. Stalin, who was receiving important visitors from Poland, decided to present them with a large painting entitled Lenin in Poland , which he wanted done in a few days by a Jewish artist he particularly admired. When he was informed that the artist had been deported to a labour camp in Siberia, Stalin demanded his immediate release. The poor emaciated man was flown to Moscow, given a good meal and accommodation, and instructed to paint the picture. Stalin and his Polish guests gathered on the great day of the unveiling of Lenin in Poland , but when the painting was uncovered, it revealed a man and a woman having sex. Even worse, the man was recognisable as Trotsky and the woman as Lenin's wife. A shocked Stalin turned on the little Jewish artist, demanding, `But where is Lenin?' `In Poland,' replied the man shrugging.     Eisenstein's semi-Jewishness is rarely mentioned in his own writings, nor in much that has been written about him. Nor did he ever seem a victim of overt anti-semitism in the Soviet Union -- suspect comrades were often referred to pejoratively as `cosmopolitans'. According to Herbert Marshall, the English film historian, `All the Soviet Jewish directors had to keep silent in order to survive and this included all the leading directors -- Roshal, Kozintsev, Trauberg, Zarkhi, Heifitz, Vertov, Room and Romm.' It is doubtful whether Eisenstein's Jewish ancestry had anything to do with his detachment from the mainstream of Soviet artists, though his `cosmopolitanism' in the objective sense, did cause him problems.     In July 1941, with the Soviet Union at war with Germany, Eisenstein was wheeled out as a Soviet Jew to speak on a radio programme to America, `To Brother Jews of All the World.' But, as a child, it was because he was German-speaking that he was never wholly accepted as Russian, nor was (or is) he considered a Latvian by natives of the country of his birth. Almost half the population of Riga, at the time of his birth, was German, and Eisenstein spoke German better than he did Russian as a child.     `At school,' Eisenstein wrote, `there was a blatant nationalist hatred amongst the different sections of the population to which the pupils' parents belonged. I belonged to the `"Colonists", the Russian civil-servant class, detested equally by the native Latvian population and by the descendants of the first German colonists who had enslaved them.'     In addition, Eisenstein's name would forever make him sound foreign. His almost exact contemporary, Dziga Vertov, born Denis Kaufman in Bialystok in Poland, then annexed by Russia, changed his name both to assimilate more, and to give it a revolutionary ring; Dziga Vertov are Ukrainian words that evoke spinning and turning. In contrast, Eisenstein's father rejoiced in his surname.     `It was not only the fact that his name was to be found in the Official Gazette ; any mention of his name tickled Papa's pride. For example, Papa never missed a production of the operetta Die Fledermaus . He always sat in the front row and when they came to the famous couplets: "Herr Eisenstein! Herr Eisenstein! Die Fledermaus!" he would close his eyes in bliss. Papa was an exemplary worker and stay-at-home, which probably explains why the nocturnal adventures of his chance operatic namesake -- outwardly respectable but actually a profligate playboy - so impressed Mr Eisenstein. Papa was flattered, even when it was sung at home ...' (Continues...)

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