Who Was Sergei Eisenstein?

April 10, 2011


Who was Sergei Eisenstein?

An interview with Naum Kleiman, translated by Zamir Gotta

[In order to get some background on Sergei Eisenstein and his filmmaking, we're very lucky to have an interview with Russian film scholar Naum Kleiman, who is generally considered the greatest living expert on Eisenstein, and is the manager of the Eisenstein Museum in Moscow. Many thanks to Zamir Gotta for his help in obtaining and translating this interview]

Q: For those who may not know of Eisenstein, can you briefly talk about why he is considered such a groundbreaking filmmaker?
KLEIMAN: Eisenstein, still in his youth, was called the Leonardo da Vinci of cinematography, because of his talents and diversity (he was a film and theater director, scriptwriter, illustrator, and film historian). He was always experimenting, trying to set difficult tasks for his new projects and always finding solutions to them. His films contributed to a new style of cinematography, which combined the new technologies of the 20th century with old traditions of other visual arts. Some of his theories presented courage and utopian fantasy. His strong belief in the ideals of the Revolution as the end to violence and a victory for justice managed to survive under Stalin’s totalitarian regime, and even strengthened Eisenstein’s values of democracy and humanism.
Q: Eisenstein is sometimes called the “father of the montage” in cinema, a technique which he wrote about quite a bit—it’s probably best known in his famous Odessa Steps sequence in “Battleship Potemkin” (1925). What was his philosophy with regards to the technique, how did he apply it?
KLEIMAN: By no means was Eisenstein was the only “father of montage” — in his creative life he was following and developing the work of Griffiths, Abel Hans, Leo Kuleshov…his philosophy was to have an impact on both the mind and emotions of his audience simultaneously—that is where the montage helped correlate visuals and audio, conscience and subconscious. He moved from his original use of montage as “gluing the frames” to a combination of all possible images.
Q: How has his work influenced other filmmakers?
KLEIMAN: Eisenstein not only made an impact on the people who lived during his lifespan, but also on many cinematographers who were born later. Even when they were debating with Eisenstein (for instance Pasolini, Tarkovsky) their arguments were based on Eisenstein’s works. Some cinematographers borrowed what fit their works best—John Grierson was imitating the shorts montage in “Drifters” (1929), or Emilio Fernandez and Gabriel Figueroa from Mexico used the graphic clearness of shots introduced by Eisenstein. Some of them used the image of the crowd, not individual characters—Italian cinematographer Giuseppe de Santis or Mrinal Sen from India. Alfred Hitchcock believed Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” (1929) best represented suspense. Laurence Olivier staged battle scenes using the “Alexander Nevsky” (1938) shots. Francis Ford Coppola in “The Godfather” (1972) borrowed the style of “Ivan the Terrible” (1944) as tragic opera without singing. Brazilian cinematographer Glauber Rocha learned to use myths alongside social themes.
Q: The making of Nevsky came at a critical time for Eisenstein – and the world. What was his situation with regard to Stalin when the movie was made?
KLEIMAN: On the eve of World War II, Eisenstein created not just a movie about a good knight — the general who knew how to be victorious (what Stalin wanted) — but also a film encouraging the audience to overthrow a strong enemy by overcoming fear and establishing the people’s strong spiritual identity. Nothing could be timelier when the Russians were fighting the Germans.
Q: Why do you think making Nevsky was important to Eisenstein?
KLEIMAN: He was in a difficult situation; his previous film “Bezhin Meadow” (1937) was banned and destroyed. Eisenstein himself was facing arrest and repression, but he managed to find a strategy for success without compromising with his conscience.
Q: What are some of the notable aspects of Alexander Nevsky that made it important in Eisenstein’s career?
KLEIMAN: As in all Eisenstein’s films he had several experimental tasks: to achieve an effective synthesis of visual art and music (he was very successful with it in the beginning of the scene “Battle on the Ice”); to create a style of narration for the audience which was understandable as an epic story uniting Byzantine icon painting and Russian graphic art rather than a fairy tale.
Q: How was it received when it opened? Did the politics of the time affect it?
KLEIMAN: The film had a great success both with the audience and the official. Not only was this the case in the USSR, but also in many other countries. It is known that Roosevelt ordered this film to be screened in the White House and liked it a lot.
Q: Prokofiev’s score was a very important part of the film as well. How did Eisenstein and he collaborate?
KLEIMAN: In his book The Film Sense, Eisenstein was very complimentary about their creative collaboration and the pleasure of working together. Both the director and composer proved to be brilliant in this film.
Q: Alexander Nevsky is best known for the spectacular scene of the Battle on the Ice. What were the logistics of shooting it?
KLEIMAN: The Ice Battle was shot in summer of 1938 on the plot of a former cherry orchard next to Mosfilm’s studio grounds, which was located in the suburbs of Moscow. The Mos Film staff was professional in all departments in the USSR, which helped to create an authentic feel by hiring civilians to act instead of professional actors.

Q:  What do you think are the main themes of Nevsky?
KLEIMAN: I answered this question earlier, but there was one more of them in the original script — to cut out the internal fighting, to stop the hatred between Russian knights when they were facing invaders. In real life some of them were traitors and tried to poison Alexander. Stalin did not want it to be such a big episode where the Novgorod army was fighting against their Russian rivals. This theme was very contemporary for the background of mass purges in 1937. So the main theme remained the heroic fight for the Motherland against the invaders.
Q: The movie presented a Great Russian historical hero fighting for the homeland at a time when Russia was once again threatened by Germany. How did moviegoers of the time react to this aspect of the film?
KLEIMAN: Everyone perceived this film as a warning and encouragement. But after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the film was removed from its release, yet the people remembered it and the children were playing games such as “The Ice Battle.”
Q: Can you trace any of Alexander Nevsky’s history following World War II? Did it remain in favor politically?
KLEIMAN: On the very first day when the war started, the song from the film “Arise, ye Russian People” was broadcasted and the film returned to the movie houses. The posters depicting Alexander Nevsky on a horse facing troubles from the 13th century were combined with images of Soviet tanks and army. The film was screened for the soldiers in all fronts, and it was widely-screened for the people who stayed to work in the plants and contributed to the victory with their hard labor. The Order of Alexander Nevsky (medal) was reestablished in 1942 after it was abandoned after the 1917 Revolution.
Q: How did the making of Nevsky affect the later years of Eisenstein’s career and the making of “Ivan the Terrible?”
KLEIMAN: Nevsky created an illusion for Stalin that Eisenstein finally gave in to his orders to make propaganda films. He ordered Ivan Grozny as the next movie for Eisenstein in hopes that it would serve as a glory to him and would justify his atrocities but Eisenstein created an Ivan who was not depicted as a saintly knight so that it could denounce totalitarianism. Eisenstein was facing a very difficult mission for a director—he was not filming a “Life of the saint” but a tragedy of a statesman vs. his countrymen (similar to Shakespeare’s plays, or the play “Boris Godunov” by Pushkin). Thus the audiovisual impact is much more profound in this film compared to “Alexander Nevsky.”
Q: You are credited with running the Eisenstein Museum. Tell us about it.
KLEIMAN: In 1965 when Pera Atasheva, the widow of Eisenstein, died and included Eisenstein’s personal belongings and library in the will for the Filmmakers Union, there was a decision to found an building/museum for Eisenstein. I was a curator in the Soviet film archive then and was invited to work there. I was assigned to continue publishing his works, set up exhibitions and carry out film retrospectives. That building became the foundation of the Kino Museum, which was officially registered by the Filmmakers Union in 1989. Its members, famous directors Sergey Yutkevich and Leonid Trauberg, assigned me to supervise the work. I agreed to do it for two years, then planned to return to my scholarly research, but it happened that I am still there, primarily involved with managing the museum.
Q: What is Eisenstein’s current place in film history?
KLEIMAN: Once a famous writer and critic Victor Shklovsky wrote, “Eisenstein was dissolved in the film art as sugar melts in tea.” His presence in contemporary art is similar to those of Giotto or Bach or any other classical men whose names are written in to history.
[Naum Kleiman is an historian of cinema, Russian film critic, specialist in Sergei Eisenstein, manager of the Moscow State Central Cinema Museum, Eisenstein-Centre director, actor and filmmaker. He was a member of the jury at the 43rd Berlin International Film Festival in 1993 and a member of the jury at the Venice Film Festival in 1991. He is a FIPRESCI laureate]