Sergei Eisenstein – theory and practice



It is not an eye-cinema that we need, but a fist-cinema.

I'm sure that all Eisenstein admirers could contribute to the subject I'm talking about here. If this introduction has a “pointillist” character, it is because my objective is to provoke reflection. There is a new impetus in Eisenstein scholarship and it is not just because of his “hundredth birthday”. There have been many changes in the world, many changes in cinema as well as in the relationship between cinema and other media.

Paradoxically, our image of Eisenstein is also changing all the time. The positive aspect of this whole process is that he has not yet been canonized. We can still discuss it. In fact, he does not allow himself to be canonized. I call attention to the end of one of the chapters of his unfinished book of essays, Lyundi odnogo films / People from a film, written between 1946 and 1947 and so far only partially translated into very few languages. In French, for example, we have a fragment of that book included in the volume Memoirs translated by Michèle Bokanovski.

In the book, he describes the group that works on Ivan Grosznii / Ivan the Terrible. The translated excerpt contains notes about the make-up artist Goriounov, the stagehands Lomov and his wife Lydia Lomova, the set designers Iakov Raizman and Leonida Lomonova, the sound technician Boris Volski and also an excerpt from the passage about Esfir Tobak, who is helping him in the assembly, the chapter entitled Strekoza i muravei / The ant and the grasshopper. At the very end of the chapter, Eisenstein makes a curious observation. He remembers his theories, the statements that have been resonating for years, and finally says that it never occurred to anyone to check whether the author of these statements really followed them.

Unfortunately, we sometimes try to illustrate his theories from examples in his films, or understand his films as his theories put into practice. However, as I am now beginning to understand, his accomplished work is, on the one hand, much richer than his theory, while, on the other hand, his theory is much richer than the body of his work. They do not have a simple and direct correspondence; sometimes they come to conflict. Some of the ideas he expresses as hypotheses are demonstrated in his works, others are not.

We must not lose sight of the fact that he worked for twenty-five years and a lot of changes took place over that time – we didn't have political and social changes just in the Soviet Union. The first thing we must do is to get hold of the notion that Eisenstein followed these political and social changes closely, and that he was reacting to the pressures on his work. Of course, the time he lived in and the pressures he was under were significant. We even have to make an effort to understand the context in which his work was developed, because we still don't know enough about this period.

However, at the same time, there are several immanent processes, both in his development as an artist and as a theorist, that must be understood. Eisenstein often referred to the enormous influence his professor at the Petrograd Institute of Civil Engineering, Professor Sukhotsky, had on him. But we know very little about Sukhotsky, even though he is one of the most interesting figures in early XNUMXth century Russian culture. Sukhotsky was one of the first to realize the importance of Eisenstein's theories and one of the first to understand the new study of the infinitesimal in physics, and to explain its poetic significance.

Eisenstein remembers that it was Sukhotsky who taught him the theory of limits to which objects aspire. If we consider this, then we can see that several of these theoretical statements represent limits to which his work aspires. But remember that in your Memoirs he's always referring to King Gillette and the idea that you should do a half-turn back with the screwdriver of the limits you aspire to when it comes to practice. It is this half turn to the back that provides all the stylistic power and individual variants. Let me give you some examples.

One of the scariest things Eisenstein said in the text K voprosu o materialisticheskom podkhode k forme / On the question of a materialist view of form, published in Kinozhurnal ARK, from April/May 1925, in his discussions with Dziga Vertov was: “It is not an eye-cinema that we need, but a fist-cinema”. This statement provoked a series of speculations. While we celebrate Eisenstein, the philosopher Yuri Davydov delivered a speech deeply critical of the filmmaker, claiming that he was a kind of Stalinist who wanted to take his “cinema-fist” and shove it into people’s heads anyway, unlike Brecht who, on the contrary, it encouraged independent thinking.

This image of the “cinema-fist” Eisenstein certainly caught Lenin's Reminiscences, from Gorky, from the passage in which he recalls Lenin's remark about Beethoven: with Beethoven we feel as if we are patting people's heads when in fact we are pounding them with our fists. Eisenstein concludes On the question of a materialist view of form defending the idea of ​​a fist cinema to hit hard on the head and “plant on the psyche of the spectators”.

Of course, we can interpret this as an attempt to invade people's thinking, but if we look at it in the context of what he was writing at the time, we better understand what Eisenstein was saying. For example, in his notes on the Russian psychologist Vladimir Bekhterev, unfortunately not yet published, he observes that art has to change the conditioned reflex provoked by the social context and, in particular, the spectator has to be diverted from the conditioned reflex of servitude and terror. .

The idea that people have not just an instinct, but a psychological conditioning to fear and bondage, and that we have to rid them of both is very important, especially in the context of the Soviet Union in the mid-1920s. If we look at Eisenstein's work, that is, the direction it takes, we see people getting rid of the automatic reaction of fear when faced with violence and terror.

De Statchka / The strike to Ivan the Terrible, both the subject matter and the structure of the films can be seen as a kind of vaccine against the conditioned reaction to fear and panic. Of course, this raises the question of Eisenstein's much-vaunted sadism: was he really a sadist? Quite the contrary, perhaps he was trying to give us a kind of vaccine against sadism. I will talk about his personality later, however, it is already clear that the kind of brutality that appears in his work has nothing to do with any kind of sadism. per se. This is an example of a point that we have to reassess in our pre-established vision. Let me give you another: Eisenstein's ideas about representation in film.

Eisenstein made several statements criticizing the "academic" school of actors, and it is known how much he accomplished by using "types" instead of "actors" in cinema, both in his films and in his theoretical teachings. It is known that all members of Prolektult in The strike. In Bronienosets Potemkin / The battleship Potemkin, Actors from the Odessa union joined some actors from Prolektult. Almost every character in the sequel to odessa steps they were actors. In October / October, many actors came from the Leningrad trade union. Until the procession with the cross in Staroie and Novoie ou Gueenralnaia Linnia / The Old and the New ou the general line, was performed with actors from October, because the movies were made at the same time. There are many more "actors" than "types". We have to understand, therefore, that he worked with actors as “types” just as he worked with “types” as actors.

Let me give you another example to illustrate this relationship between theory and practice. The first article Eisenstein wrote “Vosmoe iskusstvo. Ob ekspressionizme, Amerike i, konechno, o Chapline / The eighth art. On Expressionism, America and, of course, Chaplin, signed by him and Sergei Yutkevich and published in November 1922 in the magazine ekho, is a critique of German expressionism. He will come back to criticize German expressionism later, although the context of this new criticism is more complex. But let's look at the impact of expressionism on Ivan the Terrible has already been researched, for example, in the work of Mira Meilakh Izobrazitel'naya stilistika pozdnikh fil'mov Einzenshteina / Image and style in Eisenstein's last films, published in 1971. The word vyrazitel'nost' / expressiveness was one of Eisenstein's favorites. We discovered an annotation, again unfortunately not yet published, but certainly worth summarizing here. It is the only note Eisenstein wrote while assembling The battleship Potemkin.

The providential title is Representing with objects and representing through objects; it is an incomplete text, but he makes a very interesting observation: while in the theater you have the representation com an object, in cinema you have the representation through the object. In Potemkin, he names it bytovoi ekspressioniszm / everyday expressionism to the method in which the external aspect of the object remains unchanged, but various expressive schemes are raised in order to place the object in different contexts. This “everyday expressionism” is partly a contrast and partly a continuation of the object. It is not common in Eisenstein, but it makes us understand his statements more clearly.

The other issue I want to raise is the context surrounding Eisenstein, far more complex than we ever suspected. Take influence theory: who influenced whom? When we look for influences, we look for similarities and traits. However, I want to propose a slightly different model. There are a number of well-known photographs by La Sarraz with Eisenstein as Don Quixote, seated on a horse, holding a camera and a spear in his hand. He compares himself to Don Quixote. I believe we can make an analogy with Pushkin, who always imagined himself as a knight, dressed in shining armor, participating in a tournament. This is important: a knight prepared to accept a challenge and fight in a tournament. Therefore, when we speak of Byron's influence on Pushkin, we must think of the matter as Pushkin preparing to accept Byron's challenge; Pushkin preparing to “face down” with Byron, not simply to passively accept Byron's influence. The same can be said of Pushkin's relationship with his teacher Zhukovsky or with his friend Vyazemsky.

Eisenstein felt as if he were eternally engaged in a tournament; of course, in the medieval ideal in which a tournament is not a war but a friendly contest. This started with his “tournament” with Meyerhold, which led to battles like the one that plagued the production. Cat in Boots – show, which would be directed by Eisenstein, in 1922, for the theater of Meyerhold, but never got to be staged.

One of Eisenstein's favorite expressions was me too, thus, in English, “me too”. One of the chapters of his Memoirs has as title my you. my you was the name of Maxim Litvinov's dog, who was Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union between 1930 and 1939. His wife, Ivy Walterovna, taught English classes to students on Eisenstein's film course. In this brief chapter of his memoirs, Eisenstein says that he was intrigued by the strange name of the dog, that he did not know the origin of that name and its exact meaning, and that he was fixated on the sound of its name. And he writes: “It would be a mitu French, a Mitu Chinese? It always sounded like English to me. Me too".

Eisenstein then plays on words, because My in Russian it means About, and notes that Me too, then it could be understood as “me too” and as “we too”, we too, to conclude: “The formula Me too is one of the basic formulas of my activity. More precisely, it is one of the dynamic impulses of my work, one of the deepest impulses that led me, and still lead me, to accomplish so many things. Therefore, Me too - So do we”. This wasn't Eisenstein's only favorite expression; that's wrong, “this is wrong”, was another of his favorite expressions. This is dialectics in the classic sense of the word, the possibility of fighting while seeing the other side of the issue.

In this way, when we look at the context to which his teachers and friends belonged, we can see how this question of who influenced who is broader than we think. Eisenstein's fascination with Constructivism and Cubism is well known, it is known how important these movements were for him, which we can see in his drawings. But at the same time, we must remember that he is also the son of Symbolism, the Russian symbolism of Blok, Bely and Ivanov; the echoes of these Symbolists followed him throughout his life. For example, there should be an epilogue to Alexander Nevsky / Iron Knights. Sadly, Stalin's censorship eliminated Alexander Nevsky's death from the film; but in the end, the victory of the Tatars at Kulikovo Polye, is taken directly from a poem by Blok.

Throughout Eisenstein's life, we can find the conscious and unconscious elements of the era that formed him and from which he emerged. This also applies to Nikolai Evreinov, writer, director and theater theorist, who in 1920 made a film about the October Revolution in Petrograd. We must remember the influence of Evreinov when we talk about Joyce and the “inner monologue”, and the influence this had on Eisenstein.

But there are still unusual contexts for Eisenstein: such as, for example, international cinema. Until now we underestimated the influences of hits like The Exploits of Elaine, American film made in 1915 by Louis Gasnier and Douglas Mackenzie, with Pearl White. And the influence of the five films in the series Ghosts by Louis Feuillade, made in 1913, and successfully exhibited throughout Europe, including Russia; but they were very important. In 1987 Alan Upchurch was looking for a cover for the first issue of his Psychology of Composition, collection of essays that translated and organized, among them a text by Eisenstein on teaching cinema at GIK, A Detective Work / A Detective Work when he came across a photo from the second film in the series Fantômas, Juve vs Fantômas, in which the criminal world peers through a hole in the barrel and immediately recalls the scene from The strike, in which strikers peer through a barrel! These “tournaments”, or tunnels that connect the cultures of different countries, are extremely important for us to understand Eisenstein.

If we remember the Death Valley scene at the end of Greed, by Enrich von Stroheim, 1925, we see that the scenario of Sutter's Gold / Sutter's Gold, which Eisenstein wrote in collaboration with Ivor Montagu and Grigori Alexandrov in 1930, begins the same way. This is not a coincidence: it is just the continuation and re-reading of the same phenomenon from another country, from another context. Or, take a famous case like that of Tchapayev, film by Sergei and Georgy Vasiliev made in 1934. In the 30s, everyone in the cinema in the Soviet Union said that the “psychological attack” scene of Tchapayev was superior to the sequence of odessa steps. So Eisenstein wrote the battle scene in Alexander Nevsky to demonstrate how a psychological attack could even be done. He went even further to fight the students who were walking away from him. There is a scene in Tchapayev where potatoes are used to show where a commander should be and a scene where Ivan the terrible in which, in response to the tragic Vladimir Staritsky, Ivan says: “The Tsar must always be in front!” This is an answer, not just a Tchapayev, but also to their own students about where a leader should be. It is a deeply autobiographical moment.

I have to leave many things aside, but I feel I must speak about what we might call his “ancestors”, rather than his predecessors or direct advisers. We have stereotypical views about the influences of Zola or Leonardo da Vinci. But why don't we pay attention to Ben Jonson, whom Eisenstein pointed to as one of his teachers? The theories of humor and the linear composition of Jonson's dramaturgy were very important to Eisenstein. We also completely ignore the influence of medieval mystery plays.

In Moscow, we were able to reconstruct Eisenstein's article on Gogol and film language, which is a kind of complement to his articles on Pushkin. Eisenstein says that Gogol is as much his father as Pushkin. What he doesn't mention in the article, but what is quite clear, is that one of the images of Bejin Lovii / The Meadow of Benjin, appears to be a direct reference to a scene from Taras Bulba from Gogol. When Stepok, who is already mortally wounded, falls from the top ꟷ there are three stages, three separate shots ꟷ we have a direct reference to Gogol, because there is a passage where Eisenstein discusses the moment when the father shoots the son and he falls like a sheaf of wheat cut. If we think of the set of biblical images in Bejin's meadow, we can see how important the image of the wheat falling to the ground is.

Another relevant factor is Eisenstein's own personality, which we need to better discern. There were until recently only the many legends of the 1930s about him, but now new legends are emerging. It is normal for legends to arise about great artists. For example, one of the images that has emerged recently is that of a conformist Eisenstein, a diligent student, who only crossed the limit of the order imposed on him because he was a genius. The evidence cited is that of his decision to stage The Valkyries / Die Walküre in 1939 shortly after the Nazi-Soviet pact.

However, he did not agree to produce Die walküre because I was scared. In fact, we now know a lot more about the production due to new research on it. I realized how careful we are to approach a subject that seems ethically ambiguous to us! But when we get our hands dirty and open the files of Die walküre, we concluded that he was giving an anti-fascist treatment to an issue that fascists believed to be fascist in itself. It was compassion and humanity that flowed from the filmmaker's interpretation. We know that the topic of compassion wasn't exactly top priority in the late 30s.

There's a lot of prejudice we have to share when approaching your work, and there are areas we haven't even begun to study. We know very little about Eisenstein's theater work and I am grateful for Robert Leach's contribution in this field, the essay Eisenstein's Theater Work in the book Eisenstein Rediscovered organized by Ian Christie and Richard Taylor. Suddenly, the question of Eisenstein's ethics arose. The fact that ethics is a deeply ambiguous word is important to our work. We have to include it alongside purely cinematic research. His work as a teacher is also important in these researches.

It is easy to see that much remains to be published about Eisenstein. And Eisenstein. And this is our responsibility. It is our responsibility and our mistake that so little of Eisenstein's work has been published so far, and that it has been done so slowly. Perhaps most important to be selected for publication are his diaries and the final text of The Non-Indifferent Nature and Methods, the latter a project only outlined by Eisenstein and which is beginning to take shape from the organization of his writings.

Eisenstein is undoubtedly, for all of us who deal with cinema, more than an influence, more than a style or a way of thinking about cinema that one or another young director tries to follow. He is a constant source of inspiration, so alive that, as David Robinson observed at our meeting, it seems absurd that we are celebrating his centenary of birth and the fiftieth anniversary of his death. He is more present than ever in the best that cinema does today. The time has come for us to work together. Perhaps the time has also come for a dream to come true, for not only having the Eisenstein House in Moscow but of all of us together organizing an International Eisenstein Society.

I would like to conclude by mentioning the person who has done more than anyone else to promote an understanding of Eisenstein, Jay Leyda. He dreamed of this Society and was the first to contribute to it. I would like you to remember him.

*Naum Kleiman He is a film historian and critic. Curator of the House of Eisenstein, former director of the Moscow Film Museum.

Communication presented at the seminar Eisenstein Heute / Eisenstein today organized by Akademie der Kunste in Berlin, during the Berlin International Film Festival in 1996.

Translation: Taís Leal for the magazine cinemas 12 (July-Aug 1987).


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