Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein was born in Riga, Latvia in 1898. He studied architecture and engineering at the Petrograd Institute, but left school in 1918 to join the Red Army. In 1920, he took on a command position and transferred to Minsk where he was exposed to Kabuki theatre and studied Japanese. That same year he moved to Moscow and began a career in theatre as part of Proletkult (he also enrolled in Veslovod Meyerhold’s experimental theatre workshop). Eisenstein was a prolific writer for most of his life. His career as a theorist began with The Montage of Attractions, first published in LEF journal in 1923 under the editorial direction of Osip Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky. His first film Glumov’s Diary (1923) was conceived as part of the theatre production Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man by Alexander Ostrovsky. Dziga Vertov was appointed as consultant, and included the film in his Kino-Pravda newsreel series, released May 21, 1923 under the title Spring Smiles of the Proletkult. Eisenstein’s first feature Strike and Battleship Potemkin were both released in 1925. After completion of October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928), he spent the next two years touring Europe. In 1930, he accepted a contract to work for Paramount Pictures but before a film could be made a public campaign was mounted against him, his contract was suspended, and he was returned to Moscow. At the introduction of Charles Chaplin, Eisenstein was commissioned by writers Mary and Upton Sinclair to make a film in Mexico in 1930. After much complication, his work on this film was scuttled and the large cache of footage was dispatched to the Sinclairs who hired Sol Lesser to supervise post-production and distribute the resulting product in the USA. Two features and one short, Thunder Over Mexico, Eisenstein in Mexico, and Death Day were released to American audiences between 1933–1934. In 1940 a fourth film, Time in the Sun, was released, compiled by Marie Seton. Eisenstein never saw the Sinclair-Lesser films, and publicly maintained his complete disinterest in the project. Sinclair donated a large portion of the footage to the Museum of Modern Art in 1954. From this footage, Jay Leyda (in collaboration with Manfred Kirchheimer) compiled Eisenstein’s Mexican Film: Episode for Study (1958). In 1979, former Eisenstein collaborator Grigory Aleksandrov edited it in rough accordance with the director’s original outline and released it as Que Viva Mexico! After Mexico, Eisenstein returned to Russia in 1932 where he began his next project, the pageant opera Alexander Nevsky (1938). In 1940 he worked on a project, Love of a Poet, based on Pushkin's Boris Godunov. Between 1942 and 1946 he completed parts I & II of his last film Ivan the Terrible, starring Nikolay Cherkasov. Sergei Eisenstein finished 15 films that revolutionized world cinema before his death at age 50 in 1948. The cause was two successive heart attacks. His ashes were buried in Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.
Mexican Footage, 10 min, 1930-32
Eisenstein intended to make a film symphony, a film serape, or Diego Rivera mural of the seventh art. “I wanted to show a timeless Mexico where the past was merged with the present,” but the shooting stopped abruptly because the funding was cut. Although they promised to send the material, he never received it and he died without being able to conclude with his own hands one of his great works. – Oswaldo Betancourt
Even in a less exaggerated description, any verbal account of a person is bound to find itself employing an assortment of waterfalls, lightning rods, landscapes, birds, etc. – Sergei Eisenstein
S.M. Eisenstein Selected Works Volume I, Writings 1922-34 download here. LEF journal can be downloaded here.
All stills, photographs, and artwork courtesy Canyon Cinema/Gosfilmofond of Russia ©Estate of Sergei Eisenstein. Screening co-presented with Canyon Cinema.