My Encounter with Eisenstein

Naum Kleiman

When I started studying at the VGIK Film Institute in 1956, the only film of Eisenstein’s I knew was Alexander Nevski. I had watched it when I was still at school, as it was shown every year and was on permanent release. But I can’t say that it was my favourite movie. We saw it as a historical film. In the summer of 1958, between my second and third years of study, I saw the second part of the film Ivan the Terrible. This part had been banned by Stalin in 1946. It was only in 1958 during Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’ that it was approved for general release. It impressed me very much. None of the usual cinematography rules were evident in the film, and some things seemed flawed. But still, I just couldn’t believe that this film had been made under Stalin. After the screening, I sat outside on the bench and felt something like having had my first kiss. I don’t know what I could compare it to – but it was a feeling of utter rapture. I bought another ticket and watched the film for a second time. That was in Kishinev in August during my holidays.


In September I returned to film school and told my teachers that I didn’t just want to write a paper, but make a film with my fellow camera students – a film based on drawings and memories about how Eisenstein shot Ivan the Terrible. The head of the film history library, Ms Gita Averbuch, asked me: “Why don’t you approach Eisenstein’s widow?” I didn’t know about his widow or that it was possible to approach her. I was very surprised. The librarian called her while I was standing there. She said: “Pera, there is a student here who is interested in Eisenstein. Can he visit you?” She replied that we could visit her on Saturday. A fellow student of mine at the VGIK was Eduard Timlin from Kiev. He was studying to be a cameraman. The camera students were given tasks (known as ‘études’), such as setting up lighting to take photos of pictures and drawings.


My heart was pounding when we arrived. I thought: “This is the widow of the famous director” and expected to meet a ‘grande dame’. A little old woman, Pera Atascheva-Fogelman, opened the door. At the time, she seemed very old to me. She was actually only 58 but was very ill. That’s why she had aged fast. Her flat was tiny and crammed full of things. She asked if we were hungry and invited us to eat with her – she had made meat with plums. That was it! We sat down to eat and Pera asked: “So, you want to see some drawings? Please go over to the shelves and there, on the second shelf, there are some sketches for Ivan. The drawings are in the blue file – the film sets for Ivan the Terrible.” When we looked at these drawings, my hands began to tremble.


Then she began to tell us that she was preparing some writings by Eisenstein for publication. She told us about a book he had written that was still unpublished called Non-Indifferent Nature which contained many important chapters on Ivan, for example, and on audiovisual counterpoint. On our second visit, Pera gave me the manuscript and I started reading. Even back then I understood that I would never leave that place. She could only see very poorly because of her diabetes and needed urgent help. But she could read Eisenstein’s handwriting very well. It was particularly important that her English was very good, and she understood French and some German, because Eisenstein wrote his books, articles and notes in four languages. Together we began to organise his handwritten manuscripts. The book Montage slowly materialised before our eyes. And The Method too — no one knew that it existed. The different parts came together in our hands. It meant that a completely different Eisenstein emerged, one we had not encountered in film school because even our teachers did not know this side of him. During my third and fourth years of study, whenever I had time, I visited Pera Atascheva.


Pera was very fond of my friend Eduard and called him “Edik” and sometimes “Parubok” (“guy” in Ukrainian). She immediately grasped how talented he was. He later became a leading documentary cameraman in Kiev. Eduard organised all the drawings and photographed some of them. I helped Pera with the handwritten notes. Pera’s old friends helped us too by typing up the written notes. In 1961, we were all working on a six-volume collection of Eisenstein’s writings, including older film historians supervised by Sergei Yutkevitsch, a director and friend of Eisenstein’s. One of the younger crowd of the academic collective who wrote the comments was Leonid Kozlov, who was a little older than us. He had a background in philology. So Pera was surrounded by a group of young people who began to help her.

Is Eisenstein still relevant today?

A special feature of every major breakthrough in art is that it is understood in stages. The artist’s contemporaries usually only comprehend a part of it. This is even more true when an artist suddenly becomes successful, such as Goethe with his book The Sorrows of Young Werther. After that, everyone expected him to write a similar novel, and Elective Affinities was poorly received. Faust I had a positive response, but part two did not appeal to a wider audience. One could say that every great artist becomes their own worst enemy because their successful work stands in the way and prevents them from developing. They want to move on to something new, but people expect a repetition of their previous success. This was the case with Beethoven, Chekhov and it was the same for every great painter and writer. After Tolstoy’s War and Peace, people wanted him to write another book just like it. This is the norm — the situation where contemporaries cannot see the bigger picture, but only the part that relates to them. But the artist looks ahead.


Sometimes, however, it’s the circumstances that are to blame. For example, Shakespeare was forgotten for 300 years. Then he was rediscovered by the Romantics. His works were not performed back in the 17th century. Voltaire thought that Shakespeare was unbearable and vulgar – and that came from the great philosopher Voltaire, not some minor critic. The English playwright was ‘too wild and brutal’ for the tastes of the Enlightenment. When the Romantics sang Hamlet‘s praises, Tolstoy declared that Shakespeare’s tragedies rang hollow and were implausible. In fact, it was not until the 20th century that Shakespeare became a classic, universally recognised playwright. What happened to Bach? He was forgotten for almost 200 years. What would have happened if Mendelssohn hadn’t gone to the market to buy fish and took it home wrapped in sheet music? This happened to be the score of the St. John’s Passion. Bach’s children were more popular than their father, who worked on his motets and passions at the St. Thomas Church. The children, on the other hand, wrote wonderful music for princes – the kind to play in the background during lunch. And then came Mozart, who wrote music that sounded as if it came from Paradise. Who cared about Bach when there was Mozart? And then after Mozart came Beethoven. Suddenly people discovered that behind Beethoven, there was Bach. This happened all the time. It happened to Dante, Andrei Rublev and El Greco – to all great artists. They go through an era of recognition or rejection, or sometimes partial recognition. This is particularly dangerous. “Yes, yes. It was good for its time but now it’s old-fashioned”. “Unfashionable”. This word is very popular in this context. There are general laws and specific ones. Specific ones include: Shakespeare was quite successful. He was performed and translated. But alongside Shakespeare, there was Ben Jonson, for example. They were friends and rivals. But Ben Jonson was overshadowed by Shakespeare.


When a great artist comes along, a catastrophe, like an earthquake, takes place. It destroys those standing close. If you have Goethe, who needs Hölderlin? That’s the awful situation. The problem in the art world is that these kinds of assessments are very popular. It leads to a dreadful hierarchy. No matter how wonderful Pushkin is, there were also other great writers besides him such as Lermontov, Baratynsky or Tyutchev, among others. The landscape of art is like a mountain range. For the Mont Blanc to exist, you need the Alps. If the Mont Blanc was located on a French plain, it would be ugly. But as part of a range of mountains, it’s the highest peak. As cultural historians, we must understand that we need to see the mountain range. The hierarchy does not mean that Mont Blanc is the best mountain. It’s simply the highest. The Jungfrau peak, for example, is a wonderful mountain, but it’s not higher than Mont Blanc. This reflects the true history of art – one that excludes hierarchy. Power stakes have always supported hierarchies. There has always been a front row of official artists. And there were masters in the ‘second row’, who were considered flawed. Very often, the reasons for this are purely political. Mandelstam, for example, was considered “wrong” because he was against Stalin. He was also considered an enemy because censorship existed. As for Eisenstein: after his success with Potemkin, he was widely accused of being a formalist, of not understanding the audience, or of making this or that mistake. His writing was not published.


And now I will turn to Eisenstein and talk concretely about him. Besides the fact that times and fashions change and Eisenstein did not comply with trends, he already seemed old-fashioned in the 1930s. It was not that he had been forgotten: he was told all along that he was wrong. In the 1940s, he was deliberately pushed aside because a new film ‘god’ came along, whose name was Gerasimov – a mediocre director of melodramas and social dramas. And then came the young stars, like Tarkovsky, who was indebted to Eisenstein in many ways. This generation associated Eisenstein with the Bolshevik revolution, which they rejected. In 1960s’ USSR, he was placed in a different context — not in his own context of the 1920s, but the context of official political currents and trends.

People did not understand that Potemkin was not a call to revolution, but a call to end violence. It is a film about the need to stop violence on both sides. Eisenstein made the film as a call to end the violence of autocracy and to signal the end of the civil war. In other words, he had one image in the 1920s and was given the opposite image in the 1960s. He was not forgotten for 100 years, like Bach. But he definitely receded into the background for 40 years. He was not “up-to-date.” Not many people were interested in studying him. But fortunately, it was during this period that Eisenstein’s theoretical writings began to be published. And, at the same time, the ban on Ivan II was lifted. So in addition to his image as a revolutionary artist, he was cast as a victim of Stalin. He was both a symbol of revolution and a victim of Stalinism. The success of Ivan the Terrible saved him throughout those years. Not because people liked the film that much – although it left a strong impression on them. But it was heavily criticised: it contained too much symbolism, the actors rolled their eyes, and in real life, things hadn’t been as brutal. Ivan the Terrible had had positive sides.


Eisenstein was seen as an ambivalent figure. His writings were read not only by film historians, but also by semioticians, philologists, and psychologists. And suddenly it became clear that Eisenstein not only belonged to the area of cinema. Oddly enough, Eisenstein’s renaissance is partly due to these disciplines. He underwent his first renaissance in the 1950s and early 1960s because Part Two of Ivan the Terrible was released and his theories were published. But no one really watched Battleship Potemkin. It was like a monument. Now and then it was shown on television. People half-watched it, or not at all. It wasn’t until 1975 that the original version of the film was restored. And it was accompanied by Shostakovich’s score in the USSR, and by Meisel’s in Germany. For all those years, no one had seen an original good copy of the film. It was disfigured by Soviet and German censorship. And on the one hand, October was a political mistake from the point of view of the authorities, and conformist from the point of view of Soviet dissidents. In fact, it was neither but Eisenstein was caught in the crossfire. No one seemed to need him. It was not until shortly before perestroika that Eisenstein’s importance began to grow, but not in Russia’s film circles. Unfortunately, the landscape of Russian cinema is fatherless. For many years, young filmmakers knew nothing of Vertov and Kuleshev, Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Barnett. At best, they knew of European directors, or at worst, only those from Hollywood. Many of them made “second-hand” Hollywood films.


Now, slowly, the situation is changing here too. The youngest generation, who work with digital film, sees Eisenstein’s ideas in a different light. It has suddenly found renewed interest in film theory and is beginning to quote his films and read books. This inspires hope.