My Encounter with Eisenstein
What interests me about Sergei Eisenstein is his work as an artist under a totalitarian regime. I am moved by his curiosity and openness to the world, which opposed the system that surrounded him. I am half-Russian and grew up in the West in a world divided in two by the Iron Curtain. There were the Communists and capitalism, East and West, dictatorship and freedom. There only seemed to be polar opposites that did not intersect in any way. Sergei Eisenstein had to move between these opposing poles. He was sometimes forced to make painful compromises and accede to the authorities. Nevertheless, he created space for himself – in his art, his theoretical work and his flat. I find these spaces very inspiring. They show that in a system that appears to be dual, a third possibility often exists. In the light of current political polarisation, this is important even today.
Critics of Sergei Eisenstein accuse him of being a director of propaganda for Stalin, a maker of manipulative films. In my opinion, this view is based on an incomplete picture of his work and biography. Others see him as irrelevant or passé. What many are unaware of is that Soviet aesthetics of that time – Eisenstein’s films, Alexander Rodchenko’s photographs, or the of art El Lissitzky and other constructivists – still influence the media all over the world today. The way images are composed in Hollywood films, YouTube and advertising clips, among others, use the kind of arrangements that Eisenstein invented – and, of course, his montage technique. When I ask teenagers whether they have heard of Eisenstein, they say no. Students in my script courses knew of him but felt it was an onerous task to watch his films. They saw them as “boring Russian propaganda films.” Among my often very highly educated friends, only some can place Eisenstein’s name. When I ask them which film of his they know, they usually remember the staircase scene from Battleship Potemkin, or one from October, which they have seen on a late-night ARTE programme. But they don’t know any of his other films. My parents’ friends remember Eisenstein’s films as examples of important historical films about Russia. But only a few of them actually wanted to watch an Eisenstein film because they didn’t like the “ Communist message” they contained.
For TV series fans
After 30 episodes of the latest high-end TV from the USA, we’re all used to great dialogues and plots. In Eisenstein’s films, the images speak and leave room for the viewer’s imagination.
Film recommendation: The General Line
For social media users
We are inundated by film excerpts on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Nearly all of them use Sergei Eisenstein’s montage technique, which he invented almost 100 years ago. Eisenstein’s films show how two images together produce a third – a result of the way he edited. It’s worth understanding this structure to interpret the images that surround us and to see if they mirror the truth or distort it. Film recommendation: October and Potemkin
For music lovers:
Prokofiev’s score is beautiful, deeply sad and magnificent. Film recommendation: Alexander Nevski
Some of the image compositions in Ivan the Terrible are among the best in film history. Film recommendation: Ivan the Terrible I and II.
For young (and young-at-heart) revolutionaries:
Films about revolutions are fun and thought-provoking; they make us reflect on what justice is. Many scenes from Eisenstein’s films are as shocking today as they were then. Film recommendation: Strike