Sergei M. Eisenstein was born on January 23, 1898 in Riga, Latvia. His father was an architect and civil engineer. His parents separated in 1905, and so he spent his childhood both in Riga and St. Petersburg. He was well educated, learning French, German and English fluently. Encouraged by his father, he trained to be a civil engineer, but his true interests were theatre and art.
In 1917, after the February revolt, he sold his first political cartoons to magazines in St. Petersburg. After the October revolt he joined the Red Army, in which although he worked as a technician, he continued his study of theatre and philosophy. In 1920 Eisenstein left the army and joined the First Workers' Theatre of Proletcult as a scene and costume designer. He worked on several plays, including The Mexican and The Sage. For the production of the latter he made his first film Glumov's Diary, a comic short parodying newsreels.
Eisenstein believed that it was his duty as an artist to contribute to the forging of the new life for his country. He decided that film was the most effective medium for communist propaganda. Having studied the work of Griffith, Lev Kuleshov and Esfir Shub, in 1924 Eisenstein made his first feature film, Strike. It portrayed the unsuccessful 1912 revolt of the workers from a factory, a powerful condemnation of Czarist Russia. Eisenstein conveyed his message via the original and stunning technique of montage, a fast sequence of different shots to strengthen and contrast images and emotion. The most powerful example in Strike is in the final scene, where the massacre of the workers is inter-cut with shots of a cow being slaughtered.
Here is a list of all of Eisenstein's films:
The General Line
(or The Old and the New)(1929)
Que viva Mexico
Ivan the Terrible, Part One
Ivan the Terrible, Part Two
Battleship Potemkin portrays the unsuccessful 1905 revolution. The main characters are the crew of a battleship, who rebel and kill their officers. Eisenstein uses montage to an even greater effect, culminating in the shocking Odessa Steps sequence where the Russian army massacre the town’s citizens including women and children. This sequence is often considered the most powerful scene ever recorded on film.
October portrays the events of the October revolt in 1917. Here Eisenstein’s use of montage reaches its peak, with several stunning sequences – machine-gunners mowing down the rebels, Lenin addressing the crowd, the storming of the Winter Palace. But as well as montage, Eisenstein makes effective use of symbolism – the dead horse falling from the bridge, the rebels stepping on the wrought-iron crown within the gates, the shots of scythes and guns to suggest the army and the farmers. However, you really do need to know a lot about the October revolution to fully appreciate the subtle references and the symbolism. Eisenstein’s problems with Stalin first became apparent during the production of this film, when Stalin ordered that all scenes involving Trotsky be removed.
After another dispute with Stalin over The General Line, a film showing the advantages of collective labour, Eisenstein took this opportunity to make a trip to America, to investigate sound technology. There he met with other famous directors including Josef von Sternberg and Charlie Chaplin. He also began work on Que Viva Mexico, a film about Mexico. When it was nearing completion, Stalin cancelled the filming, and told him to return to Russia. Eisenstein never managed to complete the film, but the footage he shot has survived and has been edited by later directors.
Back in Russia, Eisenstein was generally shunned, and his ideas for projects were continually rejected. Eventually he managed to start work on his first sound film, Behzin Meadow. But again there was a dispute with the authorities over the handling of the subject matter, and the film was banned and mostly destroyed.
In 1938, Eisenstein made Alexander Nevsky, an historical epic about a 13th century prince fighting against German hordes. His change in style is striking – he uses little montage, and the camera is fairly static. Yet the climax – the battle on the ice – is a masterpiece of cinema. In this scene he uses symbolism and fast cutting to strengthen this scene. But the most original and powerful technique is the replacing of battle sounds with music. For once he succeeded in making a film the authorities accepted.
Eisenstein’s final film and possibly his best was Ivan the Terrible. It portrays the life of the notorious Russian czar, and was made in three parts. The first part was hugely successful, both in Russia and Europe and won several prizes. The second however seemed to compare Ivan to Stalin, and was consequently banned, and footage for part three was destroyed, from which only one scene remains. Overall, however, Ivan the Terrible is a stunningly powerful film. It is very operatic, replacing plot by a collection of half a dozen extremely effective scenes. Eisenstein’s techniques now consist of focusing the camera on particular points of interest, and using light and shadows to highlight certain points. Every single scene is perfect, and the film could not be improved on.
Eisenstein died of a heart attack on 10th February, 1948 in Moscow. He has become known as one of the greatest directors ever to have lived, creating montage, and taking cinema to its absolute limits.