Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) is known to film history as a ‘revolutionary Russian director’, a title justified by his contributions to the creation of the foundational myth of the Soviet State through his films Stachka (Strike, 1924), Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) and Oktyabr (October 1927).
In commentaries, Eisenstein’s oeuvre has been described as something indissolubly linked to the project of the construction of socialism. In recent years, scholars have developed more nuanced views of Eisenstein’s achievements and influence as a filmmaker, film theorist, and intellectual. He is considered a pioneer in the theory and practice of montage.
Born to a middle-class family in Riga, Latvia (then part of the Russian Empire in the Governorate of Livonia), Einstein’s family moved frequently in his early years, as Eisenstein continued to do throughout his life. At the Petrograd Institute of Civil Engineering, Sergei studied architecture and engineering, the profession of his father. In 1918 Sergei left school and joined the Red Army to serve the Bolshevik Revolution, although his father Mikhail supported the opposite side.This brought his father to Germany after the defeat of the Tsarist government, and Sergei to Petrograd, Vologda, and Dvinsk. In 1920, Sergei was transferred to a command position in Minsk, after successfully providing propaganda for the October Revolution. At this time, he was exposed to Kabuki theatre and studied Japanese, learning some 300 kanji characters, which he cited as an influence on his pictorial development.
In 1923 Eisenstein began his career as a theorist, by writing The Montage of Attractions for LEF. Eisenstein’s first film, Glumov’s Diary (for the theatre production Wiseman), was also made in that same year with Dziga Vertov hired initially as an “instructor.”
Strike (1925) was Eisenstein’s first full-length feature film. The Battleship Potemkin (1925) was acclaimed critically worldwide. It was mostly his international critical renown which enabled Eisenstein to direct October (aka Ten Days That Shook The World) as part of a grand tenth-anniversary celebration of the October Revolution of 1917, and then The General Line (aka Old and New). The critics of the outside world praised them, but at home, Eisenstein’s focus in these films on structural issues such as camera angles, crowd movements, and montage brought him and like-minded others, such as Vsevolod Pudovkin and Alexander Dovzhenko, under fire from the Soviet film community, forcing him to issue public articles of self-criticism and commitments to reform his cinematic visions to conform to the increasingly specific doctrines of socialist realism.
In his initial films, Eisenstein did not use professional actors. His narratives eschewed individual characters and addressed broad social issues, especially class conflict. He used stock characters, and the roles were filled with untrained people from the appropriate classes; he avoided casting stars.
Einstein died on February 11, 1948. He was only 50 when he succumbed to a heart attack. His legacy is rich, complex and, in many ways, immeasurable.