Kevin Gough-YatesSergei Eisenstein's Memoirs and this final collection of his writings not only reveal more about the progress of Eisenstein's aesthetic ideas and the manner in which he negotiated his survival in the Soviet Union, but they also illustrate the way in which one of the major figures of cinema is being constructed. Some of the material already exists in translation, but much of it, written "for the drawer", as the Russians say, will be new to the English reader. Eisenstein's diaries and some of his scripts still remain inaccessible and unpublished in any language.
When he visited London in November 1929 aged 30, "the boy from Riga", as Eisenstein coyly referred to himself was, as the director of The Battleship Potemkin and October, one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the western world. Aspiring filmmakers sat at his feet, notebooks at the ready, to hear him lecture on film art only to find that he digressed into talking about Toulouse-Lautrec, Daumier, Darwin, James Joyce, and William James, whose work for Eisenstein demonstrated that film montage was the cinematic aspect of a form of expression available to all artists.
Less than 18 months later, after frustrating experiences with Paramount in Hollywood and the failure of his Mexican project Que Viva Mexico!, he was humiliated and called back to Moscow, never to leave the Soviet Union again. Much of his time, thereafter, was spent in charge of the directors' course at the Institute of Cinematography. Que Viva Mexico!, which Eisenstein considered one of the two most terrible "catastrophes" of his life, was to have been his opportunity to demonstrate the ways in which his theories of montage could be adapted to sound cinema (or being Eisenstein, the other way round). It collapsed through a combination of ineptitude on the part of its backers, Eisenstein's naivety, and Soviet antipathy.
Although always bubbling with ideas for new film projects, there was to be seven years between the Mexican project and his next completed film, Alexander Nevsky. In between, he threw himself into teaching, and into working over and refining his film theories. His projects were rejected by the office controlling the Soviet film industry as "counter to the current needs of Soviet cinema". Eisenstein's comedy M M M never developed beyond the casting stage, Bezhin Meadow, the other major "catastrophe" in Eisenstein's life, was cancelled while in production, the negative destroyed either during an air-raid on Mosfilm during the second world war or, as Herbert Marshall believes, by the secret police.
When Eisenstein was summoned to the Kremlin in February, 1947, to discuss part two of Ivan the Terrible, he was faced by Molotov, Andrei Zhdanov, and Stalin, who accused him of turning Ivan into "a neurasthenic", exploiting a "Byzantine tendency", setting too much in vaults and cellars, exploiting a fascination with shadows which distracted from the action, relying on "psychologism; on inner psychological contradictions and personal experiences", and for allowing Ivan's beard to be seen.
There was, emphasised Molotov, a requirement to present historical events in "the correct interpretation". Stalin, who was seemingly on Eisenstein's side, was not prepared to give specific instructions, but observed that he had made the oprichniki (a royal army) "look like the Ku-Klux-Klan", and that his Tsar was indecisive "like Hamlet". "Ivan," he said without irony, "was a great, wise ruler." At the point when Eisenstein and his team were dismissed, Molotov chillingly remarked that there was no need to submit the script for approval, "especially as I expect Comrade Eisenstein will have thought out all the details by then." Stalin asked after his health. Quite how Eisenstein survived to the ripe old age of 50 before succumbing to a second heart attack is a tribute to his mental agility, playfulness, and humour.
The bulk of the massive, incomplete, unfinished, and chaotically organised Memoirs is compiled from notes that Eisenstein began writing in 1946 while in hospital recovering from his first heart attack, but pieces such as the short Memoires posthumes, written in 1942 finds a place, and other chapters combine texts from different periods. Fragments began to emerge in Russian as early as 1960. In 1964 the first of a six-volume series of Eisenstein's selected works appeared. Marshall, a former student of Eisenstein, believed that his translation Collected Works (1983), included all that had survived of the Autobiography but, in the intervening years, Eisenstein's widow Pera Atasheva had made more of his fragmentary writing available to Soviet researchers led by Naum Kleiman. By 1979 Yo (the Spanish for "I"), a fresh construction, was complete. It has taken until now for this English translation, Beyond the Stars, to appear.
The translations, assumingly faithful, appear to capture more of the meaning but less of the sense than those by Jay Leyda, who was both a pupil and friend of Eisenstein. Again, comparing short passages with those of Marshall's translations, one notices the use of different tenses and that the euphemism "blacks" is used in preference to "negroes". Thankfully, "Ten Little Nigger-Boys" is left uncorrupted. Such differences, although small, are significant and have to be balanced against the more complete texts that this series offers.
There is, however, a major qualitative disparity in the footnotes: Marshall's were direct translations from the original Russian; here they have been bulgingly reworked for the English reader. Useful as they are, they are also somewhat careless and inconsistent: Colette (Sidonie Gabrielle Colette) is a pen name. Celine (sic), the pseudonym for Louis Ferdinand Destouches, appears not to be. Greta Garbo was "nee Gustafsson" but Elisabeth Bergner would seem not to have been born Ettel.
Eisenstein is probably not, as Richard Taylor's hyperbole puts it, "by general consent the most important single figure in the history of cinema", but both volumes in this valuable series are considerable additions to film scholarship. Eisenstein discovered that, according to the first volume of the American film index published in 1941, he occupied fourth place behind Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford measured against the quantity written about him. Today, Jean Renoir and Orson Welles easily outflank him in most contemporary reference works and their films have toppled Battleship Potemkin from its position as the top of best film lists. Interest in his work, however, far exceeds that in Chaplin, Griffith or Pickford and he remains one of the most inspirational artists in the history of cinema.
Eisenstein's tragedy is that his film practice could be accommodated within neither Soviet nor commercial cinema. His "montage of attractions" was effected in the editing room and the introduction of sound necessitated that he completely rethink it. His works, always more popular and influential abroad than at home, were considered irresponsible; he ignored official advice and suggestions and was unable, or unwilling, to embed his intellectual concerns within "the true spirit of socialist cinema". Taylor, understandably insists: "Eisenstein was not just an artist, but a Soviet artist, with all that this entailed in the 30 turbulent years after the October revolution". What he does not emphasise is the bizarre consistency of his receiving the award of the Stalin Prize for the first part of Ivan the Terrible and, almost immediately after, finding himself under attack from the Central Committee simply echoing Stalin's privately expressed opinions, for his ignorance of history. As his paymasters, they were, at one level, only different in kind to the Hollywood producers who cancelled his contract; at another, they held his life in their hands.
Kevin Gough-Yates lectures in film, University of Westminster.
Beyond the Stars: The Memoirs of Sergei Eisenstein
Editor - Richard Taylor
ISBN - 0 815170 460 3
Publisher - British Film Institute
Price - £45.00
Pages - 889
Translator - William Powell