Costume designs, 1922 Costume designs, 1922. Photo: Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum, Moscow

A new exhibition showcases the great revolutionary filmmaker’s avant-garde films as well as sketches, his designs for the theatre and memorabilia

The Soviet film director, Sergei Eisenstein died in 1948 and he continues to be celebrated as one of the greatest film directors. His film, Battleship Potemkin (1925) was recently voted 11th best film in Greatest Films of All Time by a poll of film industry insiders in Sight and Sound. 

The exhibition at GRAD provides make clear choices, edging to Sergei the Artist and Eisenstein the Man, with the input of ultra-knowledgeable film academic, Ian Christie, who has added some insightful hand-written insights about Eisenstein to the exhibition’s narrative about Eisenstein. 

The exhibition shows some of the expected, such as the much admired old favourite and much copied Odessa Steps scene from Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein came to the UK for six weeks in 1929 for the premier of Battleship Potemkin (1925) in London, with much memorabilia on show in the exhibition.  The film was initially banned in 1926, the year of the General Strike by the British Government, fearing riots and uprisings amongst British workers.  Further film clips at the exhibition, for example, Orlando (1992), enable the spectators to appreciate his continuing influence on contemporary film makers.  

It is worth adding some additional context to the exhibition’s narrative, his politically- charged  art was committed to worker’s revolution. He merged his revolutionary art and innovation to the social and political revolution of October 1917, a participative and active democratic revolution of sailors and soldiers, workers and peasants led by the Bolsheviks with demands of Peace, Bread and Land, to meet the needs of each of these groups in Russia, which was to be a springboard for World Revolultion.

The exhibition informs that Sergei joined the Red Army, which he did initially as an engineer, despite his wealthy and priveleged background. The Red Army, was founded by Leon Trotsky, a leader of the Boleshevik Party, to defend of the new besieged Soviet republic against invading White Armies, which were waging a civil war under the command of the deposed Tsarists Generals, backed by Aristocrats and Industrialists. Sergei’s father was the Chief Architect of Riga, which earned him the right to be addressed as ‘Your Excellency’. 

Not surprisingly, he joined the White Army as an engineer, on the other side to his son Sergei. By 1921, the Red Army, with great courage and at great cost, went on to defeat the White Armies, which were supported and bankrolled by hostile foreign powers. The British government alone spent a billion pounds in seeking to topple the Soviet Government from 1918-21, including launching bombing raids and fielding tank with British crews on the battlefields against the Red Army.

During Eisenstein’s time in the Red Army, he was transferred to a theatre group to entertain and educate the troops at the front. This transfer would change his career and his life forever. After the Red Army, the exhibition highlights he had an intense apprenticeship in the theatre. Most significant was with the demanding radical, and innovative theatre director, Vsevold Meyerhold. Eisenstein would later would say that Meyerkhold had been the most powerful relationship in his life, despite it sometimes being a difficult relationship.

It is worth mentioning here, that Meyerkhold, was also political committed to the success of the  Revolution, being one of the first supporters of the Bolsheviks in the theatre, joining the Bolsheviks in 1918. Meyerhold had become bored with the unresponsive rich pre-Revolutionary theatre audiences and feeding that audiences need for cultural escapism. Meyerhold eagerly opened his doors to a new culture hungry audience – the noisy revolutionary class-conscious workers, sailors and soldiers which now came to his theatre. 

The exhibition shows fantastic costume designs by Eisenstein. He was learning at a fast rate. We see designs from a production of Macbeth (1922), which appears to be influenced by the recent theatre designs of Alexandra Exter at the Tairov Theatre, as both combine elements of Cubism with the period in which the plays were set. 

We also get the opportunity to see his designs from an unrealised production of Heartbreak Hotel (1922), written by George Bernard-Shaw, a play which focused on the decay in the British Ruling Class on the eve of the First World War. These designs were again influenced by Cubism, and this time include an influence of circus outfits, a hugely popular form of entertainment at the time. These designs clearly locate the Boss with his large top hat, which the class-conscious audiences would clearly recognise and identify as the enemy. The influence of the circus and other form of mass popular entertainment would appear in further theatre productions and later film work.

Merging the shock of the new forms and techniques with popular form forms of entertainment to highlight the need to continue the fight for socialism in the difficult conditions of the Soviet Union (after the continuous war economy of 1914-21), would be a consistent combination in Eisenstein’s output throughout the 1920s. 

As an apprentice with Meyerhold, he would witness the introduction of many new radical techniques in the theatre to engage the new audience.  For example, using lighting to divided the stage into sections, so he could show characters in different scenes simultaneously. This heightened physical action and increased moments of physical spectacle. As this approach pinpointed key moments in drama, this meant radical editing of sequences out of linear time, with reduction in unnecessary linear story-telling.  

Following in the footsteps of Meyerhold, Eisenstein would develop these ideas further as a film director with innovations of photo montage, frame, cut and close-up, in classic films, such as Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1927).  He make innovate in film technique, to shine a light on the sacrifice of defeated strike action, the soldier’s mutiny that led to the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the excitement of the successful October Revolution of 1917 respectively.

In 1927, the Left Opposition against Stalin, made it final stand against the rise of his dictatorship, led and supported by many of the leading Bolsheviks from 1917 and backed my millions. In October, which Eisenstein made in the same year, he highlighted Trotsky central role in the 1917 Revolution. This scene was cut by the censors, using Eisenstein’s powerful film to rewrite history in Stalin’s favour.

Defeating the Left Opposition, Stalin consolidated his dictatorship, bringing an end a glorious decade of hope and the hothouse experiments in cultural innovation, in which Sergei played a key role. Between 1929 and 1932, Sergei would have a temporary escape from the dictatorship, using his status as a film director to travel abroad. 

In 1931, after a prolonged stay in Mexico, Sergei was finally summoned to return back to the Soviet Union by Stalin. It would be understandable for Eisenstein to have concerns and anxieties in returning to the changed Soviet Union.  The exhibition provides some evidence this might have been the case, with a series of what appear to be hastily-drawn sketches by Eisenstein from Mexico in 1931, many on the back of Mexican hotel note paper. Eisenstein returned to the Macbeth theme, this time influenced by the Mayan culture that surrounded him. 

The sketches feature death and desire as the subject matter, which goes with the plays theme. In the many sketches executed in free hand, they are less likely to edited than his theatre designs. We can perhaps see a connection with Eisenstein’s mood about his limited hopes as a film director in the new situation in the Soviet Union, particularly with a close down of innovation, which was loathed by Stalin. And increasingly scrutinised by the increasingly powerful state censors, fuelled by Stalin’s insatiable paranoia.    

Everything had changed in the Soviet Union. Nothing would be the same, not even Eisenstein’s films. Although Stalin did not trust Eisenstein, he recognised the talent of Eisenstein and the power of film for his propaganda purposes. Stalin enshrined a traditional realist approach to art, which painted a rosy picture of life in the Soviet Union, which was called Socialist Realism. Eisenstein was a survivor in these traumatic and uncertain times for artists in the Soviet Union. And he had more to fear than the censors cuts in his films. Many artists were executed, including his mentor Meyerkhold in 1938. 

In the 1930s, even when Eisenstein adopted the nationalist political line and reverted to a traditional linear time, he continued to walk on a tightrope. Clips and sketches of Ivan the Terrible, pt 1 (1944), are shown at the exhibition. Some have argued that this film can be seen as forgiving the tyrant Ivan (and hence Stalin) for his actions as a dictator. We know this film was much liked by powerful ‘Red Tsar’ himself, Stalin. The exhibition inspired me to watch the film again and as the spectators, we see the uncertainty of the Tsar in being able to lead the fight to take back Moscow with trauma and uncertainty displayed by character of Ivan the Terrible. 

A long way from the courageous hero, who displays courage at all times. At the end of the film Ivan finds the courage and resolve to march to retake Moscow, inspired by the masses. But that is the point where the film ends. Without the battle for Moscow being fought. Without the victory of the battle shown.  Eisenstein remains constant in elongating tension. The tension would only be resolved in real life, with the successful march by the Red Army in taking Berlin and ending the war in 1945.

But every generation that seeks radical social change has returned to the films of Eisenstein. Perhaps this is reflected in larger crowds than other previous exhibitions at GRAD. Visiting the exhibition may even inspire you to watch the treasure trove of Eisenstein films, which are widely available. Watch them, but remember these films were made to, inform and involve, a mass noisy audience of class-conscious workers, soldiers and sailors. I saw my first Eisenstein film, Battleship Potemkin, in the late 80s in with an audience his films were made for, as part of an audience of 500 noisy socialists. This experience certainly beats the atomised alienated viewing experience of watching Eisenstein online on your own, or the type of audiences Meyerhold turned his back on in 1918, closely followed by Eisenstein.

Unexpected Eisenstein, is on at GRAD (Gallery for Russian Art and Design), London, 17 February – 30 April. Free entry.

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