Eisenstein’s apprenticeship in the cinema came naturally; as a precocious child and the son of a well-off architect, he excelled in drawing and languages and was soon proficient in English, French, and German by the time he entered his teens. After his parents divorced when he was eight, he spent most of his formative years with his father, who enrolled him in the Petro-grad Institute of Civil Engineering. While Eisenstein was fairly diligent in his studies, he soon became enamored of the theater, attending plays and dreaming of a career in the arts. When the Revolution overtook the Institute in 1917, he was instantly radicalized and by 1920 was directing theatrical agit-prop productions to support it.
Meetings with actor Maxim Strauch, a childhood companion, and the theatrical director Vsevolod Meyerhold led Eisenstein to embrace the theater more fully, and by 1923 he had staged his first real production, The Wise Man, which included his first short film, Dnevnik Glumova (Glumov’s Diary, 1923), a five-minute narrative that was used as part of the production’s multimedia approach.
In 1924 Eisenstein followed this with the theatrical piece Gas Masks, which he famously staged in a real gas factory, asking his audience to sit in improvised seats on the shop floor. The theatrical productions were resounding successes, but he wanted to work in film, which he felt was the ideal medium for the expression of his revolutionary (in every sense of the word) ideas concerning shot structure, editing, montage, camera placement, and the power of the iconic image. After a brief apprenticeship with Lev Kuleshov and Esfir Shub, a brilliant editor who showed him the plasticity of the film medium in the cutting room, Eisenstein tackled his first feature as director, Stachka (Strike, 1925). Using a “montage of attractions,” in which various themes are drawn together through the use of intercutting, as well as a “montage of shocks,” in which brutal and violent images assault the viewer at key points in the film’s narrative, he created a dazzling mosaic of labor unrest and capitalist indifference that galvanized the masses and impressed his superiors.
Eisenstein developed intricate theories of montage that he would later explicate in his writings, such as rhythmic montage, which gradually increased or decreased shot length to build suspense and convey excitement; tonal montage, to convey emotional feeling through the intercutting of associative material; collisionary montage, in which images are “smashed together” to create a dynamic, violent affect; and collusionary montage, in which a series of images are edited together to create a cumulative effect, with a number of simultaneous actions happening at the same time. Strike tells of a factory worker’s job action that is eventually crushed by management through violence alone, and the final sequence, in which the workers are mowed down with fire hoses and machine-gun fire, intercut with actual scenes from a slaughterhouse, is one of the most brutal in the history of the cinema.
In the same year, Eisenstein also completed Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), his first undoubted masterpiece, recounting the mutiny of sailors who were sick of the corrupt rule of the czar’s minions. Eisenstein’s fascination with the editorial process reached its zenith in Battleship Potemkin, which was shot on location in Odessa in ten weeks and then edited completely in two blazing weeks to create an eighty-six-minute film with 1,346 shots, at a time when the average Hollywood film comprised fewer than half that number. Working with his cameraman Eduard Tisse, he crafted a typically kinetic piece of political cinema that reached its visual The Odessa Steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece Bronenosets Po-tyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925); the mother approaches the soldiers with her injured child in her arms.
This one sequence took a full week to film and comprises hundreds of individual shots; the average shot length in the sequence is about two seconds, and the camera cuts from point-of-view shots that drag the spectator into the unfolding tragedy, with wide shots of the massacre, to individual close-ups of the participants as they watch the horror unfold. Linking all these images together are brief shots of a baby carriage, with a child inside, careening down the huge stone steps after the death of the child’s mother. The soldiers’ faces are seen only briefly, especially near the end of the sequence, when one czarist rifleman bayonets the baby in its carriage—an image of such savagery and violence that it shocks audiences even today. This famous scene has been copied by a number of other filmmakers, most notably in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) in which a baby carriage is caught in the middle of a violent shootout, as a direct homage to Eisenstein’s editorial techniques.
But the effect of Battleship Potemkin inside the Soviet Union, oddly, was muted; it was considered too formalist and avant-garde by Eisenstein’s party masters. Abroad, however, the film achieved significant success. Whether or not they agreed with the film’s unabashed propaganda, foreign critics and audiences alike were dazzled by the director’s inventive, explosive editorial style. His subsequent films Oktyabr (October, a k a Ten Days That Shook the World, 1927, co-directed with Grigori Aleksandrov) and Staroye i novoye (The General Line, a k a Old and New, 1929, co-directed with Grigori Aleksandrov), found even less favor with his superiors, although these works were unabashedly Marxist/Leninist in their political motivation. Joseph Stalin, in particular, was unhappy with the increasingly experimental nature of Eisenstein’s films. He personally supervised the recutting of October and The General Line, in part to satisfy the changing political “realities” of the revolution—in particular, Leon Trotsky’s expulsion from the Communist Party—but also to tone down Eisenstein’s increasingly radical editorial style. For Eisenstein, the montage of the film becomes a central character in the work’s construction, introducing contradictory ideas and opposing social forces in a series of rapidly intercut shots that often stunned his audiences.
Stung by criticisms from a regime he had wholeheartedly supported, Eisenstein was struck by the paradoxical situation in which he found himself. At home, Stalin and his stooges criticized his work mercilessly, charging that he had deserted the ideals of the revolution, but around the world he was being hailed as a cinematic genius whose editorial concepts had irrevocably changed the structure of the motion picture. Feeling that he had little to lose, he embarked on an extensive tour of Europe, where he was lionized by critics and film societies but hounded by the local authorities as a subversive alien. This exodus eventually led to a brief period in 1930 when Eisenstein was put under contract to Paramount Pictures and came to America, ostensibly to direct for the studio. Paramount, however, had not reckoned with the public’s increasing antipathy toward the Soviet Union and the Communist Revolution. Although the director created a superb scenario based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy (which was later adapted by director Josef von Sternberg and filmed in 1931 at Paramount, and later remade as A Place in the Sun by director George Stevens in 1951), he was summarily fired by Paramount in the fall of 1930, after less than a year’s employment.
When Eisenstein finally returned to the Soviet Union after several years, he was subjected to vicious attacks in the state press. His films were rejected as abstract, and party apparatchiks demanded that he adhere to the tenets of Socialist Realism, structuring his work in a more conventional manner and eschewing the editorial style that had informed the creation of his greatest output. After a show trial in 1935, during which he was forced to repudiate his own works, Eisenstein was allowed to direct only a few more films, most notably Aleksandr Nevskiy (Alexander Nevsky, 1938; co-director, Dmitri Vasilyev), an epic film about a thirteenth-century Russian prince who successfully fought back a German invasion with a small band of enthusiastic followers. With a superb musical score by Sergei Prokofiev, Alexander Nevsky was a substantial hit with the public and his party bosses and played neatly into the government’s anti-Nazi campaign as a run-up to World War II.
By 1927, Stalin had become the supreme ruler of the Soviet Union and with his hand-picked assistant, Boris Shumyatskiy, clamped down on all experimentation in the cinema. “Social Realism,” the more blatant form of propaganda, became the order of the day; it left little to the imagination of the viewer and required even less from the director. Thus Eisen-stein, Vertov, Shub, and their compatriots had presided over a brief shining moment in which the plastic qualities of film were pushed to the limits, from 1924 to 1930. After that, Stalin’s totalitarian dictatorship and indifference to artistic endeavor, coupled with Shumyatskiy’s myopic lack of vision, ensured that the Soviet cinema would never again rise to the level of international prominence to which Eisenstein had brought it. Not until the 1970s and later the beginnings of glasnost would Soviet film rise again to any level of artistic ambition.