A communist sea dog who stayed away from the starboard, or right wing side of the battleship Potemkin. Sergei Eisenstein‘s Potemkin was a film that proclaimed his faith as an artist of revolution and transcended it. It was a work of political fire that lives because it is a work of art. The Soviet revolution and its need for film, one might say made a genius of Sergei Eisenstein; crowned for a time as the king of the new proletarian cinema.
” There are two kinds of art, bourgeois art and proletarian art. The first is an attempt to compensate for unsatisfied desires. The second is a preparation for social change. In the perfect state there will be no bourgeois art because there will be no unsatisfied desires.There will also be no proletarian art because there will be no necessity for further social change. Therefore, since I am working for the perfect state, I am also attempting to destroy the motion picture”. ( Eisenstein, 1930 )
However, Eisenstein’s career as a whole is a sad story. He was born in Riga in 1898. He was an engineer by training, migrated to set design and theatre before moving quickly into film. Absolutely congruent with his bursting film energies was his fervor for the communist revolution and the establishment of the Soviet state. To think of him as a director who just happened to be Russian or who was subservient to a state-controlled industry and managed to get some good art into his films despite is subservience, is to miss the core of Eisenstein. His early works were exponents of his beliefs.
The complications resulting from this amalgam of politics and art, ideology, theory and the reality of totalitarian government began with his follow up film, ”October” in 1928. Originally, the film had sequences showing Trotsky as part of the 1917 revolution, but while Eisenstein was editing, Stalin’s ascent forced Trotsky into disfavor, then exile. Eisenstein had to re-do the narrative and editing to take into account the emerging bias towards a view that history is a tool of control and truth must succumb to rewriting of the past to suit the circumstances of the present.
Like fascism in Germany, the theory of culture under communism became locked into a constant struggle between theoretical claims and the demands of reality. Art had to assume a functional character. As Eisenstein’s career stalled, the parallel reflex of Soviet cultural policy was to show that the individual must also, as a subject of art, surrender to the promise of collective renewal at the cost of moral autonomy and psychological interiority. Like Fascist art, to endeavor to convert recipients and embed them into a ritualistic community. In the films of Leni Riefenstahl, there is a distinctly fascist form of expression that not only endorses an aesthetic of submission, but disguises this ”sacrifice” in imagery of collective redemption. All her aesthetics lead towards an anticipation of warfare where death and violence is seen to supply the artistic gratification; propaganda films that captured viewers so strongly that they surrendered mindlessly to the Nazi ideology as seen in beautiful bodies, armor plated subjects, heroism,soil, blood and death. All to justify a group identity that would differentiate or exclude the other. What Eisenstein, in turn, would partially create with Alexander Nevsky.
In sum, the rest of his career, until his death in 1948, is a story of frustration and frequent abandonment of film projects; he completed only four more films. He was permitted to go to America in 1930, where his discussions with Hollywood studios resulted in quarreling and disagreement resulting in nothing being consummated. He shot a fortune of footage in Mexico, in part financed by Sinclair Lewis, for ” Que Viva mexico” which never saw the light. His later years were spent teaching at State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. In sum, only six completed films and one almost completed film, ”Bezhin Meadow” apparently destroyed by the Soviet government in 1938, though they claimed German bombs as the guilty party. The U.S.S.R’s waste of Eisenstein, depressing in any view, is particualrly tragic when seen in the radiance of energy that blazes off the screen from ”Potemkin”
From its first screenings in America in 1926, it was hailed by many, including Douglas Fairbanks, as the best film that had yet been made. True or not, Potemkin , a short picture under ninety minutes, is nonetheless an experience that is shaking in itself and illuminates much of what followed in film history.