( 1 8 9 8 - 1 9 4 8 )
by Viktor Shklovsky
(Moscow: Sovietskii Pisatel’– 1964)
Translator: Benjamin Sher
[Copyright by Benjamin Sher-- 1991]
“We thought we were shaping life and cinematography,” said Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, “but, as it turned out, life was shaping both us and cinematography.”
Life shapes us into what we are as we grow in consciousness. It lifts us as a storm lifts the broad, hard wings of a glider and draws them to itself.
Man comes to know necessity, comes to understand the truth and the truth makes him free.
Sergei was young and robust when I first met him (sometime in 1922). A towering forehead, long, straight eyebrows, a large mouth, a quiet smile — everything about him was radiant. He smiled at the world, at youth, like a man who believes in himself.
He made great motion pictures. He was so prolific that his complete works, written in a compact and spare hand, will fit into a dozen volumes only with great effort.
Sergei knew how to look ahead and how to look over his shoulder.
He had experienced a lot in his life. He saw the world clearly, in its infinite variety.
He was born at the close of the last century.
Sergei could remember his very first “close-ups”: He was three or four years old at the time and living on the Riga coastline in Latvia — or rather, in a suburb of Riga, on a sandy avenue along the gulf that washes against the shore.
The river had deposited a sandbar. It was therefore separated from the sea by a sandbank. Pine trees grew on the sandbank, with flower gardens nearby. All around villas gleamed with windows that had been thoroughly scrubbed.
Old Riga was a city frozen in time during Eisenstein’s childhood. It was also, however, a city of a throughly modern character. The old ditches had by then been transformed into parks, while large, pleasant-looking housing complexes with spacious apartments rose up everywhere. Their facades, plastered with stucco to resemble stone, were daubed with old-fashioned decorations in the modern style.
Next to them stood the old city with its four-meter slits and with facades that were hardly visible. The narrow buildings, their shoulders pressing against each other, just barely managed to pull in their chests from the slit that was the street.
Old churches alternated with warehouses. You could still see the old pulleys in those warehouses. They had once been used to haul cargo off the boats entering the city from the river. The river has been filled in and forgotten long ago.
The city of Riga boasts large gardens and well-kept cemeteries. It is — as they say — covered with a rich cultural layer.
This wealthy, polyglot city has its traditions. They come from Latvia, Russia and Germany. Riga is the home of Herder, the great art theoretician, who was friend and mentor of Goethe. It is here that were to be found old bookstores and churches with tall steeples visible from far at sea.
The city makes its way to the open sea by way of its port and sandbars. The latter meander along for dozens of kilometers.
A flat sea that looks like an aluminum tray turned upside down lies along the gently sloping beaches. On its blue and pink surface you could catch the reflection of seagulls.
This is a child’s sea. Eisenstein reminisces: “My first impression as a child was of a while lilac swaying back and forth over my crib.”
With a memory that was remarkably accurate, Eisenstein adds: “No, it was not a crib. It was a small, white bed. It rolled on black nickel balls and had a white mesh between the rails to keep me from falling.”
The lilac bough was not real. It had been sketched, painted and embroidered.
It was a luxuriant, convex bough. Little birds flew above it. Beyond this bough — through it - you could see the painted details of a traditional Japanese landscape . . . The bough was no longer a close-up. The bough represented a typical Japanese foreground through which the distance was silhouetted.
An artist knows how to scrutinize, weigh, remember and hunt down the sources of his understanding in that which he once saw through the meshes of his bed.
Tenacity, a keen eye, a room and books — that’s how Eisenstein’s life began. The books are already, so to speak, in the cradle with him.
Sergei Eisenstein’s memory alternated between these books and his first impressions. By the time he was ten years old he had already devoured Daumier’s art. At the boy’s request, his governess had bought him one of his books.
An artist remembers his life by organizing it into “shots,” and he is right to do so, because to remember is to sort out one’s fund of memory. He is also wrong, however, in that he no longer feels his remembrances.
Sergei swam away from the world of books. He may have been raised indoors, but no one swam farther in the sea of life than he did.
He swam past the briny ocean.
He loved books, but he swam off into an indescribable future.
From early childhood Eisenstein longed to enter the world of art. Not necessarily through the front door, though. As a matter of fact, he entered it instead through the side windows, landing in rooms devoid of furniture, rooms suspended in mid-air without a foundation beneath.
A certain English novelist once confessed that, of all the countries he knew, the ones he hoped to visit someday were those he had once seen but which never really existed: He dreamt of a journey to Robinson Crusoe’s island, to Ali Baba’s mountain and to the oceans of Sinbad the Sailor. These oceans, washing over a flat earth — in accordance with the science of the time — pull away from the earth like a hanging storm. They stay that way in mid-air, frozen by the horror of the extraordinary.
Eisenstein traveled not only to places which had never existed but even to places which no one had ever invented before him.
theater of parodies
In 1918 Eisenstein took wing, travelling to faraway lands and seas. He then entered the edifice whose foundation was laid by the Revolution.
He abandoned his studies at the Institute of Civil Engineering, joined the Red Army, built fortifications and painted posters.
I first met Eisenstein on what is now Kalinina but was formerly called Vozdizhenka Street.
It was on Vozdvizhenka Street that a merchant by the name of Morozov had once built for himself a sumptuous “nest” modelled after the palaces of Portugal. This palace shimmered with many colors. Its interior and facade, woven from the recollections of a journey, were adorned with interlaced ropes. It was crammed with antiquated ornaments like a Commisar’s store. This palace was home at the time to the Proletarian Culture Project (Proletkult). And it was here that Sergei, a young graphic artist and, chiefly, a theatrical director and student of Meyerhold, first staged his parody of plays by Ostrovsky and Tretyakov.
Tall, with an elongated face, Tretyakov had rectilinear, schematic features. Yet, he was fiercely direct as a person. He wrote plays about China and about the abolition of the family.
Sergei Eisenstein needed to be swept off his feet by a certain unexpectancy: Enter Tretyakov like a whirlwind. Soon thereafter Eisenstein staged a production in the halls of the Proletkult. Its title recalled Ostrovsky’s Enough Simplicity In Every Sage.
It was as if Yesterday had come to an end, as if it had fallen from the edge of the world only to freeze as parody. The Revolution had not yet appropriated Yesterday for the future or for the coming millenium. The Revolution was like a flash in the chronicler’s camera: The world had been crushed to smithereens. Eisenstein may have been a great artist, but he too saw the old world in its fragmented state.
Eisenstein saw the world as a fly or bee sees it, i.e. with its thousand eyes.
The world then seemed to many artists like Fellini’s world today: it was a newsreel that frothed like spilled milk gleaming with millions of eye-bubbles from the saucepan.
Everything in Fellini is fragmented and annihilated. Even the ocean can only spit up an immense incline with a sick, blind eye.
Yet, Eisenstein’s world was a cheerful one, because Eisenstein was a revolutionary. He rejoiced in the superiority of his day over Yesterday. Fellini’s world is, I admit, ingenious, but it is also asthmatic and sad.
Ostrovsky’s play was torn to pieces, set aflame and destroyed. Splash water on a stove and you’ll see drops of water rolling along the hot iron rod. They are annihilated one by one like small compact balls.
Happy confusion reigned on the stage. Glizer climbed up a pole. Why? I guess because she was acting out the expression “to kick against the pricks.” Then young Alexandrov walked the wire. In addition, a certain General Zhoffre took part in the performance. His name was announced in bold letters — twice! — on the actor’s rear end, i.e. on his colored trousers.
The fragmented world became whole again, as did the segmented drops — all because the artist transcended his own laughter.
The production included a short cinematic scene depicting the hero’s flight through a residential house. ["Glumov's Diary," a fragment interpolated into Ostrovsky's play -- Trans.]
These were Eisenstein’s first movie frames.
In those days we were free from career and money worries. The Revolution swept us along like a storm that swells a sail. And our vessel shook and trembled.
We grew up very fast then, dumping the Old, dumping it notoriously, nervously. We really overdid it. We dismissed the past like a woman we still love. We cursed and we laughed as we ran away, afraid to return. For a while, at least, the halls of the Proletcult rang with gaiety. Everything was collapsing before our eyes only to turn into laughter.
It was through laughter that these artists were throwing off their
passion for the past.
potemkin — sister to aurora
Eisenstein described his first picture in the following words:
Strike just released. Preposterous. Jarring. Reckless. Too abrupt. Swarming with all sorts of premature forms that need time to grow before they can appear in a mature work.
Not only was Strike jarring. It was also clumsy and incoherent.
We see a naturalistic May day outing alternating with an interrogation scene: a town on strike suddenly takes on a country air. This is followed by outlandish scenes of hooligans living in barrels and of mounted police stationed on the upper floor of the workers’ barracks.
A deep pathos pervades Strike. It does show talent, but it is poorly crafted.
Battleship Potemkin took the world with great suddenness. In it art seems to have overcome irony forever.
Potemkin was, is and shall likely remain forever the greatest silent (and not only silent) film ever made.
It was proposed that the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 Revolution be commemorated with a film. Several directors were recruited for the task, resulting in two films: Potemkin and Mother. Mother was released sometime later but these two films are really two birds of a feather.
The proposal called for filming the events of the year 1905. The Party’s directive was quite brief: Avoid a pessimistic ending. The 1905 Revolution was to be shown as a harbinger of the October Revolution of 1917.
Through the prism of the first revolution, the spectator, it was hoped, would perceive the reality, the contemporaneity, of the later revolution that was then hardly ten years old.
To the best of my knowledge, Eisenstein and Tisse began shooting in Leningrad. They filmed the strike of 1905, when the lamp-posts of Leningrad were blown out, when Nevsky Prospect was illuminated by projectors suspended from the tower of the Admiralty Building. The avenue was chopped up by the light into strips of fear.
I heard all of this from others.
Sergei Eisenstein, Edward Tisse and Grigory Aleksandrov took off for Odessa. When they arrived, they inspected the port, the convex pivot of the pier, the wide open sea, the seagulls and the overpasses within the city.
All they had to do was shoot one scene for Potemkin.
As they tackled their task, the truth came more and more into focus.
Only vaguely did I discern
The vista of my formless novel
Through the crystal magic.
Yevgenyi Onegin, Part VIII, Stanza 50
Many an observer has commented on the magic crystal ball consulted by the clairvoyants of the time and on this brief allusion to an image familiar to Pushkin’s contemporaries. They were apparently not talking about the magic growth of a real crystal ball.
The novel and the screenplay come into being in order that the reader may come to know them. We pack them with leitmotifs. We juxtapose inventions of our mind. As their meaning becomes clear, they coalesce into a crystal ball of knowledge.
Potemkin is a fine, intelligent film that tells how an ordinary, hard-working, carefree, frivolous city came to love the revolutionary battleship S.S. Potemkin and how this love was branded on its soul by the human destinies crushed on the bloody Odessa steps.
Is it really possible that this could be misunderstood? The flight of stairs, leading down to the sea, had already felt the grinding of people’s shoes on its landings and steps. Now people clambered up these same stairs to wave to the S.S. Potemkin. They all met with a harsh fate. Each struggled in vain. Each died in his or her particular way.
The destiny of Vakulinchuk the sailor, the murdered officers and of the Revolution itself became linked with the destiny of Odessa. The city took the tragedy to its bosom and became its guardian.
Here there are no actors, only the destinies of men and women.
In Potemkin the plot is the structure. Far from being a parody, its concepts are subordinated to a logic founded on pathos. These concepts are unprecedented in the history of art.
I remember when the movie was screened. The rumors about it had been unfavorable. One of the directors, whose name — out of courtesy — I shall pass over in silence, had already seen the picture. Considering it a failure, he sought to explain it all away with the words: “Not bad for an amateur!”
We put aside our preconceptions when we sat down to watch Potemkin. We watched without great expectations but at the same time with our customary appreciation for Eisenstein’s intelligence.
All of a sudden, the first waves swept over the screen. Then the morning burst in with seagulls. Some people contended that seagulls don’t fly as a rule in the morning, that they spend the early hours among the reeds and rushes or in their rookeries or then again asleep on the waves.
Here, however, the seagulls represent a poetic concept. True, this poetic concept may encompass the fact that seagulls feed on fish or that if you toss them a piece of bread, they’ll catch it in the air. Nonetheless, the seagulls of screen or literature are different from the seagulls of nature. Their flight is utterly different. They carry a whole new cargo on their realistic wings.
Edward Tisse filmed the seagulls coming out of a fog and then reinterpreted the scene as daybreak.
The film proceeds with shots of people grieving over the body of the murdered sailor. They sail up to the battleship only to face death head-on.
A new kind of motion picture was born.
The shooting had to be completed on schedule. To save money, filmmakers in those days shot very sparingly. Still, they never held back when inspired.
After rising up in arms in 1905, after sweeping past the Imperial fleet, its red flag fluttering above its masts, the S.S. Potemkin found itself trapped within the confines of the Black Sea. It then headed for Rumania, whence the sailors dispersed all over the world. Those who returned to Russia were sentenced to years of hard labor or were executed. The battleship itself, now disgraced, was at first renamed and then destroyed outright. Not a single piece of the battleship has ever, it seems, been recovered.
The S.S. Potemkin had a twin sister by the name of the S.S. Twelve Apostles. This old battleship had been withdrawn from active service long before. She had been lying in anchor in a distant cove, where she was used as a storage ship for mines. Since it would have taken too long to unload the mines, it was decided to make the movie with the mines on board. The ghost of the S.S. Twelve Apostles lay chained to a rocky shore in one of the most remote coves of Sevastopol Bay. It was fastened to a sandy bottom by heavy anchors.
The battleship had to be shot at sea, yet it lay chained in perpetuity to the sandy bottom. It was Pomerzh Lesha Kryukov, Eisenstein recounts, who figured out a way out of this dilemma, too.
“When its powerful hulk is turned around ninety degrees, the battleship assumes a perpendicular position vis-a-vis the shore. In this way, the ship’s bow lines up precisely against the cleft in the surrounding crags. It is thus silhouetted against the pure blue of the sky.”
The battleship seems to be sailing in the open sea.
Some scenes, however, needed to be shot broadside. To accomplish this feat, workmen set up a prop side of a ship in a small studio at the Film Factory on Bryansky Street, where today no one, not even an apprentice, would think of shooting. To crown it all, men and women crawled along the floor while the sails which they carried on their backs drew alongside this new S.S. Potemkin. These sailboats carried gifts to the battleship from the shore.
Scenes on board the S.S. Potemkin were shot on the deck of the S.S. Twelve Apostles. Meanwhile, underneath the decrepit, steel deck slumbered mines. We were constantly reminded of the presence of real danger.
In addition, the battleship had to be shot from above. A model was built and filmed in the pool of the Sandunovsky Bathhouses. But on the screen you see the battleship S.S. Potemkin.
This greatest of motion pictures, which launched the cinema as an art form, was shot under the most difficult conditions.
At the time of the shooting the city of Odessa was covered by fog. As a result, the film crews operating in the city laid down their tools. Eisenstein and Tisse, however, got into a boat, sailed along the shoreline and started looking around. Tisse, who had his movie camera with him, shot the thick fog and the city coverd by it. He shot it all without knowing the precise role which the given fragment might play in the completed film. The fog drifted on slowly.
“The fog, like patches of lint, is pierced here and there by rays of sunshine. These rare shafts of light lend a golden pink to the fog, a burning tint that makes it look warm and vivid.”
Eisenstein, Tisse and Aleksandrov sailed their boat into the fog as if they were drifting into a mist of blooming golden apples.
The film called for Odessa to show its grief at the unexpected arrival of the sailor’s body. When the words “The dead man is appealing to you!” (written by Sergei Tretyakov) appear on the screen, — Eisenstein needed a “tailpiece”, whose pathos would express the sailors’ plaint. The fog serves as a kind of “overture” that links (and separates) the tragedy of the battleship with the tragedy of the city.
Thus did Eisenstein construct his film from visual elements integrated into a new kind of dramaturgy. The documentary became drama.
As Vakulinchik’s death takes on new meaning for Odessa, the battleship responds by raising the red banner. The insurrection has turned into revolution.
The city of Odessa takes up the S.S. Potemkin’s call. Innocent men and women, cityfolk with children, climb up the Odessa steps to welcome the revolution. This was the most successful crowd-scene in the history of world cinema. Not only did Eisenstein know how to assemble this crowd. He knew how to scrutinize each and every one of its members.
He rode the crest of his time, was at home in the world of painting and harnessed world culture to the spirit of the Revolution. He was a true lyricist who loved mankind.
The Odessa steps do not descend directly to the sea. They are intersected by landings at certain intervals.
A detachment of soldiers, marching in step and in obedience to orders from above, shows up at the top of the stairs shooting. Their guns spray innocent men and women standing below.
What follows is an analytic depiction of death. A mother pushing a carriage with a baby perishes in the gunfire. The carriage itself rolls down the stairs. Charging forward, then slowing down, it hurtles on towards death.
If you want to make an act of human cruelty, i.e. wanton cruelty, intelligible, it is not enough to show millions of dead victims on the screen. You need to spotlight those who are to be pitied, so that this pity could then turn into outrage.
Eisenstein captured the horror of this massacre by filming the baby carriage as it falls down the stairs to be smashed against the stone below. Bystanders — amongst whom is a woman teacher in crushed pince-nez — she was no doubt reading Korolenko — are trying to stop the shooting. The teacher meanwhile attempts to explain the outrageousness of it all to those near her. Then she too perishes.
The S.S. Potemkin responds to this senseless act of cruelty on the part of the authorities by opening fire on the city.
How do you show this? Revenge may be indispensable, but how do you isolate the guilty from among all these houses? Where is the military governor’s palace? Where are the soldiers’ barracks? Where is the home of the officer who ordered the massacre?
Somewhere in the Crimea there is a staircase that goes down from the Alupkinsky Palace to the sea. On it sit several pairs of marble lions that betray a conscientious, though rather mechanical, manner of execution. The lions assume different poses: some are thoroughly tame, others look agitated, while still others are getting up with a roar.
Though made of marble, Eisenstein arranged these lions in such a way that they seem to be leaping up and growling in indignation. That’s how he released the tension that had been building up during the scene. The massacre on the Odessa steps did in fact take place. However, in Eisenstein’s hands this scene represents something more than a single, isolated crime by the Tsar. Eisenstein writes:
“The scene on the Odessa steps fuses the events of the Bakinsky slaughter and of Bloody Sunday (January 9, 1905) when the impulses of the credulous people, assembled to rejoice in the freedom in the vernal air, were mercilessly crushed by the boots of Reaction. It was also at this time that an unruly mob of Black Hundred pogromers [sic] set the Tomsky Theater, where a meeting had been slated, brutally afire.”
The marble lions, roused by the shots of the Revolution, did not so much symbolize as appeal to our revolutionary consciousness. It was as if the spectator himself had risen up in indignation from his seat.
The denouement of this motion picture comes when the S.S. Potemkin successfully evades a squadron of the Imperial Navy.
The squadron sailors hail their mutinous battleship with shouts of joy. This is an apotheosis, but it also speaks of the bitterness of a failed revolution — a peasant revolution — before a clear-cut organization was in place and before the general mood for revolution could be channeled into victory.
In Eisenstein’s film information and current events are transformed into a work of art with its own extraordinarily rigorous laws.
Potemkin is as calculated in its effects as a great epic poem.
It is often thought that “montage” refers to and is of interest only to the director. However, thanks to its montage, the silent Potemkin becomes almost audible.
In this film the object is first shown by chance, then it is presented as a fragment of some duration. Only after the fragment has come to be known by the viewer does it play a serious role in the film’s action.
All of this is common practice nowadays in the cinema of the world.
The more cinematography progresses, the more its successes recall the success of Potemkin. Incidents and intrigue, exploited by world drama for millennia, may admittedly be necessary in a work of art. But this is not always so. A plot may be constructed in which relationships, in the traditional sense, are lacking. Instead, new relationships may emerge representing a new artistic ideology and logic.
In Potemkin we witness a stunning fusion of the semantic and graphic in movie-making. Besides, nowhere does the work seem to involve any sequences put together from static fragments. The film advances with unexpectedly smooth “collisions.”
I remember the movie theater on Arbat Square. Potemkin had already been privately screened at the Bolshoi Theater. Now the time had come for the full-scale public premiere.
The entire film crew — except for Eisenstein — donned sailors’ uniforms. With flags flying everywhere, the sea seemed to have made its way into the theater.
We watched as the waves rose from the sea. We watched life splashing on the screen. We saw slices of life. It was a poetic cinema, the thoughts of a director who juxtaposes enormous chunks of life.
I remember Sergei Eisenstein as he stood outside the movie theater on Arbat Square. He was hatless as the wind blew through his thin hair. He was young, with a happy smile on his face. Tisse was standing next to him. I believe this vignette was preserved on the newsreels. Someone had taken it down.
If memory serves me right, Eisenstein was living at the time in a modest room on Chistiye Pruda. After seeing the picture, the governing board of his apartment complex assigned him two rooms on its premises of its own free will.
Sergei showed me his two rooms. I saw colorful straw blinds hanging from the windows. He demonstrated to me how the proportions of the room could be altered by raising or lowering the blinds.
Eisenstein’s fame spread everywhere. He was called to Berlin, and the movie began its journey around the globe.
The cinema was changing. Directors who had earlier settled for just movies were now dreaming of expressing themselves and their times on the screen.
Men and women were walking proud and tall, as if they had made this picture together.
I’m speaking of us, the cinematographers.
Potemkin owed its appearance to the following: Intrigue, the offspring of Roman comedy, had become defunct, an event which then continued evolving for thousands of years. The flower metamorphosed into a fruit with seeds.
A new plot emerged which distributed the “moments” differently. The absence of traditional relationships was not perceived as an absence of artistic logic.
Eisenstein’s achievement was very great. In addition, he prepared the way for great achievements by others.
He found it impossible for a long time to create a new planned plot structure. The stunning semantic and graphic structures of the frame often made his films sequences of static fragment clusters that moved by jolts.
It was as if cinema were quoting painting and the graphic arts.
Eisenstein loved these quotations. Of course, he also feared chains of quotations that resembled the cars of a train. His quotations were different: They were ironic as, for example, in The General Line (Old and New), where the tribal bull is shown copulating next to the wedding site, and where the bull’s death is counterpointed by little aerial balls soaring to the sky. There are inscriptions on these balls that speak of irony and pathos.
He was right because that’s how he saw it. But he was also wrong because he himself was dissatisfied with his irony.
montage of attractions
From the heights of his towering forehead Eisenstein had seen everything there was to see. Lyrical in a restrained sort of way, he had a flair for relating everything compositionally. Eisenstein was, at first, a man in a hurry.
I’ve already spoken above of the water drops which turn into little corpuscles on a red-hot burner. Eisenstein called them “attraction.” Every attraction has its emotion and its theme. However, when part of a montage, they look like ballerinas in an abstract ballet.
Very early in his career Eisenstein began making use of the concept of “montage of attractions.”
What is an “attraction”?
In a variety show and in the circus an attraction stands for a specific trick entailing a specific solution, that is, a specific [theatrical] effect. For example: a man lifting a heavy weight or tossing on a trampoline.
An attraction may develop as a series of leaps or as a series of weight-liftings. Nonetheless, it produces a unified impression on the spectator. While associated, as it were, with the viewer’s feeling, an attraction is also separated from the attractions contiguous to it.
An attraction is an item on the program which can also be rearranged for the convenience of a public performance.
Eisenstein endowed this term with a new significance. An attraction, according to him, is a short, self-expressive, visually affecting structure that has a physiological impact on the spectator. Its content, known in the old poetics by the term “plot,” was conveyed in the past by the interrelationship of episodes.
Attractions do not correspond to words. They are concepts, primordial concepts, linked with sensations as if inseparable from them. They are not a signal for emotion but the emotion itself.
Eisenstein introduced the concept of fragmentariness, of documentariness, into the phrase “montage of attractions.” In this respect he followed mistakenly in the footsteps of many. Still, he saw a lot farther than they ever did.
I think I was right to assert in my Literature and Cinematography (1923) that plot is nothing more than an imaginary union of effects, a thread weaving the individual attractions together like beads on a string. Corpuscles of primordial sensations — that was the main thing. Or so we thought. We considered a word, first and foremost, as a “self-woven, self-purposeful entity,” rather than as bearer of a concept in its relation to other words.
But a word exists and changes in its relationship with contiguous words. A word can no more be taken in isolation than color can. I had better clarify my meaning.
A human being thinks not with sensations but with concepts, with concepts invented by him and singled out from the surrounding world. These concepts persist even when we turn away from the world, when the world ceases to impose its contours on us in the form of concepts. The ability to analyze or to integrate, to see things large and things small, to measure out concepts in space — which becomes a concept too when it is experienced as thought — this ability is a great attribute, an achievement of the human brain.
During the thirties many artists were carried away by detail. In the theater the play had become a kind of pretext for the creation of stage situations, while in poetry a line or a couplet or a stressed word singled out by rhyme held dominance over the general plot structure.
Sometimes the plot structure would be repeated. For example, Mayakovsky repeated the following sequence of events a number ot times: A man is born, dies, is resurrected and returns to a changed world.
This is the schema for A Cloud in Pants, Mystery-Bouffe, Man, War and the World and About That.
The individual fragments are remarkably diverse and accomplished, while the plot structure is conventionally lyrical.
That’s how it appears at first. However, in poetry the juxtapositions of the parts are very complex and anticipated by the whole history of art. The juxtaposition of high and low (of which we shall speak later) along with artistic irony (understood in a lofty sense) transform the individual semantic utterances.
The cinema was young then. It had just discovered multiple levels of structure, not to mention the capacity to arbitrarily change the very scale of our conceptual apparatus. The ability to isolate the principal element from the general, to bring out the principal element if only by means of close-ups and to lay the foundation for visual associations played an even greater role in cinema than tropes did in poetry.
The concept of “attraction” emerged spontaneously, it seems, from the concept of a close-up. Very often this concept was tinged with irony. This was due to the choice of object to be shot.
In speaking of “montage of attractions” I do not wish to imply that we are dealing here with nothing but a series of mistakes. On the contrary, it represented an advance of enormous significance. The word not only stands for an object. It replaces this object in thought.
Thought is verbal and poetry is the juxtaposition of words. Yet, behind this juxtaposition stands life itself. What a difficult achievement: Through mere appearance — perception; through analysis — the designating of an object — getting at the essence of a thing — the objective of art. All of human history may be said to consist of changes in the meaning of words.
The changes in poetic styles are called forth not by the vagaries of fashion nor by any desire to trade in wide trousers for narrow ones but by the fact that people want to see themselves and the world in which they live.
Literature is not only one way of organzing words, one particular mode of verbal realization. It is also an arena in which man wrestles with words in the name of the sensuousness of the world. The philosophical practice of reflecting the world hierarchically is often ignored.
In his Philosophical Notebooks Lenin summarized Hegel’s lectures on the history of philosophic formulations:
“The existential and the conceptual are distinguished in Hegel more or less as follows: a fact (existence) taken in isolation, torn out of its context and, on the other hand, the context itself, the relationship (the concept), the correlation, the linkage, the law, necessity.”
It should not be assumed that in having a notion we have thereby gained possession of the thing itself.
We think in words. They in turn express essentially only the general.
Lenin put it this way:
“Details about the following: Language expresses in essence only the general, while thought is always individual and particular. This is why thoughts can never be expressed in language.”
Here Lenin has appended the note: “Language deals only with the general.”
In this conflict between the laws of language and the world of phenomena many an attempt has been made to define the process by which we take possession of the concrete. Moreover, the attempt has also been made to prove that the concrete cannot for the most part be known.
Mr. Verli, in his General Introduction to Literary Criticism (Moscow, 1957) propounds the following commonly-held but erroneous idea (taken up by many since):
“As early as the time of Herder it has been well known that each word represents in essence an artistic concept, and that poetry represents a unique way of playing on a totally predetermined keyboard of grammatical systems.”
Many have never advanced beyond such exercises.
The montage of attractions sought to expand and, indeed, replace the keyboard, to introduce new sounds into the world, in short, to bring art closer to the particular without losing the general.
A new keyboard was introduced. The montage of attractions attempted to replace the laws governing the succession of frames with a direct collision of attractions.
These collisions were selected on the basis of their artistic-affective expressiveness.
The keys between the attractions were left out. The path leading to the the object as essence was thereby lost.
The conventionality of language was augmented by the conventionality of montage.
Eisenstein wanted none of this. His thinking was as follows:
Man needs facts in order to see the material out of which the world was made. With the help of the word, man has turned his back on instinct, on direct contact with the world. In conquering words, music, cinema and art, he shall return to a sensuous apprehension of a coherent world. The parts of this world must never be arbitrarily torn asunder again.
An attraction, in Eisenstein’s sense of the word, may be defined as an immediate, spontaneous emotion corresponding to qualitatively hetero-
geneous phenomena. This is the world as if liberated from the word, silent yet producing words anew.
The world which Eisenstein longed to express announced its presence only in a manner calculated to astonish or shock. When, however, he had to talk about the more ordinary things of this world, he fell silent.
Furthermore, it became necessary to isolate, to find a cinematic equivalent for the word. Eisenstein believed that he had found such an equivalent in the semantic completeness of the frame. He therefore ascribed great significance to the close-up.
In Eisenstein a close-up is not just a detail singled out by the camera that closes in on it. It is at the same time an artistically isolated, seman-tic principal detail.
We witness here not only a conscious appreciation for the technique of the cinema but also a transformation of this technique.
Technically speaking, the close-up was born in American cinema. Only, in American film practice, it was really more of a “close-up” than a “power-up” [“krupnyi plan” in Russian means “close-up”. The word "krupny" normally means "powerful" or "big."- Trans.] The camera simply closed in on an object. The term “close-up” had a purely technical meaning.
In Soviet cinematography, on the other hand, a close-up does not designate merely a closing-in on the subject. It stands for the juxtaposition of objects or subjects that have been directly isolated. Here “close-up” has a relational meaning. Objects in juxtaposition or scenes set off against each other in a montage give rise to new semantically charged emotions which are once again subordinated to the artist’s will.
That’s why a montage of attractions is a such dangerous business. It could easily degenerate into a “revue” if involving a juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements. The truth of an object cannot be unknown when it is not objects but the variety of their presentations that are juxtaposed.
In the latter case a kind of burlesque takes over: a parody of change of dress.
A revue featuring glass sequins, a female body masked in hundred-foot columns of naked legs — there is no erotic sensation here. On the contrary, only a massive loss of sensation.
Let us speak of great men and women. Let us record not what they failed to accomplished but what they actually did. For who would reproach travellers for not having circumnavigated and mapped out the entire globe? In Eisenstein the “thing” holds dominance over a “relationship of things.”
Sergei Eisenstein had a number of passions. He was strongly drawn to Zola, whom he considered a great writer. Zola was a materialist. He loved to enumerate objects.
I would dare say that Zola does not juxtapose objects. Instead, he seems to deliberately scorn their interrelationships. In Zola we feel that we have landed in a great bazaar where the products of unliberated human labor are sold.
“Ladies and Gentlemen! On your right you’ll find fish, on your left there is lots of meat, and don’t forget the cheese right around the corner!”
The objects are arranged for the benefit of the consumer.
The French master has expanded the meaning of the beautiful and, thereby, the concept of what is suitable for artistic representation.
On the other hand, he has littered his novels with objects. He often failed to “edit” or juxtapose his material attractions. Nor did he show man through the interrelationships of things.
An artist needs these relationships. He would starve without them, much as a city dweller would perish without oxygen. In searching for real rather than traditional relationships, Zola became enamored of the laws of heredity and depicted them in his novels as fate hanging over humanity. The genealogical tree and the genetic table allowed him to whip up a kind of unity in his novels by organizing their scenes into a system. Zola didn’t venture beyond this point. It’s as if he had succeeded only in creating a womb for the new art.
the history of a certain majolica
Eisenstein’s world was spacious but insulated. It took quite some time for the filmmaker to break out of this situation, to seek the wide-open vistas of the changing world.
Meanwhile, the world around him was becoming infinitely richer and more various. There was so much more for our senses to perceive, and this perception took the path of recognition rather than irony.
When the Winter Palace was under assault, one of the soldiers cut out a tile from a majolica picture. Nothing valuable — neither the picture nor the gold nor the statue was lost in the shuffle. The soldier simply took the tile as s souvenir, not knowing that this was part of the artifact.
Years passed. By this time the Winter Palace was crammed with things confiscated from the rich of every part of Russia. Rooms sprang up in the palace devoted to china, to metalcraft and to furniture.
On Sundays old women began frequenting the spic-and-span rooms of the former palace. They would sit upright, their hands — marked by bulging veins — resting on their clean dresses. They would look at the transparent cases housing the china, at the cunningly wrought armor, at the thoroughly washed panes of glass and at the Neva River. The river flowed leisurely past the palace only to expire peacefully in the gulf after catching a glimpse of splendid Leningrad.
Waves do not die. They are transformed. The snows of yesteryear also do not die. They swirl in the hot sun and then stream across the wilderness towards the Neva.
The women were resting quietly in the tall chairs of their palace, as if they were on a leave of absence for an eternity.
One of these women noticed a yellow square tile on a majolica panel. She came back to the palace time and again. Then, one day, she brought a majolica tile with her and presented it to the museum curator. Her face beamed:
“It’s been lying around in our kitchen all this time. Upside down! It was used as a support for the iron. Everybody forgot about it except for me. Then, one day, I decided to turn it over to see what it looked like. Yes, this is the tile that was removed from the palace at the time of the Revolution.”
The Revolution immediately began planting the seeds of many forests, combining them, restoring past losses, coming up with new solutions by reinterpreting the old.
There is nothing in the whole world as swift as our revolution. It carries on its shoulders the whole sea of mankind.
In their approach to art, the people of this Revolution created a new reality of such scope that irony became for it something both alien and superfluous.
irony and inspiration
Pathos has not always succeeded in overcoming irony.
Inspiration, by its very nature, can flow along a number of different channels. These channels may either issue from or merge into one stream.
Perhaps art lies in the land between two channels.
Hegel spoke of the aesthetic significance of irony in art. But then Hegel was engaged at the time in a polemic against Schlegel, and for the latter irony was the highest principle in art.
Irony isn’t always self-destructive. It is rather close to the comic. Not playing a fundamental role in art, irony runs parallel to the artist’s new attitude to the object.
Irony is associated with the new juxtaposition. In “The Prophet” Pushkin rejects the prophet’s world as it exists before the onset of his inspiration. Yet, “The Prophet” is not an ironic poem. The world becomes transparent for the poet. He sees into the depths of the transparent sea, and the sound of the sprouting vine whispers in his ear.
There is an irony in Eugene Onegin. It is the irony of a poet who listens to a different drummer, that is, who follows a path different from the one his hero felt compelled to follow.
Gogol spoke of the terrifying storm of inspiration. But Gogol too is not ironic. He overcomes his irony with a lofty pathos, a dream of the future. In comparison with this dream today is nothing but a boring night stay at an inn where horses are in short supply, where the only sound is that of the rain beating on the window outside.
Irony does not have to affirm itself. It need not be an end in itself, for its own sake.
An artist who laughs up his sleeve cannot create a great work of art, that is, a work that moves us deeply.
It’s true that Dante treats the papacy ironically, but, on the other hand, he spares the lovers in the fires of hell from this same irony.
Elements of irony pervade much of the work of early Soviet artists. Even the violation of the proportions inhering among the elements of an artifact was an expression of irony.
Eisenstein kept on making films. Crowned by glory, he sailed under the Potemkin‘s red flag. He saw himself as a conqueror and he was a conqueror.
I shall not attempt to write his biography here — I am not up to it. Once Eisenstein was asked by his students to teach them “how to become an Eisenstein.” He refused to give an answer. There is only one thing, I believe, that can be taught: Avoid repeating the ways of the past or, at the very least, its mistakes.
October was overdone. It dealt with the capture of the Winter Palace in 1917. Yet, through a blunder of sorts, the Winter Palace itself and its objects became the heroes of this movie. Statues, vessels, innumerable clocks, gods and goddesses of every description, statues on the roof, precious stones, objets d’art treated as parodies — these were the protagonists of this motion picture. The artifacts were symbolic of an alien culture which had not yet been completely subdued.
Eisenstein continued down his earlier path, when in art there are no straight lines – There are only the arches of bridges, stretching from one abutment to the next.
Eisenstein wanted to film the raising of the Winter Palace drawbridge. It was originally raised to prevent the workers’ militia from coming to the aid of the advancing troops. The Winter Palace, however, was also taken from the shore: It was bombarded by the combined guns of the Peter and Paul Fortress, the S.S. Aurora and Schlisserburskye Highway. In the film the bridge does not form part of the plot. Instead, its role is restricted to quotation. The master quotes himself, his “Odessa Steps.”
How is the raising of the bridge shown in the film?
It is morning. A woman lies dead, her blonde hair dishevelled. She is a victim of the skirmish on the bridge. A coachman’s horse, harnessed to a cab, lies similarly dead. As the bridge rises up, the hair of the dead woman begins to stir. The bridge continues its climb, showing off the iron ribs of its chest.
The cab is suspended from one end of the bridge, while the white horse attached to it is suspended by its collar from the other end. They are both raised by the bridge’s rib cage. Then the horse plummets into the water, and the cab rolls off the steep incline.
Genius, to be sure. Still, the emotions elicited by this episode are superfluous. This attraction tells us nothing.
On the other hand, everything in the Palace is of the greatest interest.
A statue standing next to a bidet is adjusting her marble attire, while a woman in a soldier’s blouse watches longingly over a beautiful female nude. Clocks show the current time on all the continents and in all the major cities of the world.
The film fails to coalesce, and what Eisenstein called “an intellectual cinema” does not come off. The rooms of this cinematographic epic simply do not connect: The crystal pendants of the chandeliers tremble and quake in response to the ongoing machine-gun fire. The reverberations in the palace are conveyed by contracting and dilating the camera’s diaphragms.
Eisenstein ordered that one rocket be exploded in one of the halls of the palace to show the effect of the shells hurled by the S.S. Aurora. The window frames flew out in all directions. Eisenstein related what happened next: An old valet walked up to him and started sweeping the broken glass from the parquet floor. He then straightened his back, eyed the famous director and said:
“Your men showed more consideration for this place the first time around.” [i.e. during the original assault on the Winter Palace in 1917 -- Trans.]
Let me hasten to add that we take better care of this palace now than before — because we’ve come to know it with our own eyes, because we’ve walked its parquet floors with our own feet, because we’ve peered through its windows and admired its malachite silk.
It so happens that the close-up attraction is not universally applicable. The effect of an attraction, even an overpowering attraction, is less substantial than a sequence of word- and scene-concepts.
I attended the private screening of October. Everything about it was stunning. The cinematographers gathered in the room gasped in amazement. Yet, disappointment showed on their faces, too.
They went away happy, all right, but still they found fault with Eisenstein.
I was walking arm in arm with the young Pudovkin when I heard him say enviously:
“I would give an arm or a leg for such a magnificent failure. . . Look! Everyone is off . . . to try their hands at something new.”
After making October and The General Line (Old and New), Eisenstein and Alexandrov went abroad.
They were greeted with enthusiasm, to be sure, but also with a certain degree of circumspection: People from the land of the Revolution had come on a visit. It was soon evident that it was precisely the Revolution that was on the minds of these traveling Soviet artists.
Sergei Eisenstein was the most celebrated and most recognized cinematographer in the world.
They offered him numerous themes for filming. They entered into many agreements with him — or rather, they reached many an understanding without actually coming to an agreement with him. When discussion got down to simple questions, i.e. not to Eisenstein’s “intellectual cinema” but to the purpose of Eisenstein’s film-making, to its impact on the movie-goer, it soon became clear that this Eisenstein was more than they had bargained for. To the consternation of the producers, the director of Potemkin, however versatile, could never quite let go of the Revolution when making movies.
A connoisseur of the world’s art, a man in love with objets d’art (and therefore a European), a man of enormous scope, Eisenstein was the kind of person Americans should have liked. Still, when all is said and done, Eisenstein remained a Soviet artist. He could not and did not want to divorce himself, however briefly, from developments sweeping through his homeland.
Negotiations would invariably begin with the clients’ enthusiasm and end with their fright.
The trip to Mexico, on the other hand, turned out to be a success. As a country that had gone through its own revolution, Mexico stood to benefit from many of Eisenstein’s projects.
Eisenstein brought his cinematography to Mexico. Eisenstein and Tisse’s imprint on Mexican cinema is quite recognizable. Here he came to know the pathos of the Revolution. It walked side by side with them because, though not born together, the two revolutions in question were the offspring of the same world process.
But there is always the problem of money. That is, the problem of coming up with it. Eisenstein shot his movie while short on funds. As a result, his footage was sold retail by the owners down to and including the left-over film. From this footage others made all sorts of films. The man who had invented the montage of attractions was demon-
taged in one of his finest pictures, namely, Que Viva Mexico!. It was an agony for him to be denied the opportunity of editing his own film.
Human creativity is not the work of one man alone. The culture of mankind is not carried on by one nation but by all the nations of the world.
Central America gave us corn, tobacco and the potato. Mexico possessed a great culture that was distinctive and unique to the very end. This culture is not exotic, i.e. it is not a collection of disparate objects. It is an integral whole embracing a coherent relationship between life and art with a long history all its own.
The art of the world moves of its own accord. Eisenstein is not Dickens nor D.W. Griffith nor is he like any other Soviet director.
In the general system of socialist art Eisenstein, Dovchenko and Pudovkin each has his own relationship to life.
Eisenstein’s aesthetics is supple, sculptural and somewhat jarring in its effect. It is at once both monumental and spare. There is no cluttering of the screen with images in Eisenstein, at least not in his best films. Instead, he isolates them against huge, all-consuming backdrops.
Eisenstein’s Mexican movie begins with a scene depicting grandiose architectural monuments and sculpture.
On a visit to an exhibition of Mexican art, I was overwhelmed by the grandiosity and coherence of the artist’s conception. Admittedly, I found it somewhat elusive, inasmuch as this art had been complicated by later Catholic influences.
By means of his craft, for example, by isolating objects in close-ups, Eisenstein shows us the people of Mexico. In doing this, he brings Mexico closer to us and makes its art into the common property of all the nations of the earth.
Eisenstein shows us today’s Mexicans — that is, Mexicans as they were fifty years ago — against the background of ancient monuments.
The ancient sculptures come alive. They move closer to each other. They become portraits. The ancient pyramids illustrate the grandiose power of the people. It is as if the people on the screen were represented by their art. It is with full appreciation of their worth that we see these same people later as colonial slaves.
The confrontation of peasant and plantation owners is not a clash between culture and non-culture but between the high culture of Mexico and the moribund civilization of the European colonizers.
Nature is only rarely represented: We see everywhere the same shoots, the same cactus trees, the same plantations, the same stones, the same fortifications. Only occasionally do we see any people and when we do, the collision becomes unusally dramatic and personal.
The grandiose monumentality of this motion picture is somewhat marred by the actors impersonating plantation owners. It is also marred by the rather frivolous nature of the young woman who perishes while “hunting for the man.” True, she is spiteful and petty, but she does not inspire terror. As a matter of fact, she is a nobody. Not in vain does she die off-screen: On the screen we see an oarsman rowing away.
The new aesthetics had not yet reached its zenith, but it is grandiose enough to overpower the spectator.
From Que Viva Mexico! our artist’s career moves on to Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible.
Eisenstein’s cinema is as simple and solid as a pyramid.
of an encounter with eisenstein
(as told by an artist)
I learned about Mexico from Mayakovsky, who was apparently angered by the fact that he had to talk about such unbelievably exotic things in the first place. The only way to strip them of their exotic character is to talk about them: that is, either at great length or in poetry.
Well, just as Mayakovsky was incapable of talking at length about anything, I myself am equally incapable of telling it in verse. Besides, I’ve never been to Mexico. In fact, I didn’t even see Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! until quite recently, some thirty years later.
They filmed, they quarreled, they edited (without Eisenstein, of course), which is to say that those who edited the film did it to the best of their abilities. Consequently, a number of individual films resulted. When some left-over stock still remained, a certain cinematographer with money to spare bought it all up.
The screen shows heavy crosses being lifted onto shoulders and carried in endless pairs. We are not dealing here with actors but with pilgrims in a Mexican religious procession. Shots taken from different angles were repeated. It was a genuine procession, as if the motion picture about Mexico were itself heading, frame by frame, towards its own crucifixion.
We see the three-fingered, five-fingered and six-fingered hands of the cactus plants rising from the scorched earth to the sky. It was ten years ago that I first saw these fragments. Only much later did I see the picture itself.
Eisenstein never completed the editing of his film. It was as if a poet had written an epic only to discover afterwards that the rhymes had been tacked on by a bookseller.
Eisenstein told me about a certain song (and then proceeded to sing it). I’ve since forgotten it.
There is a valley in the heart of Mexico — this isn’t the song, of course — that looks very much like a bowl. There is a song about it and it goes (rather inaccurately, I admit) like this:
T-Juan tepe, T-Juan tepe
Native land. . . .
You are surrounded
By three thousand rivers.
By three thousand rivers.
It’s so far away, far away,
That you could never reach it,
Neither by horseback nor by train …
So far away . . .
This is a fragment of a song about a homeland left far behind. Chances are that this valley is in fact dry, that none of the above-mentioned three thousand rivers ever flowed through it.
Something in my memory rings a bell.
The land is so far away and so inaccessible that it has taken on the appearance of a paradise of splashing water.
Eisenstein, Alexandrov and Tisse were traveling through Mexico when, one day, they found themselves in a large, rocky valley. This valley looked like a wide bowl excavated out of an enormous plateau raised upwards.
It seems that in this valley there was a grey town with steep shadows. A painted iron clock hung from a little house.
Whether because he recognized the sign or in order to check the time, Eisenstein walked inside. He found a watchmaker at work by the narrow window.
The man lifted his head and broke into a smile:
“Hi, I’ve heard all about you on the radio,” he said, “you are from Odessa. Right?”
“Not really,” replied Eisenstein, “but I have made pictures in Odessa.”
“Yes, yes, of course . . . you made movies there . . . that’s what they were saying on the radio. But you are from Russia. Right?”
“Yes, I’m from Russia.”
“Tell me,” the watchmaker continued, “how are things on Deribasovskaya Street?”
Eisenstein related the story in detail.
The watchmaker said: “There is a flight of stairs — in Odessa . . .”
He was an old man. That’s all Eisenstein told me about his external appearance.
“. . . a steep staircase that runs directly to the sea,” the old man went on. “I would give anything to climb on it! . . . Will you be going back soon?”
“Soon!” said Tisse.
“Odessa. . . ” said the old man, “it’s so far away! . . . what a life we had in those days! What a happy city. . . and those trees! So many, many trees! . . . And the tram rocking back and forth and people smiling everywhere.”
“Since then,” said Tisse, “the trees have closed above the trams and, oh, they are also repairing the steps. I think.”
Tisse is a kind man. At the time he was also a man of great strength. So he tried to console his aged host.
The watchmaker replied in turn: “Well, what do you know! I’ve had the good fortune to meet people from Odessa. The only people around here are Indians. They are good people, let me tell you, and I now know their language, I mean Spanish. At least, I know all the words that a watchmaker needs to know. But, please, don’t tell them that I’m Jewish! There are anti-Semites here. Farewell, gentlemen!”
Before writing about the Potylikha Studios, I shall say a kind word about our old “film factory” on Zhitna Street near the Crimean Bridge. It was built by Khanzhonikov.
It studios were small. They recalled the old photo ateliers because their ceilings-roofs were made of glass. Just the same, it was a real cinema institute, beloved by all who had anything to do with it. Strike was filmed here as was much of Potemkin.
At the Potylikha you might have run into Vsevolod Ivanov, Babel, Viktor Pertzov or Sergei Tretyakov. They were employed at the time in the screenplay section. In fact, Tretyakov helped Eisenstein immensely in the making of Potemkin. It was here that Ivan Pyryev shot his first movie. So did Okhlopov, who showed great potential. His film had all the makings of greatness, but it was not to be. It was entitled The Path of the Enthusiasts and was repeatedly altered and reedited.
Still, the institute could boast of some great successes. It was here that Soviet cinematography had its start.
The cinema industry kept growing. Finally, it was moved to its new location on Vorobyovy Gory. It is a huge cinema complex today and is still growing. Dovchenko planted flowering trees all around it. By this time it had already come to occupy the promontory between the streets and keeps on growing and growing. The promontory is apparently destined to be filled up to the max with the stones of the workshop.
The workshops resemble hangars.
Beneath them stretch desolate, wide aisles reminiscent of the corridors we run through in our dreams.
And yet the corridors of our dreams are narrower and lower than these.
Although the film studios of Potylikha resemble hangars, it is only seldom that any long-distance planes take off from them.
But we can’t help but love Potylikha, where so much was accomplished. It was beloved and defended in its time by Sergei Eisenstein.
Ecclesiastes says that a wise man refrains from saying that today is worse than yesterday. This is the mistake of old age.
Growth is a continual process of regeneration.
The world moves away from you, but you try to hold onto it. You can’t take the station with you as the train pulls away.
And so we shall talk about the Potylikha. It is one of the biggest movie studios in the world. Located next to the university, it overlooks the Moscow River below, which meanders around Lenin Stadium.
I’ve known the Potylikha on Vorobyovy Gory for a long time and have come to expect successes from it. And disappointments, too. It’s a fine place.
There was a time when manure was dumped here from every corner of Moscow. This place was also home at one time to some famous cherry orchards. It would be too much to say that they blossomed in the spring, when you consider the fact that at that time the hills still shook with hot, pink, trembling snow.
Beneath the hills and past the cherry snow flowed the Setun, which then emptied into the Moscow River below.
From the other shore loomed intricately carved towers supported by a wall. Behind the wall stood cathedrals resembling clusers of beautiful flowers.
In the old monastery, Tatlin was busy creating wings for mankind, wings on which man could fly without an engine. This bird was called a “letatlin” — a fusion of the artist’s surname with the dream of flight [“let” in Russian means “flight” -- Trans.]
This is an old dream, as old as the attempt to fly during the reign of Ivan the Terrible.
The cemetery is filled with monuments inscribed with the names of people.
Tatlin himself was riding high as a painter when he lost his faith in his art and sacrificed himself to a mistake.
Many of the names on these monuments are famous the world over.
Everywhere you look there are monuments. Over there stands a monument to Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein: a huge head, a skull of enormous size.
Here too lies Vasilyev. And Dovchenko. Here too in a small cherry orchard above the graves of the Moscow Art Theater lie the remains of Mayakovsky, Bagritsky, Olesha and Pavlenko.
Chekhov’s grave is very modest.
There is no need to feel sorry for yourself just because you are not immortal. Pushkin has written some glowing verses on this theme. Let’s not forget too that from Vorobyovy Gory and Mosfilm Lenin Stadium is even more visible than Novodeviche Cemetery. Like a bowl, our stadium is always filled with the best that life has to offer.
Let us now return to the Potylikha Studios.
To this day there is no inscription anywhere to indicate that Eisenstein, Pudovkin or Dovchenko ever worked here.
The cherry orchards have since disappeared. They have been replaced by the white asphalt that made possible the filming of Alexander Nevsky’s battle with the Crusaders. How passionately they clashed on the vast asphalt ice! How it held up so well in its spaciousness when the German armies advanced on us in the freezing dust!
Eisenstein filmed the German knights with their hands raised above the helmets where the plumage goes. It had all the look of a Fascist salute.
The cherries are gone. The orchard now blooms with apples, but the ever-expanding highway keeps encroaching upon them.
Perhaps I’m imagining this, but the studio does seem to be growing more and more cramped. Even the ice is feeling a bit crowded here.
Though he had faced many a crisis in his time, Eisenstein never complained.
The first picture he made here was called Bezhin Meadow. It concerned a little boy by the name of Pavlik Morozov, who was murdered by his kulak father. Well, somehow or other, a religious theme — God the Father condemning His Son to death — got mixed up in the picture. So the destruction of the church seemed to restore man to paradise.
But life doesn’t repeat itself. The world moves on without quoting the past. It clambers up heavily towards the distant stars.
The enormity of the past and the need to overcome it lay like a heavy burden on Eisenstein.
Bezhin Meadow is quite traditional, that is, if we examine its screenplay. The work contains a double quotation. First, the title recalls Turgenev’s story of the same name. We are reminded in passing that children in the countryside have changed drastically since the 19th century writer’s time. Secondly, the boy’s murder recalls Voinich’s novel The Gadfly.
The son is a revolutionary, the father a cardinal. The son demands that his father pay for his (i.e. the son’s) life by renouncing his faith. Otherwise, he won’t go on living. Unable to make this sacrifice, the old Cardinal flings the communion chalice on the floor of the church. As he does so, he recounts the sufferings of God the Father.
The screenplay called for the withdrawal of church valuables. The objects of ordinary church use acquired new force as if a ritual or mystery was being performed. The church scene established and insisted on a far-fetched religious analogy, as in Voinich’s book. On the other hand, it is impossible for us to feel sympathy for the father who has killed his own son. We ought not to participate in his tragedy.
In religious myths one generation wages war against another. Uranus, for instance, was castrated by his son Cronus with a sickle. Cronus, for his part, devoured his own children.
Nevertheless, the religious consciousness found in myth always sides with new, more humane gods. Mankind has the right to look over its shoulder as it marches forward, but it ought not feel sorry for that which is in the process of collapsing.
the triumph of alexander nevsky
I know the Talmud only by hearsay. There is a passage somewhere in it that says: “A fool thinks that time passes. Time doesn’t pass. People do.”
Yet, not everything passes. The Talmud may have passed on into oblivion, but The Book of Job and The Iliad are still with us. On the walls of the Putivel Fortress the plaint of Yaroslav can still be heard. The city has survived, too. Its name has apparently been preserved by the plaint.
I am not speaking of what has come to pass, even if I am nearly at the end of my life. No. I am filled with amazement at the solidity of everything around me.
A director’s life is, physically, quite short. Making a motion picture is evidently more harmful and terrifying than being a test pilot.
Much work was done on Alexander Nevsky and much was learned. It was realized, for instance, that the present-day proportions of ancient Russian churches are a result of the swelling of the ground, the so-called “cultural layer”, around the foundations of the walls.
For this reason, the churches became squat, and the lower sections of the windows were heaped up with stone. Eventually, people got used to it.
It was often necessary to renounce an imaginary beauty in favor of a real one. To put it simply, what was objected to was too much color. Instead, seemingly antagonistic colors were adopted to represent Kievan Rus’ and the Teutonic Knights.
They researched the laws and customs of Novgorod thoroughly. And they were unsparing with themselves.
Autumn had already set in when Eisenstein filmed the traditional scuffle of the Novgorodians on the bridge thrown obliquely across the pond.
They were filming Orlov in the water. They told him: “Come out of there!”
“I’m better than Cherkassov!” the actor replied. “Look at me, I’m almost as good as Okhlopkov.”
In old Novgorod disputes were settled as follows: whenever a quarrel broke out, the minority would find itself tossed into the water in quick order. It took a little time to achieve unanimity, but achieved it was.
In art an argument remains suspended in mid-air, so to speak, since it can never be definitively resolved.
They were filming Alexander Nevsky. Its future could not as yet be foreseen, yet Cherkassov’s double was lifting his horse over Vorony stone. This was splendidly shot. Splendid too was the fact that Dovator, a future general of the cavalry, indeed, an angel of cavalry warfare, played Cherkassov’s double.
With the picture finished, Eisenstein would go to sleep right in the editing room.
In cinematography time is always in short supply. The sun sets too early. The snow falls too early too and melts away in the sun. That’s why work is so frenetic, with hardly enough time left over for splicing.
Eisenstein would lie down and fall asleep. Working day and night in the final weeks, the staff tried to convince themselves that there were twenty-five hours in a day. Well, succeed they did!
Eisenstein edited the film himself — on Gnezdikovksky Pereulok, if I am not mistaken, — and provided, of course, that I’ve not confused his work on Nevsky with the drudgery of editing October. They edited and edited, went to bed and slep soundly.
One night they received a telephone call from the Kremlin. Someone said that Stalin wanted to see the picture. So, without waking up the director, they put the film in several cans and went off to the Kremlin.
Stalin was very pleased. However, the can with the Volkovsky Bridge scene, which was still being edited at the time, was left behind.
It was never shown. No one noticed it anyway, and no one could bring himself later to say that they were not showing the complete picture. So the film was shown on the screen as it was, with none of the critics being the wiser.
There is a certain truth in the assertion that in the cinema the fragment is more powerful than the structure overpowered by it. A film’s structure is “multi-knotted.” That’s why you may not notice that a movie that is passing right before your eyes is missing a part.
Successes kept on coming one after the other. Only, in art it is difficult to distinguish success from failure. Success does not always succeed. Some successes are unlucky, unfortunate.
Only later are they perceived as successes.
If you want to kill a bird in flight, you must aim your gun a little in front of the bird itself, due consideration, of course, taken for its speed and direction.
Alexander Nevsky circled the globe many times.
On the streets children with improvised swords and shields in their hands replayed the battle between Nevsky and the Crusaders. The picture was shown abroad — and no one noticed a thing. Only Orlov, who had crawled freely into the icy water during the Battle on the Ice, was distressed. He had, after all, outplayed Okhlopkov. He recalled sadly that the best scenes had been lost.
This happened quite inadvertently. It might be a good idea someday to show the innocent clip to the public if only to find out just how well the world understands a cinematic work of art.
Cinematography is a brutal craft rich in amazing incident.
Occasionally, an unexpected joy comes your way.
Alexander Nevsky fuses irony with pathos. The key to the relationship between Alexander Nevsky’s peasant warriors and the Knight Templars may be found in the mischeivous tale about the fox who, getting himself jammed in the forked roots of a birch tree, was now being scolded by the rabbit. The tale itself is authentic, taken as it is from Afanasiev’s Indecent Tales, which were published under the imprint of Vaalam [A Russian monastery in Finland]. I once gave this book to Eisenstein as a present. (Its whereabouts remain unknown to me to this day). In return, Eisenstein gave me a drawing depicting this very same incident. I gave this drawing in turn to Fedor Gritz.
Pyotr Andreevich Pavlenko wrote a fine screenplay for the film. This screenplay dissolves in the film like sugar in tea. Or rather, we may say that the screenplay and the director’s work were transformed into a motion picture as fermented vine and grape juice turn into wine.
Of Eisenstein’s many friends and admirers, it was only the ironic and broad-minded Pavlenko who helped him. Overcoming irony with pathos, he helped Eisenstein soar ever higher.
The grounds of the Potylikha film studios sprouted shapely Russian churches. It was as if they had been excavated from beneath the layers of time.
The Battle on the Ice was filmed not in the winter but in summer. It was a tropical, fruitful winter. Even the asphalt burned and melted under its white shroud of ice.
ivan the terrible
(filmed during the terrible years of the great war)
The hills that rise up to the Tien Shan Mountains in gentle formations are here called “terraces.” On these terraces grow apple orchards and, right behind them, dark-blue spruce trees. Beyond them looms blue snow. It is from this tinted snow that a furious river rushes down into the city. In doing so, it breaks up into irrigation canals that function as streets. Poplars twice as tall as the houses line these canals. The roots of the poplars are washed by the ice-cold snow of the Tien Shan.
This is Alma-Ata, called by Vladimir Lugovsky the city of dreams.
One Polish visitor, surveying this city and its snow, said: “All that’s missing here is large-eyed tigers.”
There is no wind in this place. In the winter the poplars sprout hoarfrost and snow in absolute silence. Sometimes, the leaves crackle and resound after snow, bearing down and crushing some tree, has silently exposed a pale, yellow wound.
It was here that Soviet cinematography spent its winters during the difficult years of the war.
Since there was no plywood available for sets and props, the latter were constructed out of Kazakh mats woven from grass on the steppes. They were called “chili,” I think. The stucco plastering held together very well against it.
It was cold. In the empty movie theaters bast matting separated the lodgings occupied by individuals and families.
An old Berdan rifle between her knees, a female guard was eating her black noodles and watching the vestibule leading into the multi-aisled Palace of Culture.
The great director was having a dream. It was as enormous as Indian elephants descending from the bas-reliefs.
In the empty hall of the cinema institute stood the coffin of a young director.
Heating was supplied by haloxylon dust. Haloxylon resembles the trees illustrated by Dore for Dante’s Inferno. Leafless, twisted and strong as iron, these trees give off coal-like heat. They cannot be sawn off. They are too strong for that. Instead, they have to be crushed like glass.
The young director Kadochnikov, who wanted to make a movie about the beautiful Kazakh epic poem of Kazykarpesh and Bayan-Slu, had been exempted from military service on account of a bad heart. He had gone off to stock up on haloxylon. That’s where he was working when he died. It was his coffin that had been brought in.
He spoke of his future production. “I’ll make a movie about the epic,” he had said while washing his hands.
It’s really a beautiful epic. A young woman is in love with a young man, who in turn has a rival for her love in the person of a giant. The latter can dig ponds for his thristy flocks and graze them single-handedly. This giant loves the young woman with an unrequited passion. All three eventually meet their death. Out of their three graves grow three trees. The tree growing out of the heart of the unrequited lover does his best to separate the trees growing out of the two lovers.
I asked Nerpeis, an eighty-two year old poet-minstrel with the features of an Adonis: “Why is Bayan-Slu right and the hero-giant wrong?”
“Because she doesn’t love him,” he said
“Maybe so,” I admitted. “But he is a hero. He saved your people? Didn’t he?”
“He is Nature,” the elderly Adonis replied, “but Bayan-Slu and her beloved are Humanity. A human being may be conquered by Nature but he is always in the right vis-a-vis Nature because he is a human being.”
Eisenstein was right. Besides, he was on the side of the Good.
Sergei Eisenstein’s life was hard. He was always on the move, always creating an art for today, for tomorrow and for the day after tomorrow.
He was right. So was the youth who had tried to stockpile on haloxylon. He was a human being, an ordinary man who could have grown into a kind, happy, socialist giant, who could have led lovers to the Marriage License Bureau.
It was in this city of dreams, among these trees never shaken by the wind, that the poet Vladimir Lugovsky wrote about justice as he composed the screenplay for Ivan the Terrible.
Cinematography is a demanding art form. So is the attempt to grasp the meaning of justice, to argue with what is commonly received.
Odysseus had an easier time when he set out on his adventures with the idea of returning to Ithaca to regain possession of his wealth, restore his fame, wreak vengeance and be reunited with his wife.
People who leap across mountains — and across the years — may not always see into the future.
The main thing is never to stray from your destination.
The destination at the end of mankind’s journey has already come into view. It is easier for us than for Odysseus.
We must learn the rules of the sea. We must never turn the voyage into a mere flaunting of sails.
In his article “Beyond the Frame” Eisenstein modified his theory of montage. He writes: “A frame is definitely not an element of the montage. A frame is the cell of the montage.”
So montage now designates the development of an internal conflict, by means of juxtaposed fragments, into a montage phrase yielding a conception of the sensuous image or form.
It seems that the theory of the montage of attractions has been overcome. Still, the path blazed by it has yet to reach its ultimate destination.
I shall take the liberty of violating once more the orderly train of my exposition.
I’ve been dwelling on Eisenstein because his theory and practice can serve as a foundation for our understanding of Meyerhold, Eisenstein’s mentor.
Yet, Eisenstein’s work, thanks to its preservation on film, will endure longer.
The special character of Meyerhold’s theater lay in the fact that his dramaturgy was subordinated, as it were, to the individual moment. In this respect the process may be said to have begun with Stanislavsky. But the unity of Stanislavsky’s theater was founded on the unity of man, that is, on the unity of character. Meyerhold’s theater, on the other hand, was built on “attractions.” His characters are not developed. They are nothing more than the yoking together of attractions. For example, one may ask whether the characterization of the mayor’s wife [of Gogol’s Inspector-General in Meyerhold's staging] is compatible with the general structure of the play. But such a question was never raised by the director.
We know that the spider reacts correctly (from its point of view) only to the fly falling into its web while remaining indifferent to the same fly when the latter is placed in its nest. [See L. S. Vygotsky's The Development of the Higher Psychological Functions. Unpublished Works. Moscow: Academy of Pedagogic Sciences, 1960, pp. 237-238. -- Shklovsky's note].
A spider reacts to the structure of its quivering web in the center of which he has discovered a fly.
A bird captures insects in the air but may, like the swallow, be crushed by the non-flying insects in its nest. The swallow is incapable of putting up a fight against them. Its instinct has not equipped it with a structure for this purpose.
The human psyche operates with words, with signs in which relatively minor distinctions may designate major semantic changes.
This system is based on convention.
Eisenstein sought to steer away from these conventional systems in favor of unconventional sensations like, for instance, a cry of pain.
Eisenstein’s system may be said to be based on the exclamation “Oh!” or “Ah!”
Art involves perceptions of wholeness, of a system of perceptions, of a generic wholeness that is overcome in struggling with the system, with the word, where syntax is called upon for help.
Art is both the crystal as structure and the crystal broken. This structure contains within itself an element of contingency which becomes the seed of a new system.
Montage of attractions. Certain elements of parody were necessary during the transition to another system of art, that is, as part of the effort to articulate a new system of life that would be intelligible to art. Victory is attained by creating a system and by a conscious violation of such a system.
Next time you sweep away a spider’s web, look underneath for a fly. Man’s art has taught him to look all around him.
The struggle for a new instrument is a struggle for a consciously perceived timbre of sound. For us the flute is just another instrument, while for Plato it was an instrument of great sensuousness. More recently, we discovered in the jazz instrument a predominant appreciation of timbre.
The art created by us has at bottom a new relationship to reality. This art reflects the coming-into-being of a world.
Aside from this, Eisenstein’s experiments must be understood in terms of the evolution of the cinema as a visuasl art. That is, they came to fruition in the era of the silent film.
For Eisenstein the frame is a picture or a piece of sculpture. It is a kind of graphic sentence. Often little of the action carries over from one element of a sentence to another. Movement has been replaced by montage. Movement is brought about by the rhythm of a shifting chain of images. This rhythm may well be justified. For example, anger may not arise immediately. The same is true for revenge. Behind the rhythm of art stands the regularity of the world as a whole. Yet, the instrument for transmitting such regularity may be falsely confused with the purpose of art itself. That is, the method of analysis may become an end in itself.
This had happened more than once. I shall return for a moment to the history of Symbolism.
Those calling themselves Futurists as well as those calling themselves followers of OPOYAZ [The Society For the Study of Poetic Language = The Formalists] waged a war against Symbolism. Yet their mistakes echoed, rhythmically, one might say, the mistakes of the Symbolists. Or, to put it more politely, the path of the Symbolists.
This path of the Symbolists may be called a mistake because the real conflicts of the world were perceived by them as an eternal “duality of worlds,” as an opposition between the life of the artist and the life of Murr, the sensible cat.
Let me offer several excerpts from Aleksander Blok’s essay “On Symbolism.” The essay was read as a lecture on April 8, 1910 at the Society of Devotees of the Artistic Word. I would like to serve notice to the reader that Blok is using the terminology of Symbolism in this article. This speech was not meant for the masses. Finally, the terminology gets in the way of our understanding by masking underlying complications. I’ve selected passages that are relatively intelligible.
Blok speaks first of the thesis, i.e. of the affirmation of the Symbolists.
You are free in this magical world filled with correspondences.
Create what you will, because this world belongs to you.
Try to understand that all secrets and mysteries are within us. In us is the twilight and the dawn. (Bryusov)
I am the god of a mysterious world. The whole universe exists only in my dreams. (Sologub)
You are the sole possessor of the treasure. Yet, next to you stand others who also know of this treasure (or: it only seems that they know it, but for the time being it’s all the same). It is from this that we emerge. The few who know, the Symbolists.
The moment these principles are internalized by more than one person, Symblism is born as an idea and as a school.
This is its first youth, the childlike novelty of first discoveries.
At this point no one knows what kind of a world the other inhabits. In fact, no one even knows this about himself. Everyone simply winks at his neighbor. Everyone agrees that a chasm separates this world from the “other” world. They join forces and go to battle for these other as yet unknown worlds.
There are only a handful of these “knowers.” They are the possessors of the secret. Mankind, however, is deceived by its “inexperienced heart.” The poet finds himself in a terrifying world. Blok writes:
“If I were painting a picture of this moment, I’d do so as follows: An enormous white catafalque is swaying against the lilac twilight of an immense sea. On it lies a dead puppet whose face is vaguely reminiscent of that which blew in from heaven’s roses.”
It turns out that the poet himself is surrounded, by “doubles.” The poet lands in a clown-show — in a world neither alive nor dead. There is only one escape from this knowledge: “. . . in the light of this new civic-mindedness (not at all characteristic of Nekrasov but associated by tradition with him) Russia itself has become our soul.”
Through the twilight of the cult of personality Eisenstein sought a populist interpretation of Ivan. In this he met stiff resistance in the form of a different [i.e. Stalinist] interpretation that sought to justify the terror inflicted by Ivan’s elite oprichniki guards.
Ivan is greeted by the songs of the people.
When Pushkin needed epigraphs for his Pugachev in The Captain’s Daughter, he adopted the songs and poems that had once extolled Ivan the Terrible. Only, he pruned them, so that the majesty of the characterization of Pugachev, the mutineer, would not be too blatant or striking.
The people, who have been searching for their Tsar Ivan, now welcome him.
Ivan’s other plan calls for terror. This issue was bitterly debated during the production of the movie.
Ivan the Terrible destroyed the past and reveled in doing so. He was as inventive as a director in his choice of instruments of torture. He was not only severe but unremitting in his threats and executions.
The Metropolitan who resisted him, Filipp Kolychev, was a boyar. It was the Church, associated as it was with feudalism, and not the people, who “grieved with sorrow,” who pleaded for compassion.
In the screenplay, written by Eisenstein himself, there is a character by the name of Malyuta Skuratov. This cannoneer from Kurbsky, a man of the people, is assigned to guard the Tsar. But Skuratov’s surname was actually Skuratov-Belsky. He was originally from a Boyar family. The Belsky came from good stock.
Malyuta Skuratov perished during the storming of the walls of Venden. He climbed over the walls in the thick of action.
Yet, Eisenstein himself, showing me how he had fashioned this Malyuta, told me that people will never tire of asking: “Are there really two Malyuti?” Well, Eisenstein’s hero did not bring out the real Malyuta, did not coincide with him. The film is an allegory that has only a tangential connection with history. There is truth and untruth in this film.
The shooting of Ivan the Terrible was difficult and paradoxical. This tragedy was performed by actors accustomed to comic roles. They managed very well, for the most part.
There was no production base for the huge project. An artist had painted the sets of a Kremlin hall on plastered stucco mats. I remember seeing a devil fall headlong from the cornice of a door.
The second part of the film was reinterpreted. Previously the target of executions, the boyars now elicited our pity. They were now seen as people of flesh and blood. With sabres drawn, they look at you unafraid. The oprichniki too were not quite made of iron, as before. They were infused with the spirit of Ivan the Terrible. Donning a woman’s mask-head and clad in a pale, yellow shirt, Basmanov dances in a squatting position while the oprichniki whirl around him in a traditional Russian round dance. They are dressed in dark caftans lined with lace from which gold just barely protrudes. This part of the movie is in color. Yes, in color, but nothing like our flamboyantly colored fruit-drops. This was the color of choice. The pallete is far from rapturous. People are tinted slightly by the color projectors. This makes them seem round.
We felt pity for Vladimir Stavitsky. He was quite a unique figure in our history. He was a feudalist, a military commander, a man well on in years and neither a traitor nor an idiot. Yet, here everything is oversimplified. However, when Birman mourns the death of his murdered son, the movie regains its balance and sense of justice.
Part Two of Ivan the Terrible reached the screen fourteen years after it was made. From the standpoint of film history, it was like Lazarus coming back from the dead.
Cinematic events get old fast. This was a vibrant, much-needed film. It is the most structured film I know. Every interrelationship of elements, including crowd scenes, has been considered with care. The deliberate weighing of every variable serves to bring out its content.
They say in the Orient that swiftly moving water purifies itself.
An artist who keeps busy purifies himself. Excessive concentration on the means of expression overdefines a work of art to the point where the original conception is often undone.
Ivan the Terrible was produced during a very grave period of our history, a time of excessive suspiciousness and terror.
It was assumed at the time that the picture would show Malyuta Skuratov as a democratic hero striving for the happiness of his people, that Ivan the Terrible did what was right, that Ivan’s only error was to yield to remorse, and that it was only this remorse that kept Ivan from being remembered by his people as a great Tsar.
It is true that Ivan the Terrible has been adopted into the folklore of our people as a positive hero, but this is far from unanimous.
As the film took shape, as its protagnoists and their actions were thought out and their actions delineated, in short, as history turned more and more into the reality of art, the meaning of Ivan the Terrible changed.
The oprichniki were shown cut off from the people. They were now hysterical and carnal. Basmanov didn’t look like a positive hero at all. It was clear that Ivan’s palace was cut off not only from Russia but even from Moscow itself.
The movie was shown to Stalin, who didn’t like it one bit.
In a conference dealing with Ivan the Terrible Stalin spoke of the shortcomings of this film. He discussed this not with Eisenstein but with Cherkassov, the actor portraying Ivan. Stalin was upset that the movie showed pity for the boyars executed by the Tsar. It was a shame, Stalin said, that Ivan the Terrible had not executed more people than he actually did. He then proceeded to name several boyar families who, in his opinion, should have been liquidated by him.
He added that the oprichniki represented a progressive development in history.
The movie was banned. After this picture, Eisenstein stopped making films. He spent the rest of his life teaching and working out theoretical problems.
Part Two of Ivan the Terrible lay in the vault for fourteen years. I mention this extraordinary lapse of time because movies usually disappear from view very quickly. Yet, when it reached the screen, Ivan the Terrible, Part II, turned out to be on the leading edge of world cinema. This is more than mere cinematography, i.e. more than a matter of joining movement to word.
Sergei Eisenstein’s film expressed the conscience of a people who cared about history and appreciated its moments in works of art.
let’s be proud of what’s been accomplished!
Speaking obliquely, then overcoming the oblique manner, attaining truth once more, art grows like oats that sprout through abandonned bast matting that bind it to the ground.
Part Two of Ivan the Terrible represents the futility of evil and crime.
The soul of an artist matures as he expands his range of interests, as he takes on the theme of his homeland, of justice and the destiny of mankind.
Speaking of Symbolism, Blok had said frankly back in 1910:
“Our sin (both in the personal and collective sense) is too great. Not a few horrors have come from precisely this generation, from our generation.”
For Blok the question was whether “those worlds existed.”
We know that such worlds — whether above or beyond us — do not exist.
Blok discovered the world. It is right here before us: It is the world of The Twelve, the world of the Revolution.
All theories of art are useless — including the theory of Symbolism as well as the theory of montage — if their objective is anything less than a new understanding of the world, a new creation.
The creative artist moves towards his “civic-mindedness” by thrusting aside the crowd of “doubles,” by realizing that the creative work of art involves a revelation of the world, a real world — not a contemplation of a swarm of ghosts. This is the path of Blok and Mayakovsky.
Very likely Blok and his teacher — the anonymous author of The Song of Igor’s Campaign — bruised their feet along this same path.
May this path be crowned with glory!
I would like to say a few words about an apartment that is no longer in existence. Its objects have been removed long ago, and its books have been dispersed to various museums. Even the view from the window has changed. At first the apartment was hurriedly resettled with other tenants. and its floor and walls repainted.
Now the house has been torn down to make way for a new road to a new Moscow.
So, there is no way for you to verify what I am telling you.
I remember the heavy checkered curtains on one window. If you drew them apart, you could see low trees with reddish-yellow foliage huddled together in the distance. Then again it could have been the setting sun.
The cherry orchards were visible through the other window. Pale pink waves of flowers drifted like froth towards the East, while the rising sun, staining the morning with its color, dispersed the army of the night. Or so tells us a poet from Persia.
A flat, very broad bed with armor netting stood in Eisenstein’s room. Here too was a seven-branched silver candelabra, the size of a man, while life-size wooden statues of the apostles stared at you from a corner. Though painted, the statues retained their strong semblance of carved wood.
In the niches beneath the ceiling of a baroque church angels pressed their carved wings against the cornice. With their many eyes, they looked down from a variety of angles on the ten-eyed telephone dial. On the walls hung straw-plaited Mexican rugs.
The floor of the adjacent room was painted in linoleum in a light-grey enamel color. The bookshelves made by a carpenter were also painted in white oil. There were numerous books with hundreds of bookmarks in them. The books stood in strange configurations.
From a carved gilded frame on the wall jutted out half a globe in relief like a portrait of our hemisphere. Another globe circled by the moon hung on the ceiling next to the chandelier.
Popular prints and photographs covered the walls: the towering churches of Novgorod and Pskov — not as we see them today but as they once looked before time had swallowed up their foundations and before the bottom sections of the windows were lowered by editors of yesteryear.
On the tables and desks lay volumes of Gogol, Pushkin, Griboyedov, Tolstoy and Tynyanov. All of them had bookmarks in them. Every volume had been read through and made ready.
In moving but incompetent verse, Fedotov [19th century Russian satirical painter -- Trans] had complained that he had squandered not one but both of the lives that had been granted him. He had failed to realize either of them.
Ours is a life of unfulfilled plans. It is spent and squandered. Every fiber in our being is consumed on its behalf. This life hangs over the artist, weighing on his heart, subtracting from his alotted days.
When Eisenstein’s books are published, we shall discover a whole array of unrealized films that were nonetheless sketched out and “framed.”
Sergei Eisenstein had a bad heart. The partition separating the right and left ventricles of his heart had failed to knit firmly into place. This was a congenital flaw. His heart had never developed to its full capacity. Eisenstein’s large brain was fed by bluish blood, and yet it still managed to remain fresh and free from sclerosis.
But Eisenstein’s heart ruptured. Today there is a cure for such a condition, but at the time there was none.
The directors of the Soviet Union, Mexico, Japan and Italy — all learned their craft from Eisenstein and Pudovkin.
In his films Eisentein saw the world as a planet, as a new destiny, as a new relationship to an object, as new colors.
Because of his interest in montage and color, Eisenstein was labeled as a formalist. Many articles were written in an attempt to exonerate him.
Yes, he had at first taken the path of irony, but on his way he ran into the Revolution. Inspired by it, he came to know real happiness.
You no doubt remember Pushkin’s “The Prophet”: The poet sees into the very depths of the transparent ocean and hears the rustling of the sprouting vine.
Eisenstein labored under a heavy burden. Yet, he was happy. How come? Because happiness is a struggle carried on with faith in one’s victory and with intimations of the future.
At home he lived alone. As often happens. Above him lived Eduard Tisse, friend, comrade-in-arms and great cameraman.
Eisenstein always kept a screwdriver on his radiator. He was afraid of a heart attack. The sound of a screwdriver on the radiator could be heard loud and clear.
In the last weeks of his life, Sergei Eisenstein became passionately interested in television, the mass art of recording life.
The art of recording the moment. Of recording the life of the masses instantly.
Eisenstein was writing an article on Soviet patriotism when his hand apparently went limp. He then, apparently, took some nitroglycerin. With a red pencil, he jotted down in his manuscript: “Had a heart attack.”
He went on writing.
Again his hand dropped. He fell on the floor and never made it to the radiator.
He lay on the white floor of his apartment for a long time. Surrounded by his well-read books and by the unfinished world of the new cinematography.
By morning he was dead.
His was a fine apartment.
Clean. Quiet. And very secluded.
This apartment no longer exists. Neither does the bed. Nor do the books and statues.
In this apartment, among these statues, Eisenstein must have had some pretty extraordinary dreams. It was as if Noah’s beasts had gathered in his ark. Only much more: It was as if the world itself had gathered in these rooms with the hope of sailing away on the director’s cinematic ark to a new home and a new life.
A thunderstorm is about to burst over the world. The stage lights are turned on — silently and with great effort. The dry thunderstorm shakes up the sky before the cameras, renewing it. The theme of a new world is taking shape, its frontiers surveyed by sputniks.
Sergei Eisenstein would have been made happy by the monumentality of all this.
Mayakovsky wrote the following about the future:
Who shall ask the moon?
Who shall compel the sun to answer?
Why are you mending night and day?!
Don’t you know the past is past?
New books on history are coming out every day:
This book is printed
On the cobblestones of squares
By rotary movements.
Sergei Eisenstein was dead.
His coffin lay in state in the House of the Cinema on Vasilevsky Street.
The coffin was covered with the traditional golden brocade, with the piece of the brocade beloved by the deceased director.
The brocade was cremated along with the body.
The golden threads have since faded away.
I was told by Pavlenko that people in public gatherings in Germany and America would rise from their seats whenever they heard Eisenstein’s name men-tioned. They did this in order to catch a glimpse of the future.
In the name of Soviet art, our people are rising from their seats. They are marching forward. In England, America, Japan and Mexico people are marching towards the future. Even at home old films are being shown again. They are reviving like onions that sprout new shoots and bloom with happiness.
Translator: Benjamin Sher
New Orleans, LA 70118