Could you be a successful film director in Stalin’s Russia?

Using an examination of the life and work of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein to explore the fundamental aspects of this question.

The Industrialisation drive of the late 1920s and 30s, the core of Stalin’s revolution from above, coupled with Bolshevik ideology demanded a fundamental recasting of Russian society into a new socialist model. The requisites of the Five-Year Plans and the ideology of the nation’s leadership meant that the state intruded into virtually all areas of life. Whilst this occasionally may have had some positive effects, such as in education, overall it resulted in a suffocating cloud of repression Soviet Russia’s cultural, scientific and spiritual life for a generation.
The art of Filmmaking was just another soldier conscripted to build socialism. It marched under the numbing banner of ‘socialist realism’, film directors were not to depict things as they were, but as the state wanted them to be. Film makers as ‘engineers of the human soul’ were expected to produce film propaganda which served the ends of the state, not art that expressed their untrustworthy inner feelings. Suffocated from any attempts at genuine artistic expression would you have tried to conform to the states demands on your artistic feelings, or would you have, as I suppose most of us would, risked all to try to find a middle ground in the name of artistic expression - attempting to support Stalin’s requirement’s on your soul whilst at the same time finding a deviant means of keeping your work your own and your conscious preserved. If we can ascertain that Stalin’s most famous filmmaker of the 1930’s and 40s attempted to do this, would it have worked for us?

As far as his film making method is concerned, Eisenstein in early writing and indeed his early films, Eisenstein seems taken with the idea that the images projected on the screen would actually become the thoughts in the spectator’s brain; he called this his ‘montage of attractions’. His opportunity to test these theories came in 1924 when Goskino (the state cinema production unit) accepted his proposal for a cycle of films on political events leading to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Thus, in 1924, Eisenstein made his first film, Strike. In this film, the director's theory of montage fits well with the desires of Soviet film authorities to depart from traditional narratives and the idealization of individual heroes. Rather than focus upon individual characters, Eisenstein emphasized types such as the organizer, worker, spy, foreman, and manager as he told the story of a strike which was eventually crushed, but through which the consciousness of the proletariat had been enhanced. Eisenstein directed the mood of his audience with metaphors such as the overweight capitalist, the athletic workers, and by cross-cutting between the violent suppression of the strike and the butchering of animals in a slaughter house. Critics lavished praise on Strike, Eisenstein's colleague Grigori Kozintsev told directors: ‘anything we've been doing up till now is mere childish nonsense.’

The Odessa Steps sequence
Because of the favour in which Strike was held by the Soviet film industry, the Jubilee Committee, formed to commemorate the 1905 Revolution, selected Eisenstein to produce a film on the events leading to the Revolution. While the mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin was only one brief episode in the original script, Eisenstein, after visiting Odessa (the site of the revolt), decided to focus on the battleship which would provide a metaphor for the larger historical events. Tsarist troops who marched down the Odessa steps, indiscriminately killing people, has become one of the most powerful scenes in world cinema. While there was some manipulation of the actual historical account, there is little doubt that Eisenstein used his ‘montage of attractions’ to create in Battleship Potemkin support for the 1917 Revolution as well as one of the classic works of cinema. The film was well received in Paris, Berlin, and Hollywood, where Charlie Chaplin pronounced it ‘the best film in the world.’ Following the critical acclaim, Eisenstein was the toast of Soviet cinema and was called upon in 1926 to make a film called The General Line, which was to celebrate the Soviet policy of collectivization of agriculture. However, the filming of this project was temporarily suspended so that Eisenstein could make a film honouring the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Although not a member of the Communist Party, Eisenstein was seemingly very supportive of and comfortable with the Soviet leadership. This relationship began to change during the filming of October or Ten Days That Shook the World (as it is often called in its Western release). The film had the official support of the Soviet authorities who diverted electricity for the project and blocked off the city streets in Leningrad for the crowd scenes such as the storming of the Winter Palace.

Nevertheless, with this cooperation also came interference. With the changing political situation in the Soviet Union, references to the role of Leon Trotsky in the Revolution had to be downplayed. Despite these problems, Eisenstein was able to complete his film and experiment with a new technique and theory which he termed ‘intellectual montage.’ According to Eisenstein, the intellect of film viewers could be engaged through metaphoric formulae which would rise above the pathos of Potemkin. For example, shots of the polished boots of Alexander Kerensky, an ornamental peacock, and religious artefacts create the image of a Tsarist figure who must be overthrown by the creative forces of the people led by the Bolsheviks. However, critics as well as audiences, who found the film difficult to follow, were less than satisfied with the ‘intellectual montage’ of October. His experience with the reception of October led him for the firt time to express some reservations regarding the direction of the Bolshevik Revolution and artistic life within the Soviet Union.

In a letter to French film critic Leon Moussinac, Eisenstein confirmed, ‘We aren't rebels any more. We're becoming lazy priests. I have the impression that the enormous breath of 1917 which gave birth to our cinema is blowing itself out.’ The Soviet director lamented that the avant-garde free expression of the early revolutionary period was being replaced by an official doctrine limiting individual creativity. Regardless of these misgivings, Eisenstein did complete The General Line, which would be renamed Old and New, justifying in artistic terms the violent, forced collectivization which Stalin was visiting upon the Soviet countryside. Using the central symbols of a tractor, a bull, and a cream-separator, Eisenstein summed up this film as ‘an attempt to depict in an interesting way the daily round of peasant husbandry.’ Old and New, which is the least known of Eisenstein's films in the West today, was only a moderate success.

Having made four major films between 1924 and 1929, a tired and somewhat disillusioned Eisenstein petitioned the Soviet government for permission to travel abroad. Eisenstein was lured to the United States by a film contract with Paramount Studios (the agreement was approved by Soviet film authorities with Sovkino). While finding most Hollywood celebrities ‘stupid and mediocre’, the Soviet film maker did form friendships and at the urging of his friend Chaplin sought funding from the prominent American Socialist and novelist Upton Sinclair to make Que Viva Mexico, which would provide the Soviet director with an opportunity to pursue his fascination with the creative possibilities of Mexico. With the financial backing of Sinclair and his wife secured, Eisenstein journeyed into Mexico and attempted to produce a film which would cover the entire scope of Mexican history. Eisenstein ran considerably over budget and in January, 1932, Sinclair discontinued his support of the project. Eisenstein's despair over being unable to complete filming was compounded when, in violation of his promise, Sinclair later decided not to send Eisenstein the negatives and raw footage of Que Viva Mexico for editing in the Soviet Union. Devastated by Sinclair's withdrawal of support, Eisenstein had returned to the Soviet Union, where he suffered a breakdown and was despatched to the Kislovodsk Sanatorium.

The artistic scene in the Soviet Union had also shifted during the director's absence. Gone was the avant-garde progressive experimentation of the early Revolution as artistic life in the Soviet Union became increasingly under the control of the State and Party which extolled ‘socialist realism’ as the prescribed art form for Soviet writers, artists, and film makers. Thus, the cinematic work of Eisenstein was under attack by critics led by Boris Shumyatsky, who in 1930 had been appointed chairman of Soyuzkino, the newly centralized Soviet film organization. Shumyatsky termed Eisenstein's theories of montage inaccessible to the masses and, thus, elitist, while the director's years outside of the Soviet Union had produced in him a taste for the exotic (Que Viva Mexico) and left him out of touch with the Soviet people. This official evaluation of Eisenstein's cinema made it difficult for the director to work following recovery from his nervous condition. Numerous projects, such as a proposed film on the slave revolt in Haiti featuring African-American singer and actor Paul Robeson, were rejected by Shumyatsky.

In 1935, Eisenstein was given an opportunity to work again if he could learn to follow the proper ideological dictates. Working for the first time with sound, Eisenstein commenced production on Berzhin Meadow, which relates the story of Stepok, a member of the Komsomol who sought to preserve the harvest of a collective farm from saboteurs. In consequence of his efforts, the vigilant Stepok is killed by his Kulak father who sought to destroy the crop and is enraged by his son's behaviour. The film, which extolled the virtues of collectivization and ‘de-kulakisation’, appeared to follow the party line on the agrarian question and provided a companion piece to Eisenstein's Old and New. Nevertheless, in March, 1937, when filming on the project was almost complete, Shumyatsky ordered production to cease, and almost all prints of this film have been lost. Eisenstein was accused of being too subjective with his art and not meeting the dictates of socialist realism. The villainous father in the film was portrayed in too mythological a fashion, while Stepok was filmed with the face of a holy child, and in some of the shots the lighting placed behind this blond child appeared to radiate a halo. Thus, although Eisenstein had placed his art in the service of the Revolution with films such as Strike, Battleship Potemkin, and October, the forces who now controlled the Soviet Union found fault with Que Viva Mexico and Berzhin Meadow and made it clear that for the director to continue working it would be necessary for him to submit his artistic eye to official orthodoxy.
In the end it took another man’s tragic downfall to bring Eisenstein back in to the clear: at the end of 1937 Shumyatsky, was removed as head of the GUK and arrested; early the following year he would be convicted of ‘wrecking’ and shot. Since one of the objects Shumyatsky was considered to have ‘wrecked’ was Eisenstein’s career, and the ‘negative of a negative’, Eisenstein now became, for a time, something of a positive as a device for the authorities to create charges against Shumyatsky and therefore become somewhat vindicated in the process.

At an early screening and discussion of Alexander Nevsky, late in 1938, the comments made reflected Eisenstein’s new identity as ‘victim of Shumyatsky’. The director Annenskii hailed Eisenstein’s return to the limelight:
‘The picture is exceptionally meaningful because one of the greatest masters of cinematography has returned again and has demonstrated all his strength and power – a master of whom the former sabotaging administration oppressed in every way and to whom that administration did not give a chance to develop all his brilliance’

So the question we are all asking to find out  if we ourselves would have survived or not, is why was Eisenstein not simply consumed by the Stalinist terror before this, as were so many others, such as Grigori Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Nikolay Bukharin, and Trotsky? How can we account for the fact that this artist who was officially in disrepute did not end up in the Soviet gulag or with a bullet in the back of his head. Coupled with the circumstances of Shumyatsky’s convenient departure, Eisenstein remained a committed Marxist and was willing to engage in the Bolshevik practice of self-criticism to save his life as well as to provide the opportunity to work once again as a director. In addition, one should never discount the arbitrary and personalized nature of Stalin’s regime. The Soviet ruler's passion for cinema, played out in late evening private screenings for the man and his entourage, resulted in film being the only cultural area in which major figures were not liquidated, and although it failed to save many of his close associates, Stalin seems to have maintained a good personal relationship with Eisenstein. Therefore, even while his film projects were grounded, Eisenstein was allowed to maintain in his position as a teacher and lecturer at the Technical School of Cinematography. In 1937 the expanding threat of Nazi Germany provided the scenario for Eisenstein to once again be of service to the Soviet state and practice his art, to rally support for Stalin's opposition to Hitler and European fascism. This culminated in his portrayal of the Popular Front strategy of temporarily forming alliances with bourgeoisie and nationalist elements against a common threat, when Eisenstein was commissioned to make a film of the thirteenth century saga of Russian Prince Alexander Nevsky, who unified the armies of Russia and repelled the invasion of the marauding Teutonic nights. The iconography of this film is easy to read. The Teutonic knights were to represent the evil forces of Hitler's Nazi Germany, while the saintly Nevsky was to personify Stalin and the stand he was taking to protect Russia from German barbarism. It was apparent that when the film was made the message would not be lost upon the masses in an abstract intellectual montage, for Eisenstein maintained that Alexander Nevsky would revolve around a single simple idea, ‘the enemy and the need to defeat him.’

The film was an immediate success with critics and audiences both abroad and in the Soviet Union, and a pleased Stalin awarded Eisenstein the Order of Lenin. However, the changing political climate, which induced Stalin to entering into the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, and to the abandonment of the Popular Front strategy, resulted in Alexander Nevsky being withdrawn from theatre’s in 1939. Once again, Eisenstein's art would succumb to the greater needs of Stalin and the Soviet state. However, Eisenstein was rehabilitated when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Alexander Nevsky was once again placed in release, and Eisenstein was able to pursue his projected film biography of Ivan the Terrible. Eisenstein released Ivan in January 1945 as part one of a planned trilogy on the life of the Tsar. Again Eisenstein seemed to have regained his standing with the authorities because the film earned critical acclaim as well as the praise of Stalin, who bestowed the Stalin Prize on the director. It is easy to ascertain why this film appealed so much to the Soviet leader. Eisenstein's Ivan is not terrible, only a Russian patriot beset by enemies both foreign and domestic. Resemblance between Eisenstein's Ivan and Stalin were obvious as the film’s director sought to rehabilitate the much-maligned Tsar, whose infamous acts of cruelty were usually portrayed in such lurid terms that they obscured his worthy goal of a great and unified Russia. It is not difficult to transcend the basic plot outline of Ivan and see the life of Joseph Stalin beset with the tragic suicide of his wife, foreign threats from Hitler, and the treachery of his own people such as the alleged betrayal by Trotsky, who in the official Stalinist line became an agent for foreign powers, sabotaging factories and influencing other traitors such as Bukharin.

Basking in the affection of Stalin, Eisenstein immediately began production of Ivan, Part II. By 1946, the second film was complete, on first examination; a viewer might surmise that the second part of the trilogy would also meet the approval of Stalin. In this sequel, Ivan and his loyal Oprichnik return to Moscow, taking vengeance upon the treacherous Boyars. The film may easily be read as a justification for the Stalinist purges, and the Oprichnik may be equated with the NKVD. However, the arbitrary nature of the Stalin regime once again asserted itself as the Soviet strong man discovered a very different interpretation of this work. Eisenstein, recovering from a heart attack following the completion of Ivan, Part II, once more found his work under critical official scrutiny and the film was banned. Stalin informed Nikolai Cherkasov, who portrayed Ivan, that the executed Boyars, in Eisenstein's depiction, aroused too much sympathy in the audience, while Ivan expressed too much doubt about his course of action. According to Stalin, the only problem with the historical Ivan was that he had put to death too few Boyars.

Permission was granted to commence Ivan, Part III as long as Eisenstein's film remained in step with Soviet ideology and the party line under Stalin. However, the gifted director was unable to complete much work on this project as he continued to be plagued by ill health, suffering a fatal heart attack on February 11th 1948. Although Ivan, Part II was finally released in 1958 following Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin's crimes during the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, the footage for the final segment of Ivan had been ordered destroyed.

Eisenstein's Ivan
With his death at age fifty, Eisenstein had completed only seven major films, a small body of work on which to evaluate an artist. Yet, scholars of cinema continue to study the film theories of Sergei Eisenstein, and many critics judge his films to be some of the most outstanding contributions to the history of world cinema.

Were we passionate hot-blooded young artists the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 would have freed us, allowing usto pursue an artistic career in the exhilarating and experimental atmosphere of the early Revolution, but in the end it would have also compelled us to toe the party line, regardless of our individual convictions. Eisenstein’s continued devotion to the party line during the Stalinist rule of the 1930s and 1940s resulted in limitations being placed upon the director's artistic integrity, while episodes such as the official Soviet censorship of Que Viva Mexico, Berzhin Meadow, and Ivan the Terrible, Part II contributed to the decline of Eisenstein's health and his fatal heart attack, and while the Revolution may have unleashed Eisenstein as an artists, in the final analysis it also devoured him, leaving Eisenstein with poor health and only seven completed films to his credit.

Further Reading:

  • Taylor, Richard. Film Propaganda, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. London: I.B. Tauris & Co, 1998.
  • Christie, Ian., and Taylor, Richard. Eisenstein Rediscovered. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Hariharan, Krishnan. “Eisenstein and the Potemkin Revolution” Social Scientist 7, No. 6 (1979): 54-61.
  • Nesbet, Anne. Savage Junctures: Sergei Eisenstein and the Shape of Thinking. London: I.B. Tauris & Co, 2007.