Film Comment Back Issues 728x90 Film Society of Lincoln Center

Fortune and Men’s Eyes

By Nestor Almendros

print Print

Originally published shortly after the fall of the USSR, renowned director of photography Nestor Almendros considers Sergei Eisenstein's life, work, and legacy

While Sergei Eisenstein was in Paris, the notorious artist’s-model Kiki de Montparnasse gave him a copy of a book of her memoirs with the dedication: “Moi aussi j’aime les gros bateaux et les matelots” (“I too love big ships and sailors”). Kiki was no dummy, and might have owed her great popularity not only to her good looks but to her wit. That “clin d’oeil” to the Soviet film director proved that she had a better insight into Battleship Potemkin, otherwise considered an austere film, than most of her contemporary critics and scholars with their Marxist analysis.

Herbert Marshall (not to be confused with the actor of that name), a British ex-disciple of Eisenstein at the Moscow Film School, compared his professor to a Russian matriushka wooden doll: a doll hiding within it another doll, hiding another doll, hiding another doll... “Outside [Eisenstein] was a Soviet Russian[;] inside, according to some, he was a Christian, to others he was a Jew, to yet others a homosexual….” In fact, he was all those things. Eisenstein was an obedient Communist throughout his life. He did have a very Christian education in his native Riga, and through his otherwise Russified father he had some Jewish blood. An abundance of religious—and antireligious—imagery was present in all his films. And in addition, there are reasons to believe that in Eisenstein’s creative drive homosexuality played a very important role.

Potemkin (1925), the director’s most honored work1, has been considered a revolutionary film not only because of its subject—a revolt on a ship—but for its treatment, for the fireworks of its editing technique, for the profound feeling of realism in cinematography and acting, and because, as often noted, it departed in its structure from conventional “bourgeois” drama—the eternal love affair between a man and a woman. Great war movies of the times, such as King Vidor’s The Big Parade, and innovative Westerns, such as John Ford’s The Iron Horse, could not do without the sentimental love story. Its absence from Potemkin was attributed solely to Sergei Mihailovich Eisenstein’s pristine concentration on the social forces governing society according to Marx. Yet there is evidence to support another hypothesis: The absence of a conventional love affair in the film could well result from the fact that there was very little space for women in the world of the great master of Riga. Not only Potemkin but his other films—Strike, October, The General Line, even to a great extent his later sound films Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible—reflect this.

Perhaps romance is truly out of place in certain genres. Truffaut used to tell me that the love story was the weakest, often unnecessary part of Westerns. In such pedagogical films as Potemkin, the description of all the social forces in place, excluding all others, could result in a gain in intensity and clarity. Sexuality as an added theme would only cloud the main issues.

The trouble in sustaining the theory that Potemkin as an asexual film is precisely that it is very sexual. Or should I say, homosexual.

From its very beginning, with the sailor’s dormitory prologue, we see an “all-male cast” resting shirtless in their hammocks. Eisenstein’s camera lingers on the rough, splendidly built men, in a series of shots that anticipate the sensuality of Mapplethorpe. Then appears the leader of the revolt, Vakulinchuk, who is also, for no apparent reason, naked to the waist, flashing his broad torso while he demands the beginning of action. Later in the film, the sailors revolt and their action reaches what Eisenstein used to refer to as “the collective extasis.” At the great moment when the cannons are raised to fire, a sort of visual ballet of multiple slow and pulsating erections can be easily discerned.

As the inexorable succession of events proceed, the mourning of the death of Vakulinchuk on shore and the Odessa Steps sequence take us away from the ship and we can see at last the common people of the town. What is the place Eisenstein designates to women in the microcosm reflected in these scenes? Their major role in society seems to be circumscribed to maternity: the woman with baby carriage, the heroic protester with her dead son in her arms. The majority of the other women in these scenes are old or asexual, in clear contrast the virile young men in and out of uniform we have seen on board the battleship Potemkin.

Susan Sontag is perhaps the one who has given us the greatest insight (but only after the intuitive Kiki de Montparnasse) into the hidden and not-so-hidden sexual aspects of political cinema. Sontag observed, in “The Salmagundi Interview,” that “when official art in the Soviet Union and China wasn’t resolutely old-fashioned it was objectively fascist”—and fascism was, according to Walter Benjamin, “an anesthetization of political life.” At the time, communist art was not identified with fascist art, a perception Sontag explores in her essay “Fascinating Fascism”: “Most of the early audience assumed that the film propagandists in the early years of the Soviet Union were illustrating a noble ideal, however much it was betrayed in practice.”

There is no reason to doubt that, at least in the years immediately after Lenin seized power, Eisenstein was sincere in his fervor when he stated that he had an exhilarating sensation of “walking in step with history, the feeling of participating collectively.” The effervescence of the historical moments he was living must have been, indeed, an inspiration for his early films. Yet even then he had to admit that “in the creation of Potemkin, it was difficult to say which associations and reminiscences had contributed to the construction of the project.”

In another comparison between fascism and communism, Sontag clarifies that although it is not to the Nazi’s credit, “Nazism is ‘sexier’ than communism,” and that “left wing movement have tended to be unisex and asexual in their imagery,” whereas “right wing movements, however puritanical and repressive the realities they usher in, have an erotic surface.” An idea I would subscribe to entirely, if it were not for an exception: Eisenstein. I can easily buy that the author of Potemkin was “unisex,” but by no means that he was “asexual.”

Mary Seton, Eisenstein’s longtime friend and biographer, reports he once confessed to Sergei Tretyakov that “if it were not for Marx and Lenin, he would have ended up as another Oscar Wilde.” Eisenstein maintained his strong, lifelong homosexual inclinations “in the closet,” hidden from the official homophobia of the Soviet Union that would, some decades later, result in a five-year imprisonment for a less prudent filmmaker, Sergei Paradjanov.

Yet Eisenstein seems to have yielded to his irrepressible desires while abroad, in more relaxed societies and away from the eyes of the NKVD, while visiting Berlin, Paris, and Hollywood. Sometimes he even indulged in humor about his “secret”: having been invited by the California studios to check out a new 70mm system, Grandeur, that enlarged the screen sideways, he complained to his British friend and fellow traveler Ivor Montagu that “a wide screen would deny access to all the aggressive male shapes like trees and factory chimneys.” And Josef von Sternberg recalled, in his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry, that Eisenstein “always had pencil and paper in front of him…the sketches he made in my presence were probably destroyed, for they could have been shown only in a very understanding circle. Had he lived longer he might have given them to Professor Kinsey.”

While in Mexico, during the many months of shooting his famous unfinished films Que Viva Mexico!, he found, it seems, some relaxation. But he soon got into trouble. He was caught in a much publicized scandal when homoerotic drawings and male nude photos found in his luggage were seized by U.S. Customs agents. Upton Sinclair, the prudish leftist intellectual producing the film, was indiscreet enough to let Stalin know about the incident, together with other personal and financial griefs. “The Supreme Commander in Chief,” in return, cabled Sinclair (as Sinclair’s recently opened archives have shown) to interrupt collaboration with someone who was already considered persona non grata, and whose return to the USSR—his travel permits abroad having been expired—was long overdue. The NKVD then blackmailed Eisenstein to come back to Moscow or everyone, including his mother, with whom he lived, would know about the scandal.

Yet obedience appears not to have been sufficient. On his return, Eisenstein was ostracized for five years, and was not allowed to make another film—the ill-fated Bezhin Meadow—until he got married to his assistant and friend Pera Atacheva. (It seems they never lived together, despite the total devotion Pera always had for Eisenstein before and after his death.)

The tides of political fashion have changed in recent years, but somehow they always end up running against Eisenstein in his home country. Whereas in the past attacks came from ultra-conservative Stalinists, now they come from the dissidents and the young lions of glasnost persuasion, who perceive Eisenstein as no more than an opportunist.

The first to open fire was—naturally—Solzhenitsyn. In his book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich we hear two residents in the Siberian Gulag discussing films. One prisoner proposes, “One must say in all objectivity that Eisenstein is a genius.” Prisoner K-123 snaps: “All show off! . . . too much art is no art at all. Like candy instead of bread… Don’t call him a genius! Call him a toady, say he carried out orders like a dog. A genius doesn’t adapt his treatment to the taste of tyrants.”

To me, the more questionable of Eisenstein’s submissions were not the humiliations he endured while pursuing subjects that censorship would (and, in many cases, ultimately would not) permit. It is more disturbing that he implicitly tolerated the worse fates of others: the banishment of his beloved teacher—“my second father,” he used to call him—the famous director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who died in Gulag in Siberia; the murder by the NKVD of his close friend and collaborator from early theatrical days, Sergei Tretyakov; the dispatching of his onetime screenwriter Isaac Babel, and about half of Eisenstein’s students at the Moscow School, to the Gulag, where many perished (as Herbert Marshall learned on his return to the USSR in the more liberal days of Khrushchev).

I have experienced the bitter taste of disfavor into which the director of Potemkin has fallen in his homeland. In May 1989 a delegation of new Soviet filmmakers came to Hollywood to meet with their U.S. counterparts. This glasnost get-together was held at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I was privileged with an invitation to take part in the panel.

I posed a question about early Soviet cinema—more precisely, about Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov: what was thought of them in the USSR now? The answer was brief and quite unexpected. It came from one of the youngest members of the delegation, Sergei Mirotchnitchenko: “Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov were both liars.” After a pause filled with the brouhaha of the mostly Western audience, he went on: “Their films can be regarded as fantasies completely divorced from historical reality. These directors had great technical skill, but their work can only be taken seriously as formal exercises in editing and cinematography.” The tone of the answer was almost angry; for a moment, I had the feeling like I was being tacitly accused of Stalinism.

I managed to speak again at the end of the meeting, and to rephrase my question. I reassured the young Russian filmmakers that I could not agree more on the political issue, being myself an exile from a Communist country. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but admire the artistry of Eisenstein and Vertov as great masters of that controversial genre, the propaganda film (as I still admire, to my chagrin, Leni Riefenstahl and her Triumph of the Will). I also advanced the idea of Eisenstein being, after all, another victim of Stalin. To which my previous interlocutor replied, “Don’t be fooled, Almendros: Eisenstein was Stalin’s man. The dictator personally gave him the highest awards.”

Battleship Potemkin

I counterattacked: “But it was Stalin who banned Bezhin Meadow and the second part of Ivan the Terrible, not to mention the countless projects Eisenstein proposed, only to see smashed from their very inception! Could he, under the circumstances, have done anything other than what he did?”
The answer could just as easily have come from Sartre when he said that, in a similar situation, “man is always free to go to prison”: “Eisenstein simply should not have made any of the films he did, or at least”—and here I thought I detected some Slavic humor—“he should not have made them so well.”

If Eisenstein was a liar, he lied with astonishing skill. In his gathering of historical facts for the prologue of the shooting script of The Battleship Potemkin, Andrew Sinclair long ago advised us that “there was no actual massacre on the Odessa Steps.” Eisenstein also invented the compassion of the common people whom he depicted buying food for the mutineers, when that was really just an act of discipline of “fellow revolutionaries ashore [who] sent out food to the battleship.” Moreover, the Potemkin was not greeted by the other ships as portrayed in the famous finale; rather, the mutineers “sailed away when other ships of the Black Sea fleet failed to follow their example.”

In memoirs written just before his death but published decades later, Eisenstein examines his own political weaknesses at least once, through the metaphor of a Persian folk legend about an epic hero who obediently spread himself out in the dust at the feet of those who mocked him; the hero was actually husbanding his strength so that, later, he could accomplish all the unprecedented feats required of him. Only at this point does Eisenstein go on to admit, “In my person, too personal history, I too often perpetrated this historic deed of self-abasement[,] and in my personal, too personal innermost life, perhaps somewhat too often, too hurriedly, even too willingly, and also . . . as unsuccessfully.”

1 I took Potemkin as the center of this study because it is one of my favorite films of all time, as it is of many people. As recently as 1987, John Kobal interviewed 84 experts from 22 countries to compile a list of the top 100 movies. Potemkin—number one in older polls—rated a strong third, having been surpassed only by Citizen Kane and The Rules of the Game. Probably if the poll were taken today, after the recent worldwide debacle of Communism, Potemkin would be pushed down further on the list. Nevertheless, Eisenstein remains one of my favorite directors.

# Close