Eisenstein’s Apology

A new acquaintance, Mr. John Passfield, sends me a copy of his novel Death Day: The Apology of Sergei Eisenstein.

Mr. Passfield is interested in the novel as a form for investigating the roots of contemporary life. He has striven for a maximum degree of transparency in presenting the results of his research, making available free, on-line companion volumes, two for each of the novels. There are now thirteen of these triptych publications, based on themes as varied as Leni Riefenstahl, Babe Ruth, Albert Einstein, and Jumbo the circus elephant.

Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein, the subject of Death Day, is famous for his pioneering silent-era film Battleship Potemkin, and for the later sound films Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. He is credited, through his teaching and writing, with the systematic formulation of the idea of ‘montage,’ the assembling of moving picture images in contrasting, dramatically arresting sequences of short clips, as the essence of the new art of cinema.

Death Day pursues three narrative threads, in rotating sequence. In the foreground is the forced confession of error — the ‘Apology’ of the title — that Eisenstein made before an assembly of his fellow artists, sitting stoney-faced, unnerving, at the Bolshoi Theatre on March 19, 1937, in an attempt to save his career, or indeed even his life, after the fiasco of Bezhin Meadow, a film withdrawn, under orders of these same bureaucrats of Soviet cinema, for alleged anti-Soviet sins.

The second thread is Eisenstein’s detailed recollection of the artistic triumph of Battleship Potemkin. A glorious time of total commitment, concentration and control in the heady aftermath of revolution, a time full of confidence in the identifying and solving of unprecedented problems of technique and artistic representation. Mr. Passfield had the inspired idea, here and elsewhere in his novel, of interspersing passages that replicate the swift intercutting of clips from famous montage sequences:

Crowd running in a frenzy – mother and son falling – the Cossacks! – crowd running frantically – soldiers on horses – horses cutting off crowd – soldiers on steps advancing – people frantic to escape – soldiers firing on people – mother with baby carriage – soldiers marching down steps – mother fearful – baby crying – soldiers advancing – mother crying out – boots on steps – rifles firing in unison

The third and in some ways most absorbing of the narratives in Death Day has to do with Eisenstein’s failed attempt to make a film in Mexico. Conceived by Eisenstein as a grand epic of Mexican history and civilisation, the film project was encouraged and financed by the American leftist writer Upton Sinclair and Sinclair’s wife and brother-in-law. The enterprise quickly spun out of control and ended in a blizzard of tragi-farcical threats and recriminations. Sinclair recovered some of his investment by cutting up Eisenstein’s masterwork into saleable documentaries. Eisenstein returned to the Soviet Union with no film and to a much-altered and dangerous political climate.

Mr. Passfield’s Eisenstein is a toweringly gifted artist and visionary, a giant beset both by the smallness of Hollywood in an hysterically anticommunist America, and by the murderous totalitarian Molloch of Stalin’s Russia. This effect is achieved as much by what is left out as by what is included. There is nothing made of Eisenstein’s domestic or erotic life, nothing of his inner life at all except for his passion for his film projects, which are given everywhere the shine of moral and intellectual heroism. Taking the ‘Apology’ of 1937 as the centre of his narrative, Mr. Passfield presents Eisenstein without, for example, the murky history in which he found favour again with Stalin and went on to direct his two patriotic epics of the 1940s. Eisenstein in fact did rather better than many of his colleagues who had sat in judgment on him that day at the Bolshoi Theatre.

For many years I taught a university film course. In the early days, before DVDs, we made do with deplorable old 16mm prints. The silent films that were available lacked any sort of sound track. Of course, as Josef von Sternberg, the director of Blue Angel and ‘discoverer’ of Marlene Dietrich, once pointed out, in an amusing memoir, silent films were never silent: orchestras played; at a minimum, a piano tinkled incessantly and often inanely. Lacking a piano, or a pianist, to accompany my showings, I played tapes of vaguely suitable music. I did not routinely show an Eisenstein, but did regularly show a film of his contemporary Vsevolod Pudovkin, the beautiful and poetic End of St Petersburg, against which I used to play a recording of a Shostakovich symphony (I forget now which one). This unscientific psychological experiment yielded the observation that montage sequences can be made to mean anything, as the random application of music to moving images switched on, and off, all manner of degrees of irony, parody, portentousness, levity, or what have you, independent of the content of the image itself. It was Pudovkin rather than Eisenstein, as a matter of fact, who stressed the absolute primacy of context in establishing the meaning of particular images.

Eisenstein’s cinema of types and emblems in hectic collision is now almost unbearable to me. As opposed, say, to Yasujiro Ozu’s silent A Story of Floating Weeds, of 1934, that we watched recently, in which long static takes, exquisitely framed, constitute an entirely different grammar of the moving image, establishing character, intention, pathos.

On the other hand, a novel that places the harsh and unforgiving demands of Eisenstein’s propagandistic art at the centre of its vision has a paradoxical humanising effect. Not only because it takes the intention of the artist, as opposed to the so-called ‘human interest’ of his personal affairs, to be of chief interest, but because it raises a standard for the novel to be the imaginative grasp of unimagined worlds.