Sergei Eisenstein is one of the most discussed and analyzed filmmakers in the history of cinema and his films and essays have had a lasting impact on film theory. He was one of the first theorists to have a systematic analysis of film and taught revolutionary courses on moviemaking. Eisenstein's theories of montage were hugely influential. The editing style of his films was in drastic contrast to continuity editing popularized by D.W. Griffith. Eisenstein began directing in the silent era in Soviet Russia and his magnum opus Battleship Potemkin is considered by many film critics to be among the greatest films of all-time.
Eisenstein started out in the theater and was well-versed in many different fields of study. The theater was important to him even as a filmmaker; he made his students spend quite a bit of time on just learning theatrical mise-en-scene. He was interested in science, philosophy, art, linguistics, and literature. Film, to him, was the synthesis of all other forms of art, as well as the highest form. Eisenstein took from an eclectic array of influences and left a massive influence on cinema.
Eisenstein's first feature film, Strike, was released in 1925. It was about a suppression of a factory strike in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution. Next was Battleship Potemkin, considered by many to be his masterwork. It was an international success, and the Odessa steps sequence is one of the most studied sequences in cinema history. Eisenstein released two more films in the 1920s, October and The General Line (aka Old and New). All of these movies were heavily tinged with Soviet propaganda.
Eisenstein began to receive criticism as the political climate changed. Socialist Realism became the accepted way of creating art. His films were attacked for excessive formalism and were said to be unintelligible to the average person. Art was supposed to simple and appeal to everyone, not just the bourgeoisie. He didn't release another film until 1938, Alexander Nevsky. It had a historic setting and portrayed the Germans as villains; the film got Eisenstein back in Stalin's good graces.
However, soon after the release of Nevsky, Germany and the USSR made a pact and Stalin pulled the film from theaters. Germany eventually reneged on this pact; the film was then allowed to be released. In the 1940s, Eisenstein planned a trilogy of films about Ivan the Terrible. Only the first two parts were made, because Stalin thought that Ivan's descent into madness should not be shown. Eisenstein died in 1948 of a heart attack.
Eisenstein's influences were highly diverse. He drew from all cultures and disciplines. He was interested in many fields that one might think have little to do with filmmaking. Psychology was one of these. According to David Bordwell, Eisenstein cited William James, a seminal 19th-century psychologist, as an influence (116). In the same book, it's stated that, "…He pursues inquiries into psychoanalysis, hypnosis, Gestalt psychology, Vygotsky's semiotic psychology, and Kurt Lewin's field theory" (Bordwell 136). Also, Eisenstein, "…Was most deeply influenced by Pavlov, Mayakovsky, Marx and Freud"(Shaw). In Film Sense, he refers to Alfred Binet's experiments on the brain (Eisenstein 145). He also "finds insights" in "anthropology and linguistics" (113).
Furthermore, Eisenstein was fascinated by Asian culture. He viewed the Japanese writing system, which consisted of "ideograms" to be analogous to montage in cinema. A whole chapter of his Film Form was devoted to this. "By the combination of two 'depictables' is achieved the representation of something that is graphically undepictable" (Eisenstein 30).
For instance, in this system of writing, if one combined the hieroglyph for "dog" and "mouth", the result would be "to bark". Eisenstein compared this to putting two shots together. Together, they have a meaning that is separate from what the two shots mean when they are apart. The Kabuki theater was also important to Eisenstein. He mentions it in Film Form (Eisenstein 18).
Eisenstein took inspiration from all forms of art as well. One of his most important influences was modernist novelist James Joyce, who wrote Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake. The idea of the "inner monologue" fascinated Eisenstein, and he used it "within Marxist cinema" (Robe 18). According to Bordwell, "The inner monologue has its source in Ulysses. When Eisenstein read Joyce's novel in 1928, he saw it as an example of how a text could generate abstract conclusions with 'physiological' methods" (169)
Joyce is mentioned many times in The Cinema of Eisenstein, and Eisenstein refers to him several times in Film Form and The Film Sense as well. He states, "When Joyce and I met in Paris, he was intensely interested in my plans for the inner film-monologue, with a far broader scope than is afforded by literature" (Eisenstein 104).
Eisenstein also took inspiration from visual art. The Constructivist movement took place in Russia in the 1920s; they believed that art should serve a clear social purpose. Bordwell states, "Constructivism, particularly its theatrical manifestations, strongly influenced his films" (40). Bordwell also claims that the Spanish Mannerist painter, El Greco was important to Eisenstein. According to Vance Kepley, Jr., Eisenstein used paintings to teach his students such as in the "Last Supper exercise in which Eisenstein challenged students to identify Leonardo's original dramatic core from the images simultaneously present across the work's two dimensions"(9). Music also molded his artistic development. Eisenstein was "fascinated" by German composer Richard Wagner (Bordwell 196). He "found analogies with film in… [French Impressionist composer Claude] Debussy" (Bordwell 136). In Film Sense, he discusses the music of Bach and Verdi (Eisenstein 162-163).
Eisenstein viewed film as the combination of all forms of art, the culmination of art history. As stated in the Cinema of Eisenstein, "…Cinema is seen as fulfilling those media's greatest accomplishments. It presents ' a synthesis of painting and drama, music and sculpture, architecture and dancing, landscape and man, visual image and uttered word'" (Bordwell 196). Motion pictures combined the elements and theoretical underpinnings of all art forms. Eisenstein referred to film as a "Gesamtkunstwerk" or "total artwork" that unified all arts (196).
Eisenstein has left a lasting legacy on filmmaking. His theoretical output and films influenced most, if not all filmmakers that have come since. According to Digital Film Archive, "Battlleship Potemkin and Eisenstein’s theory of montage has inspired directors such as Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho), Stephen Spielberg (Schindler’s List), Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull) and Brian De Palma (The Untouchables)." The Untouchables reference to Potemkin is commonly cited as it is the most obvious example.
A Senses of Cinema article goes in-depth into the way Eisenstein's oeuvre has affected cinema. It claims that action films depend on his ideas of rhythmic montage and it states, "The careers of Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, Nicholas Roeg, Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone (to name just a few), and much of the dynamism of the music video scene, would have been inconceivable without Eisenstein's ground-breaking experimentation" (Shaw).
Bordwell's book goes into detail concerning the importance of Eisenstein to later directors. His works are especially important to art films. He claims that the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, "employed many of Eisenstein's montage methods" (Bordwell 261). Additionally, Bordwell states, "Alexander Nevsky is explicitly cited in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) and Welles's Chimes at Midnight (1966); Sergio Leone's abrupt editing and florid use of musical punctuation seemed indebted to the theory and practice of vertical montage" (266).
Montage is not the only way that Eisenstein changed the way people make films. Bordwell says, "But filmmakers such as Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, and Jacques Tati have shown that Eisenstein's insistence on through-composed stylistic organization was not a dead end" (268). No one can deny Eisenstein's importance, and that is why he is still studied 60 years after his death.
Eisenstein was eclectic and open-minded in his inspirations and borrowed from linguistics, art, social and physical sciences, and literature. This is partly why his films and theoretical work were so revolutionary and why he profoundly influenced all future filmmakers, mainstream and experimental alike.
Bordwell, David. The Cinema of Eisenstein. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1993. Print.
Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form and The Film Sense. 7th ed. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1965. Print.
Robe, Chris. "Eisenstein in America: The Que Viva Mexico! Debates and the Emergent Popular Front in U.S. Film Theory and Criticism." The Velvet Light Trap 54 (2004): 18- 31. Project Muse. Web. 14 Nov. 2010.
Shaw, Dan. "Sergei Eisenstein." Senses Of Cinema. Ed. Rolando Caputo and Scott Murray.