Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Director Casts Dictator's Shadow




For all its claims to innocence, art has always been mixed up with power. At the center of the definitive classical epic, the "Aeneid," the Roman poet Virgil placed the Emperor Augustus ? his patron and also a rather repressive tyrant. In our time, W. H. Auden worried about the proximity of the poet's rhetoric to the dictator's, but he would have made a more telling point if he had invoked the most influential 20th century art form: cinema.


"For us," Lenin said, "the cinema is the most important of all the arts." He might have been thinking of Sergei Eisenstein, who in "Potemkin" and "October" conjured up unforgettable images for the Revolution that first loved him and then ground him beneath its heel. His Augustus was Stalin, monster, film-buff and the real subject of his final masterpiece, "Ivan the Terrible." Their deadly embrace is the most fascinating theme in Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict, Ronald Bergan's new biography, the only filmmaker to have gained undisputed entry to the artistic pantheon.


Tyrant and filmmaker seemed to recognize themselves in each other. After their first meeting, Stalin was as anxious as a schoolgirl to know what Eisenstein had thought of him, and had to be reassured by a subordinate: "Oh yes, you made a very good impression on him, Comrade Stalin. They all liked you very much." Years later they met again to discuss "Ivan the Terrible."


Stalin's self-regard, together with his evident delight at being involved in the creative process, would make the records hilarious reading, were it not for the knowledge that Eisenstein's life was being held in the balance. "Ivan the Terrible was very cruel," Bergan quotes Stalin as saying. "You can depict him as a cruel man, but you have to show why he had to be cruel." And later, in response to some practical problems: "A director must be unyielding and demand whatever he needs. Our directors compromise too readily."


It is particularly timely, in the age of CNN, Clinton and Milosevic, to see the ironies at work in this exchange: tyrant as film director, film director as tyrant.


Born into the "haute bourgeoisie" of Riga in 1898, Eisenstein was slated to become an engineer like his father until the Bolshevik uprising saved him from that fate. Still, he strove, like Stalin, to re-engineer men according to Marxist ideals. That was the essence of his famous "montage" technique. Images apparently unrelated, flashed up in sequence, were supposed to trigger new chains of associations in the audience, in the same way that Pavlov (whom Eisenstein much admired) taught dogs to slaver hungrily every time a bell sounded. "Art," he maintained, "is a tractor plowing over the audience's sensibility."


Taking advantage of Eisenstein's recently published ? and breathtakingly frank ? deathbed memoirs, Bergan is able to make advances on previous biographers by showing that the sadistic implications of Eisenstein's approach are fully reflected in his personal taste. From an early age he was turned on by the images of suffering that he found in the darker recesses of his mother's library, and in the penny dreadful book shops of Riga. Terror became the hallmark of Eisenstein's oeuvre.


The other side to Eisenstein is caught in a photograph taken in 1927, during the shooting of "October," a film about the storming of the Winter Palace. Looking more like a monkey than a king, he lolls on the tsar's throne, legs hanging over one arm. The image dissolves all the unapproachable solemnity of the past in a flood of high spirits.


Eisenstein loved Chaplin and Disney, was insatiably curious about books, people, places, and had a quirkily poetic eye that allowed him to satisfy his intention "to see the most terrifying, the most pitiful, the most tragic phenomena through the eyes of a laughing child." This is the talent that comes through most powerfully in his beautifully written essays; in the mountains of Mexico, he wrote, "the air is so thin it is as if someone had stolen it."


As the biographer of Dustin Hoffman, Anthony Perkins and Katharine Hepburn, Ronald Bergan wants to take Eisenstein away from the academics by reinstating him in the mainstream tradition of the silver screen, and he is alive to those moments of high kitsch in the films that have been missed by other, more earnest commentators.


He is, however, almost completely impervious to the real intellectual sophistication of Eisenstein's work. In "October," for example, General Kornilyov's "coup" against the Revolution is accompanied by a montage sequence of idols from religions all over the world. This is meant to show that reactionary politics are just another arbitrary superstition, but Bergan cannot disguise his bewilderment, and lamely glosses it as "exploding the myth of monotheism." He can be factually careless, too, as when he claims that Eisenstein met the muralist painter Jos? Orozco during his time in Mexico; Eisenstein explicitly tells us that he had no such pleasure.


None of this would matter too much if Bergan had any new insights into Eisenstein's personality, but in this respect his book falls painfully short of the landmark biography published by Marie Seton almost 50 years ago. Seton was attacked by Soviet hacks for emphasizing the spiritual concerns that, while only too obvious in Eisenstein's late work, were uncongenial to Marxist orthodoxy. Yet it was these religious yearnings that drove his cinematic art and gave it its lasting power. Like Virgil, Eisenstein made a virtue out of the restraints imposed on him by Stalin, feeling that the path to artistic immortality lay in meeting his political duties. These metaphysical ideals are lost on Bergan, with the result that Eisenstein is left looking like a naked political opportunist. He was that, but he was much more too, and anyone wanting to understand the man would be well advised to seek out the earlier biography.


"Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict" by Ronald Bergan. The Overlook Press. 248 pages. $35.