The 100 Essential Directors Part 3

George Cukor - John Ford

by PopMatters Staff

7 August 2011


Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein
(1898 - 1948)

Three Key Films: The Battleship Potemkin (1925); October (Ten Days That Shook the World) (1928); Alexander Nevsky (1938)

Underrated: Que Viva Mexico (filmed in 1932, released in 1979) Eisenstein travelled to Mexico to film this tale of Mexican independence, but the film was shut down when filming went long and over budget. Although a version was released 31 years after Eisenstein’s death to acclaim, we will never know what his final edit of the film would have been.

Unforgettable: A young mother attending a political rally is shot by the Cossacks in Battleship Potemkin (1925). As she falls to the ground dying, she inadvertently bumps her baby carriage, sending it careening down a lengthy flight of steps. Though hundreds flee the onslaught of bullets, interest in the fate of the baby in the carriage dominates the scene. Undoubtedly, it is one of the most copied sequences in film history (most notably in De Palma’s The Untouchables [1987]).


The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The Legend: Eisenstein reportedly commented, “What a monument you would have raised in my memory if I had died straight after The Battleship Potemkin! I’ve made a mess of my own biography!” While this may be a bit of an overstatement, Eisenstein was correct that he peaked early in his career. However, Eisenstein tended to exhibit some of the autocratic control that his films sought to expose in various governments, overseeing every aspect of his films to the point of obsession, a quality that hindered much of his later work.

Internal and external conflict furthered restricted his genius. As a young man, he and his father were at odds during WWI and the October Revolution in Russia, resulting in irreparable harm to their relationship. As an artist, he frequently found himself being chastised by the new Soviet government and often fought with producers and studios. Perhaps because of these experiences, conflict—both societal and personal—is at the front of all his great films. In examining the role of government in the lives of the proletariat, Eisenstein was a pioneer in using mood, lighting, and montage to convey heroism and villainy. In a time when silent films were usually one-reelers, he crafted epics, filled with sweeping crowd scenes and disturbing images, some of which couldn’t be shot today, such as the plummet of a live horse from a raised drawbridge into the river below.

His visionary films influenced filmmakers worldwide, establishing that film could be more than just mindless entertainment. While his early contributions to film guarantee him a place as one of the most influential directors in film history, his later works were inconsistent. Eisenstein struggled to duplicate the early success of October and Battleship Potemkin. His plans for a trilogy biography of Ivan the Terrible yielded a classic, Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944), and a disaster, Part II (released in 1958, ten years after his death). He died before the third part was finished.

Yet, his influence wasn’t limited to his work as a director. Before he had directed his first movie, Eisenstein wrote the first of several theories of film.  In these works, he expounds his theory of Dialectical Montage, based on the Marxist dialectic. The theory states that thesis (a force or side) meets an antithesis (counterforce), resulting in synthesis (an amalgamation of thesis and antithesis that is greater than and differs from both). This dialectical tension can be presented on film in one of five editing processes: Metric (limiting the number of frames shown), Rhythmic (editing based on the use of time), Tonal (emphasis of emotional elements), Overtonal (a synthesis of the previous three), and Intellectual (emphasis of intellectual themes). Not only was Eisenstein true to his own theories, most of the directors on this list of Great Directors have followed them, whether they realized it or not. Michael Abernethy




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