Eisenstein’s England: An Interview with Ian Christie


Sergei Eisenstein is perhaps the most famous Soviet film-maker, and is amongst the figures who would most define Twentieth-Century cinematic theory and practice. In the mid 20’s, he directed the cinematic masterpieces STRIKE, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN and OCTOBER. While Soviet policies towards art and international exchange became more conservative in the late 1920’s, Eisenstein travelled abroad, spending time in Europe, the United States and Mexico.

Sergei Eisenstein is perhaps the most famous Soviet film-maker, and is amongst the figures who would most define Twentieth-Century cinematic theory and practice. In the mid 20’s, he directed the cinematic masterpieces STRIKE, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN and OCTOBER. While Soviet policies towards art and international exchange became more conservative in the late 1920’s, Eisenstein travelled abroad, spending time in Europe, the United States and Mexico. Upon his return to Russia, Eisenstein was looked upon with suspicion, but following a rehabilitation produced the historical epics ALEXANDER NEVSKY and IVAN THE TERRIBLE, masterpieces which were alternately praised and censured.

Professor Ian Christie, FBA, is one of the UK’s foremost experts on early cinema and has studied Sergei Eisenstein’s works and archives for decades. A new show, curated with Elena Sudakova, picks up on connections between cinema, theatre and literature, looking specifically at Eisenstein’s drawings and his correspondences with the Anglophone world. Some sketches suggest a futurist Sherlock Holmes, a cosmic Macbeth and other fascinating but unrealised project ideas, while others provide a perspective on the design process behind his later masterpieces. RETROGRAD speaks to Professor Christie about the exhibition, Unexpected Eistenstein, which runs until April 30th at GRAD Gallery.

Costume design for Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Moscow, 1922 © Russian State Archives of Literature and Art

RETROGRAD: Your most famous compiliation on the Russian film-maker, ‘Eisenstein Rediscovered’, has been recently republished. Your new show, curated with Elena Sudakova, has the provocative title ‘Unexpected Eisenstein’, and deals heavily with Eisenstein’s less famous collaborations within theatre, art, poetry and radio. Do you consider the rediscovery of Eisenstein as a continuous process, and has working with this material allowed you to learn more about a thinker about whom you already know a great deal?

I’ve come to realise that ‘discovering Eisenstein’ is indeed a more or less constant process. We bring our own concerns and priorities to the corpus of his work, which is also continuously expanding as more gets transcribed and published, and so we see him afresh. When I did Eisenstein Rediscovered, the drawings were perhaps the main new focus, as that book came after a big exhibition I did with David Elliott in 1989. The problem then was how to give them ‘weight’ and status alongside the writings and of course the films. And of course they seemed to give a kind of uncensored access to Eisenstein’s inner life, especially the parts that had to be censored in Stalin’s Russia.

Sketch for Ivan the Terrible 1941 © Russian State Archives of Literature and Art

They’re still a wonderful field for discovery and speculation – as we do in parts of the GRAD show – but I think just focusing on the daily life of ‘being Eisenstein’ is also a new focus. Discovering what he actually did in his six weeks in Britain in 1929 becomes fascinating, and leads us to appreciate other neglected aspects of the well-known work. For instance, how he kept reverting to memories of Eton and Windsor in the mid-40s memoirs. You find yourself looking at the labyrinthine court of IVAN THE TERRIBLE, realising that he may have been thinking, distantly, of that English visit. Or realising that he remained fascinated by D. H. Lawrence, even though he seems ideologically very different. In fact, when I mentioned this to Mark Cousins, he volunteered to make a short film about that fascination, in the form of an imagined interview with Eisenstein – which is in our show.

Costume design for Vice Director in Sherlock Homes and Nick Carter (Unrealised) © A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

Some of the material takes the form of sketches of characters and stage design for theatre. Do you think ephemera connected to cinematic, televisual and theatrical production is adequately preserved? Can this type of material provide insight that simple recordings of productions cannot?

The surviving Eisenstein material is now very well preserved in RGALI and in the Bakhrushin theatre museum in Moscow, who have been very helpful to us. But of course the problem is how to ‘animate’ such paper works. To know that Eisenstein designed costumes for a play entitled ‘Sherlock Holmes and Nick Carter’ is tantalising, since we know nothing about what that might have been! Something rather like the film adaptation of ‘Jim Dollar’s’ Miss Mend detective stories, by Boris Barnet and Fedor Ozep perhaps? Or like Kozintsev and Trauberg’s lost Adventures of Oktyabrina? I’m struck by how little we still appreciate the actual texture and complexity of early Soviet culture, what drove it and what a promiscuous mixing of materials and traditions there was. Sadly, an exhibition can only gesture towards that.

Costume design for King Duncan in Macbeth © Russian State Archives of Literature and Art

One of the unexpected results of your research is the discovery of pronounced links between theatrical production in the Soviet Union and the Anglophone world. Amongst Eisentsein’s papers there are sketches for productions of plays by socialistis Jack London and George Bernard Shaw, and sketches for some exceptionally imaginative interpretations of Shakespeare. There are also letters from admirers in the United Kingdom, and invititations to events and lectures. Are we discovering that Eisenstein had an international interest and following, even early in his career?

Eisenstein was an Anglophile from childhood. Perhaps even because of his childhood, with an English governess and access to English children’s literature, such as Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and of course Dickens and Kipling. We’ve always known about this – or at least the evidence was there to connect – but when you’re making a small exhibition for London, it seemed to snap it into focus, for me at least. His Shakespeare is really very different from ours today, and helps remind us that every culture has its own take on ‘our’ bard. But it was intriguing to discover that Eisenstein was eagerly ordering the latest Sherlock Holmes material from Zwemmer’s bookshop in London, in 1934, when he might have been focused on more pressing issues back in Moscow! But of course Holmes also belongs to the world – so perhaps the lesson is really that ‘English culture’ has a kind of universality, and Eisenstein’s interest in and for us was always a two-way street.

Costume designs for George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House (unrealised) © Russian State Archive of Literature and Art

One of our favourite Eistensein quotes is “In America even the cemeteries are private”. The past twenty years have seen the privatisation of cultural heritage (and the responsibility for its protection) in Russia and England, but the material for this exhibition comes from two large, well-preserved state archives, the Russian State Archives of Literature and Art, and the Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum. How do these centralised sources facilitate your research, and what are the challenges of working with the Soviet cultural past within institutions that – at least formally – belong to a different political and economic system?

Well, these are wonderfully serious archives, which take excellent care of the precious materials they preserve. Much better care, in many ways, than during Soviet times, when some Eisenstein material was rather rashly lent out and displayed. Both RGALI and the Bakhrushin Museum were very co-operative for our research, which was made possible by Kino Klassika Foundation and takes a rather unusual line on Eisenstein, as a traveller who filed away experiences and discoveries to draw on for the rest of his life.  I’m hopeful that Naum Kleiman and the curators from the Russian archives will appreciate what we have done in trying to bring him to a new audience here in London, using rather avant-garde display techniques. There aren’t so many opportunities to display the richness of the Eisenstein collections in Russia at present, and let’s hope this helps to re-ignite interest in an always surprising and unexpected figure: someone definitely of his time, but also in many ways our contemporary.

Drawing from the series ‘After Rimbaud’ 1945 © Russian State Archives of Literature and Art

You have spoken in the past of early Russian and Soviet cinema as constituting a ‘film factory’ – this work has constituted another focal point of your research. What would you consider Eistenstein’s role within this industrial environment to be? While he was certainly one of the film-makers to receive the largest amount of international acclaim, he was opposed to the so-called NEP film-making policy that would water down the ideological content of Soviet cinema in order to garner more success in global markets. Is he a loyal worker, or does he engage in this own form of ‘strike’?

Back to that question of how well we appreciate early Soviet culture, the period of the LEF group, of ‘red Pinkertons’ and a real enthusiasm for Western popular culture. There were very different reactions to this, and also a lot of position-taking, for instance between Eisenstein, Vertov and the FEKS group. Eisenstein was pursuing  his own form of ‘high modernism’ right up to 1929, drawing on Joyce and Freud, on reading The Golden Bough and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (while he was on his way to America). He wanted to collaborate with Andrei Bely when he got back to Moscow in 1932, but I think he was shocked, and probably hurt, by Alexandrov deserting him and turning to making musicals in 1934. He’s still ‘loyal’, but to his own interpretation of where the revolution should be heading.

Drawing from the series ‘Thoughts on Music’ 1938 © Russian State Archives of Literature and Art

The material in the show spans almost the entirety of Eistenstein’s career, from a period of post-revolutionary experimentation and enthusiasm in the 1920’s to the more controlled, disciplined national cinema of the 1940’s. How do the sketches accompanying Eisenstein’s work show development or continuity within Eistenstein’s aesthetic and ideological agenda? How does this material evidence compare to his theoretical and critical writing?

Basically, Eisenstein kept on developing, enriching his own early quite intuitive ideas about montage. So that by the time he reaches ALEXANDER NEVSKY and IVAN THE TERRIBLE, he is simultaneously thinking and theorising on many levels. One cluster in our show deals with the ‘suppressed’ episode in IVAN that would have linked the Tsar with Elizabeth I of England – a kind of gag on Eisenstein’s part, but one that was topical because of the wartime alliance against Hitler as well as reflecting on the arc of Russian history. When you read the later theoretical texts and the floating free-association memoirs he wrote in the 40s, you can’t help but think of figures like T S Eliot or Auden or the English Neo-Romantics, all working to combine a sense of ‘deep history’ with a modernist sensibility.

Preparatory sketch for Ivan the Terrible 1942 © Russian State Archives of Literature and Art

Next year you hope to help produce a more general show on early Soviet Cinema at London’s Royal Academy. Are there other innovators in the fields of cinematic, theatrical or cultural production that you feel are deserving of ‘rediscovery’? And can you tell us what (not) to expect?

I’m a contributor to the big Royal Academy exhibition that will mark the centenary of the 1917 revolutions. Of course Eisenstein will be part of that, along with Vertov, but I’m very much hoping we can also find room for more recent discoveries like Boris Barnet and of course the Leningrad team of Kozintsev and Trauberg, who are always in danger of being overlooked. Too early to say how much film there’ll be in the show, but I’m hoping there will be plenty of Lenin’s ‘most important art’, and additional screenings alongside the exhibition to allow audiences to discover just how rich, and contradictory, this period was.

Letter from the London Workers’ Film Society to ‘Comrade Eisenstein’, 27 December 1929 © Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, Moscow

Ian Christie – From Battleship Potemkin to Baker Street (The Guardian)
Unexpected Eisenstein – exhibition at GRAD
Kino Klassika Foundation

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