Books: Not quite the full montage

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The Independent Culture
EISENSTEIN: A Life in Conflict by Ronald Bergan Little, Brown pounds 22.50

SERGEI Eisenstein was born a century ago, on January 23, 1898, and died just over 50 years later, on February 11, 1948. It would be hard to overestimate his influence on the history of cinema: his three silent masterpieces, Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928), were admired and imitated by many who found their politics entirely unacceptable - not only Josef Goebbels, who recommended Potemkin as a model to German film-makers, but directors of every shade of political opinion, and Hollywood producers, like David O Selznick, who thought that to invest in another Eisenstein film would probably give birth to a masterpiece, but lose a lot of money (so he advised against). And Eisenstein's sound films, Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1944, 1945), though made under the most trying political and material constraints, are among the greatest achievements of Soviet Russian cinema.

Ronald Bergan, in this readable biography, gives an especially good analysis of the three silent films. They form a loose trilogy about the working- class struggle, from initial failure (Strike) to partial success (Potemkin) to triumph (October). They were made when the director was still in his twenties and served as the laboratory in which he tried out his theories of montage: "a film cannot be a simple presentation or demonstration of events; rather it must be a tendentious selection of and comparison between events, free from narrowly plot-related plans and moulding the audience in accordance with its purpose." At its most simple, this meant intercutting shots of the strutting Kerensky with shots of a peacock; at its highest level, it allowed the director to build up sequences of great visual power and many interlocking layers of meaning.

Eisenstein's personality was slightly childlike, and he was quite capable of looking and behaving like a clown. Perhaps the most persuasive aspect of Bergan's account of the man is that it leaves us in no doubt that he was also one of the most brilliant and enquiring minds of his time. He was not always good at expressing his theories: pupils testified both to the excitement that they felt in his lectures but the difficulty of following his reasoning. His theoretical writings are aphoristic and allusive, with references to inspirations as diverse as Disney, detective stories, kabuki and Edgar Allen Poe. He spoke several languages, including English, and read voraciously: Dickens and Hugo, Barbusse and Babel, Freud and Feuchwanger. In Paris, he met Eluard, Aragon, Cocteau, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce: he greatly admired Ulysses and had plans to film Joyce's novel, just as he also considered filming many other works, including An American Tragedy, War and Peace and (apparently seriously), Das Kapital (one for: Films We Are Glad to Have Missed?).

He was the son of an architect who is still more famous than his son in Riga where he left several art nouveau buildings. Father and son did not get on well and, indeed, supported opposite sides after the Revolution - though at the time the younger Eisenstein was in Moscow and his father in Berlin. Bergan suggests areas of psychological conflict but sensibly leaves it to the reader to do the analysis. Eisenstein's enigmatic sexuality causes his biographer the greatest problem: the film-maker, who was also a gifted cartoonist, made a speciality of obscene drawings (none of them reproduced here, unfortunately). His marriage apparently remained unconsummated, as did his passion for the actor Grigori Alexandrov. He surely had homosexual tendencies, but when it comes down to it, Bergan is unable to name a single person with whom his subject had sex.

This elusive quality proved no small asset in life, and not only because homosexuality was illegal in the USSR. Eisenstein had to eat humble pie once or twice in the late 1930s, and had an uncomfortable late-night chat with Stalin about "improving the quality" of Ivan the Terrible, Part Two, but he was allowed to spend several years abroad in Europe and America and escaped the imprisonment and execution that were the fate of so many, including his friends Isaac Babel and Vsevolod Meyerhold. He was a very canny sort of fool, perhaps not unlike the Emperor Claudius in Robert Graves's historical novels - which, needless to say, he had read.