Film claiming director Sergei Eisenstein had gay love affair shunned in Russia

The film has provoked a furious debate in Russia

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The Independent Culture

The legendary film director Sergei Eisenstein is considered one of the proudest figures in Russia’s cultural history, but whether a new movie about his life – and an alleged gay love affair in particular – will ever be screened in his home country is in grave doubt.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato, the latest film by British director Peter Greenaway, receives its world premiere at the Berlin festival later this week. Even before its release, the film has provoked a furious debate in Russia.

It covers the time that Eisenstein spent in Mexico in 1931 in preparation for his film Que viva Mexico!, focusing on a supposed tryst between the director and his young guide, Jorge Palomino y Cañedo.

Eistenstein is portrayed on screen by Finnish actor Elmer Back – chosen, said Greenaway,  because Back “would temporarily give me his heart, soul, brain, body and prick in the services of the depiction of a very human, very emotionally and anatomically naked – vomiting, shitting, weeping, fucking, sweating, howling Eisenstein”.

A scene from Greenaway’s film with Elmer Back as Eisenstein (right) and Luis Albert as his Mexican guide

That is not the way that the Russian authorities want to see a national hero portrayed, especially following the introduction of a law banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” in 2013. Femke Wolting, the producer of Eisenstein in Guanajuato, confirmed that Russian distributors and producers refused to back the film because of its open depiction of the director’s homosexuality.

“We tried to involve the Russians in different ways,” Ms Wolting told The Independent. “We did castings with Russian actors. We tried to get Russian distributors aboard and a Russian producer possibly to access finance from Russia but all were impossible because of the fact that film showed that Eisenstein was gay. She added: “Producers were afraid. They said it would ruin their career. Actors said the same. Distributors also said the same.”

Speaking during the Berlin Festival, one prominent Russian art-house distributor, Raisa Fomina of Intercinema, criticised Greenaway for making such an issue of Eisenstein’s sexuality.

Eisenstein's 1925 'Battleship Potemkin' is perhaps his most revered film

“In Russia, there is a very, very aggressive attitude toward gay people which is a disgrace. They are criticised and attacked.” Fomina acknowledged. “On the other side, I don’t care if Eisenstein was gay. This is something that is secondary.”

Eisenstein, Ms Fomina said, never spoke about his sexuality openly and it didn’t affect his work, even if it was an open secret. “To the image of Eisenstein, this [Eisenstein’s homosexuality] doesn’t add anything.”

Others disagree, pointing to homoerotic drawings and paintings that Eisenstein made and making the argument that Eisenstein’s work changed dramatically in tone after his experiences in Mexico. His later movies are more human and more intimate – and less propagandistic.

“He was hit hard with emotional traumas of sex and death in Mexico,” said Greenaway, who is currently plotting a second Eisenstein biopic. “He emotionally matured, learnt empathy and his later films demonstrated as much.”