Film: If Eisenstein were alive today, would he be directing Naked Gun 4?

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Eisenstein's ground-breaking films are more popular with theorists and critics than they are with audiences, who often find his work heavy going. But the dapper Russian titan (left) took as many pointers from Chaplin and Disney as he did from Pushkin and Joyce, Geoffrey Macnab reveals.

Sergei Mikhalovich Eisenstein was one of the titans of Soviet cinema. He made, as the publicity for next month's Eisenstein season at the NFT proclaims, "Immortal films that shook the world." Whether the pram clattering down the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin (1925), the battle on the ice choroegraphed to Prokofiev's music in Alexander Nevsky (1938), the storming of the Winter Palace in October (1928) or that extraordinary sequence in Ivan the Terrible (1944) in which Ivan stands scowling in his cave like the big, bad wolf as thousands of his subjects line up in the snow outside, his work is full of sombre and climactic moments.

Perhaps surprisingly, the shock-haired, round-cheeked little man who stares out from his photographs doesn't seem at all like a warrior of the revolution. With his bow ties and tweed suits, he is, if anything, a bit of a dandy. Smiling that mischievous grin, he could be early Soviet Russia's answer to Malcolm McLaren. Certainly Eisenstein had a strong sense of the ridiculous.

In his autobiography, Beyond the Stars, he is frequently self-mocking. "I lived through a staggering age," he wrote, "but I do not want to write about this age at all." On the night of the October Revolution, he admitted, he failed to notice that anything untoward was happening. He went to bed early to study a book of 18th-century engravings and slept soundly as history unfolded just a few hundred yards away.

Eisenstein, who died in 1948, hasn't exactly vanished from view in recent years. He is acknowledged as one of cinema's most important theorists (his books Film Form and The Film Sense are still required reading for film students) and his work is often revived. Nevertheless, he remains a film-maker more cherished by critics and historians than loved by audiences.

"I wanted to reclaim him for younger audiences and rescue him from the academics," says Ronald Bergan, whose new biography, Eisenstein - A Life in Crisis, has just been published. "I wanted to show that he was a cosmopolitan artist - that he belonged to the whole western modernist tradition alongside other Russians like Kandinsky, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky. He was a modernist film-maker who looked to the West. There were so many influences on his work - everything from Chaplin and Disney to Pushkin and Joyce."

It does indeed come as a surprise to learn that the great Soviet constructivist of the 1920s had a liking for Agatha Christie novels and Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney films. As Bergan notes, he also enjoyed dirty jokes, dirty limericks and smutty schoolboy humour. While on location shooting Que Viva Mexico, he dashed off hundreds of obscene drawings, including one that scandalised the American customs officers who confiscated it: "A parody of Christian paintings showing Jesus and the two thieves hanging on crosses; the penis of Jesus is elongated into a hose, and one of the thieves has the end in his mouth."

Bergan conveys the effervescence and humour of the man - the way his interests ran in a myriad different directions at once. "I think we can see his influence in any advert that we look at today. The idea of montage, the visual metaphors that Eisenstein invented, people now accept that even if they don't know where it comes from." He even argues that the techniques Eisenstein refined in Strike and Battleship Potemkin have their logical extension in the Naked Gun comedies. "You know, scenes of people having sex intercut with trains going through tunnels - the combination of images within the frame and the idea that you didn't have to have a narrative - all that has liberated cinema."

But the great paradox about Eisenstein, which he can't really explain, is that this flamboyant individualist was also an artist who survived and sometimes even prospered under Stalin, when "socialist realism" was the only accepted artistic creed. He was even one of Uncle Joe's favourites. (At one stage, Stalin wanted him to make his biopic.)

Despite his loathing for the Nazis, Eisenstein made broadcasts to Germany in the wake of the Hitler-Stalin pact and directed a stage production of Wagner's Die Walkure at the Bolshoi Theatre. He also wrote a series of articles extolling Stalin. Rather than stand up for his 1935 film, Bezhin Meadow, when it was criticised and confiscated by the authorities, he apologised, describing it as catastrophic and politically bankrupt. "My error is rooted in a deeply intellectual, individualist illusion," he confessed shamefacedly. In his Collected Writings (1934-1947), there is one fawning essay in which he claims that "thanks to the wisdom and foresight of the Soviet Government and Comrade Stalin, our Union is the only place in the world where the artist can create in peace, where the builder can build in peace, and the inventor can solve his problems in peace." The essay was written in 1941, barely a year after his great friend and mentor, the theatre director Meyerhold, had been killed by Stalin.

Fifty years on, it is all too easy to accuse Eisenstein of moral cowardice and to trot out the old cliche that it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees. Bergan defends Eisenstein, saying he saved his skin "by changing it when he had to", and that his most sycophantic pieces about the wonderful Soviet regime came laced with irony. By kowtowing to Stalin, the director bought himself the opportunity to make Ivan the Terrible, which Bergan believes is his crowning achievement and which can anyway be read as a veiled critique of Stalin. "And if he had just pandered to the regime, he would have been able to make many, many more films. His work was quirky and outrageous. Whatever his views, he could never simply conform with socialist realism."

Inevitably, Eisenstein is still regarded as a tainted figure in post- communist Russia. "He is like one of those great statues that has been pulled down," suggests Bergan. He was such a towering figure that many subsequent Russian film-makers, perhaps most notably Andrei Tarkovsky, turned against him. In the West, too, he went out of fashion. His theories of montage were considered too rigid and too prescriptive by the influential French critics of the 1940s and 1950s, who argued that the long takes and use of deep focus in, for example, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, allowed audiences to shift their gaze where they chose.

In one very obvious way, though, Eisenstein and Welles are soul-mates. Their filmographies come littered with half-complete or abandoned projects - a sure sign, Welles would doubtless argue, of misunderstood genius.

There is no guarantee that Eisenstein would have found film-making any easier in the West. The Soviet authorities may have been responsible for suppressing Bezhin Meadow in the mid-1930s, but a few years before, an American, the Nobel-prize-winning novelist Upton Sinclair, had closed down Eisenstein's epic Que Viva Mexico in equally summary fashion. Eisenstein was briefly put under contract by Paramount in 1930, but found the studio bosses every bit as tricky to deal with as the cultural commissars back home.

Perhaps Eisenstein's real misfortune is that his work has never been marketed properly. He has a reputation for being dour and didactic, but if only he was around now to look after his own publicity, his films would surely reach the audience that they deserve. When he first arrived in the US in 1930, he gave a lecture in Atlantic City to a group of Paramount sales executives. They expected a Bolshevik firebrand, but he disarmed them with his usual wit and charm. As one hardbitten American distributor told him, "I don't know what sort of director you are but I could use you as a salesman right away."