Master Soviet film director and brilliant theoretician of cinema. Born Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein on January 23, 1898, Riga, Latvia. Died February 10, 1948, Moscow. Educated with aim of being an engineer at Institute of Civil Engineering, Petrograd (architecture); Officers Engineering School (engineering); General Staff Academy, Moscow (Oriental languages). Distracted from engineering studies by drawing cartoons and performing in a children's theater troupe which he founded. In 1915, he moved to Petrograd to continue his studies at the Institute of Civil Engineering. After the February 1917 Revolution, he sold political cartoons, served in the volunteer militia (defending Petrograd with other student recruits) and in the engineering corps of the Russian army, volunteered in the spring of 1918 for the Red Army, when at the front at Minsk in 1920 worked as poster artist. His father joined the Whites and then emigrated. While in the military, Eisenstein staged and performed in several productions, for which he also designed sets and costumes.
In 1920 Eisenstein left the army for the General Staff Academy in Moscow where he joined the First Workers' Theater of Proletcult as a scenic and costume designer. Throughout 1920s worked in politically correct Soviet theatre with aim of replacing traditional high "bourgeois" culture with more democratic "people's" culture (i.e. propaganda). Communists had to speak in language of people if they were to be educated to become New Soviet Man. Attracted to cinema as best means of reaching illiterate peasants and workers but constantly ran afoul of the Stalinist authorities because of his innovations and "formalism" (i.e. a preference for aesthetic form and artistic creativity over ideological (pro-proletarian) content) such as Strike (1925) (a condemnation of czarism); Potemkin (1925) about an episode in the 1905 Russian revolution in Odessa with unforgettable close-ups of suffering human faces and the soldiers' boots in the "Odessa steps" sequence; October (1928) commissioned for the tenth anniversary of the October revolution of 1917 but not released until 1928 (scenes with outlawed Bolshevik Trotsky had to be deleted, "formalist" style again displeased Party bosses).
After being confronted by Stalin SE decided to leave Rusia to study new sound technology. Feted by avant garde intellectuals in all the countries he visited, including Joyce, Cocteau, Abel Gance, Marinetti, Einstein, Le Corbusier, and Gertrude Stein. In May 1930 Eisenstein arrived in the United States, lectured at several universities before moving on to Hollywood, where he hoped to make a film for Paramount. Although he was welcomed by leading Hollywood figures, including Fairbanks, von Sternberg, Disney and especially Chaplin, who became his close friend, his ideas for films were rejected as too complicated. US State Department refused to issue him with work permits.
On his return to Russia, to avoid further conflict with the regime SE became head of the Direction Department at the Moscow film school and became a devoted teacher and scholar. His first sound film Bezhin Meadow (1935) was again banned for the sin of formalism. Thus his decision to make Alexander Nevsky in 1938 about a 13th-century Russian prince's successful battle against invading German hordes was politically topical given the rise of Nazi Germany and artisticly retrograde (a monumental costume epic starring familiar character actors without his hallmark style of montage and "typage" (casting non-professionals in leading roles)). Nevertheless, the film show the brilliance of SE's direction in such scenes as the famous battle scene on the ice and the melding of picture and music with the film's memorable score by Prokofiev (perhaps inspired by the pioneering cartoons set to music done by Walt Disney).
Alexander Nevsky was successful in Russia and abroad, partly due to its anti-German sentiments which no doubt helped shield SE from being purged by Stalin's secret police. On February 1, 1939, he was awarded the Order of Lenin for Nevsky but when the non-aggression treaty between the USSR and Nazi Germany was signed, Nevsky was withdrawn from circulation. Since Germany was now in favour, SE was commissioned to stage Wagner's opera "Die Walküre" at the Bolshoi theater, but at the November 21, 1940 premiere the German diplomats in Moscow were appalled by Eisenstein's "deliberate Jewish tricks." In another ideological about face, when the Nazis attacked Russia less than a year later, it was "Die Walküre"'s turn to be banned while Nevsky could once again be screened.
In 1941 Eisenstein was commissioned to do an even larger scale historic epic, a three-part film glorifying the psychopathic and murderous 16th-century Russian Tsar, Ivan the Terrible. This time, Ivan the Terrible. Part One (1943) was an enormous success and for it Eisenstein was awarded the Stalin Prize. However, the second part of the trilogy, Ivan the Terrible. Part Two (1946) showed a ruthless, bloodthirsty, Stalin-like tyrant and was therefore banned and the footage of Part Three confiscated and destroyed. SE was broken physically by these events, being hospitalised with a heart attack. He partially recovered, petitioned Stalin to let him re-edit the film according to the dictates of the police, but was dismissed and died in 1948 with his epic incomplete. The banned Part Two was first shown in 1958 on the 60th anniversary of Eisenstein's birth. In 1988, at the international symposium at Oxford marking Eisenstein's 90th anniversary, Naum Kleiman, the director of the Eisenstein Museum in Moscow, showed a scene that survived from Part Three in which Ivan is interrogating a foreign mercenary in a manner resembling one of Stalin's secret police.
Concerns the defeat of the Teutonic Knights who were attempting to invade Russia in the 13thC by Prince Alexander Nevsky. Russia (or rather Muscovy) was threatened from the west by the Teutonic Knights and by the Tartars from the south and east. After defeating the Swedes on the River Neva in 1240, the warrior Prince Nevsky is called to rally the people after other leaders of the city of Novgorod have failed. To defend the state he must first form a new army which defeats the Teutonic enemy at a battle fought on frozen Lake Peipus in 1242.
In spite of the interference of the Soviet authorities (threats of being charged with formalism and censorship of the end product) SE is able to make a great film which is far more than mere propaganda designed to serve the interests of Stalin. Awarded the Lenin Prize 1939 for this film. To avoid possible censorship by a new adminstration SE shot the Battle on the Ice scene in the middle of summer in a field outside Moscow, using sodium silicate instead of snow.
Older versions of the film have used a very poor sound track. The reissue on Laser Disc uses a modern digital recording of Prokofiev's music based upon a reconstruction by William D. Brohn based upon Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky Cantata".