A Life in Conflict

By Ronald Bergan

Overlook. 384 pp. $35

Reviewed by Robert Sklar

Over a century of cinema, no short sequence in a single movie has earned more fame than the Odessa Steps segment of Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 Soviet silent film, "The Battleship Potemkin." The ominous line of white-jacketed soldiers, rifles raised. The panicked crowd. The cold-blooded shootings. The baby carriage careening down the steps. These are among the indelible images from a masterful set-piece that combines unsurpassed cinematic artistry with, not to mince words, hard-edged Bolshevik political propaganda.

While nearly every aspect of Soviet history has been cast in a new light since the end of the Communist regime, it's perhaps an oddity that Eisenstein and his cohorts among Soviet silent filmmakers have yet to come under the gaze of historical revisionists. The centennial of Eisenstein's birth -- he was born in 1898 and died in 1948 -- was celebrated last year with retrospective screenings and scholarly tributes and hardly a question about what sort of politics was being feted, inevitably, along with the art. Ronald Bergan's readable and appreciative biography of the filmmaker, which appeared in Britain last year in time for the centennial, helps to explain, while it also supports, Eisenstein's immunity from political critique.

The most compelling explanation is that during much of his lifetime Eisenstein already was subjected to humiliating criticism and suppression of his work from the Soviets themselves. Bergan makes clear how brief was the triumph of Soviet silent cinema, and how young the filmmakers who achieved it. Still in his teens during the Bolshevik revolution, Eisenstein switched from engineering to designing agitprop theater productions. Joining the new Soviet film industry, he proposed a theory of "intellectual montage," positing that a collision of unrelated images could provoke Marxist political understanding. In 1925, he combined ideology and art in two feature films, "The Strike" and "The Battleship Potemkin," that endure as classics.

Bergan writes of this early era as one in which Eisenstein enjoyed "untrammelled freedom to create" and other filmmakers also worked in "total freedom." This seems a rather naive view of a state-controlled medium the primary purpose of which was political propaganda. His unexamined assumptions take form, it seems, only through contrast with the repression and persecution that was soon to come.

By 1927, Stalin had won out in the regime's struggle for power and ordered all references to his defeated rival Trotsky expunged from "October," Eisenstein's new film celebrating the revolution's 10th anniversary. Political meddling also reshaped the filmmaker's last silent work, "The Old and the New" (1929), about rural collectivization. Stalin's emerging aesthetic orthodoxy of Socialist Realism condemned Eisenstein as a "formalist" lacking correct proletarian ideology.

Bergan recounts without excessive pathos a dismal 1930s decade during which the Soviets were not the filmmaker's only oppressors. Permitted to travel in Europe and the United States, Eisenstein went to Hollywood, where Paramount hired him but rejected all his proposed projects. He gained the financial backing of socialist writer Upton Sinclair for a documentary about Mexico, but Sinclair pulled out and confiscated Eisenstein's work, later permitting it to be edited by others and released in a bowdlerized version. Frustrated abroad, at home he survived professionally through abasing self-criticism and sycophantic declarations. The first sound film he was able to complete, "Bezhin Meadow," was suppressed and eventually destroyed.

Eisenstein at least lived to work again, unlike other leading writers and artists who were imprisoned or murdered. (His homosexuality also increased his vulnerability; although not openly gay, he had a penchant for making sexually explicit drawings in his notebooks.) He was assigned to make an anti-German historical epic, the 1938 film "Alexander Nevsky," and its success as art and propaganda officially restored his reputation. During the World War II he made another historical epic, the two-part "Ivan the Terrible," the second half of which was shelved until 1958. In 1946 he suffered a severe heart attack, and he succumbed to heart disease two years later.

Eisenstein's greatness as a filmmaker, his importance as a writer and theorist, his intellectual breadth and artistic range, his overcoming the tribulations of working under a totalitarian regime, have shaped the heroic image that Bergan's books reflects. But surely it's time to move beyond adulation to consider the ideological and political constraints not only of the bad years but also of the post-revolutionary years of so-called artistic freedom. A less romanticized view of Soviet silent cinema could shape a more realistic assessment of the responsibilities and costs of combining artistry and politics, then or now.

Robert Sklar teaches cinema studies at New York University and is the author of "Film: An International History of the Medium" and other books on film.

CAPTION: Poster for the movie "Battleship Potemkin" and a portrait of Sergei Eisenstein, ca. 1929