The whole civilised world knows the remarkable film The Cruiser Potemkin directed by Sergei Eisenstein. This picture, which disclosed the meaning of the revolutionary events of 1905, and showed the ardour of the people's struggle against the hideous tsarist autocracy, remains an unexcelled masterpiece. In it, the truth of life, the truth of the revolution are masterfully embodied.
Things were otherwise with Eisenstein's subsequent work. Both October and The Old and New were coolly received by Soviet critics and Soviet audiences, and were an undoubted setback for the artist. Eisenstein failed because for an objective picture of the historic events of the Great October Revolution he substituted his own individual, subjective reactions. These films strikingly demonstrated the utter incorrectness of Eisenstein's creative method, the falsity of the theory he then held that the main thing in a film is not the content but the director's skill in the montage.
According to one of Eisenstein's aphorisms a film is a ‘montage of features.’ If this is true, then it logically follows that the subject and the character portrayal recede into the background. The interest in the picture is maintained by a series of separate, interestingly composed and brilliantly shot episodes. According to this theory it would seem that the montage of these episodes, which provides scope for the skill of the director, is the epitome of cinematographic art.
Even in The Cruiser Potemkin there appeared isolated elements of this concept of Eisenstein's which crystallised much later. But in this picture truth of life made up for the individual mistakes of the director, mistakes mainly in the direction of exaggerating form as opposed to content. However, October and The Old and New bore out the full harmfulness of Eisenstein's formalistic theory. The social significance of the events portrayed was thrust aside by formalist toying with details, with inessentials, such as the chamber pot with the tsarist crest, the statues in the entrance to the palace (October). Formalism was accompanied by its corollary, naturalism. The latter was most strikingly revealed in the incident of the bull and the cow (The Old and New). Thus, regardless of the brilliance and skill of the shooting of the separate episodes in these pictures, on the whole they were unsuccessful, all of which again goes to show how right Stendhal was when he wrote that ‘the details, forms and trifles of a subject, no matter how artistic they may be, do not constitute art.’
Between the productions of October and The Old and New, and the production of Bezhin Lug, Eisenstein made prolonged visits in Europe and America. Upon his return to the U.S.S.R. he devoted himself to kino teaching. In 1935 he began filming Bezhin Lug.
Several years ago, in the period of collectivisation, the story of the Pioneer Pavlik Morozov echoed throughout the U.S.S.R. Pavlik Morozov was murdered by his own father, a kulak, for exposing his plans to destroy the collective farm property by fire. This episode supplied the basis for Bezhin Lug. The title was chosen because the authors of the scenario sought to contrast an old Russian feudal village with the new kolkhoz. Turgeniev had written a story of life in the countryside entitled Bezhin Lug. The setting of Eisenstein's picture was to be the very spot where the events described by Turgeniev took place.
Eisenstein worked two years on his picture. Over two million rubles were spent on its production. After the failure of the first version, Eisenstein filmed the second version. But this too proved unsatisfactory, grossly distorting collective farm life.
What was the cause of Eisenstein's failure? Why was the leadership of Soviet cinematography forced to take the drastic step of discontinuing the further filming of the picture?
In the Land of Soviets an artist enjoys unlimited creative freedom. He is afforded all possibilities for work. The only demand which the people make upon him may be briefly formulated as follows: show us the truth of life in your works.
A recent visitor to the Soviet Union was the American director Frank Capra, who enjoys the reputation of ‘an independent director.’ When our directors asked him: ‘What does your independence consist of?’ Capra answered as follows:
‘My independence is a very relative concept. As long as I turn out pictures which enjoy a large success and yield heavy returns to our bosses I enjoy a comparatively free hand in the selection of subjects and actors. I am allowed to spend more money on the production of my picture than other directors. But the moment I make one unsuccessful or even just average picture, I shall forfeit my “independence.”’
In the Soviet Union the artist is not dependent on the box office. A proof of this is the fact that although two of Eisenstein's films (October and The Old and New) were not a financial success when Eisenstein again undertook to direct a picture he was assigned a sum that exceeded all normal appropriations for the production of even the most expensive pictures. And in spite of these tremendous expenditures, the shooting of Bezhin Lug had to be discontinued. What caused this decision?
Eisenstein's article published in this issue does much to explain the reasons which prompted the leaders of the motion picture industry to halt the production of the film. The chief reason which led to the discontinuance of Bezhin Lug was that it gave a distorted reflection of Soviet reality.
Lenin emphasised in one of his articles that when the author undertakes to tell about a subject which he does not know, the result is inartistic.
That is precisely what happened with Eisenstein's film. The Ukrainian director Alexander Devzhenko (who produced Arsenal, Zvenigora, The Soil, Aerograd) aptly remarked in this connection, ‘the subject of Bezhin Lug is unfamiliar to Eisenstein, a city man who does not know the country. Formalism often crops up when the author lacks knowledge of the life which he is portraying. I asked Eisenstein to show me the scenario. I know the countryside and could have given him advice. But he did not show it to me.’
These last words of the director Devzhenko furnish a direct clue to another source of Eisenstein's failure. The fact is that Eisenstein believed that he could work outside the collective of his comrades in the field of motion pictures. He considered himself above criticism, a master who was safeguarded against the possibilities of failure. A cardinal mistake of the entire motion picture collective and of the leadership of the industry lay in the fact that although here and there people felt that not all was well with Bezhin Lug, no one came to Eisenstein's aid with pointed criticism. The tremendous prestige attached to Eisenstein's name kept his comrades at a distance. They did not realise that ‘to spare and safeguard cadres by slurring over their mistakes is a sure way of ruining these very cadres’ (Stalin). The Central Committee of the Party had to intervene and only its fundamental criticism and assistance helped Comrade Eisenstein to see his mistakes.
These mistakes are most glaring in the first version of the film. But even in the second, revised version, the main defects of the director's creative method are plain enough.
In his article Eisenstein discloses many of his mistakes. He rightly remarks that they are mainly the result of his outlook, whose defects find their expression in artistic defects. Eisenstein's inclination to generalise, results, when the generalisations are drawn from isolated and exceptional facts, in false images which distort real life. His inclination to formalism results in emphasis of detail to the detriment of what is of chief importance. Take, for example, the inordinate space devoted to the fire which actually bears little connection to the development of the plot. The director takes long and careful shots of the smallest details of the fire, he does not overlook the rescue of pigeons from the roof and continuously toys with the episodes in the efforts to extinguish the fire.
His continued formalist approach led the director to ignore the actors and the acting. This resulted in the schematism and lifelessness of the main figures. A characteristic example is the fact that some of the shots were taken before the actors in the main parts had been chosen. Where people had to appear in the shots only their backs were shown.
The discontinuing of Bezhin Lug is a serious failure for Eisenstein. But we must not forget that this failure occurred to a director working in the U.S.S.R. and not in the capitalist world. There the failure of a picture spells the end or at any rate a very heavy setback to the further development and work of the artist. In the Land of Socialism matters are different. Here Eisenstein is given comradely assistance and encouragement. And the sharpest criticism of his work is merely the expression of the general desire of Soviet society to save the artist from new mistakes and to help him find the conditions which will enable him to produce a new valuable film portraying the political actuality. By choosing for the subject of the scenario of his new film events which are part of his experience, while profiting from the criticism of his method, Eisenstein will doubtless show that he remains a brilliant director and a credit to Soviet art.
'International Literature', 8, 1937