The Mistakes of Bezhin Lug

Sergei Eisenstein

How could it happen that ten years after the triumph of The Cruiser Potemkin I should meet with the failure of Bezhin Lug? What caused catastrophe to overtake the picture I had worked on for over two years? What was the mistaken viewpoint which, despite honesty of feelings and devotion to work, brought the production to a perversion of reality, making it politically unsubstantial and consequently in artistic?

I have asked myself this question many times, and after repeated self-examination I begin to see it and to understand it.

The mistake is rooted in one deep-seated intellectual and individualist illusion, an illusion which, beginning with small things, can subsequently lead to big mistakes and tragic outcomes. It is an illusion which Lenin constantly decried, an illusion with Stalin tirelessly exposes -- the illusion that one may accomplish truly revolutionary work ‘on one's own,’ outside the fold of the collective outside of a single iron unity with the collective.

This is the source of my mistake. and this is the first thing I must realise in my serious effort to explain the fundamental shortcomings of both my present and previous work.

This intellectual illusion was the main cause of mistakes and quixotic digression from the right way of presenting questions and answering them. These individual digressions result in the political distortion of the events portrayed and a wrong political interpretation of the subject.

Unripened revolutionary feelings, which should have been replaced long ago by disciplined Bolshevik consciousness is the source of error that, subjectively mistaken, become objectively harmful, despite affirmative intentions and purposes.

This explains what happened to me in my understanding of realism.

By turn of mind I am much given to generalisation. But is it that generalisation with the Marxist doctrine of realism teaches us to understand? No. For in my work generalisation destroys the individual. Instead of being derived through the concrete and the particular, generalisation trials off into detached abstraction. This was not the case in Potemkin. Its power lay precisely in the fact that through this one episode I succeeded in giving a generalised presentation of the Revolution of 1905, of the ‘dress rehearsal’ for the October Socialist Revolution. This episode embodied all that was typical of that phase in the history of the revolutionary struggle. And the episode itself was typical in itself and its interpretation proved characteristic of the struggle as a whole. This was largely facilitated by the fact that Potemkin was originally conceived as an episode in a large epic of 1905 and subsequently became an independent picture which absorbed the entire complex of feelings and sounds that were intended for a panorama.

This did not happen with Bezhin Lug. The very episode which provides its basis -- a dramatic episode -- is in no way characteristic. A kulak father murders his son, a Pioneer; it is a possible episode, but not a typical one. It is on the contrary exceptional, unique and non-characteristic. However, when it is placed at the centre of the scenario it acquires an independent, self-sufficient generalised meaning. This anomaly distorts the actual portrayal of the Civil War in the countryside, obscuring it with morbid pictures of a father ‘executing’ his son which corresponds more to the subject of the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac by Abraham than to the subjects which should interest our audience in connection with the last battles for the final consolidation of the victorious collective farm system. On this account the first version of the scenario was utterly unsatisfactory since it treated this episode as basic and central.

In the second version of the scenario instead of making the drama between father and son a ‘thing in itself,’ we tried to give it as one episode in the general course of the class struggle in the village. This was not done thoroughly and consistently. There was no complete break with the original concept of the scenario or with the director's interpretation.

The socially false emphasis in the situation inevitably led to a false psychological interpretation. The psychological problem of the father who kills his son became the centre of attention. And this generalised problem thrust into the background the main task -- the portrayal of the struggle of the kulaks against the collective farms. The situation is solved in psychological abstraction, that bears no connection to a realistic investigation of actuality.

The first version deprives the father of all human elements; the father beast is stilted and unconvincing. The second version goes to the other extreme: in depicting the ‘human drama’ of the son-killer it loses sight of the class hatred of the kulak, whose rabid fury in the struggle against Socialism does not stop at the murder of his own son.

This psychological conception, abstracted from reality, leads to political looseness; hatred for the enemy disappears, psychological nuances reduce the subject to that of a father's murder of his son ‘in general.’

Mistakes of generalisation, divorced from the reality of the particular occur just as glaringly in the methods of presenting the subject.

The first mistake is the detachment of the idea from its concrete carrier, the character who embodies it in the film.

And this results in the underestimation of the human element and a negligent attitude towards the creator of the human image in the picture -- the actor.

Hence the attention devoted to the people is not determined by the importance of their ideological role, but by the interest in them as personalities.

The beast image of the kulak thrusts itself into the foreground out of all proportion. The head of the political department is blurred, pale and rhetorical.

And at the same time the hero of the film -- the village Pioneer -- is developed out of all proportion to his real social importance. This results in the impression that the class war in the village is the work of the Pioneers alone and in the picture, of one Pioneer singlehanded (especially in the first version).

The same occurs in the artistic mounting of the film. Since attention is not fully centred on man, on his character, on his action, the role of accessory and auxiliary means becomes excessive. Hence the hypertrophy of the settings: the den instead of a hut, the distorted foreshortening in the camera shots and deformed lighting effects. Decorations, scenic effects, lighting -- the setting instead of the actor. The same applies to the characters; the image displaces the actor. It is no longer a living face but a mask, the extremes of generalised ‘typification’ divorced from the living face, a static image which resembles a frozen gesture.

These elements which were justly subjected to severe criticism, especially in the first version of the picture, are wholly the result of the postulates enumerated at the outset.

I write of all this in all sharpness, for during my two years of work, with the help of constant criticism on the part of the leadership of the cinematographic industry, I was moving in the direction of overcoming them. Those who saw all the fragments of the picture from the first scenes to the last, remarked that there was definite progress towards realism and the scenes ‘at night’ already testify to the fact that the author was abandoning the mistaken positions with which he began work on the first version.

Exaggerated generalisation, divorced from the particular and from reality, inevitably carried the whole system of images in the only possible direction -- towards mythologically stylised figures and associations. The full-blooded, many-sidedness of the tragic clash was reduced to a duo-tone melodrama in ‘black and white’. The reality of class conflict was transformed into a generalised cosmic struggle between ‘good and evil.’ It would be wrong to assume that the author consciously sought for a ‘myth.’ But we again see how failure to adhere consistently to the method of realist presentation and failure to master this method in practice becomes a matter beyond the bounds of aesthetics, and gives the composition a false political significance.

To whom, however, should the mistakes be attributed? And can it be said that political error is the result of a mistaken creative method? Of course not. The mistakes in the creative method nest in an error of a philosophic nature.

Philosophical errors lead to mistakes in method. Mistakes in method lead to objective political error and looseness.

If this can be logically accounted for, by every more or less intelligent artist in our country, including myself, to make me not only understand it fully, but feel it, required the harsh criticism to which the catastrophic Bezhin Lug was subjected in the press and in meetings of the workers of the Soviet cinematograph industry.

A detained scrutiny of all the consecutive scenes fully revealed to me the wrong approach to this subject. The criticism of my comrades helped me to see it.

What led to this? The failure to disclose the prime causes and the actual circumstances of the class struggle in the village. The situations in the picture did not follow from these causes and circumstances. On the contrary the situation in the picture were taken ‘by themselves.’ All this together could not produce the positive revolutionary effect which the author was striving for. On the contrary, mistakes of this sort are likely to produce the opposite effect objectively, and thereby to forfeit the sympathy of our spectators. Added to this the mistakes in method intensified these effects, and led to the unrealistic presentation of most of the material (with the partial exception of the last third of the new version, which shows an improvement in method). Even without viewing the entire material, one may draw this conclusion from the scenario and the story in the separate shots.

Political carelessness was displayed by all who took part in directing the work. The work had to be discontinued. Additional shots and retakes could not save it. By now I clearly see the error, not only of various parts but of the conception as a whole. This wrong conception was contained in the scenario, but the director's interpretation did not revolt against it and continued to repeat the initial mistakes even in the second version.

The discussion of Bezhin Lug leads to the further clarification of the fundamental question: how could it happen that glaring incorrectness of concept should have developed in the production?

I shall explain this plainly and directly. I was somewhat withdrawn from life. In these years I worked intently with the youth, devoting all my energies to teaching at the institutes of Cinematography. But this work was confined to the school walls, without a broad, creative contact with the masses, with reality.

The fifteenth anniversary of Soviet cinematography gave me a sharp jolt. In 1935 I eagerly plunged into the worked. But the tradition of introversion and isolation had already become rooted in me. I worked subjectively, within my own immediate group. I worked on a picture which was not of one flesh and blood with our Socialist reality, but was woven of abstract images of this reality. The results are obvious.

And now the development of severe criticism, truly Bolshevik criticism that is to say, criticism that is comradely and aimed assisting and correcting and not a destroying. The remarks of the workers of our collective at the Moscow film studio saved me from the worst -- saved me from becoming embittered as a result of my mistakes with Bezhin Lug. The collective helped first of all to see my mistakes, the mistakes of method and the mistakes of my social and political conduct. All this overshadow even the natural sorrow over the failure of two years of work to which I had devoted so much strength, love and effort. Why am I firm and confident? I understand my mistakes. I understand the meaning of the criticism, self-criticism, check-up and self-check-up which proceed throughout the country in connection with the decision of the plenum of the Central Committee of the C.P.S.U. in February 1937.

I keenly feel a profound need fully to correct the mistakes in my view point, to root a new self in me, a need for the complete mastery of Bolshevism of which Comrade Stalin spoke in the above plenum.

And in this light I am confronted with the question: how can I accomplish all this most fully, profoundly and responsibly?

Detached from concrete practical tasks and perspectives this is impossible. What must I do?

I must seriously work on my own outlook, and seek a profound Marxist approach to new subjects. Specially, I must study reality and new man. I must guide myself by a carefully selected and solid scenario and subject.

The subject of new work can only be of one type: heroic in spirit, militant in content and popular in its style. Regardless of whether it be material about 1917 or 1937, it will serve the victorious march of Socialism.

In preparing the creation of such a film I see the way whereby I shall rid myself of the last anarchistic traits of individualism in my outlook and creative method.

The party, the leadership of the cinematographic industry and the collective of the cinematographic workers will help me to create new, lifelike and necessary pictures.

‘International Literature’, 8, 1937, pp. 93-96.

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