New Eisenstein Biopic: Greenaway Goes Loco in Guanajuato

by David Robinson
  • Peter Greenaway has directed a new biopic, Eisenstein in Guanajuato
  • It’s far from faithful, playing fast, loose and salaciously with the facts
  • Film historian and critic David Robinson saw its Berlinale première
  • He’s incensed about the film’s message and rewriting of history

Unlucky in Mexico

Poor Eisenstein. Everything went so well until 1931–2 and his Mexican adventure. After that, returning to the USSR, the remaining sixteen years of his career were to be crippled, first by Boris Shumyatsky, the new Stalinist head of the Soviet film industry, and in his turn (after Shumyatsky was liquidated as a traitor) by Stalin himself. Now, posthumously, comes Peter Greenaway, with Eisenstein in Guanajuato, launched at the 2015 Berlinale.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015, directed by Peter Greenaway) poster
Greenaway’s film purports to show an episode in the shooting of Eisenstein’s never-completed ¡Que viva México! Eisenstein had secured (inadequate) funding for the film from the leftist American writer Upton Sinclair. After a year of filming, Sinclair (incited by his wife and brother-in-law) withdrew his support and reclaimed all the material that had been shot. Eisenstein was never to be permitted to edit or even see his own film again. It was a disappointment that had serious effects on his physical and psychological health.

Luis Alberti, Peter Greenaway and Elmer Bäck, director and stars of Eisenstein in Guanajuato, at the Berlinale 2015 première

Luis Alberti, Peter Greenaway and Elmer Bäck, director and stars of Eisenstein in Guanajuato, at the Berlinale 2015 première

From the start, Greenaway clearly signals that his concern is in no respect historical truth. In comparison with the CGI hotel he invents for depressed post-revolutionary Guanajuato, the Grand Budapest would hardly pass for a B&B. Here Eisenstein can pick up a phone and dial Moscow directly – a feat which would still not be possible even half a century later. People still refer to Petrograd/Leningrad as Saint Petersburg and Eisenstein, who did not drink, gets so sloshed that he vomits over his nice white suit. The extent of his father’s respect of Jewish custom is anyone’s guess, but Greenaway opts to have his Eisenstein (the Finnish Elmer Bäck) proudly flaunt a luxuriant foreskin. Eisenstein’s inseparable collaborators, companions and confidants on his travels were his assistant/co-director Grigori Alexandrov and cameraman Eduard Tisse: in the film they are briefly glimpsed as shadowy unspeaking extras (though in fact Alexandrov was sick at the time, and did not get to Guanajuato).

The Eisenstein who arrives at this Greenawayjuato is a naïve Soviet comrade, with one suit, no money, carefully guarding his boots, dazzled by this new world with such novelties as showers in hotel bathrooms. This would hardly have been the style of the sophisticated and cosmopolitan Sergei Mikhailovich. As the world-famed director of Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928) he had been away from the USSR for more than two years. His travels had started with eight months in Paris, Berlin, London and other West European capitals where he was lionised by the top cultural personalities though sometimes bundled out by fearful police and politicians. From Europe he had moved on to eight months in Hollywood, with a lucrative Paramount contract and friendship with Chaplin. Since then he had already been a year in Mexico – a country which had a life-long attraction for him: Guanajuato was a delayed but prime destination, on account of its celebrated museum of mummies, which is vividly and effectively recorded by Greenaway.

The historic Eisenstein was himself fearful of his manic energy for non-stop work, and he seems to have shot a lot of material on this brief trip. Yet Greenaway’s Eisenstein is never seen working or in any proximity to film, camera or his unit. When he is not in bed he is poncing and chattering around the room clad only in his revealing but anachronistic short pyjama tops.

Elmer Bäck in Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015), directed by Peter Greenaway

Elmer Bäck as Eisenstein, not busy working

The real focus of Greenaway’s interest is in effect his premise that it was in Guanajuato that Eisenstein, at 33 years old, lost his virginity – an event portrayed in unsparing detail. Paraphrasing the secondary title of October, Greenaway offers as his own alternative title: “Ten Days that Shook Eisenstein”.

Sergeï Eisenstein and Grigori Alexandrov on the set of ¡Que viva México!, circa 1930–1932

Eisenstein (actually working) and Grigori Alexandrov on the set of ¡Que viva México!

As a matter of historic fact, we have Eisenstein’s own word that he did indeed fall in love in Guanajuato, and that the brief affair was consummated. The object seems to have been Jorge Palomino y Cañedo (played in the film by Luis Alberti), a young and happily married historian, whom Eisenstein had probably met in Mexico City, but who obligingly came along as a voluntary guide since he happened to be a native of Guanajuato. Eisenstein himself excitedly announced the affair in a letter, still extant, to his confidante (and from 1934 his wife) Pera Atasheva. Much of the letter is now obscure – only Eisenstein and perhaps Atasheva could have fully understood its complexities. Masha Salazkina in her book In Excess: Sergei Eisenstein’s Mexico (2009) makes a brave attempt at analysing it, in relation to Eisenstein’s public writings and his extraordinary erotic drawings which, far from pornography, are complex if often comic visual essays on human sexuality. Writing on 25th November 1931, Eisenstein tells Pera about his new passion (without revealing the name, though he promises to send her a photograph) and marvels that since the evening of two days before he has been happy and that “the psychological results of this should be huge.”

Salazkina (and Greenaway in her trail) take this to mean that till this point he has been inhibited to the point of celibacy. This, for a start, would have been unlikely. Since teenage he had moved in a Russian theatrical world which was no less relaxed about sexuality than any other. Moreover, from 1922 to 1933 homosexuality was decriminalised, even if not universally favoured, in the Soviet Union, and the major cities had recognised and busy cruising locales. Eisenstein was lively, sociable, of manic energy and insatiable curiosity and knew what it was all about. The letter clearly indicates that he had no inhibitions about sex itself, though he did feel a rational need to resist confusing sexual encounters with sentimental relationships, physical pleasures with love. He was certainly in love with the glamorous Grisha Alexandrov, who was 19, four years Eisenstein’s junior, when they met but who was most likely unassailably heterosexual. With Cañedo he finally felt able to combine sex and sentiment: he had, as he said in his letter, gone all the way.

Other parts of the letter unequivocally confirm this reading. He tells Atasheva that his previous “adventures” were: “…pure Don Juanism – ‘insecurity’ requiring constant ‘proofs’ of one’s powers – from this point of view most of my adventures were exactly that: the objects as such were hardly important (and besides how could this “importance” be developed in these objects when I only knew them for 15 minutes to 2 hours before intercourse. There was no time to fall in love.)”

When he elaborates that he: “…never went all the way with these love objects. I always broke things off half-way,” it is unlikely that he means coitus interruptus so much as the retreat from temptation to sentiment. He makes this even plainer: “…for ten years I have had the division of objects into physiological and sentimental levels: I sleep with the former but don’t ‘love’; the latter I ‘adore’ but don’t have coitus with. Here everything came together, seems like for the first time… You cannot even imagine what it means to suddenly take it to 100% after taking ten years of taking a certain fact to 99% and stopping there out of indecisiveness.”

Greenaway gives his silly Eisenstein no credit for this kind of sensitivity or self-analysis, and simply reads “going all the way” in its crudest significance as finally sacrificing virginity to buggery. There is no hint of affection or tenderness or even a kiss in the sexual encounter (apart from a trick with olive oil which is chic but probably messy in the outcome). Greenaway impertinently and inexplicably assumes that Eisenstein would be the passive partner (hardly in character), and shows him as victim of a too-evidently painful first-time penetration. When finished, Cañedo plants a small red flag in Eisenstein’s bleeding orifice. The Greenaway touch.

Greenaway assured the Berlin press that he has “…been studying Eisenstein all my life. I have investigated who he was, watched all his films, read everything he’d probably ever written (!), visited his library and been to places where he has filmed.” On the strength of this, some critics in Berlin reverentially called the film “scholarly”. However Screen Internationals critics’ jury voted it to bottom place in their assessment of the competing films; and the official jury discreetly ignored it.

Greenaway, undeterred, now plans a second Eisenstein film, this time about Eisenstein’s presence (with Alexandrov and Tisse) at the 1929 Congress of Independent Films at La Sarraz, Switzerland along with the likes of Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann and and Béla Balázs. So who will be the lucky man this time? The film establishment of Putin’s Russia, with its official homophobic policy and the popular view of the West as “Gayrop”, refused any collaboration with Eisenstein in Guanajuato, but have enthusiastically agreed to support this sequel – reassured, it is said, by assurances that this time all the fun will be heterosexual. Thus is history made.

Sergeï Eisenstein during the shooting of ¡Que viva México!, circa 1930–1932

One unlucky man: Eisenstein during the shooting of ¡Que viva México!

Postscript question one: Does it matter that Greenaway invents his own Eisenstein – in the traditional fashion of biopics?

Answer: Yes, it matters. Eisenstein was the greatest intellect ever to engage with film. His significance as film-maker, theorist, teacher, graphic designer cannot be overestimated. His writings – volumes of them still untranslated – leave much to explore. He has still the power to inspire. But film history becomes ever more elusive and it will be catastrophic if new generations’ first encounter with Eisenstein is in the shape of Greenaway’s idle and posturing virgin quean.

Postscript question two: Is the present writer prejudiced?

Answer: Yes, thank you!

I have had the privilege of knowing people who were close to Eisenstein, and who have bequeathed a very vivid, varied yet finally, consistent impression of the man he was. I was a close friend of his widow, Pera Atasheva, for the last eight years of her life (though it never seemed appropriate to speak of Sergei Mikhailovich’s sexuality). I knew Marie Seton, his first biographer, whom Pera laughed off as a love-lorn groupie, but who all the same knew him well and was a diligent student. My best and most open friends in the USSR in the ‘60s and ‘70s were the former FEKS boys – Yutkevich, Kozintsev and Trauberg – who had been close to him, still kept their regard and had privately done what they dared to defend him in the bad years. I knew Alexandrov and did not care for him. I have known Naum Kleiman – today without question the greatest authority on Eisenstein – since, as a young film student, he arrived at the Eisenstein apartment to help care for Pera in her ailing years, and to learn from her to decipher Eisenstein’s lightning cyrillic scribble. And it would be hard to better Ivor Montagu ‘s portrait in With Eisenstein in Hollywood (1968). None of these would recognise the Eisenstein they knew in Greenaway’s Guanajuato.

Afterthought: “But how was the movie, Mrs Lincoln?”

Aside from the mystery of why Greenaway should seek to diminish another film maker in this way, the film shows his own post-modern pictorialism still as ingenious, flashy and painstakingly wrought in his seventies. Intermittently he imposes triptych screens at the top of the frame, juxtaposing documentary images with his “recreations”, along with grainy extracts from Strike, Potemkin and October. And, despite the indignity of his role here, Bäck is an appealing and diligent actor.

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