Pioneer of montage and a staple of film courses around the world, Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein is revered as one of cinema’s founding fathers. So it’s no surprise that Russian officialdom in its crackdown on free expression and repressive stance on homosexuality has been touchy about Peter Greenaway’s depiction of the iconic figure in his new feature Eisenstein in Guanajuato, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival last month. The British auteur displays his typically transgressive irreverence in depicting the national hero’s tempestuous ten-day love affair with a male guide in Mexico, offending a Russia that previously lauded him for decimating capitalist vulgarity in his 1989 masterpiece The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. When we met up with Greenaway at the festival, he was in jocund, unapologetic form.
“When you go abroad, you become a different person”
“Putin has created this homophobia,” Greenaway said. “I have lots of friends in St Petersburg and Moscow and they don’t feel like this at all. It’s just a political and social phenomenon invented by a man who’s shit scared and wants to be in control, and doesn’t want to be regarded as a European anymore.” While the film didn’t rely on any Russian backing, Greenaway’s team approached the Russian film foundation for access to archive material for a second feature he hopes to shoot this year on Eisenstein’s time in Switzerland, The Eisenstein Handshakes, and their enthusiasm faltered as soon as details about Eisenstein in Guanajuato emerged. “When they retrospectively learned that we’d depicted a homosexual relationship in the first one they got scared,” he said.
Certainly, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is far from a conventional biopic. It hones in on Eisenstein’s time abroad working on his eventually abandoned project about the Mexican revolution ¡Que viva México!, which had been backed by left-wing American benefactor Upton Sinclair and his wife after Eisenstein struggled to get a film off the ground in Hollywood. Eisenstein’s relationship with the Sinclairs broke down amid Stalin’s suspicions he had deserted the USSR — and the Russian director’s distraction by more carnal pursuits. Greenaway makes production tensions mere background to the very personal tumult of Eisenstein’s intense affair with his guide Palomino Cañedo, to whom he lost his virginity at age 33. This is framed as nothing less than a personal revolution — the “ten days that shook Sergei Eisenstein” as Greenaway mischievously refers to them in a play on his commemoration of the Russian Revolution, October (Ten Days that Shook the World).
“Hollywood’s so coy. All the genitalia are hidden behind a pillow”
“I always felt Eisenstein’s first three films were very different from the last three — why? I think the answer to that is, when you go abroad, you become a different person,” said Greenaway, who believes the personal transformation Eisenstein underwent in Mexico turned him from the focus on mass action of Battleship Potemkin, Strike and October to a greater concern with the individual, as evidenced in Alexander Nevsky and the two-part Ivan the Terrible. “He was away from paranoia, from Stalinist persecution and really strange political eccentricities, and he was faced with a very brand new and different society. There’s a lot of evidence he freed up, and became much more empathetic to notions of the human condition.”
In its kinetic exuberance, Eisenstein in Guanajuato seeks to capture the force of passion that overwhelmed the Riga-born filmmaker. “Sergei must have been looking for the sexual experience,” says Greenaway. “He was very self-deprecating about his body and couldn’t possibly imagine anyone could love it. He thought he was a clown.” Finnish actor Elmer Bäck stars as the iconic director, and taps his theatre background to bring a boisterous physicality to his first major screen role, which demanded a frank approach to nudity. Greenaway with a mischievous glint recalls of casting him: “We said we need your heart, your mind, your body and your prick.”
The British auteur is disdainful of the hypocritical timidity he regards as standard in cinematic portrayals of sex: “Hollywood’s so coy. All the genitalia are hidden behind a pillow, or someone holds up a blanket just at the right minute. We’ve come through a sexual revolution — why are they still playing these silly games?” In pointed contrast, Eisenstein in Guanajuato dwells on the sexual act with sprightly raunchiness and disarming humour.
Exercising his penchant for visually opulent cinema of precise aesthetic symmetry (see, for instance, his elegantly composed A Zed & Two Noughts, about grieving twin zoologists), Greenaway makes Eisenstein’s bed the epicentre of the film. It stands regally in the middle of a vast hotel bedroom with an impressive glass and wrought-iron illuminated floor like a stage for the sexual deflowering that occurs at the exact half-way point, as Eisenstein overcomes his shyness to surrender himself to his desire (though amusingly not shedding his nervous urge to talk throughout the experience). Greenaway said of the scene: “It’s like the crown jewel in the middle.”
Death also takes centre stage, in the form of white skulls and other visual motifs taken from Mexico’s rich traditions of ritual and iconography surrounding the dead, and Guanajuato’s famed museum of mummies in which infant cadavers are dressed as saints to ease their passage to heaven and placate fears of mortality. “Eros and Thanatos are really at the centre of all cinema,” said Greenaway. “Beginnings and ends which are unknowable and unnegotiable are what fascinate us most of all. We use actors and actresses as our emissaries to go into this territory where perhaps we can’t go ourselves, or don’t want to go.” The implication is clear that Eisenstein losing his virginity was a form of death and rebirth.
The sense of earth-shattering tumult, and Eisenstein’s own spirit of technical experimentation, find form in interiors which warp and distort and a frame that often splits into three panels, all at a dizzying pace. “There’s a great delight in architectonic games,” said Greenaway. “My position, and I don’t mean it sexually, is very missionary. I want to proselytise the idea of a really imagistic cinema. I come from a country which has a very high regard for realism. You can’t make realism — it’s an absolutely ridiculous cul-de-sac. And why bother trying? God has done it already.”
Amid the kinetic rush of effects, the film is bursting with cinematic quotation. Eisenstein bounces on his bed in a nod to Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, while iconic sequences from Eisenstein’s own work, such as the Odessa steps sequence from Potemkin, are winkingly referenced. Such homage is not surprising as for all his irreverence, Greenaway deems Eisenstein “the greatest film practitioner we’ve ever seen”, having discovered him as an art student in London in the 1960s and felt an admiring kinship since. “Most art is about art, it’s not about life,” he said.
Considering Greenaway’s vaunted disregard for reality, is Russia right to put no stock in his portrayal of Eisenstein? The British auteur argues that any depiction of a historical figure is a subjective interpretation, and that Eisenstein’s struggles with his sexuality are well documented. He suggests the director’s marriage to his secretary Pera Atasheva was strictly one of convenience: “He said having sex with Pera was like having sex with his sister, and he avoided the situation. There was a new Stalin law which criminalised homosexuality, and there is a lot of evidence that he was very susceptible, and anxious about his sexuality.” Film historians have often pointed out that homosexual imagery is rife in Eisenstein’s films. “Have you seen Potemkin recently?” asks Greenaway. “It’s full of penises, shooting, ejaculating, and naked sailors. If you’re interested in queer theory then it’s a delight for you.” And if the national hero’s homeland is unhappy with his depiction, Greenaway throws down the gauntlet: “How is it that Russia has never made a good film about Eisenstein?”