Biography of Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein was born in January, 1898 in Riga, Latvia. His father, Mikhail, was a famous architect at the time and came from a Jewish family, though he raised Sergei in the Russian Orthodox Christian tradition. (Later in life, Eisenstein became an atheist). Eisenstein studied engineering at the Petrograd Institute of Civil Engineering, but left in 1918 to join the Red Army in the revolution. He continued his career as an officer for a few years after the war before taking up a career in theater.

Eisenstein worked on several well-regarded theater productions for Proletkult, an experimental art institute in Moscow. During this period, Eisenstein directed his first short film, Glumov’s Diary (1923) and wrote Montage of Attractions, an influential theoretical essay. In 1925, Eisenstein was commissioned to direct a series of films commemorating the 20th anniversary of the unsuccessful revolution of 1905. Though he conceived this project as an eight-part series covering a wide range of events, production difficulties forced him to limit the project to only Battleship Potemkin. The same year he directed Strike, which follows the events of a 1903 factory strike in which the strikers were massacred by Tsarist soldiers.

These films were met with great acclaim in the Soviet Union and enabled Eisenstein to direct October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928) and The General Line (1929). He traveled to the United States and signed a contract to make a film with Paramount, but no film was produced as Eisenstein and studio executives failed to agree on a suitable project, and the deal faced opposition in the U.S. because of Eisenstein’s ties to communism.

Eisenstein's next attempted project was ¡Que Viva México!, an episodic film covering the entire history of Mexico from its ancient indigenous people to the present day. Once again, however, the film was abandoned after Stalin, suspicious of Eisenstein’s prolonged stay in North America, ordered Eisenstein back to the Soviet Union and the film’s financial backers pulled out. Eisenstein never personally finished the film. A 90-minute cut assembled by frequent Eisenstein collaborator Grigori Aleksandrov was released in 1979.

Eisenstein spent several years in limbo in the Soviet Union. Most of the film industry there was wary of working with him, because of his repeated production failures as well as his troubles with the government. He later came back into prominence with acclaimed films Alexander Nevsky (1938), Ivan the Terrible Part I (1944) and Part II (1945). Footage of the unfinished Part III was destroyed by the government for political reasons and Part II went unreleased in the Soviet Union until 1958. Eisenstein died of a heart attack on February 11, 1948.

Though married to filmmaker Pera Atasheva from 1934 to his death, there is some speculation that Eisenstein was, in fact, a gay man. His films and theoretical writings have remained influential on many filmmakers and scholars, and he is generally considered to be among the best and most innovative filmmakers of all time.

Study Guides on Works by Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein was commissioned by the Soviet government in 1925 to direct a film commemorating the 20th anniversary of the unsuccessful revolution of 1905. Eisenstein originally envisioned this project as an eight-part episodic film which...