Eisenstein was born to a middle-class family in Riga, Latvia (then part of the Russian Empire in the Governorate of Livonia), but his family moved frequently in his early years, as Eisenstein continued to do throughout his life. His father, Mikhail Osipovich Eisenstein was born to a German Jewish father who had converted to Christianity, Osip Eisenstein, and a mother of Swedish descent. His mother, Julia Ivanovna Konetskaya, was from a Russian Orthodox family. According to other sources, both of his paternal grandparents were of Baltic German descent. His father was an architect and his mother was the daughter of a prosperous merchant. Julia left Riga the same year as the Russian Revolution of 1905, taking Sergei with her to St. Petersburg. Her son would return at times to see his father, who joined them around 1910. Divorce followed and Julia left the family to live in France. Eisenstein was raised as an Orthodox Christian, but became an atheist later on.
At the Petrograd Institute of Civil Engineering, Sergei studied architecture and engineering, the profession of his father. In 1918 Sergei left school and joined the Red Army to serve the Bolshevik Revolution, although his father Mikhail supported the opposite side. This brought his father to Germany after the defeat of the Tsarist government, and Sergei to Petrograd, Vologda, and Dvinsk. In 1920, Sergei was transferred to a command position in Minsk, after success providing propaganda for the October Revolution. At this time, he was exposed to Kabuki theatre and studied Japanese, learning some 300 kanji characters, which he cited as an influence on his pictorial development. These studies would lead him to travel to Japan.
In 1920 Eisenstein moved to Moscow, and began his career in theatre working for Proletkult. His productions there were entitled Gas Masks, Listen Moscow, and Wiseman. Eisenstein would then work as a designer for Vsevolod Meyerhold. In 1923 Eisenstein began his career as a theorist, by writing The Montage of Attractions for LEF. Eisenstein's first film, Glumov's Diary (for the theatre production Wiseman), was also made in that same year with Dziga Vertov hired initially as an "instructor."
Strike (1925) was Eisenstein's first full-length feature film. The Battleship Potemkin (1925) was acclaimed critically worldwide. It was mostly his international critical renown which enabled Eisenstein to direct October (aka Ten Days That Shook The World) as part of a grand tenth anniversary celebration of the October Revolution of 1917, and then The General Line (aka Old and New). The critics of the outside world praised them, but at home, Eisenstein's focus in these films on structural issues such as camera angles, crowd movements, and montage brought him and like-minded others, such as Vsevolod Pudovkin and Alexander Dovzhenko, under fire from the Soviet film community, forcing him to issue public articles of self-criticism and commitments to reform his cinematic visions to conform to the increasingly specific doctrines of socialist realism.
In the autumn of 1928, with October still under fire in many Soviet quarters, Eisenstein left the Soviet Union for a tour of Europe, accompanied by his perennial film collaborator Grigori Aleksandrov and cinematographer Eduard Tisse. Officially, the trip was supposed to allow Eisenstein and company to learn about sound motion pictures and to present the famous Soviet artists in person to the capitalist West. For Eisenstein, however, it was also an opportunity to see landscapes and cultures outside those found within the Soviet Union. He spent the next two years touring and lecturing in Berlin, Zürich, London, and Paris. In 1929, in Switzerland, Eisenstein supervised an educational documentary about abortion directed by Tissé entitled Frauennot - Frauenglück.
In late April 1930, Jesse L. Lasky, on behalf of Paramount Pictures, offered Eisenstein the opportunity to make a film in the United States. He accepted a short-term contract for $100,000 and arrived in Hollywood in May 1930, along with Alexandrov and Tisse.
Eisenstein proposed a biography of munitions tycoon Sir Basil Zaharoff and a film version of Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, and more fully developed plans for a film of Sutter's Gold by Jack London, but on all accounts failed to impress the studio's producers. Paramount then proposed a movie version of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. This excited Eisenstein, who had read and liked the work, and had met Dreiser at one time in Moscow. Eisenstein completed a script by the start of October 1930, but Paramount disliked it completely and, additionally, found themselves intimidated by Major Frank Pease, president of the Hollywood Technical Director's Institute. Pease, an anti-communist, mounted a public campaign against Eisenstein. On October 23, 1930, by "mutual consent," Paramount and Eisenstein declared their contract null and void, and the Eisenstein party were treated to return tickets to Moscow at Paramount's expense.
Eisenstein was thus faced with returning home a failure. The Soviet film industry was solving the sound-film issue without him and his films, techniques, and theories were becoming increasingly attacked as 'ideological failures' and prime examples of formalism. Many of his theoretical articles from this period, such as Eisenstein on Disney, have surfaced decades later as seminal scholarly texts used as curriculum in film schools around the world.
Eisenstein and his entourage spent considerable time with Charlie Chaplin, who recommended that Eisenstein meet with a sympathetic benefactor in the person of American socialist author Upton Sinclair. Sinclair's works had been accepted by and were widely read in the USSR, and were known to Eisenstein. The two had mutual admiration and between the end of October 1930 and Thanksgiving of that year, Sinclair had secured an extension of Eisenstein's absences from the USSR, and permission for him to travel to Mexico. The trip to Mexico was for Eisenstein to make a film produced by Sinclair and his wife, Mary Craig Kimbrough Sinclair, and three other investors organized as the "Mexican Film Trust".
On November 24, 1930, Eisenstein signed a contract with the Trust "upon the basis of his desire to be free to direct the making of a picture according to his own ideas of what a Mexican picture should be, and in full faith in Eisenstein's artistic integrity." The contract also stipulated that the film would be "non-political," that immediately available funding came from Mary Sinclair in an amount of "not less than Twenty-Five Thousand Dollars," that the shooting schedule amounted to "a period of from three to four months," and most importantly that "Eisenstein furthermore agrees that all pictures made or directed by him in Mexico, all negative film and positive prints, and all story and ideas embodied in said Mexican picture, will be the property of Mrs. Sinclair..." A codicil to the contract allowed that the "Soviet Government may have the [finished] film free for showing inside the U.S.S.R." Reportedly, it was verbally clarified that the expectation was for a finished film of about an hour's duration.
By 4 December, Eisenstein was en route to Mexico by train, accompanied by Aleksandrov and Tisse. Later he produced a brief synopsis of the six-part film which would come, in one form or another, to be the final plan Eisenstein would settle on for his project. The title for the project, ¡Que viva México!, was decided on some time later still. While in Mexico Eisenstein mixed socially with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Eisenstein admired these artists and Mexican culture in general, and they inspired Eisenstein to call his films "moving frescoes". The Left U.S. film community eagerly followed Eisenstein's progress within Mexico as is chronicled within Chris Robe's book Left of Hollywood: Cinema, Modernism, and the Emergence of U.S. Radical Film Culture.
After a prolonged absence, Stalin sent a telegram expressing the concern that Eisenstein had become a deserter. Under pressure, Eisenstein blamed Mary Sinclair's younger brother, Hunter Kimbrough, who had been sent along to act as a line producer, for the film's problems. Eisenstein hoped to pressure the Sinclairs to insinuate themselves between him and Stalin, so Eisenstein could finish the film in his own way. The furious Sinclairs shut down production and ordered Kimbrough to return to the United States with the remaining film footage and the three Soviets to see what they could do with the film already shot, estimates ranging from 170,000 lineal feet with Soldadera unfilmed, to an excess of 250,000 lineal feet.
For the unfinished filming of the "novel" of Soldadera, without incurring any cost, Eisenstein had secured 500 soldiers, 10,000 guns, and 50 cannons from the Mexican Army, but this was lost due to Sinclair's cancelling of production. When Eisenstein arrived at the American border, a customs search of his trunk revealed sketches and drawings of Jesus caricatures amongst other lewd pornographic material. His re-entry visa had expired, and Sinclair's contacts in Washington were unable to secure him an additional extension. Eisenstein, Aleksandrov, and Tisse were allowed, after a month's stay at the U.S.-Mexico border outside Laredo, Texas, a 30-day "pass" to get from Texas to New York, and thence depart for Moscow, while Kimbrough returned to Los Angeles with the remaining film.
Eisenstein toured the American South, on his way to New York. In mid-1932, the Sinclairs were able to secure the services of Sol Lesser, who had just opened his distribution office in New York, Principal Distributing Corporation. Lesser agreed to supervise post-production work on the miles of negative—at the Sinclairs' expense—and distribute any resulting product. Two short feature films and a short subject—Thunder Over Mexico based on the "Maguey" footage, Eisenstein in Mexico, and Death Day respectively—were completed and released in the United States between the autumn of 1933 and early 1934. Eisenstein never saw any of the Sinclair-Lesser films, nor a later effort by his first biographer, Marie Seton, called Time in the Sun released in 1940. He would publicly maintain that he had lost all interest in the project. In 1978, Gregori Aleksandrov released - with the same name in contravention to the copyright - his own version, which was awarded with the Honorable Golden Prize at the 11th Moscow International Film Festival in 1979. Later, in 1998, Oleg Kovalov edited in a free version the film calling it "Mexican Fantasy".
Eisenstein's foray into the west made the staunchly Stalinist film industry look upon him with a suspicion that would never completely disappear. He apparently spent some time in a mental hospital in Kislovodsk in July 1933, ostensibly a result of depression born of his final acceptance that he would never be allowed to edit the Mexican footage. He was subsequently assigned a teaching position with the film school GIK (now Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography) where he had taught earlier and in 1933 and 1934 was in charge of writing curriculum. In 1934, Eisenstein married filmmaker and writer Pera Atasheva (born Pearl Moiseyevna Fogelman; dates, 1900–65) and remained married until his death in 1948, though there has long been some speculation about his sexual orientation.
Then, in 1935, he was assigned another project, Bezhin Meadow, but it appears the film was afflicted with many of the same problems as ¡Que viva México!. Eisenstein unilaterally decided to film two versions of the scenario, one for adult viewers and one for children; failed to define a clear shooting schedule; and shot film prodigiously, resulting in cost overruns and missed deadlines. Boris Shumyatsky finally called a halt to the filming and cancelled further production. The thing which appeared to save Eisenstein's career at this point was that Stalin ended up taking the position that the Bezhin Meadow catastrophe, along with several other problems facing the industry at that point, had less to do with Eisenstein's approach to filmmaking as with the executives who were supposed to have been supervising him. Ultimately this came down on the shoulders of Shumyatsky, who in early 1938 was denounced, arrested, tried and convicted as a traitor, and shot. (The production executive at Film studio Mosfilm, where Meadow was being made, was also replaced, but without further executions.)
Eisenstein was thence able to ingratiate himself with Stalin for 'one more chance', and he chose, from two offerings, the assignment of a biopic of Alexander Nevsky, with music composed by Sergei Prokofiev. This time, he was assigned a co-scenarist, Pyotr Pavlenko, to bring in a completed script; professional actors to play the roles; and an assistant director, Dmitri Vasilyev, to expedite shooting.
The result was a film critically well received by both the Soviets and in the West, which won him the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Prize. It was an obvious allegory and stern warning against the massing forces of Nazi Germany, well played and well made. The script had Nevsky utter a number of traditional Russian proverbs, verbally rooting his fight against the Germanic invaders in Russian traditions. This was started, completed, and placed in distribution all within the year 1938, and represented not only Eisenstein's first film in nearly a decade but also his first sound film.
Within months of its release, Stalin entered into a pact with Hitler, and Nevsky was promptly pulled from distribution. Eisenstein returned to teaching and was assigned to direct Richard Wagner's Die Walküre at the Bolshoi Theatre. After the outbreak of war with Germany in 1941, Nevsky was re-released with a wide distribution and earned international success. With the war approaching Moscow, Eisenstein was one of many filmmakers evacuated to Alma-Ata, where he first considered the idea of making a film about Czar Ivan IV. Eisenstein corresponded with Prokofiev from Alma Ata, and was joined by him there in 1942. Prokofiev composed the score for Eisenstein's film and Eisenstein reciprocated by designing sets for an operatic rendition of War and Peace that Prokofiev was developing.
Eisenstein's film, Ivan The Terrible, Part I, presenting Ivan IV of Russia as a national hero, won Joseph Stalin's approval (and a Stalin Prize), but the sequel, Ivan The Terrible, Part II was criticized by various authorities and would go unreleased until 1958. All footage from the still incomplete Ivan The Terrible, Part III was confiscated, and most of it was destroyed (though several filmed scenes still exist today).
Eisenstein's health was also failing. He was struck by a serious heart attack on February 2, 1946, and spent much of the following year recovering. He died of another heart attack at the age of 50. He was found on the floor of his Moscow flat on the morning of February 11, 1948. The body lay in state in the Hall of the Cinema Workers, beneath a gold-embroidered velvet pall and surrounded by a profusion of flowers, before being cremated on February 13. The ashes were buried in the snow-covered ground of the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.
Eisenstein was a pioneer in the use of montage, a specific use of film editing. He and his contemporary, Lev Kuleshov, two of the earliest film theorists, argued that montage was the essence of the cinema. His articles and books—particularly Film Form and The Film Sense—explain the significance of montage in detail.
His writings and films have continued to have a major impact on subsequent filmmakers. Eisenstein believed that editing could be used for more than just expounding a scene or moment, through a "linkage" of related images. Eisenstein felt the "collision" of shots could be used to manipulate the emotions of the audience and create film metaphors. He believed that an idea should be derived from the juxtaposition of two independent shots, bringing an element of collage into film. He developed what he called "methods of montage":
Eisenstein taught film-making during his career at GIK where he wrote the curricula for the directors' course; his classroom illustrations are reproduced in Vladimir Nizhniĭ's Lessons with Eisenstein. Exercises and examples for students were based on rendering literature such as Honoré de Balzac's Le Père Goriot. Another hypothetical was the staging of the Haitian struggle for independence as depicted in Anatolii Vinogradov's The Black Consul, influenced as well by John Vandercook's Black Majesty.
Lessons from this scenario delved into the character of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, replaying his movements, actions, and the drama surrounding him. Further to the didactics of literary and dramatic content, Eisenstein taught the technicalities of directing, photography, and editing, while encouraging his students' development of individuality, expressiveness, and creativity. Eisenstein's pedagogy, like his films, were politically charged and contained quotes from Vladimir Lenin interwoven with his teaching.
In his initial films, Eisenstein did not use professional actors. His narratives eschewed individual characters and addressed broad social issues, especially class conflict. He used stock characters, and the roles were filled with untrained people from the appropriate classes; he avoided casting stars. Eisenstein's vision of communism brought him into conflict with officials in the ruling regime of Joseph Stalin. Like many Bolshevik artists, Eisenstein envisioned a new society which would subsidize artists totally, freeing them from the confines of bosses and budgets, leaving them absolutely free to create, but budgets and producers were as significant to the Soviet film industry as the rest of the world. Due to the fledgling war, the revolution-wracked and isolated new nation didn't have the resources to nationalize its film industry at first. When it did, limited resources—both monetary and equipment—required production controls as extensive as in the capitalist world.Two Stalin Prizes – 1941 for the film Alexander Nevsky (1938), 1946 for the 1st series of the film "Ivan the Terrible" (1944)
Honored Artist of the RSFSR (1935)
Order of Lenin (1939) – for the film "Alexander Nevsky" (1938)
Order of the Badge of Honour
1923 Дневник Глумова (Glumov's Diary) (short)
1925 Стачка (Strike)
1925 Броненосец Потёмкин (The Battleship Potemkin)
1927 Октябрь «Десять дней, которые потрясли мир» (October: Ten Days That Shook the World)
1929 Старое и новое «Генеральная линия» (The General Line aka "Old And New")
1929 Frauennot – Frauenglück (Misery and Fortune of Women)
1930 Romance sentimentale (France)
1931 El Desastre en Oaxaca (Mexico)
1932 Да здравствует Мексика! (¡Que viva México! released in 1979)
1937 Бежин луг (Bezhin Meadow)
1938 Александр Невский (Alexander Nevsky)
1944 Иван Грозный 1-я серия (Ivan The Terrible, Part I)
1945 Иван Грозный 2-я серия (Ivan The Terrible, Part II)
Selected articles in: Christie, Ian; Taylor, Richard, eds. (1994), The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896–1939, New York, New York: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-05298-X .
Eisenstein, Sergei (1949), Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, New York: Hartcourt ; translated by Jay Leyda.
Eisenstein, Sergei (1942) The Film Sense, New York: Hartcourt; translated by Jay Leyda.
Eisenstein, Sergei (1959), Notes of a film director, Foreign Languages Pub. House; translated by X. Danko Online version
Eisenstein, Sergei (1972), Que Viva Mexico!, New York: Arno, ISBN 978-0-405-03916-4 .
Eisenstein, Sergei (1994) Towards a Theory of Montage, British Film Institute.
In Russian, and available online
Эйзенштейн, Сергей (1968), "Сергей Эйзенштейн" (избр. произв. в 6 тт), Москва: Искусство , Избранные статьи.
The Secret Life of Sergei Eisenstein (1987) by Gian Carlo Bertelli
Eisenstein (film) (2000) by Renny Bartlett, "a series of loosely connected (and unevenly acted) theatrical sketches whose central theme is the director's shifting relationship with the Soviet government" focusing on "Eisenstein the political animal, gay man, Jewish target and artistic rebel".
Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015) by Peter Greenaway.