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Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015)Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015)
Festival Spotlight
25 July 2016

On Eisenstein

For a director who made so few films, Sergei Eisenstein's body of work and the writings that accompanied it have been monumental in their influence over cinema. Two new films draw inspiration from both the man and a banned work in order to reflect on recent history and the creative genius of this wayward pioneer.

Laila Pakalnina's Dawn details the paranoid atmosphere of a collective farm in Soviet-occupied Latvia in the early 1960s. Like the characters in The Ear (1970), The Lives of Others (2006), Barbara (2012) and many other films set at the height of the Soviet government's intrusion into people's lives, paranoia abounds. Janis, a young worker denounces his father to the authorities. He, in turn, suffers at the hands of his family as a result of the betrayal.

Pakalnina's film is inspired by the mythic tale of Pavlik Morozov, a 13-year-old Russian boy who denounced his father in 1932 and was murdered as a result. The tale, which has since been debunked, was the subject of books, plays, songs, an opera and even a symphonic poem. It was also the basis of an unfinished film by Eisenstein, Bezhin Meadow (1937). Drawing its title from the Turgenev story, Eisenstein's film was meant to be the distillation of the myth into one, monumental shrine to the honest Stalinist worker - and therefore Stalin himself. However, the film didn't progress as planned, it was stopped before completion, Eisenstein even wrote a confessional apologia and the only print was destroyed. Remnants of the film have been salvaged over the years but what remains is an academic curiosity - around 35 minutes that adds up to a slideshow with the odd moving image.

Shot in stark black and white, and featuring a rich score by Vestards Simkus, Laila Pakalnina's film presents a sardonic account of how unbridled power, and fear of it, can seep into every aspect of public and private life. The updating of the Morozov myth works well and the visual style, with cutaways to pastoral life, echoes the style of Eisenstein's radical silent films.

The cinematographer Nestor Almendros saw in Eisenstein's montage style a marked homoeroticism. It obviously went unnoticed at the time. But with his latest project Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Peter Greenaway hones in on the director's ambiguous sexuality and its impact on his work.

At the end of 1930, Eisenstein travelled to Mexico with the grand ambition of producing a film that would enshrine Socialist values. The project never fully materialised and the filmmaker returned to Russia if not in disgrace then with the Soviet film community behaving less leniently towards him. Greenaway's film focuses on this brief foreign sojourn, the attempts Eisenstein made to realise his ambitions and what the director presents as his true sexual awakening.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato is unmistakeably a Greenaway film, featuring the director's fascination with sex and death, decay and the rot within us. But like his previous features - Nightwatching (2007) and Goltzius and the Pelican Company (2012) - of which this film makes up a triptych of artist studies, Greenaway also finds a way to meld his subject's visual style with his own. The result is visually dazzling, provocative and, like many of Greenaway's films, frequently hilarious.

Ian Haydn Smith

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