Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015)
Director Peter Greenaway considers Sergei Eisenstein to be his first cinematic hero. Here was a film pioneer whose use of silent montages revealed a means of presenting a story without being a slave to the narrative form. Greenaway, who has long argued that film has become little more than a medium used to illustrate text, delves deep into his cinematic bag of tricks to depict the Russian filmmaker’s ill-fated Que Viva Mexico. It's ironic then that Eisenstein in Guanajuato remains little more than a series of filmed conversations.
The film opens with Eisenstein and crew travelling towards the title city. A narrator describes the director’s career up to this point while images from his silent masterpieces, including October: Ten Days That Shook the World, flash across the screen. What follows, we are informed, may be viewed as the ten days that shook Eisenstein. For those unfamiliar with Greenaway’s work, the next ten minutes may shock them as well.
Elmer Bäck's constant disrobing tends to distract the viewer from hearing what his character has to say, including when he carries out a conversation with his penis. In fact Eisenstein seems to never stop talking. Even in the midst of losing his virginity to a Mexican guide, the two men debate the origins of syphilis.
Ultimately, Greenaway’s film recalls not so much the artistry of Eisenstein than the excesses of Ken Russell.
"What was fact, what was fiction? Who’s watching? Who was a witness? Who’s telling?
The letter to Stalin from Upton Sinclair is true as is the telegram from Stalin to Sinclair. The white suit and the red braces are true. Yellow pajamas need a citation. Very intimate confessional letters to Pera Atasheva can still be read. He wrote, “Just now I was madly in love for ten days and got everything that I desired. This will probably have huge psychological consequences”. It did.
It’s true he did not drink or smoke. He did have an undersexed father and an oversexed mother. It is true he tried to meet Freud but did not succeed. He certainly met Frida Kahlo, Jean Cocteau and Brecht and had Becket as a student. He certainly, like Fellini, scribbled and drew and sketched on hotel notepaper, and he often surprises us indeed with his blasphemous erotica. He enjoyed driving fast cars and accompanied his travels with innumerable books, requisitioning extra transport to carry them. He did have a weak heart and he did die banging on his dacha radiator hoping for help. He recorded as much with his last written words “At this moment I am having a heart attack. February 10 1948”, making him one of the very few people who could record their own demise. And he certainly was the greatest film-director we have ever known."
Though there are two scenes of Eisenstein filming Que Viva Mexico, neither match up to footage used in Grigori Aleksandrov's 1979 restored version.