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The Berlinale Blog: Ten days that shook Eisenstein

More Greenaway, less Eisenstein? Eve is over- and underwhelmed by British director Peter Greenaway's Competition film "Eisenstein in Guanajuato".

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In the late autumn of 1930, Russian film director and (co-)pioneer of the cinematic montage technique Sergei Eisenstein visited Mexico with funding put together by the leftwing American writer Upton Sinclair to gather material for a kind of socio-political-cultural travelogue epix (to be) entitled Que Viva Mexico! Although Eisenstein gathered enormous amounts of footage for the project, the film was never realized in its originally intended form and the director eventually returned to the Soviet Union mission unaccomplished.

Ten fictional days in this sojourn form the temporal basis for Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato, running in Competition. They start with a black and white shot of the eccentrically coiffed director on his way to Guanajuato. The screen fades to colour, splits into three, returns to black and white, brackets a couple of montaged shots from Eisenstein’s classic Battleship Potemkin and disgorges Eisenstein and his two companions on the steps of the hotel. Waiting to welcome them are Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo as well as Eisenstein’s swarthily groomed guide Palomino Cañedo. A trio of bristling bandits hovers in the background anticipating the possibility of kidnapping and ransom… and we’re off on a Greenaway extravaganza.

It’s not long before sex and nudity also make an appearance as Greenaway develops his narrative focus and the hitherto virginal Eisenstein is deflowered by Palomino on the anniversary of the Russian revolution. Roguishly quoting another of the director’s silent classics (October: Ten Days That Shook the World) there follow 10 days that literally shake Eisenstein before financial badgering from his sponsors and his lover’s marital obligations force him to leave Guanajuato – on Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

The furioso pace of the film’s opening 30 minutes are it’s main strength, with Greenaway’s amalgam of formal devices (sweeping round shots, careful wide-angle framing of lushly Mexican, baroque interiors, multi-layered imaging) invoking the multifaceted formal language that Eisenstein himself nurtured. Situated at the heart of this neo-expressionist force-de-force, however, the lengthy and sexually explicit scene in which Eisenstein is physically “unfrozen” fails to sustain the movie’s overreaching nexus of love and artistic growth. Greenaway seems unwilling to commit either to irony (a red flag in the director’s bottom) or passion, creating a conflict of style and content in the process. Although a visit to the town’s Museum of the Dead and the director’s nocturnal visit to the devastation of a local landslide are presumably intended to create the kind of tonal variety that (should) substantiate Eisenstein’s profound emotional awakening, these feel dutifully episodic rather than integral to the narrative.

Cinephiles are likely to welcome Greenaway’s con brio compression and expansion of a literally seminal moment in Eisenstein’s life (homosexuality was declared a crime in the Soviet Union in 1933) but when the effects dust settles, critical distance asserts itself – and with it the question of whether Greenaway’s view of a seminal director’s liberation is justified in contributing rather more to our understanding of Greenaway than Eisenstein.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato screens Feb 12, 13.00 (Zoo Palast); Feb 12, 18.00 (Friedrichstadt-Palast), Feb 15, 21.15 (Friedrichstadt-Palast)