Eisenstein Meets Greenaway in a Duel of Geniuses

DATELINE: Movie History Revised


Elmer Back as Sergei Einsenstein

Peter Greenaway may be one of those ignored geniuses of film.

He has been making movies for decades—with only a small, dedicated army of fans and critics in a state of constant amazement.

The United States is not where he usually finds an audience, but he has found the right material in Eisenstein in Guanajuato. Examining the manic Russian filmmaker, whose 10 Days That Shook the World and Battleship Potemkin remain landmarks, Greenaway has taken a biographical angle:  Played by Elmer Back, Einsentein, unhappy in Hollywood, went to Mexico where his life was shaken.

A Soviet superstar of movies, he was a Stalin favorite (whether he liked it or not). Soviet agents followed him everywhere, likely afraid he would defect to the West.

In Mexico, the exuberant director met a staid professor named Palamino (Luis Alberti) who served as his guide, and later lover. Their sex scenes defy the line between simulated and real in this film, making it not for everyone who may be squeamish.

With Prokofiev music, the film itself is breathtaking in its conception and realization. Greenaway uses the screen with imagery and metaphor that is totally absent from American films. The closest to this stunning movie is A Single Man, turning queer cinema into something more than a 90-minute cruise.

Einsenstein knew all the greats—and knew his métier among them. In Mexico for his epiphany he faced sex and death. Indeed, the Mexican holiday, Day of Death, may be the most apt metaphor for this film. Watching Eisenstein dance with a skeleton on an illuminated hotel floor is only one treat.

For those able to handle the subject, Sergei Eisenstein’s life will be a revelation.