Q: Eisenstein went to Mexico in 1931-32 to shoot his film ¡Que viva México!. What led up to this project, which was so far removed from all the work he had done in Russia previously?
A: In August 1929 Sergei Eisenstein received permission to leave the Soviet Union together with his assistant Grigorij Aleksandrov and his cameraman Eduard Tissé. They had just finished The Old and the New, a film propagandising Stalin's land reforms, which were the beginning of the forced collectivisation of agriculture in the Soviet Union. Eisenstein was invited on a lecture tour through Germany and France. He hoped that journey would give him an opportunity to meet intellectuals and film people in the West, and give him a chance to familiarise himself with the latest advances in sound film technology and production. The first stop was Berlin where they visited the UFA studios and observed Josef von Sternberg filming of the Blue Angel .
In September 1929 Eisenstein went to Switzerland to take part in a conference of avant-garde film-makers at La Sarraz near Lausanne. This event became a landmark in film history, as it was the first meeting of independent film-makers from all over Europe.
Then followed a visit to London where The Old and the New was shown at the London Film Society. Back in Paris he gave some very popular lectures, some of which caused political controversy and riots. During a lecture held at the Sorbonne, the police intervened and threatened Eisenstein with expulsion. It was in Paris in April 1930 that Eisenstein heard of the suicide of his friend, the poet Mayakovsky, in Moscow.
Then came an invitation by Jesse Lasky to visit the Paramount studios in Hollywood to explore the possibility of making his first sound film. In those days, Hollywood producers bought anybody they thought was worth something. They did not hesitate to invite Eisenstein, a known revolutionary and Bolshevik, thinking, no doubt, that they could harness his energies for their own ends. He went to the USA and started work on two scripts. One was based on Blaise Cendrar's novel Sutter’s Gold on the discovery of California. That was rejected straight away. Then he wrote a very complex epic script based on Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy which was even more anti-capitalist and was rejected as well. Finally he had a stroke of luck. Through the introduction of Charlie Chaplin he met the writer Upton Sinclair, who was known at the time for being a left wing author and social critic; one could describe him as the American Emile Zola. Sinclair admired Eisenstein, so did his wife Mary Craig, who took out a mortgage on their house and raised money between Pasadena friends to enable Eisenstein to fulfil his great dream - the making of a film in Mexico.
Eisenstein had no idea what to expect in Mexico, it was just all in the realm of imagination and fantastic expectations. For the Sinclairs it was a great personal risk. When Eisenstein, Aleksandrov and Tissé finally left for Mexico, they were accompanied by Mrs. Sinclair’s brother, Hunter Kimbrough, who was to be their financial controller. He was completely inexperienced in film production and an alcoholic, and so the film started burdened with potential problems and tensions. At the eve of the Great Depression, lack of finance loomed on the horizon.
Q: Why was Eisenstein so excited by the idea of making a film in Mexico, what did he know about the country?
A: Mexico was for Eisenstein and others of his generation a magically attractive subject; for him it had been an ideé fixe from early on. In 1921 when he was a young stage director for the Proletkult Theatre he created stage sets for a play based on Jack London's novel The Mexican. He was already sensitized for everything Mexican and became totally enthraled by his friend, Vladimir Mayakovsky, who had travelled there in 1925 and returned with raving stories about wilderness and mystery. Not only that there was also the visit of Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist, to Moscow in 1927; Rivera became a close friend of Eisenstein. Also the myth of the Mexican revolution of 1910 was much alive in the novels by B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which Eisenstein had read in their German originals.
I think one of the reasons people of this generation were fascinated by Mexico was that you would find there remnants of an ancient civilisation less fashionable and even more remote than that of Egypt. He was particularly inspired by a book of the American anthropologist, Anita Brenner, called Idols Behind Altars, which focused his research and provided much of the theoretical basis for his work.
Q: Much of what Eisenstein felt for ¡Que viva México! seems to contain a fascination with a people bound inextricably to their past. What were the historical threads he drew on for his film?
A: He wanted to discover what lay behind the ruins of ancient Mexico, the ancient civilisation of pyramids and gods, secrets still reverberating in the traditions of the Mexican Indians. Many traditions were still alive, so were language and music, rituals that surfaced in village celebrations. Parallel to that was another layer, that of Spanish Catholicism which had been brought from Europe by Hernando Cortez and his armies and subsequent generations of settlers. With them came the art and architecture of the Baroque and a particularly dark, fanatical kind of Jesuit Catholicism. All these imports created a peculiar amalgam with the original Maya traditions. Even today the Day of the Dead, or certain Easter celebrations such as the enactment of the crucifixion of Christ by peasants still reflect this peculiar mixture of Christian and ancient mythologies. This was what fascinated Eisenstein when he travelled extensively through Mexico when he discovered those traces and connections and filmed them. He worked mostly on the Yucatan Peninsula, the Isthmus and the hacienda Tetlapayac in the province of Hidalgeo north of Mexico City. In these three areas he located the episodes of his film.
Q: Did Eisenstein have a political agenda which he wanted to put forward in his film?
A: One aspect that attracted Eisenstein to Mexico was that the country had at post-revolutionary government, which pursued a form of popular front politics that aimed for the modernization of society. This was reflected in a very active art scene and spectacular public art works by the three muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco. These Mexican artists introduced Eisenstein to a lot of intimate cultural and socio- political detail, their own vision for their people and of course the living myth of the Mexican revolution which had destroyed the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Eisenstein was well informed when he created in his film ¡Que viva México! one episode entitled Maguey which is an enactment of one such revolutionary moment. Yet Eisenstein wanted ¡Que viva México! to speak for all humanity, for him Mexico was the great metaphor. All happens in a seemingly historical timelessness, but there is a constant undercurrent of references to the Mexican revolution which produces a particular pathos. I think the problems which later arose between Upton Sinclair and the other backers he had brought in, were that they lacked sympathy with the political line the film was taking.
Q: How does ¡Que viva México! stand as part of the whole body of Eisenstein's work?
A: ¡Que viva México!, when you see it within the total oeuvres of Eisenstein, has a special position. It is unlike his previous films and even less like those that followed. In its visual conception and complex construction of archetypal imagery, it is most probably closest to Strike of 1925, his first feature. It seems that the film Bezhin Meadow of 1936/37 contained a great deal of the epic elements and the acting style Eisenstein had developed in Mexico. Unfortunately Stalin had this film banned and it got destroyed.
Q: How would you describe it then?
A: The film evades categorisation. One could describe it as a documentary drama. There are narrative sequences of a completely fictional nature. There are others using regular Mexican events in a kind of documentary form. The director’s very strong stylistic sense and formal domination influenced, changed and formed events in a way which would produce a particular geometry within the film frame and accumulate a specific visual power, which removed the action from its realistic basis.
In a way it was the concept of a feature film director who imposed his vision on reality so that the contrasts between enactment and transformed reality were in constant dramatic interaction. The contrasting elements choreographed by Eisenstein, resulted in a rich but highly disciplined construction which would have been harnessed and balanced in the final montage. Nothing like this existed before, either in the directors own oeuvres, or elsewhere in the history of the cinema. It took perhaps the generation of the 1950s and 60s and the directors of the French nouveau vague, Godard, Melville and others to open up these new areas of film- making. Our generation, which has access to the achievements of the nouveau vague, and has seen the American underground films and contemporary film and video experiments - these very subjective, sometimes self-indulgent works - may be the first to fully understand Eisenstein’s intentions. He questioned, as we still do, the conventions of film making and the expectations of cinema audiences.
Q: How did the project, the production itself begin? What was the process?
A: We know that Eisenstein's travels in Mexico started as a grand improvisation. The first reels shot by Tissé were quite impressionistic and one feels that Eisenstein was still searching for his film. For an observer like Kimbrough, the producer, it was a terrifying thing as they meandered through the country - seemingly aimlessly. They put up their tripod here and there to shoot scenes that fitted into the director's scheme of things but did not exist at this point in the form of a concrete script.
Eisenstein knew perfectly well that he would use these materials in the final montage but did not, at this point, know exactly how. For somebody used to the formalities of a Hollywood studio production, this may have been easily misunderstood as a waste of time and money. Eisenstein was in a state of creative euphoria. He had fallen in love with Mexico and its people. He was completely under the spell of the country and created some of the greatest images not of his career and of cinema history. He was in a state of high excitement and creative inspiration and, as inspired people often are, considered sometimes irrational and difficult. The resulting imagery, the scenes that have survived and which I want new audiences to see, are charged with an extraordinary intensity and deep emotion. This material breezes an intense sensuality. One can see in his rushes how Eisenstein developed scenes and collected his images. Accusations which were made later, that he had worked in an unplanned fashion are simply not true. As the film historian Jay Leyda showed us in his study reels Eisenstein pursued a very strong concept. He pursued his film making with great self-discipline and economy limiting the number of takes to the barest minimum. Whenever a consignment of fresh negatives arrived from Mexico in Hollywood to be processed there, it was viewed by the Sinclairs and some advisers from the industry. They couldn't make head or tail of the rushes, so by the end of 1931 Sinclair and the co-financiers who had expected something like a conventional melodrama were increasingly disappointed.
Q: How did the production come to an end? What ended the euphoria of this great creative phase in Eisenstein's life?
A: The Sinclairs saw their money leaking away and were not able to raise more funds. The production had started with a budget of twenty-five thousand dollars, an amount which was used up quite quickly. Eisenstein asked for more money and the budget was topped up to thirty-eight thousand dollars. The Sinclairs incurred more debts on behalf of their friend. When the production was halted, an amount of nearly sixty thousand dollars had been spent. It was a modest film budget, but for the Sinclairs it was a fortune. It was all they could raise. Eisenstein was in an impossible situation; Stalin was demanding at the same time his return to the Soviet Union. He had been away from Russia for nearly three years which was considered anti- Soviet and hostile to the regime. By the beginning of 1932 as financial and political pressures mounted, he was forced to return to Moscow.
When the Russian team finally left Mexico, they went via New York. Arrangements were made that the Sinclairs would hold onto the negative material until the Soviet film agency Amkino would buy it. Eisenstein left with the expectation that the negatives would be at his disposal in the USSR and that he would finish the film in Moscow. In the meantime the situation in Russia had changed drastically. Eisenstein had left Russia as a famous and celebrated man, he returned three years later as an outsider who had fallen into disgrace. Colleagues in the Soviet film industry had assumed that he, like so many others, would remain in exile in the West. They had taken his place. Stalin himself had turned against him. For some years he was not allowed to make films; the only choice left to him was to teach a director's course at the State Film School, GIK. That was in itself an extremely important chapter in Eisenstein’s life and work. Here he was able to summarise his ideas about film; much of his theoretical work arose out of his teaching. He waited in vain for the shipment of the Mexican negatives, the Soviet state film industry failed to purchase them. The Sinclairs, who sunk their entire personal fortune into the project, could not let the film go without being paid for it. Finding themselves cornered, they handed the negatives over to the Hollywood producer, Sol Lesser, the maker of the Tarzan films. He edited from a selection of material the film Thunder over Mexico, which was released in 1933.
This film was a moderate success but, looking at it now, it is a conventionally put together Mexican Western, insensitive to everything Eisenstein had hoped to achieve. The Sinclairs were able to eventually recover their investment, but had to take the blame for the loss of this essential Eisenstein film. At the time left wing intellectuals could not see fault in Stalin's decisions, and blamed Sinclair. Without doubt it was Stalin and those men who fulfilled his wishes within the Soviet film industry like his film commissar Boris Shumyatsky, who was in the end responsible for the fact that ¡Que viva México! was not completed.
Q: What happened to the unedited materials?
A: After Sol Lesser’s cut of Thunder over Mexico there was a further attempt in 1939 to construct a film based on the original rushes. A friend of Eisensteins, his future biographer Mary Seaton, made a film in London called Time in the Sun which tried to take into account some of Eisenstein's concept. Unfortunately she only succeeded in making a rather sentimental travelogue. She made an honourable attempt to have all the negatives sent to Moscow, but the outbreak of the war put an end to that. Then came a series of short travelogues about Mexico, quarried from the Eisenstein materials by the Bell & Howell Company during the war. That seemed to be the end of ¡Que viva México!.
For all these years Upton Sinclair still held onto some seventy thousand feet of negative which previous productions had exploited but had left uncut. These negatives were handed over to the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1954. Under the curatorship of Richard Griffith, this museum had made it one of its aims to collect the work of Sergei Eisenstein. Griffith considered Eisenstein to be the Leonardo of the cinema and felt that every shred of film of this master should be preserved. Sinclair for good reason placed his collection with them, which is really much to his credit and to our benefit.
This material was later analysed and edited for study purposes by Jay Leyda, who was a former student at Eisenstein's film course at GIK in the 1930's. He presented his reels to the 1959 Eisenstein Conference in Berlin. This was the first time that experts realised what a great film world cinema had lost. Soviet interest in Eisenstein's Mexican fragment reawakened and, in around 1970, a deal was struck between the Soviet Ministry of Cinema and the Museum of Modern Art which entailed the transfer of the original nitrate negatives to Moscow.
The current situation is as follows: We have the remaining original negatives, the Sinclair - rushes, in Russia at the Gosfilmofond archives, we have a complete fine grain duplicate of it and some nitrate materials at the Museum of Modern Art. We have, in addition to that, duplicate materials of Thunder over Mexico and the Bell & Howell films at the Museum of Modern Art and the original negatives of Time in the Sun lodged with the National Film and Television Archive in London.
Q: What sparked your interest in ¡Que viva México!. When did that begin?
A: My interest in this film started when I was a student of Thorold Dickinson at the Slade Film Department in the 1960s. I was struck by the blandness of Mary Seaton's film Time in the Sun. I always thought that this could not be accepted as Eisenstein's film. Ever since I have searched for more information and have seen as much as possible of the surviving materials. Jay Leyda showed me his study reels, and I realized that there was so much more to be discovered. Here was an unrecognised treasure. Only an unfortunate series of events had prevented the completion of this masterpiece; I felt then as I feel now that this should eventually be remedied. I want to construct the film out of all surviving scenes and components. I made my first attempt in 1971, but at that time Grigorij Aleksandrov was working on a television version of the film, which turned out to be a great disappointment. Later in 1986 I discussed the idea of a comprehensive montage with Jay Leyda in New York, but he was already too ill to work with me. Sadly he died soon after.
Q: How important a work is ¡Que viva México!
A: It is unique in Eisenstein's oeuvre. It was intended not as a revolutionary montage, as his silent films were, nor was it designed as a gigantic historical tableau as were, for instance, his later films Alexander Nevsky or the two parts of Ivan the Terrible. It is really, in terms of Eisenstein's oeuvres, a transitional work and may have had, had Eisenstein been allowed to complete it, a profound influence on the director's future productions. Eisenstein suffered great pain and artistic frustration in not being able to finish the film.
Q: This sounds like a Herculean task. How do you justify it?
A: Many people have seen photographs and sometimes sequences of the film, now there is a new generation that wants to see it all; a full version never existed. Previous films contain certain aspects of the material; none of them show the totality of Eisenstein's vision. It is a great challenge to make the first ever comprehensive montage of ¡Que viva México!. I believe that it will be recognised as a key film, a forerunner of much that happens in modern cinema, which is a direct expression of the director's experience. Our generation is possibly the first that can fully appreciate to what degree Eisenstein stepped out of his time. Of all his films ¡Que viva México! is surely his most personal film. It deals with metaphors, with archetypes, it tells us something not just about Mexico, but also the nature of film, it tells us something about our own nature, our mythologies and our psychological history.
Film-making is about revealing the psychological essence of a subject. Eisenstein was one of the first to realise this. The reconstruction is for me and my colleagues a great challenge. Working on it will be a process of learning and of self assessment. The planned reconstruction is of course not just an archaeological or a film historical exercise. What I intend is a contemporary interpretation of ¡Que viva México!, which respects Eisenstein's ideas and experiences. No one has attempted this before. The final film will bear the marks of its history and contain something of our contemporary position. The result will be a very exciting, an unusual film. It will be the discovery of an unknown side of Sergei Eisenstein.