Lutz Becker is a filmmaker and film historian. His many documentaries include Art in Revolution, Doubleheaded Eagle, Lion of Judah, The Silence Behind Words, and Vita Futurista. An expert for twentieth century European and Russian art, he has been the curator of exhibitions of the Russian avant-garde including Century City: Moscow, Tate Modern, London, Masterpieces of the Costakis Collection and Tatlin and his Circle, State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki. His own paintings have been shown in various exhibitions.
A few weeks ago, he told the writer and filmmaker Jonty Claypole that he had made
Lutz Becker was eighteen when his uncle, a Berlin film critic, took him to see fragments of what is arguably cinema's great lost work: Sergei Eisenstein's Qué viva México. The experience fired a lifelong passion in the young man who recognized in the unfinished epic a work of such sensual beauty that, edited and made coherent, would redefine Eisenstein's image as the undisputed master of world cinema. Now, after many years' perseverance, Becker's dream teeters on the brink of realization.
Of course, to touch Eisenstein's film is considered by many to be an act of unforgivable hubris: this was after all a director who believed that the power of filmmaking lay in the editing. Should the purity of an artist's work be preserved at the price of total obscurity, or should another hand finish it? Becker's track record makes him a strong candidate for that challenge. Indeed, Jay Leyda - Eisenstein's former student and assistant on Bezhin Meadow who later compiled for the Museum of Modern Art in New York the study reels of Qué viva México - the ones Becker saw these many years ago - was keen to work with him, but died sadly in 1986. Becker, therefore, is something of an heir to the project. He, if anyone, can justify making what he calls a 'reconstruction' of the film.
The story of Qué viva México is one of the great tragedies of cinema history. After a disappointing and unproductive stint in Hollywood in 1930, Eisenstein was offered the opportunity to realize one of his dreams - to make a film in Mexico - by the American left-wing novelist Upton Sinclair and his wife Mary Craig. A Hungarian bookseller in Los Angeles who had once fought on the side of Pancho Villa suggested a sum of 25,000 Dollars to Eisenstein as adequate for making such a film, and so began Qué viva México.
Fourteen months later, in early 1932, after having spent nearly four times that amount, Eisenstein found his funds cut off only a few weeks from completing the filming. Sinclair had gone bankrupt and a telegram from Josef Stalin personally demanded the immediate return of the director to Moscow.
After Eisenstein's return to Russia, footage from Qué viva México appeared in a feature film called Thunder Over Mexico, produced in 1933 by Sol Lesser, the maker of Tarzan the Fearless. It stretched one episode of Eisenstein's film into a Tex-Mex Western format. The film was a moderate success but Sinclair gained a reputation as a Judas for selling the footage. "I grew up with the story that American capitalism destroyed a masterpiece," says Becker. But his research uncovered letters that clear Sinclair completely. "Sinclair made several attempts to send the footage to Moscow but it was refused by Boris Shumyatsky, the head of the Soviet film industry," says Becker. Shumyatsky's vendetta lasted many years: he was also the one who later destroyed, after its completion, Eisenstein's next film Bezhin Meadow. Behind all this stood Stalin, who wanted to punish Eisenstein for his long absence abroad and assumed deviation from the party line.
"Even after he had asked Lesser to produce Thunder Over Mexico," says Becker, "Upton Sinclair's letters to his lawyer express a wish for the material to be preserved and kept together so that Eisenstein could one day make his film." That day never came. When Eisenstein died seventeen years later in 1948, an old note from Sinclair promising the imminent arrival of the footage was on his desk: a painful memento of the affair which, he admitted, "has broken my heart".
Yet Eisenstein's year in Mexico was undoubtedly one of the happiest in his life. Anyone who has read the published outline, seen the director's ecstatic drawings, stills and excerpts of Qué viva México will know it as a work of remarkable beauty. Eisenstein's scenario, written as always in that impassioned free verse (closer to the poetic style of Mayakovsky than of a Hollywood screenplay) is one of the most mesmerizing ever written. An early exposé of the film promises "a rhythmic and musical construction and an unrolling of the Mexican spirit and character"; it was to be divided into six episodes, each representing an aspect or period of Mexican culture and history. Certain themes unite the film: the ever changing and fluctuating shape of the Mexican cultural amalgam; the way of life in different parts of ancient, ageless Mexico. But behind it all is something more abstract: a sensual aesthetic, which explores the patterns of rituals, the arid contrasts of Mexican regional landscapes and the graceful bodies of its people. Qué viva México was Eisenstein's homage to Mexico and the struggle of its indigenous people for social and political emancipation. No other country in the world has had the privilege to be depicted on film with such deep understanding as Mexico has been by Eisenstein.
Close study of the surviving film materials show that Eisenstein and his cameraman Eduard Tissé created a new cinematic iconography for Mexico, an archetypal visual language of symbols. If the scenarios and the images could be united as Eisenstein intended, there is little doubt that the result would be the emergence of a masterpiece. The problem is trying to work out what exactly it was that Eisenstein - cryptic at the best of times - intended. Although Lesser's work was the most insensitive, there were other failures in utilizing the footage. Eisenstein's biographer, Marie Seton, produced in 1939 a simplistic travelogue Time in the Sun, while Grigori Alexandrov - Eisenstein's former assistant in Mexico - made a bland memoir in 1979 crippled by limited access to the original footage.
It is only now, some sixty years on, that the possibility if seeing Qué viva México in a more comprehensive state is becoming a real possibility. For Lutz Becker, filmmaker and film historian, a life-long obsession is rapidly becoming a reality. He has made three attempts: one in 1971 which was abandoned as a result of Grigori Aleksandrov commencing on his film; the second in 1986 came to a halt with Jay Leyda's death; the third and current phase started in 1992, when Becker came to an accord with Jean Sinclair, Upton Sinclair's daughter in law, which was followed by legal contracts with the Estate. In 1996 he entered a partnership with the producer Felix von Moreau, who became his closest collaborator.
If the necessary funding is coming through, Becker will produce a sympathetic edit of the film interpreting the film footage and Eisenstein's surviving scenarios, notes and diaries. "Nobody has ever pulled these materials together for the purpose of making the film," says Becker. "What I offer is a most comprehensive production with the aim of embracing Eisenstein's complete idea." A reasonably authentic film is possible because Eisenstein completed all but one of the seven sections. With the recent discovery of 52 cans of un-catalogued film, and 40 hours of unedited film at the Museum of Modern Art and the National Film Archive in London, Becker will be the first to assemble a film from all of the footage shot at the time.
Becker's edit will be the result of an invigorating process involving a team of young musicians, sound technicians, actors, editors, and assistants. He will commission a Mexican composer to write a musical score (Eisenstein had originally intended to use Shostakovich) which will be mixed with ambient and field recordings from various parts of the country. But possibly the greatest innovation lies in plans to digitize the entire footage, so that the images can be restored and steadied. "This will allow the return to a clarity and beauty of the images, the way the director originally saw them," says Becker, "incredibly modern, incredibly monumental, full of the sun and darkness of Mexico."
All this is testimony to Becker's conviction that his interpretation of Qué viva México will not be a sad reminder of a terrible miscarriage, but a complete and finished work in itself. "I think that my version of the film will create a new interest in Sergei Eisenstein. It will move public perception away from his current image as a purely political filmmaker." The sensuality of the images and the improvised manner in which they were shot certainly provide new insights into Eisenstein's art. In addition the attention to women - one of the central themes is the development of the female figure in Mexico from dependency to emancipation - will provide, along with The Old and the New, a useful antithesis in the work of a man who is known for his male dominated visions of historical battles and heroes. The vital role Qué viva México must play in a wider re-assessment of Eisenstein's work is, of course, one of the most important arguments in defense of editing it. Without Qué viva México his oeuvre lacks its necessary synthesis, becomes a one-sided discourse.
The film marks a unique point in the director's career: it was an artistic experiment he could never try again; it will change the preconception of Eisenstein as single-minded proponent of fast montage. Many of his shots are held for unusually long periods of time, which is revealing of the way in which Eisenstein was intending to edit and pace the film. Becker again: "In Qué viva México Eisenstein develops the principle of internal montage. Through particular plotting of camera movements he internalizes the cut. That is to say that the force of an image does not lie alone in the contrast with other neighboring images, which was the principle behind his theory of 'montage of attractions', but in itself; the way the camera moves during the shot and the internal rhythms it contains and the length for which it is held." To those who see Eisenstein as a dated innovator, a sometimes-impenetrable theoretician, the novel use of montage, as suggested by the footage itself, will provide evidence of how far ahead of his time Eisenstein was.
Becker refers to influences which shaped Eisenstein's visual definition of Mexico, like his interest in Japanese woodcuts, particularly the work of Hiroshige, and his exposure to the art of the Mexican muralist Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco. "Eisenstein's early participation in the artistic experiment of the Russian avant-garde guided him in his search for a specific aesthetic. Here the powerful influence of the Russian painter Kasimir Malevich was decisive. He was the creator of the icons of the twentieth century, Black Square on a White Canvas and White Cross on a White Canvas." Becker continues, "Eisenstein develops in Qué viva México a geometry of light. Strong diagonals, the triangle, the square, the oblong, occur in powerful compositions and give them depth and direction. His compositions achieve stillness and timelessness, a quality which is at the heart of the Orthodox icon of Russia, and I think at this point Eisenstein and Malevich are the closest."
It was most probably this meditative, even poetic quality which was rejected by the official supporters of the Socialist Realist doctrine. Eisenstein re-discovered during his time in Mexico a spiritual dimension which had been lost in the fervor of the Bolshevik Revolution. Shumyatsky and his followers in the Soviet film industry made sure that this quality was never to surface again in his films. Qué viva México is the only evidence as to the direction Eisenstein's work might have taken if freed from Stalin's restrictions.
Ironically, Becker, in his relentless fight to secure finance for the reconstruction of Qué viva México, has found himself in a similar situation as Eisenstein these many years ago. He joined a German-British consortium which is involved in raising the finance for a complex post-production and restoration process. "We have secured all the copyrights years ago and we are now closer than ever to producing the definitive Qué viva México," says Becker. "We had a major setback in the aftermath of 9/11, but are now ready to go forward. Film funding is like a house of cards. There are various investors, but when one of them pulls out, the house collapses." It would be a tragedy if, from lack of support, Qué viva México were to languish forever unseen in the vaults of the film archives.
After the interview Lutz Becker took me outside and showed me some of his paintings, lined up against the white walls of his courtyard. Large Pollockesque canvasses, but more controlled, more patterned; explosions of vibrant colours and darting shapes. They echo Becker's reflections on the Mexican landscape and the bullfights; the pleasures and insights years of frustrations have provided him. One more piece of evidence that if anybody is to achieve the right aesthetic understanding of Qué viva México in order to edit it, he is the man. Becker is not daunted. "I cannot tell you how important the encounter with Mexico is for me, how exiting and stimulating it is," he says, "I am grateful and feel that I have an obligation to give Eisenstein his film. That is our deal: Eisenstein has given me Mexico; he will get his film from me."
Vertigo Vol.9 No.9