Sergei Eisenstein is considered as Russian as vodka, but technically, he was born in Riga when Livonia was a governorate of the Russian Empire. He is responsible for some of the most successful propaganda films of all time, but some of his later films were also banned by Stalin. He was already a complicated figure before Peter Greenaway came along with a film suggesting Eisenstein engaged in a passionate affair with a male lover during his ill-fated Mexican venture. That relationship is somewhat fictional, but there is plenty of scholarship regarding his closeted sexuality. Of course, such contentions are highly controversial in today’s rabidly homophobic Russia. Once again, the Putin regime follows in the Soviet tradition. As Greenaway notes, during the Stalinist years, homosexuality was punishable with a term of hard labor in a Siberian gulag. That would give the Soviet auteur good reason to hide his sexuality in Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Eisenstein shot plenty of film in Mexico, but it would be left to others to edit it together into the some kind of order. Frankly, we will not see him shoot much of anything, because he is too preoccupied with Palomino Cañedo, a leftwing comparative religion professor serving as Eisenstein’s personal escort—very personal. Smarting from Hollywood’s rejection, Eisenstein came to Mexico to shoot Que Viva Mexico, a supposedly non-ideological celebration of post-revolutionary life in the county, as well as its folk customs, produced by Eisenstein’s American admirers, including Upton Sinclair. However, the film became a spiraling disaster worthy of Orson Welles.
Whether entirely true or not, Greenaway’s screenplay certainly explains how Eisenstein completely lost control of the project. We quickly get a sense Eisenstein has long tried to deny his orientation, which gives rise to a host of hang-ups and self-esteem issues. This being a Peter Greenaway film, there are also plenty of Full Monty shots, exposing the source of some of Eisenstein’s insecurities to the full view of the audience.
Like most Greenaway films, Guanajuato is dazzling both in its visual presentation and its erudition. Greenaway clearly draws on an intimate familiarity with Eisenstein’s work, but while he often incorporates archival photos and film stills in his Greenawayesque collages, Greenaway is never groaningly obvious in his homages. We never see Eisenstein stop to stare at a staircase and shake his head, as if to say “nope, can’t use that one.” However, the most impressive aspect of the film is the razor sharp dialogue, in which we can hear Eisenstein subtly suggest a disconnect between the Soviet promise and the Soviet reality, while never explicitly critiquing Stalin’s dictatorship.
Finnish actor Elmer Bäck (co-star of The Spiral) is an eerie dead-ringer for Eisenstein and bold enough to let it all hang out for considerable stretches of time. Mr. Bäck does not have a lot of secrets left after this one—nor does Luis Alberti, who is nearly as exposed as Cañedo. Frankly, there romantic chemistry is a bit questionable, but Eisenstein’s assorted angsts are completely convincing.