The American adventure of Sergei Eisenstein

The American adventure of Sergei Eisenstein

To close

Title: Russian stage manager Sergej M. Eisenstein at Upton Sinclair in Hollywood

Author : ERICH Salomon (1886 - 1944)

Creation date : 1930

Date shown: 1930

Technique and other indications: photography

Storage location: Berlinische Galerie (Berlin)

Contact copyright: © BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / BPK image

Picture reference: 09-521242 / SaE001

Russian stage manager Sergej M. Eisenstein at Upton Sinclair in Hollywood

© BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / BPK image

Publication date: April 2019

Historical context


Left, Soviet Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (1898-1948), a famous filmmaker who left the USSR six months after the attacks on his film began October and its working method. On the right, the American Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), famous author of The jungle (1905) and his Dantesque description of Chicago slaughterhouses. In the fall of 1930, these two emblems of left-wing intellectuals formed a friendly and artistic alliance with the aim of producing a film on Mexico.

Eisenstein has been for four years the most famous representative of the new wave of filmmakers from the USSR, alongside documentary filmmaker and theorist Dziga Vertov, and directors Vsevolod Poudovkin or Boris Barnet. Having started in the theater with Vsevolod Meyerhold, the young multilingual Jew rose to fame with Battleship Potemkin (1925). His following films are failures (October, 1928) or semi-chess (The General Line, 1929), and in this context of the takeover of the cinema business by the single party, Eisenstein began a journey of several years in Europe and the United States. The German photographer Erich Salomon (1886-1944), famous for having known how to photograph important events (signing of the Briand-Kellog pact in 1928) or inaccessible places (the Supreme Court of the United States) also has to his credit beautiful portraits politicians and movie stars.

Image Analysis


The photo was taken by Erich Salomon at the luxury Hollywood property of Upton Sinclair, on his private tennis court. The dark background, the shadows and the lighting on the faces argue for a night shot that allows a little play of chiaroscuro. The city costumes and the positions taken by the two celebrities leaning on the central net suggest a carefully organized break session in a context of luxury and relaxation. While using the geometry of the white lines on purpose to give perspective to his image, the photographer has shifted his lens slightly to avoid frontality. The fact that the experienced American and the young Soviet man sit in the same service area, their gaze immersed in each other, tells the story of a coming together of generations and continents. The two actors of this staging, however, do not overplay the proximity and the complicity.


Cultural diplomacy, a double-edged sword

In 1928, Eisenstein seized the opportunity offered by the Soviet authorities who intended to use his fame to publicize the regime and its revolutionary art. For many months, the filmmaker chained conferences and visits to Great Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland, before being offered a film project by the American major Paramount. It was finally in November that the Sinclairs, presented by Charlie Chaplin, volunteered to produce Than Viva Mexico!. The film could never be edited by Eisenstein, Sinclair having confiscated the images shot in 1932. The director returned therefore humiliated and depressed in 1933, and the authorities took time to forgive him for this new failure.

This in no way precludes the repeated sending of artists on missions, such as the painter Alexander Deïneka to Italy in 1935, or the satirists Ilf and Petrov to the United States in 1934-1935. Indeed, it is necessary to have been able to make the world revolution triumph, the Soviet Union engaged in the mid-1920s a very dynamic policy of propaganda through culture, addressing both the working class (counter-culture international) and intellectuals (revolutionary culture). The Soviet pavilion designed by Konstantin Melnikov and decorated by Alexander Rodchenko for the 1925 Paris Decorative Arts Exhibition has gone down in architectural history. Some artists and groups (the Surrealists) rank at the turn of the 1930s among the "traveling companions" who defended the Soviet Union without necessarily joining the Communist Party of their country. Soviet creators are encouraged to maintain direct, personal links with the great figures of the left who, like Chaplin, Bernard Shaw or Henri Barbusse, weigh in on national opinions. Friendly film distribution circuits, publishing houses and galleries also relay a carefully selected cultural production where works in the line mingle with masterpieces escaping the canons, such as the films of Eisenstein. .

  • Russia
  • Mexico
  • United States
  • Hollywood
  • photography
  • propaganda
  • Paris
  • Eisenstein (Sergei Mikhailovich)
  • Sinclair (Upton)
  • Vertov (Dziga)
  • Pudovkin (Vsevolod)
  • Barnet (Boris)
  • Meyerhold (Vsevolod)
  • Solomon (Erich)
  • Ilf (Ilya)
  • Petrov (Yevgeny)
  • Deïneka (Alexander)
  • Rodchenko (Alexander)
  • Chaplin (Charlie)
  • Shaw (Bernard)
  • Barbusse (Henri)
  • working class


Bartholomew Amengual, Long live Eisenstein!, L'Âge d'Homme, Paris, 1990. Oksana Bulgakowa, Sergei Eisenstein. A Biography, London, PotemkinPress, 2002. Jean-François Fayet, VOKS. History of Soviet cultural diplomacy of the interwar period, Georg, Geneva, 2014. Harry Geduld, Ronald Gottesman, (ed.), Sergei Eisenstein and Upton Sinclair: The Making & Unmaking of Que Viva Mexico!, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1970.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "The American Adventure of Sergei Eisenstein"


Video: Down to Earth 1917 starring Douglas Fairbanks