cinema, Film, Film Review

Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato

Peter Greenaway is one of my favorite directors. But in this film, I guess he missed the mark. His best films were done in the 1980s and 1990s.

I liked very much his films The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), Drowning by Numbers (1988), The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989). Prospero’s Books (1991), The Baby of Mâcon (1993), The Pillow Book (1996), and 8½ Women (1999). I even like Nightwatching (2007).

I guess it has something to do with his age. He was already 72 years old when he did Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015).

At first, I thought it was vintage Greenaway. But as the film progressed, the film collapsed. Eisenstein was a great filmmaker. His Battleship Potemkin was named the 11th greatest film of all time. He was one of the first film theorists. His theories on Formalism and Montage are still recognized by film schools. But all these had nothing to do with Greenaway’s film.


Eisenstein was portrayed as a rude, crude, pseudo-intellectual who was de-virginized by and fell in-love with his Mexican guide. There is nothing in the film that reflects any of Eisenstein’s genius as a filmmaker or film theorist. Besides, in real life, Eisenstein NEVER admitted that he was homosexual. If he were gay, he would have been thrown in jail by Stalin, who was against “art films” and wanted films to be more pro-proletariat and pro-State.

Maybe Greenaway didn’t like the fact that Eisenstein’s homosexuality has been hidden for so long and he wanted to show that Eisenstein was actually gay. So? Can Eisenstein’s contribution to Film and society be measured by his homosexuality? So what if he was gay? It certainly did not consume much of his life. After his stay in Mexico, he returned to Russia and married a couple of years later.


Eisenstein’s time in Guanajuato was critical for him. His deal in Hollywood did not push through. The anti-communists went on a public campaign against him which pressured Paramount Pictures to cancel the deal. The Russian Film community did not look kindly upon Eisenstein and “artistic” or “structural” directors. They favored social realism as against the formalism espoused by Eisenstein. Boris Shyumyatsky, was appointed by Stalin in 1930 as practically the film czar of Russia. Shyumyatsky, who had no experience with films, hated Eisenstein.

With the help of friends like Charlie Chaplin, he was able to convince Upton and Mary Sinclair to finance a movie to be made in Mexico. While he filmed a lot of footage, or even mileage, the film was left unfinished. Stalin was already asking what was taking Eisenstein too long abroad. Did he become a deserter (?), Stalin wanted to know.

Eisenstein blamed Mary Sinclair’s brother for the delays. The Sinclairs were furious and cancelled the deal, got all the filmed footage, and had others edit the film. Two short films out of the footage were released by the Sinclairs, Eisenstein in Mexico, and Death Day. Eisenstein had nothing to do with the editing of his Mexican work.

Eisenstein’s long sojourn in Europe, the US and Mexico must have been a great experience for him – meeting intellectuals, artists and celebrities as well as ordinary people. It must have given him a lot of insight about world Art, Society and Politics.

There is so much that could have been included in Eisenstein in Guanajuato. I was waiting for some actual film clips that he shot in Guanajuato. There were at least three films released from his Guanajuato work. Or maybe a few insights on what he thought of Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo. Or on  Grigori Aleksandrov, the young director who accompanied him to Europe, US and Mexico, together with the cinematographer Eduard Tisse. Later on, Aleksandrov would become a famous director in his own right.


Greenaway’s film gave the impression that Eisenstein returned to Russia and just faded away and died alone in a seeming nuthouse. At the beginning of his return to Russia, Eisenstein was understandably depressed as he just lost artistic control of his film plus the money. And the Russian film community was still against him and his film theories and cinematic style. He did stay in an asylum for a while.  Later, he married filmmaker and screenwriter Pera Atasheva.

Shyumyatsky, Russia’s film czar made sure that Eisenstein would fail in his projects. On 18 March 1937, Shyumyatsky publicly attacked Eisenstein in a 3-day conference on film. Ten days later, he wrote to Vyacheslav Molotov denouncing seven people for attempting to rescue Eisenstein’s banned film and blaming him for discrediting the work of Eisenstein. Four of these people were later arrested and shot. On April 16, Shyumatsky wrote to Stalin to ban Eisenstein from making another film.

In January 1938, the wheel of Fortune moved in favor of Eisenstein and against Shyumatsky. Shyumatsky was accused of sabotage and in June 28 of the same year, he was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad.

And thus, Eisenstein’s career in film-making had a second chance. He worked his way into the good graces of Stalin. He made the film Alexander Nevsky which won him the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Prize. He made another film, Ivan the Terrible, Part 1 which also won the Stalin Prize.


According to Wikipedia: “Eisenstein in Guanajuato premiered at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival in the main competition section on 11 February 2015. The film was voted to the BOTTOM place by the Screen International’s critics’ jury and subsequently IGNORED by the official jury.” (all-caps added)

It continued: “.On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 55% score based on 38 reviews, with an average rating of 6/10. The site’s consensus states: “Eisenstein in Guanajuato is certainly bold, but its provocations aren’t always enough to overcome a lack of depth and clear narrative purpose.”

Another critic said that the real-life wife and friends of Eisenstein would not recognize Greenaway’s Eisenstein.

It would take more than a miracle for a bumbling nerd like Greenaway’s Eisenstein to survive Shyumatsky, Molotov and Stalin. But the real Eisenstein did more than survive. He triumphed over Shyumatsky and earned the respect and admiration of Stalin and the Russian people. And while some people today dislike him for his friendship with Stalin, no one can deny his genius as exemplified in his writings and films, esp. Battleship Potemkin (1925).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s