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30 Jul 2021 / by Natascha Drubek

1930s Mexico, Isamu Noguchi, and Sergei Eisenstein’s Unfinished Mexican Film

Monochrome film still in which a skeleton dressed in a suit with a white bowtie, black top hat, and glasses holds up a skull mask in the Mexican Day of the Dead style with a gloved hand.

DEATH DAY (dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1931–1934). © All rights reserved by the artists; Image: Courtesy of Light Cone

In 1930, Soviet avant-garde film director Sergei Eisenstein traveled to Mexico to start a film project known as ¡Que viva México! Upon the recommendation of Charlie Chaplin, Eisenstein had secured funding from writer Upton Sinclair. During his trip, he shot dozens of hours of footage for what was planned to be a multi-chapter film about the history of Mexico, but funds from the Mexican Film Trust—a production company established by Sinclair, his wife, and other investors—were soon exhausted. Eisenstein’s chances of finishing the film himself were further diminished by the expiry of his re-entry visa to the United States and his inability to obtain an extension to his permission to remain away from the Soviet Union.

Much of the footage was brought back to the US by the producers, and Eisenstein’s film remained incomplete. Below, Professor Natascha Drubek contemplates the film and Eisenstein’s legacy, providing context for one of the most famous unfinished film projects in cinema history.

A Tapestry of Violent Colours

Sergei Eisenstein compared Mexico and his 'Mexican picture' to a serape, the indigenous multi-coloured woven blanket:

So striped and violently contrasting are the cultures in Mexico running next to each other and at the same time being centuries away. No plot, no whole story could run through this serape without being false, artificial. And we took the contrasting independent adjacence of its violent colors as the motif for constructing our film: six episodes . . . held together by the unity of the weave—a rhythmic and musical construction and an unrolling of the Mexican spirit.[1]

Photograph of a woven sarape rug with an abstract depiction of a person in between woven stripes.

Mexican rug brought by Eisenstein to Moscow. Photo: From Vera Rumyantseva-Kleiman's In the Master's Home. The World of Sergei Einsten (Moscow: 2018), 161; Courtesy STATE CENTRAL MUSEUM OF CINEMA, MOSCOW

Two images side by side. On the left is a drawing of a bedroom with a bed, armchair, bookcase, and large standing black candlestick. Above the bed is a colourful woven rug featuring traditional Mexican designs. On the floor is a striped woven carpet. On the right is a woven sarape rug with an abstract depiction of a person in between woven stripes.

Mexican serapes and carpets in Eisenstein’s bedroom, drawn by Georgii Grivtsov on Eisenstein's own death day: February 11, 1948. Image: From Vera Rumyantseva-Kleiman's In the Master's Home. The World of Sergei Einsten (Moscow: 2018), 161; Courtesy STATE CENTRAL MUSEUM OF CINEMA, MOSCOW

Eisenstein’s Mexican film does not exist; we have only its yarn to be weft, many miles of film that Eisenstein could not access. He couldn’t take it with him back to the USSR, since he had signed his rights away to Upton Sinclair’s wife, who had presented him with a contract that he—eager to leave Hollywood for Mexico—signed in Pasadena on November 24, 1930:

WHEREAS, Eisenstein wishes to go to Mexico and direct the making of a picture tentatively entitled Mexican picture, and whereas Mrs. Sinclair wishes to finance the production of and own said picture […] In consideration of the above agreement by Eisenstein, and in full faith that he will carry out his promise to direct the making of the best picture in Mexico of which he as an artist is capable, Mary Craig Sinclair agrees that she will put up the sum of not less than Twenty-five Thousand dollars ($25,000) […][2]

Mexico in the Early 1930s

The multi-ethnic Mexico of 1930–1932 was archaic and innovative, welded in the buzz of post-revolutionary society and culture where artists such as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros lived and worked. Later, they were joined by sculptor Isamu Noguchi, photographers Paul Strand and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and several European surrealists. It was in Mexico City where André Breton and Diego Rivera met with Soviet exile Trotsky to write a manifesto on revolutionary art.

Monochrome film still in which a man stares into the camera with an elaborate headdress that includes a paper with an illustration of the Virgin Mary floating over a city. Next to him his a tall puppet depicting a man with a mustache and beard, also in a similar style of headdress.

SERGEI EISENSTEIN'S MEXICAN FOOTAGE (1931). © All rights reserved by the artists; Image: Courtesy of Light Cone

However, in 1940 Trotsky was attacked and murdered in Coyoacán, only a few houses away from Rivera and Kahlo’s home. The fact that his assassination was supported by Stalinist artist Siqueiros marked the end of an era of innocence even before Mexico entered the war.

It was Siqueiros who, a decade earlier, had collaborated with Eisenstein in Taxco, where the painter 'extended Eisenstein's montage principles to mural painting'.[3] Mexico has an exceptionally strong tradition of muralism, used in the 20th century to communicate through images with people who could not read. This is not only parallel to Russian visual culture, which relied on icons, posters, and cheap woodcuts or prints, but also film as a medium of propaganda.

While Eisenstein was disappointed by Hollywood, he fell in love with Mexico. It was a country that at the time showed parallels to the USSR, which he had left in 1929. The Soviet film director arrived in the creative post-Revolutionary era, when not only Mexico’s indigenous roots had been revealed, but a new, hybrid culture was emerging. This hybridity found its expression in Mexico as a meeting place of cultures and diasporic communities, as polyglot as Eisenstein, who spoke several languages fluently. American progressive artists, who revered Diego Rivera, came to Mexico to join the Mexican Muralist Movement.

Section of a mural above a bright red brick wall. The mural contains multiple 3D high-relief sculptures, including a large, clenched red fist next to a painting of a field with intersecting farm equipment.

Section of Isamu Noguchi's Historia de México mural in Abelardo L. Rodríguez Market. Photo: © Steve Aldana.

This is the context of the work of Isamu Noguchi, who was befriended by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Noguchi in 1936 created his first public work: a bas-relief called Historia de México. Unlike Eisenstein’s 'cinematic mural' of the history of Mexico, Noguchi’s work maintains a presence even today in the capital. It can be found in the Abelardo L. Rodríguez Market, built in 1934 as a socially minded public place, offering day care and libraries.

Many of the artists who came to Mexico at the time were leftists or communists, and many were women whose cosmopolitanism was new and daring, such as photographer Tina Modotti or Marion Greenwood, who participated in shaping Mexican muralism. Greenwood later spent time in China and Hong Kong after serving as one of the few women artist war correspondents in the US army.

[Eisenstein] arrived in the creative post-Revolutionary era, when not only Mexico’s indigenous roots had been revealed, but a new, hybrid culture was emerging.

Natascha Drubek

Both Greenwood and Noguchi left the US initially for France, but soon headed for Asian countries as well as Mexico, which seems to have formed unique diasporic communities, replacing classic European destinations for learning and inspiration. Noguchi’s biography is representative in this respect: Before his assignment in Mexico, he had—after a stint in Paris with Brancusi—ventured East and reached China via the Soviet Union. This was in 1930, exactly the year when Eisenstein was headed to Mexico.

While this form of cosmopolitanism was conducive to the arts, it was less so to an individual’s safety. The American adventure seems to have cost Eisenstein his reputation at home and his health. Ordered to return to the USSR by Stalin, he spent time in 1933 in the Kislovodsk spa in the Northern Caucasus to recover from the depression following the film being aborted.

Monochrome film still in which skeleton puppets wearing transparent clothing are posed as if running or dancing.

DEATH DAY (dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1931–1934). © All rights reserved by the artists; Image: Courtesy of Light Cone

Versions and Reconstructions of Eisenstein’s Footage by Other Filmmakers

On his journey to Mexico, Eisenstein was accompanied by two people: his cinematographer Edward Tissé and his assistant Grigory Alexandrov. During my last visit to Russia, I asked a film professor from St. Petersburg why Eisenstein’s Mexican film was never finished, and received the answer that it was not only the Americans who were at fault, but also Eisenstein’s companion, Grigory Alexandrov, who might have informed the USSR that Sergei was not going home.

If this is true, it was indeed unfortunate that Alexandrov accompanied Eisenstein—not only because he seems to have accelerated his journey home, leading to the film never being finished, but also due to a competition that arose between the two in Hollywood. When Eisenstein in 1930 received the opportunity to make a film in Mexico with the help of Upton Sinclair, Alexandrov was not ready to leave since 'Hollywood producers had found Grigory Alexandrov a person whom they thought capable of producing the kind of pictures they wanted'[4]—unlike Eisenstein, who was subjected to anti-Semitic attitudes, having been attacked in one letter 'as a "Jewish Bolshevik" who the "successful Jews of Paramount" had imported to make "propaganda films"'.[5]

Monochrome film still depicting a ferris wheel with a Mexican Day of the Dead skull mask held up in front of it, making it look as though the skull mask is the centre of the ferris wheel.

SERGEI EISENSTEIN'S MEXICAN FOOTAGE, 1931. © All rights reserved by the artists / Courtesy of Light Cone

Alexandrov profited from the journey to America, having studied Hollywood sound stages. While Eisenstein back in the USSR could not make a film for nearly a decade, Alexandrov became one of the most proficient imitators of the Hollywood film musical, directing a string of successful comedies, advancing to Stalin’s favourite in this popular genre.

It was Alexandrov who, in the late 1970s, long after Eisenstein’s death, edited the best known version of the Mexico material, titled ¡Que viva México!. This is the version on which most of the critical literature about the Mexican material is based, such as the harsh critique of the film as producing 'gendered constructs' and 'fetish-objects' by scholars of Mexican cinema, Laura Podalsky and Joanne Hershfield.[6] The criticism is accurate, at least when it comes to Alexandrov’s version of the Mexican material, with its 1970s Soviet soundtrack, exoticizing the material and turning it into a B musical.

Re-editing or re-creating a film can be considered part of [the] act of aesthetic reception.

Natascha Drubeck

There were other attempts at partial releases, versions, and (re)constructions, such as Sol Lesser’s 1934 shorts (Death Day, Thunder Over Mexico, and Eisenstein in Mexico, produced in the USA at the behest of the Sinclairs). Three other major versions of the material were prepared: Marie Seton edited the version Time in the Sun (1939) with Anita Brenner (credited as Breener)[7] based on communications with the director; a four-hour version by film historian Jay Leyda incorporated all of the documentary footage shot on the side; and Oleg Kovalov created Mexican Fantasy in 1998.

What is there to be said about these many versions of Mexican material? They form an interesting corpus in themselves. This re-editing of the footage by multiple artists has added meaning and fresh context to the original work. We can look at this from the theoretical perspective of Prague structuralism, which was shaped in the 1930s. It separates 'artefact' (the object itself) and 'aesthetic object' (the object that has been assigned value by the viewer). The idea is that only the aesthetic reception by someone besides the artist turns the object into a work of art. Re-editing or re-creating a film can be considered part of this act of aesthetic reception.

danh-vo-we-the-people-detail.jpg

Danh Vo. We The People (detail), 2011–2016. Copper. M+, Hong Kong. © Danh Vo

A useful connection can be made here to Danh Vo’s work We The People, in which pieces of a lifesize replica of the Statue of Liberty are distributed all over the world. One particular fragment, featured as part of Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint, demonstrates the artist’s practice of inviting multiple and new receptions of a cultural object. His reconstruction of the sculpture’s skin is an analytical dissection of its means of production and its implications with notions of liberty. In this sense, his study and practice in the materiality of political concepts goes beyond the realm of political art, opening up the complex entanglements of cultural objects in contemporary contexts.

Films are not finished works of art. Even in films that are edited according to the will of director and/or producer, the editing is one of the components in film which stays changeable. In the early days of film, exhibitors freely recut foreign films—famously, Eisenstein learned the craft of this type of montage from Esfir Shub. Politically motivated re-edits or excisions, sometimes called 'reconstructions' in post-1945 USSR, all testify to film being not unchangeable and eternal, but rather a truly protean creature by definition, censored according to the current governing ideology or revived every time a new generation is ready to 'read' and edit it again. If that is the case, then Eisenstein’s Mexican cinema project is an ever-changing cinematic serape, one that enriches and perpetuates meaning via its unfinished—and yet continuing—condition.

This article was originally published on Podium, M+ Stories to coincide with M+ Screenings: In the World, Of the World and Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint.

Natascha Drubek is a researcher, author, and editor in the area of Central and East European cinemas and cultures. She is the editor-in-chief of the open access academic journal Apparatus. She completed her PhD and habilitation at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich in 1998 and 2007. She received the 2006–2009 Marie Curie Fellowship at the Film School FAMU, Prague with the project 'Hypertextual Film Presentation', where she co-authored Hyperkino, a system for the annotation of film on digital carriers. She is one of the editors of Das Zeit-Bild im osteuropäischen Film nach 1945 (2010) and author of Russisches Licht (2012). From 2009 to 2015, she was a Heisenberg Fellow, and from 2013 to 2014, she was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Currently, she teaches at the Freie Universität Berlin and is finishing her book on the films made in Majdanek in the summer of 1944 and in Theresienstadt in 1942–1945.

  1. 1.

    Sergei Eisenstein, The Film Sense (1942), 251.

  2. 2.

    Marie Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein, A Biography (London: 1952), 188.

  3. 3.

    Masha Salazkina, In Excess: Sergei Eisenstein's Mexico, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 2009), 52.

  4. 4.

    Marie Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein, A Biography (London: 1952), 199

  5. 5.

    Seton quotes from a letter of a self-proclaimed American patriot. Marie Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein, A Biography (London: 1952), 168ff.

  6. 6.

    Discussed in the 2006 article ‘Seeing through ¡Que viva México!: Eisenstein’s Travels in Mexico’ by Andrea Noble in Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies Vol. 12, Nos 2–3, 2006, pp. 173–187

  7. 7.

    Anita Brenner—writer and networker between the worlds—composed a book on and with Mexican art and photography, Idols Behind Altars (New York: 1929). Eisenstein found it 'entertaining'.

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