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Monday, 9 March 2015

Sergei Eisenstein and Don Quixote

For readers of this blog who don't read Spanish here is my attempt to summarize an interview with Naum Kleiman by Tatiana Pigiarova published here. Tatiana describes how in the rooms where Eisenstein's widow lived after the death of Russia's greatest film director amid the personal objects of Eisenstein - the Bauhaus furniture and the Mexican carpets can be spotted the figure of Eisenstein dressed up as Don Quijote mounted upon a movie camera which stands in for Rocinante.

Eisenstein's interest in Spain was multi-faceted. In his memoirs he spoke of Meyerhold's production of Calderon de la Barca's play El Principe Constante (The Constant Prince), the Spanish Baroque of Picasso and El Greco which was more of an inspiration to him than Italian Baroque- in fact he would write an article entitled El Greco and Film. Besides all this there was a script for a film entitled Spain set in Spain during the Civil War.

The puppet figure of Eisenstein as Don Quijote which was made by some artists for the Eisenstein Museum to commemorate the fact that Eisenstein was part of a short film where he took on the role of Don Quixote during a Congress of Independent Cinema in September 1929 (the first film festival in history). The avant-garde filmmakers from all of Europe (as well as from America and Japan) met in Switzerland at the Sarraz Castle invited by Helene de Mandrot, the owner of the castle and an art enthusiast. Eisenstein, Alexandrov and Tisse were in Germany at the time waiting for their visas to get to Hollywood and decided to join the other film-makers there. So as well as the future General Line (or The Old and the New) Bunuel's Le Chien d'Andalou were projected. Bunuel himself was expected but didn't turn up. And between jokes and discussions the participants decided to shoot a film at the festival. The idea for the film was inspired by Eisenstein and Hans Richter: the struggle between the independents and the 'great names'. 

They were aided by the French critic and author of a book on Eisenstein, Leon Moussinac (dressed as Artagnan) and Jean-George Auriol, the editor of the Revue du Cinema who, using typewriters at the Congress as machine guns launched an attack behind banners made from journals. These two quickly developed the script of this work which entered cinematic history as The Storming of La Sarraz and was also directed by these critics. Tisse' filmed it with his camera and the castle stuffed with medieval relics acted as the set. Madamoiselle Bouissounouse from the Revue du Cinema with a white dress and reels of film around her bust  and fastened by chains to the castle was to incarnate Independent Cinema. Her defender, the caballero Don Quixote (interpreted by Eisenstein) carried his medieval armour, helmet and lance and mounted upon Rocinante, his trustworthy movie camera.

Independent Cinema was to defeat 'Commercial Cinema' impersonated by the Japanese Moitiro Tsutji who was to commit harakiri. Eisenstein recalled that the castle owner was to remember both him and Tisse with fond memories and would repeat to herself a refrain "Ah those Bolsheviks, those Bolsheviks, the only real gentlemen".

Enough proof suggests that this film did exist at one point with certain images having been preserved by the Cinema Museum. Photograms of Jean-George Auriol with his typewriter-machine guns, of Leon Moussinac dressed up as Artganan and Eisenstein in medieval dress playing Don Quixote still exist. It's thought that the film was taken by Hand Richter to London to develop and edit and that possibly it was lost in the train or was confiscated by customs.

The story of Eisenstein and Don Quixote didn't stop there and in fact Eisenstein had been approached by Feodor Schialapin to make an adaptation of Cervantes novel. However this project was to be realised not by the Soviet director but by Pabst (though still with Schialapin in the main role).

Eisenstein is still present in the film of Don Quixote that was eventually adapted by Grigory Kozintsev in 1957  through the influence of the 19th century caricaturist and painter Honore Daumier. Eisenstein's wife Pera Atasheva was to donate to Kozintsev several books and reproductions of Daumier which had belonged to Eisenstein. One such reproduction was to hang in Kozintsev's office and through Eisenstein would influence the aesthetic of Kozintsev's 1957 film adaptation of Cervantes' novel. (Eisenstein's script Spain also found its way into his film Alexander Nevski). 

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