Russians and Resurrections: The (Un)making of Qué Viva México

Midway through Sergei Eisenstein’s Qué Viva México comes a shot of three human skulls lined up across the foreground.  Behind them a row of priests stand cloaked in cassocks, with arms folded, hands clasped across their chests.  They frame a window of sky, pierced by a wooden cross held aloft by four boys likewise attired in dark robes.   It is both heavy-handed and reticent, laced with black subversion and cold Russian geometry.

I say “midway through” as if Qué Viva México was a movie with a beginning and an end when, in fact, the film was never finished and exists now only in mangled reconstructions. It was to have been an epic six-part epic of Mexican civilization, translated onto celluloid by one of the most famous directors in the world, with a motley web of support that included Josef Stalin, Charlie Chaplin and Upton Sinclair.  Still considered by some to be Eisenstein’s masterpiece, Qué Viva México was undone by a coalition of over-ambition, financial mismanagement, Hollywood moguls, and Stalinist paranoia.

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By 1930 Sergei Eisenstein was the anointed king of socialist cinema.  His 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, which dramatized a 1905 mutiny by Russian sailors on the Black Sea against the Czar, shocked audiences around the world with its innovative style and lurid violence.  Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels is said to have later remarked that Potemkin was “a marvelous film without equal in the cinema,” and that after seeing the film, “anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik.” Battleship Potemkin was the beacon of the new cinema, the embodiment of the socialist imagination: realistic, graphic, stirring, overtly propagandistic, and all in the service of world revolution.

Eisenstein travelled to Europe and then Hollywood where he began development on several films for Paramount Pictures with collaboration from Charlie Chaplin.  Paramount’s executive, Samuel Goldwyn, wrote that he admired Potemkin “very much…what we should like would be for him to do something of the same kind, but rather cheaper.” None of these projects panned out and Eisenstein decided he wanted to go to Mexico at the exhortation of his friend Diego Rivera, whom Eisenstein had met when the Mexican painter visited Moscow for the tenth anniversary of the Revolution in 1927.  Rivera had told Eisenstein that his films were the cinematic equivalent to his own epic murals.  Chaplin suggested that Eisenstein talk to Upton Sinclair, the writer and a great admirer of Russian socialism.  The two drew up a plan whereby Sinclair would fund the production of a film about Mexico, which would then be released by Paramount.

Eisenstein arrived in Mexico in December 1930 with the title Qué Viva México, but no plan or practical knowledge of Spanish, Mexican culture or history.  He stayed with Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo at their house in Coyoacan and was inspired by their houseful of artifacts and folkart, and especially by Rivera’s scenes of Mexican history in his frescoes at the National Palace.  He then spent two months travelling around Mexico filming with a two-man crew.  As his assistant Grigori Alexandrov later recalled, Mexico “struck us as amazing…[At the end of the trip] we were ready to move mountains.”

Eisenstein is famous for Montage, a style that film history books always define with his name.  The style exemplified the cinema of socialist activism.  The power of film’s imagery was opened up and freed for the imagination.  No longer did shots simply statically illustrate action and characters, they became the story.  Eisenstein called montage “the nerve of cinema,” and described it as “an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots” [wherein] each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other.”

To Eisenstein, the entire country of Mexico was montage.  Perhaps this is why he loved it so much.  He was inspired by the montage of Mexico, not in the sense of edited images of daily life like the travelogue movie envisioned by Sinclair and Paramount, but in the way one sees life and death, old and new, Aztec goddesses and Catholic saints, in constant juxtaposition.  Mexico was made for Eisenstein’s camera and he appears giddy by the possibilities and creative freedom he enjoyed.  For the first time he was working outside the Soviet film system, with none of Stalin’s propagandists peering over his shoulders.

Eisenstein was fascinated by Mexico as a land where chronology was flexible and history was cyclical.  As Alexandrov remembered, “travelling across Mexico was like travelling across epochs of human history. The film’s prologue evokes this feeling of Mexico being a place outside the continuum of time, “The time of the prologue is eternity.  It might be today.  Or twenty years ago.  Or it might be a thousand.”  The vision here is of a foreboding past: stark silver and grays, harsh angles, dead faces, agave spikes.  Despite its ruin, the past dominates the present.  Eisenstein shoots Maya faces in profile against carved Maya reliefs in the ancient city.  We are astonished to see: it is the same face.  The same curve and hook of the nose, high noble cheekbones, rounded chin, even the same hairstyle.  It’s a simple juxtaposition, montage without the need of a cut, and it establishes the visual metaphor for all of Eisenstein’s Mexico.

Eisenstein found a land full of visual possibilities – purple, yellow, curved cacti, and angular stone, instead of the hard edges, steel, smoke, and ice of his native land.  In the next episode, Tehuantepec, filmed in the tropical south of Oaxaca, “time flows slowly to the accompaniment of the rustle of palm fronds.”  Bare-breasted native girls comb their hair, sitting in dugout canoes in regal indolence.  Freed from the rigidity of Soviet doctrine and Slavic hardness, Eisenstein seems to have been carried away by the easy exoticism of Mexico.  The film revels in the bare-breasted sun-soaked lazy sensuality of Tehuantepec.  Eisenstein forgets that Soviet art had officially rejected the subjects of sex and nudity as bourgeois and corruptive. The dream was taking over.  In this sequence, Soviet ideology in plainly on holiday.

It is no wonder that when Stalin received word of Eisenstein’s project, he decided it was time for the director to return to Moscow.  A crash of thunder came down from the Kremlin.  Upton Sinclair received a telegram from Stalin himself: “EISENSTEIN LOOSE (sic) HIS COMRADES CONFIDENCE IN SOVIET UNION STOP HE IS THOUGHT TO BE DESERTER WHO BROKE OFF WITH HIS OWN COUNTRY STOP AM AFRAID THE PEOPLE WOULD HAVE NO INTEREST IN HIM SOON.”  Sinclair, who was nervous that the shoot was going over schedule and over budget, and personally disliked the director (he complained in a letter that Eisenstein was a “sexual pervert [who hung around with] homos”), cut off funding and demanded that Eisenstein return to America with the footage he had already shot.

The final episode, “Soldados,” was to tell the story of the Mexican Revolution with a mammoth march of peasants across a bleak desert.  “The best material,” which Eisenstein had saved for last, had yet to be filmed.  But there was no more money, so Eisenstein sent the approximately 200,000 feet of film (or forty hours) back to Los Angeles, where he intended to return to complete editing on the unfinished film, and sailed back to Russia via New York.  It quickly became clear that Paramount had lost interest in the film and considered the footage worthless. Additionally, when Eisenstein returned home he discovered that his nemesis had been appointed head of the Soviet film department, and Stalin’s suspicions made international travel impossible for the remainder of his career.

Eisenstein received a note from Sinclair promising to send the negative on the next ship, but never did. Bits and pieces were cobbled together and dispersed throughout several ethnographic films and B-pictures over the next few years, and Sinclair eventually donated the remainder to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Eisenstein tacked the note up above his desk where it remained until his death sixteen years later.  In return, Eisenstein packed a trunk full of unwanted documents from the shoot and sent it to Sinclair, who was forced to claim it at the Customs Office.  When the trunk was opened in Sinclair’s presence it was found to be full of the director’s graphic homoerotic sketches.  Eisenstein was successful in embarrassing “the Puritan,” but while appearing unconcerned about the fate of the film, it appears to have rattled him.  He spent some time in a mental hospital in 1933, and did not make another film for seven years.  “I so loved Mexico,” he later wrote to a friend, “and it’s painful not to be able to express it in this film that is now destroyed…this whole affair broke my heart that I became disgusted with cinema.”  After Eisenstein’s death at the age of fifty, a scrap of paper with a sketch of a Mexican Calavera was found on his desk, evidently drawn just a few hours before the massive heart attack that killed him.

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Eisenstein was fascinated by the Mexican attitude toward death: how the Day of the Dead is a celebration, not a ceremony, how food and candy gobbled up by children carry the emblem of death.  He found in Mexico’s seeming preoccupation with death a defiance and subversion that pleased him, “an affirmation of the vitality of life.”   He wrote of Mexico, “At every step one sees birth mingled with death, in the immutable vision of a cradle in every sarcophagus, in the rosary at the top of the crumbling pyramid and in the hateful, half-erased words on a sculpted skull.”

If the film is about anything, it is about this cyclical continuum of life and death that Eisenstein saw as the essential characteristic of Mexican culture.  The film begins with the death of a culture: a Maya funeral amid the ruins of Chichén Itzá.  A new era is born, and Mexico is subsumed by Spanish imperialism and Catholicism, then by capitalism, class exploitation and dictatorship.  Eisenstein hoped to show the progression of Mexican history, from the death of the old ways to their rebirth in the 20th century. The last sequence completed, filmed during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City, depicts the whole of Mexican society in the guise of the dead.  Eisenstein filmed the costumed celebrants in the city, and “borrowed skeletons from the medical school in Mexico City, took them to the roof of the Hotel Imperial and dressed them up” as characters from the previous chapters, as well as generals, bankers, and archbishops.  At the end of the episode the city revelers all take off their masks, some to reveal human faces, others to reveal actual skulls.

In Mexico, Eisenstein saw artists like Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco reengaging their nation’s past and attempting to resurrect it.  Eisenstein, a great believer in Revolution, was excited by this and envisioned his film as a contribution to this project of restoring Mexican culture to its pre-conquest roots. The shot of the skulls from the middle of the film illustrates this project.  In the foreground, the skulls – the Calaveras, so ubiquitous in Mexican art and culture – embody Mexico’s past, its grand and enigmatic ruins, its most appealing and familiar national imagery.  They are towered over by the dark-robed Catholic wardens.  But despite their attempt to crowd out the sky and dominate it with their iconography, part of it remains clear, free from the imposition of dogma.  These are the three layers of Mexico as imagined by Sergei Eisenstein and visually translated into his cold Russian geometry.   The next shot shows a church set in a desolate landscape and towered over by a snowcapped volcano, unmistakably shaped exactly like one of the monumental pyramids of pre-Columbian Mexico.  The suggestion here carries on the implication of the previous frame.  Though Mexico has been outwardly colonized and Christianized, it remains, as Eisenstein begins the prologue in his script, “A kingdom of death/where the past dominates the present.”

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