How the Great Sergei M. Eisenstein Lost His Virginity — and, Nearly, His Mind — in Mexico

How the Great Sergei M. Eisenstein Lost His Virginity — and, Nearly, His Mind — in Mexico
Peter Greenaway's "Eisenstein in Guanajuato" to depict the great Soviet director's Mexican adventure.
(© Submarine BVBA - Superprod)

Peter Greenaway has confirmed that financing is “99 percent in place” for his feature about the Soviet filmmaker Sergei M. Eisenstein’s legendary Mexican adventure.

Talking to Screen Daily at the Odessa International Film Festival, the 70-year-old veteran British filmmaker said that “Eisenstein in Guanajuato,” budgeted at around $6.1 million, should start preproduction in Mexico in September. It is being produced by the Dutch companies Submarine and Fu Works and the Parisian outfit Superprod, and will shoot in the silver-mining city of Guanajuato, two hundred miles south of Mexico City in Central Mexico.

Eisenstein (1898-1948) had already directed “Strike,” “Battleship Potemkin,” and “October” by December 1930, when he traveled to Mexico, via a sojourn with Charlie Chaplin in Hollywood, to make a film financed by Upton Sinclair, his wife Mary Craig Sinclair, and a group called the Mexican Film Trust. Influenced by conversations with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Eisenstein planned a six-part avant garde film spanning Mexican history and culture from pre-Conquest times through the 1910-20 revolution. He and his frequent collaborators Grigori Aleksandrov and the cinematographer Eduard Tisse shot between 30 to 50 hours of film before the Sinclairs and the Trust pulled the plug.

Denouncing Eisenstein as a renegade, the Soviet film industry forbade the importing of the footage after Eisenstein returned to Russia and effectively made him an internal exile for the next few years. The Sinclairs had the Mexican film cut by Hollywood editors into three short movies, which were released in the U.S. in 1933 and 1934. Eisenstein, who never saw these works, suffered a breakdown as a result of being taken off the project. In 1979, Aleksandrov edited 90 minutes of the footage into the film known as “¡Que viva México!”

Eisenstein’s journey to Mexico wasn’t entirely fruitless – he overcame his sexual block to lose his virginity there at the age of 33. “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” will trace his brief love affair with his Guanajuato guide and minder, Jorge Palomino y Cañedo, a young married historian of comparative religions from Guadalajara. They are believed to have met in September 1931 and to have traveled to Jalisco and Colima the following month, accompanied only by Tisse, since Aleksandrov was sick.

In her book “In Excess: Sergei Eisenstein’s Mexico,” Masha Salazkina has speculated that some of the sensual footage – nude girls with flowers in their hair, boys in hammocks, monkeys, parrots, alligators – of the “Sandunga” episode that follows the prologue in “¡Que viva México!” was filmed during the excursion to the coast near Colima, “where quite a lot of time was spent on the beach.”

“I regard [the Mexican trip] as a key situation to the many curiosities and peculiarities of this extraordinary gentleman, whom I consider to be the greatest filmmaker we have ever had the pleasure to know,” Greenaway told Screen.

He added that it would be difficult to find an Eisenstein lookalike for his movie. “He had a particular physiognomy which would be difficult to reconstruct, but we are certainly going to look for a first-rate actor who can impersonate him.” As well as fictional elements, the film will incorporate original photos and archive footage of Eisenstein at work.