Berlin: Peter Greenaway on How He Upset Some Russian Authorities With New Film (Q&A)

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Peter Greenaway

'Eisenstein in Guanajuato,' the first of two films Greenaway plans to make about the man, will be given its world premiere at the festival Feb. 11, the 67th anniversary of Eisenstein’s death.

Sex and death have been two regular bedfellows in the creative output of Peter Greenaway, 72, who often has stated that life consists solely of these two mostly bed-based activities. It seems entirely without coincidence then that the subject of the cult British filmmaker’s next film is the Russian cinema pioneer Sergei Eisenstein, in particular 10 curious days spent in the Mexican city of Guanajuato in late 1930 that helped fuel the Battleship Potemkin director’s own sex and death obsessions. Eisenstein in Guanajuato, the first of two films Greenaway plans to make about the man, will be given its world premiere at the festival Feb. 11, the 67th anniversary of Eisenstein’s death.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Greenaway — a resident of Amsterdam for 20 years, where he lives with his theater-director partner, Saskia, and their two children — about why the world needs to celebrate this wild-haired filmmaker and how the Russians get a little “overexcited” when yet another of their cultural icons turns out to be gay.

How long have you been working on Eisenstein in Guanajuato?

An awful long time, far too long. We normally work on a film for about as long as it takes to have a baby — nine months — but I think we’ve probably done three times as much as that and we’re not producing triplets either. It’s taken a long, long time to get it off the ground. Of course, it’s comparatively small, and I think our total shooting time for what is a 120-minute film was only 3.5 weeks.

Eisenstein famously went to Mexico to make a film, but it never materialized. What does your story tell of his time there?

We certainly recognized that this man is struggling to make a film there. But he is always fascinated — and I rather suspect like all of us — in sex and death. So he gets somewhat sidetracked, I suppose. The actual filmmaking only takes 10 days. A famous film Eisenstein made, October, is sometimes called in the West 10 Days That Shook the World, a reference to the 1917 revolution. So in a sense our secondary title is 10 Days That Shook Eisenstein.

There’s recently been some talk regarding supposed homosexual references in your follow-up film about Eisenstein and the Russians getting upset. What’s the story?

The homosexual references are actually in this film, the first one. There’s a relationship with a young man who was a teacher and professor, and that actually happened in Mexico. I can fully understand how there’s a confusion because the Russians themselves have been desperately confused, and indeed they did get overexcited by this notion that one of their great filmmakers was actually gay. And I think it’s the same shock-horror they had when they discovered Tchaikovsky was gay and indeed Nijinsky was gay and all those other great people.

So what happened?

The Russians were supposedly going to give us footage from their archives to appear in the second of the two films — which, just to confuse everybody, actually happened before the first, in 1929. But then they discovered who was going to give us the film and probably somebody stepped on his fingers and said, “Watch what you’re doing.” But there aren’t any homosexual details whatsoever in the 1929 script, so it all got denied in the Russian newspapers. In the Moscow Times, I think there was a headline, “Russia’s Film Foundation Denies Rejecting Greenaway’s Screenplay Over Homosexual Details.”

They didn’t have any objections with the references in Eisenstein in Guanajuato then?

Well, it’s got absolutely nothing to do with them. It’s financed by Mexico, Holland and people in Western Europe. Although it does have the homosexual relationship in it, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Russian finance or indeed Russian archives. It’s a big storm in a small teacup.

What’s the premise of the second film?

Initially it was meant to be a sort of television project. We were going to make five-minute films out of all the extraordinary people Eisenstein met. In 1929, he traveled from Moscow and went through Western Europe, Berlin, Switzerland, Paris, London, New York and traveled across America by train and ended up in Hollywood, where he was offered all sorts of projects, but they never came about. He met people like Einstein and James Joyce, Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, Greta Garbo, Erich von Stroheim, Disney. He became very friendly with Chaplin, swimming in his pool. And it was Chaplin, who had certainly left-wing if not directly communist sympathies, who suggested that Eisenstein should go to Mexico to make a documentary.

Why do you think Eisenstein deserves to be back in the public’s consciousness?

People ask why I’m so interested in Eisenstein and I say, “If cinema is dying, then we ought to be celebrating its greatest practitioner,” which is surely a line to get people excited.

Your past few films all have concerned artists. Has this been a conscious decision?

I think it probably is. I can think of nobody more valuable than artists, whether in the fact they make paintings or make films or whatever else they do. They seem to me to be a force for positiveness, for creativity, for looking forward. I’ve already set on my next film about Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who was only a shepherd boy and had no money and in 1903 walked from Bucharest to Paris. It took him 18 months, so we’re going to make a film about that journey.