'Eisenstein in Guanajuato': Berlin Review

Eisenstein in Guanajuato
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Vintage Greenaway

Peter Greenaway's latest semi-experimental, visually ambitious work explores the life-changing months 'Battleship Potemkin' director Sergei Eisenstein spent in Mexico.

Sex, death and Mexicans are the main protagonists of Eisenstein in Guanajuato, the latest unapologetic concoction of Netherlands-based British director Peter Greenaway. Again a flashily assembled meditation on some of the filmmaker’s favorite topics, this English-language feature was nominally inspired by director Sergei Eisenstein’s time in Mexico in the early 1930s, when he worked on the (later abandoned) film Que Viva Mexico!

The current leaders of Russia will no-doubt not be all that fond of Greenaway’s suggestion that what might have gotten in the way of his Mexican shoot -- and what would indirectly explain why the films the director made after he returned to the USSR were so different from his pre-Mexican films -- is the fact Eisenstein lost his anal virginity and got hooked on a local stallion hired to be his guide. As all of the 72-year-old director’s output from at least this century, festivals will be the best bet for viewers wanting to see this on the big screen, though the explicit film-history and gay angles might help introduce the idiosyncratic filmmaker’s work to niche audiences not necessarily familiar with the rest of the director’s oeuvre. 

The film opens in a typically playful and bombastic manner as Eisenstein (Finnish actor Elmer Back) is being driven through the Mexican countryside to Guanajuato, with the visuals moving back and forth between color and black-and-white; the screen’s occasionally split into three panels placed next to one another, which show the same thing with a slightly different timing or angle (a recurring motif throughout); and a voice-over that explains Eisenstein’s achievements before his arrival, chiefly among them the features Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October: Ten Days That Shook the World and all of them extremely violent (and silent, something the film omits to mention).

In typically Greenwayian fashion, the lead is naked not long after his arrival at the hotel. In the first of many declamatory speeches, played with theatrical aplomb by Back, Eisenstein explains how showers are a new thing for him, since Russians have baths and bathhouses, and also directly addresses his penis -- “Senor Dick, behave!” -- since the director’s sexual frustration is something that he feels feeds directly into his work. If it’s doubtful Eisenstein might have ever conducted such a conversation directly, Greenaway’s habitual approach is perfect for this material, constantly externalizing the director’s ideas about Eisenstein’s life and work and the way the two are connected in a way that speaks directly -- often quite literally -- to the audience.

The film’s main relationship is the one between Eisenstein, who calls himself a clown with his ungainly body, big head and feet (not to mention his unruly mop of frizzy hair), and his local guide, the handsome Palomino (a very suave and game Luis Alberti, the creepy cab driver from Morelia winner Carmin Tropical), who is married but who has no qualms about introducing the Russian to the pleasures of the siesta hour and anal intercourse. The bedroom scenes are handled with the helmer’s usual mix of explicit nudity and forthright crudeness and humor, the latter coming in the shape of Palomino’s short oral history of syphilis, delivered while he pops Eisenstein’s backdoor cherry.

Greenaway’s trump card is that he manages to connect Eros, Thanatos and Russian history quite literally, as the first 10 days of Eisenstein’s stay include not only the 14th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and the loss of Sergei’s virginity but also Mexico’s Day of the Dead (a major celebration in Guanajuato, which has a Museum of the Dead that can be seen in another sequence that’s a visual standout). It makes for a heady mix that clearly leaves a big impact on Eisenstein as a human being and as an artist, though those expecting a lot of insight into the disastrous making of Que Viva Mexico are likely to be disappointed, as Eisenstein rarely leaves the bedroom in this version.

Just like his rejection of anything resembling narrative realism, Greenaway again doesn’t aspire to anything life-like in terms of the visuals either, instead having fun with the possibilities offered by effects works and scenes shot (partially) in front of greenscreens to supplement the traditional location work and -- how could it be otherwise? -- some very flashy editing. A virtuoso tracking shot around the first floor of a lavishly columned lobby is especially noteworthy because it occasionally includes more than one shot of the actors, as if several possibilities of the scene coexisted at the same time. A backlit view from beneath the glass and wrought-iron floor of Eisenstein’s bedroom, with regular cinematographer Reinier van Brummelen’s camera looking upwards and almost literally seeming to X-Ray the bodies of those rolling on the ground above it, is a potent visual suggestion of the idea Greenaway is trying to see beyond Eisenstein as a physical being to unlock something of his soul. An unexpectedly touching scene between Eisenstein and Palomino’s wife (Maya Zapata) even manages to suggest something about the power of being transformed by love for both of them.

Production and costume design are extravagant and entirely in line with Greenaway’s previous efforts, while the soundtrack offers a motley collection of Prokofiev (of course!) and traditional Mexican songs.

Production companies: Submarine, FuWorks, Paloma Negra, Edith Film, Potemkino, Mollywood

Cast: Elmer Back, Luis Alberti, Maya Zapata, Rasmus Slatis, Jakob Ohrman, Lisa Owen, Stelio Savante

Writer-Director: Peter Greenaway

Producers: Bruno Felix, San Fu Maltha, Femke Wolting, Cristina Velasco L.

Co-producers: Liisa Penttila-Asikainen, Peter De Maegd, Guy Van Baelen, Wilfried Van Baelen

Director of photography: Reinier van Brummelen

Production designer: Ana Solares

Costume designer: Brenda Gomez

Editor: Elmer Leupen

Music: Sergei Prokofiev

Sales: Films Boutique


No rating, 104 minutes