KinoKultura: Issue 60 (2018)

Eisenstein as Ethnographer: Revisiting Imagery in Que Viva Mexico!

By John Hodgkins

Filmmaker Jean Rouch has been deservedly praised over the years for his creative and thought-provoking attempts to blur “the very cinematic distinction between documentary and fiction film in favor of a more ethnographic and imaginative integration” (Feld, 1989: 240). One thinks, for example, of his feature length films Jaguar (1954) and Me, a Black Man (Moi, un noir, 1957), both of which freely blend the ethnographic with the purely fictional. The inspiration for this quality of stylistic hybridism in Rouch’s work can be traced back to one of his major influences, Robert Flaherty, who professed the dictum that Rouch would eventually take to heart: “Sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth” (Scheinman, 1998: 193). Another filmmaker influenced by this dictum, it seems, was Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. At the encouragement of Flaherty himself, Eisenstein traveled to Mexico in the winter of 1930 with the intention of creating a travelogue over the period of a few months. Instead, the director stayed in Mexico for over a year, and what he produced during that time was not a travelogue nor a fiction film, which numerous critics have accused the resultant text of being, but a fascinating, famously unfinished amalgam of the two. Much like Flaherty before him and Rouch after him (two filmmakers with whom, regrettably, Eisenstein is rarely associated or compared) he discovered in Mexico that often straightforward documentary footage is wholly inadequate for capturing the rhythms, flavor, and overall spirit(s) of a people and their culture; sometimes, Eisenstein realized, it is necessary to utilize “lies” and stylistic artifice in order to capture a particular, if highly personalized, “truth” on film.

The film that ultimately materialized from Eisenstein’s Mexican sojourn was Que Viva Mexico! and in it the director walks a delicate line between subjective and scientific filmmaking, the results of which are by turns affecting and informative. By artfully uniting documentary footage with fictitious episodes, Eisenstein fashions an imaginative integration of fiction and nonfiction that attempts to cinematically envision Mexico’s affective aura—as experienced and interpreted by Eisenstein—of emotional and spiritual passion, collective tragedy, and ever-present danger. At the same time, however, Eisenstein never loses sight of his original goal of ethnographic documentation. He consistently suffuses the imagery in Que Viva Mexico!, both fictional and actual footage alike, with a wealth of ethnographic information regarding Mexican religion, customs, ceremonies and everyday activities. As Andrea Noble (2006: 175) observes, such blurring of the lines between reality and artifice would make Que Viva Mexico! “a bewildering experience” for numerous critics, who find themselves “unable to agree on how to classify the film: is [Eisenstein’s work] a narrative or documentary film, a treatise on film form, or is it a type of ethnography?” One might answer this question by proposing that Que Viva Mexico! is, in fact, all of the above: a formally innovative, challenging mixture of historical dramatization and what could be termed “expressive ethnography,” a work that both follows in the cinematic tradition of Robert Flaherty and anticipates the directorial aesthetic later employed in the films of Jean Rouch, thus making it a text to be valued for the very hybridity and complexity which have bewildered so many.
Problems of Montage

eisensteinOf course, the idea of recuperating Que Viva Mexico! as, at least in part, a kind of creative ethnographic document is not an altogether new one. Perhaps the first critic to address the topic in any depth was Joanne Hershfield (1998: 56), who suggests in her essay “Paradise Regained” that Eisenstein’s time in Mexico, his “collecting of over 170,000 feet of cinematic material, and his writings and drawings about his experiences may be considered as a form of ethnographic fieldwork.” She even justifies, quite convincingly, Eisenstein’s use of fictional constructs in the film, explaining that frequently “ethnographic filmmakers organize their films based on models developed in classical film narrative” (1998: 56). Rather than direct her critical eye toward the imagery contained in those thousands of feet of cinematic material, however, or the writings and drawings Eisenstein produced in Mexico, and the potential ethnographic value contained in these documents, Hershfield (1998: 66) expends much of her interpretive energy analyzing Que Viva Mexico! as “an example of the practice of montage theory”—that is, as a further elaboration of the montage practices pioneered by Eisenstein in such prior films as Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1927). A comparable approach is adopted by Chris Robé (2006) in his more recent studies of Que Viva Mexico!, in which he contends that “montage serves as a useful conceptual tool in analyzing the [director’s] Mexican footage.” [1] While remaining fully appreciative of the stimulating insights that Hershfield and Robè offer into the underlying editorial scheme of Que Viva Mexico!, one wonders, ultimately, at the wisdom of (re)positioning this work as a stepping stone in Eisenstein’s evolving theories of montage.  The reason for this is simple: Que Viva Mexico! represents the only entry in Eisenstein’s oeuvre over which the director did not have substantial editorial control. [2] Indeed, as Masha Salazkina (2009: 2) notes, Eisenstein “never lived to see any of his [Mexican] footage,” much less edit “a single sequence from it.” [3]

Eisenstein’s lack of involvement in the editing process can be primarily attributed to a series of political and financial disagreements he had with the film’s producer, the American writer Upton Sinclair, a falling out that ultimately left Eisenstein unable to finish filming Que Viva Mexico! to his satisfaction, and which would prevent him from gaining access to the footage he had exposed for the remainder of his lifetime. In his place, lesser filmmakers were called upon by Sinclair to shape the footage into short, commercial releases, and such lackluster films as Thunder Over Mexico (1933), Death Day (1933), and Time in the Sun (1939) were the result. [4]  It would not be until 1979, long after Eisenstein’s death, that the Mexican material was finally handed over to Russian hands, and Eisenstein’s former assistant GrigoriI Aleksandrov had the opportunity to assemble what he believed would be the definitive version of Que Viva Mexico! [5]. Julia Vassilieva (2010: 701) has astutely pointed out this version’s shortcomings, among them a reliance on “the principles of mature socialist realism aesthetics,” which would seem to cut against Eisenstein’s more radical and avant-garde impulses. Nevertheless, Aleksandrov’s assemblage does seem to adhere more closely to Eisenstein’s original vision for the project than any other incarnation, drawing as it does from the “cinematic blueprint” of sketches and outlines the director left behind.  Or, as Robé (2006) more succinctly puts it, despite the work’s flaws, “[o]ut of all the versions of the film, Aleksandrov’s seems to come closest to Eisenstein’s written scenario.” Thus, Robé (2006) concludes, one may watch Aleksandrov’s incarnation of Que Viva Mexico! and, with some confidence, make “inferences about the overall montage structure” the film might have taken had Eisenstein himself completed the filming and editing.

Such claims, though, are not entirely convincing. To begin with, it is important to note that a good portion of Eisenstein’s Mexican material was either missing or destroyed by the time it was finally delivered to Aleksandrov. Since Eisenstein could not have anticipated in his cinematic blueprint which scenes and sequences would be truncated or excised over the years, Aleksandrov was forced at various points during the reconstruction process to rely on speculation and his own sense of aesthetics, neither of which necessarily coincides with editing choices Eisenstein may have made under similar circumstances. An associate of Eisenstein’s, Ivor Montagu (1967: 129), summarized this dilemma concisely in 1969 when he observed that Eisenstein’s Mexican “stuff was mauled by other hands. It can never be reassembled as he intended.” Even if the footage had not been mauled by opportunistic hands, however, and had been returned to Aleksandrov in its entirety, there is still very little chance that Aleksandrov would have produced an authentic Eisensteinian text. Eisenstein’s oeuvre, after all, is one marked by groundbreaking invention and experimentation; if past is prologue, there is every indication that, once in the editing studio, Eisenstein would have used his copious notes and diagrams for Que Viva Mexico! as a springboard for triggering additional ideas and inspirations. As Aleksandrov concedes in his introduction to the 1979 version of Que Viva Mexico!, “We do not know what the great master would have done with the picture today.” In light of this admission, then, one begins to question the advisability of largely grounding one’s analysis of Eisenstein’s footage in its editorial composition—a suspicion only reinforced when one considers comments made by the director himself during the actual filming in Mexico. 

In her discussion of Que Viva Mexico!, Hershfield (1998: 58) maintains “Eisenstein did not consider the meaning of a single shot apart from its inscription within a ‘phrase’,” so consequently the most critically noteworthy and meaningful aspects of his films are the “dialectical juxtapositions of shots, sequences, and chapters.” While this observation is certainly applicable to Eisenstein’s early film work, there is evidence to suggest that his experiences in Mexico caused him to rethink and reassess his directorial philosophy. For example, in a letter mailed from Mexico to a film editor and friend, Esfir’ Shub, Eisenstein (1985: 47) remarked: “The living ethnography that surrounds me is far more fascinating than any cinema...” Later in the same letter he confessed, “I’m no longer the slightest bit concerned with problems of montage” (Eisenstein, 1985: 48). The famed formalist, it seems, was becoming more interested in examining the people and places around him than with the manipulation of images. Along with this newfound fascination with living ethnography came a change in Eisenstein’s stylistic sensibilities. As Yon Barna (1973: 176) tells us in his biography of the director, Que Viva Mexico! marked the beginning—and in some ways the apogee—of “Eisenstein’s preoccupation with composition within the frame [...] Eisenstein went to infinite pains to find the most expressive angles and compositional arrangements.” In other words, as Eisenstein’s desire to document the uniqueness and diversity of the Mexican culture he was encountering grew, so grew his concern with composition; suddenly, the manner in which people and places were represented within the frame was more important than how those frames were subsequently spliced together.[6]  Considering this burgeoning interest in image composition, and his waning enthusiasm for tackling the problems of montage, it would appear a careful examination of the imagery in Que Viva Mexico! might prove, in this instance, a more fruitful endeavor than a close reading of the film’s mobilization of montage theory; for if Eisenstein did set out to visually inscribe his text with a portrait of the living ethnography of Mexico, then it seems clear that the film’s true ethnographic value will be found not in Aleksandrov’s dialectical juxtapositions but in Eisenstein’s painstakingly devised angles and compositional arrangements.

Composing Mexico

eisensteinIn his aforementioned introduction to Que Viva Mexico!, Aleksandrov explains that the footage comprising the film can be divided into two categories: documentary and acted fiction. For the sake of greater specificity, the former group can be broken down even further into two sub-categories, which I would term “actuality” and “expressive” documentary footage. The actuality footage consists of rather straightforward images capturing the exotic plant and animal life Eisenstein discovered and wished to cinematically preserve during his stay in Mexico. As Montagu (1967: 133) has observed, one of the reasons Eisenstein ran afoul of Sinclair’s good graces was the impression that he “overshot;” that is, he wasted film by shooting “on the side” imagery that Sinclair deemed extraneous to the film’s fictional narrative threads. What Sinclair seemingly failed to realize, though, was that these “extrashots” (to use Montagu’s term) were important components of the comprehensive, descriptive picture of Mexico that Eisenstein was trying to paint (1967: 133). What may have seemed superfluous to Sinclair was to Eisenstein key in establishing the film’s vivid atmosphere: the cactuses and shrubs dotting the landscape, the strange birds and monkeys inhabiting the trees, and the panthers, lizards, and crocodiles prowling the ground beneath them.  Collectively these images create a richly detailed backdrop against which the film’s more expressive ethnographic examination of the Mexican people can then unfold.

In the films of the early Soviet cinema, there was a distinct trend toward valorizing and aestheticizing machinery over the men and women who built and operated it.  According to Inga Karetnikova and Leon Steinmetz (1991: 29), this trend was clearly evidenced in the first works of Eisenstein and his peers within the Russian avant-garde, works which advanced the notion “that only a ‘machine’ and what looks like a ‘machine’ could be beautiful,” and that therefore only a machine was deserving of lavish compositional attention. One thinks, for instance, of the close-ups of gleaming pistons and spinning train wheels featured prominently in Dziga Vertov’s  The Man with a Movie Camera, from 1929. All of this changed for Eisenstein when he arrived in Mexico. Eisenstein (1987: 239), who initially planned on making only a travelogue of his journey, abandoned those plans as he became progressively captivated by what he would term the “human landscape” of Mexico. Evidently, the director who had celebrated the curves and contours of Russian machinery was discovering that the human form could be every bit as aesthetically compelling, and he set about documenting those forms with the same rigor and enthusiasm he had displayed in his earlier film work. Eisenstein recorded the faces and figures of countless Mexican citizens as they performed a compendium of tasks, ranging from the quotidian to the ceremonial, and produced miles of film that would be of interest to any anthropologist conducting a study of Mexican culture. Never one to pass up the opportunity to experiment with and expand his cinematic vocabulary, though, Eisenstein chose to film this human landscape in a visual style that differed sharply from the straightforward actuality technique previously outlined; whereas a relatively dispassionate observational method of direction was perfectly acceptable for chronicling the flora and fauna of Mexico, the chronicling of the Mexican people would require for Eisenstein a compositional style which was far more impressionistic, one that allowed him to infuse into the text his own subjective, affective impressions and ideas along with ample ethnographic information.

eisensteinBarna (1973: 168) asserts that the facet of Mexico’s culture most intriguing Eisenstein was the perceived “intermingling of past and present,” or what Eisenstein understood to be the Mexican people’s strong identification and connection with their collective history and traditions.  Having ultimately rejected the travelogue format in favor of the more artistically liberating plan to create a poetic “Film-Symphony about Mexico,” in which he hoped to convey to viewers not only the look but the ambient spirit of the country, Eisenstein chose to incorporate into the text this personal perception of Mexico as a fusion of modernity and cultural memory through carefully executed compositions. The first of these expressive compositions appear in the Prologue of Que Viva Mexico!—an elegiac visual meditation that, the script informs us, “could be taking place today, or have happened twenty years ago or even a thousand years ago.” Throughout this prologue, the director fills the screen with the lyrically photographed features and figures of Mexican “natives,” who are all compositionally embedded into the architectural and natural landscape in a variety of suggestive ways. Eisenstein shows us a topless woman rowing a canoe along a forest river, splintered sunlight and the shadows from trees falling across her skin in a dappling play of light and dark; through the slender, finger-like blades of a palm frond, we see a young couple swinging leisurely in a hammock; bare-chested men are positioned along temple steps and walls as if they were simply an extension of the stone constructions; and the profiles of boys are photographed alongside the profiles of ancient statues with which they share a striking resemblance. These images, and others like them, are remarkable not only for their almost painterly beauty, but because of the dual function they serve within the text: these shots preserve for posterity the likenesses of some of the people and places Eisenstein encountered during his tour of Mexico, while at the same time expressing his developing theories about Mexican culture. By compositionally fusing or merging his subjects into their surroundings through evocative angles and depth of field, Eisenstein is able to cinematically corporealize his belief that present day Mexico is inextricably linked with the past, even the past of a thousand years ago; that is to say, he is able, in the words of Salazkina (2009: 22), to visually suggest “the continuity of pre-Columbian and modern culture in Mexico,” thus building a dual temporality into the his film’s imagery.  The people of Mexico, in Eisenstein’s portraiture, are an organic component of the country’s ecology as autochthonous and perennial as the very trees and leaves with which they are filmically united; and the country’s youth are, figuratively speaking, as ancient and timeless as the ruins and statues with which they are compositionally melded. Since these ruins and statuary linked to the young people are, by and large, of a religious nature, it would seem Eisenstein is also making an observation regarding the spiritual heritage which (as he sees it) imposes itself on daily life in Mexico. The issue of Mexico’s religious lineage would be referenced more directly and potently, though, in a later segment of the film entitled “Fiesta.”

Que Viva Mexico! is divided into four distinct chapters, or “novellas,” as Eisenstein preferred to refer to them, bookended by a “Prologue” and “Epilogue”. As Noble (2006: 175) explains, each chapter corresponds “to different elements of Eisenstein’s concept of the Mexican ‘experience’ of history, from the pre-Columbian ‘primitive’, through the feudal and Catholic colonial period, to the revolutionary and the modern, combining different orders of representation across the four novellas.” All of which, considered collectively, Eisenstein (1975: 251) hoped, would form “a rhythmic and musical construction and an unrolling of the Mexican spirit.” In the second of these, “Fiesta,” Eisenstein documents the annual Feast of the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe, which in addition to being a holy celebration also serves as an annual reminder—the film tells us—of “Spain’s conversion of Mexico into a colony of bloodshed and suffering.” While the notion of a festival representing both a holy occasion and a remembrance of bloodshed may seem contradictory at first, historian Frank Brandenburg clarifies the apparent incongruity in his book The Making of Modern Mexico.  According to Brandenburg (1964: 31), dating back to the colonial epoch beginning in 1519 there were essentially two Catholic churches vying for influence in Mexico: one, embraced by the Spaniards, which valorized the “sophisticated European and creole honored white-skinned Virgin Mary,” and another originating with the “Indians” that venerated “the dark-skinned Lady of Guadalupe.” The former church, armed with soldiers and weaponry to reinforce its beliefs, systematically oppressed and persecuted the latter to varying degrees throughout the years. Under that oppression, the Feast of the Holy Virgin emerged as an opportunity for both worship and mutual consolation, a chance to honor the dark-skinned Lady of Guadalupe while acknowledging a long and arduous struggle for religious self-determination.  Impressively, Eisenstein is able to cinematically convey these two dimensions of the feast within a single shot in “Fiesta.”

eisensteinThe most startling and powerful composition in “Fiesta”—and perhaps in Eisenstein’s entire oeuvre—consists of a line of Mexican monks, all clad in black robes, heads bowed in prayer. Behind the monks, slightly above them within the frame, a group of children hold a large cross in the air. At the bottom of the frame, in the foreground, a row of white skulls gleams in the sunlight. This composition shows modern day Mexicans actively engaging in worship, but it also sets up a visual analogue that metaphorically embodies their repressive religious history: a tall, vaguely ominous cross (a symbol most frequently associated with the traditional Catholic church, championed by the Spaniards) is bearing down on monks attempting to pray to the blasphemous dark skinned Virgin; and the result, it seems, will be a row of ghostly, glaring skulls. Once again, Eisenstein has presented us with a scene possessing legitimate ethnographic value (footage of very real people engaged in a very real religious event), colored and laced through with his own subjective interpretations (religious ceremonies are inextricably linked to one’s religious history). No wonder, then, that a critic such as Robé (2004: 26) could interpret such images less as a documentary record of Mexican culture than a more personal, far-reaching exploration by Eisenstein of “the many uses of Catholicism” and its attendant rituals. Yet again, the famed Russian formalist is scumbling the boundaries between reality and artifice, between scientificity and subjectivity, and thus leaving his work open to a host of differing reactions and readings.

Eisenstein’s final, and most playful, use of what I have been calling expressive ethnography in Que Viva Mexico! occurs in the film’s epilogue, when he depicts a carnival held in Mexico City in honor of All Soul’s Day, or the Mexican Day of the Dead. Drawing on everything from the “incomparable compositions” of Edgar Degas to the Disney cartoon Danse Macabre, Eisenstein films the festival’s activities in a vivid and lively style, prominently featuring skulls made out of candy and skull masks in the foreground of many shots (Eisenstein, 1972: 6). Deliberately echoing his earlier skull imagery in “Fiesta,” but with a lighter, more mirthful touch, the director plays the cheerfulness of the Ferris wheel, carousel, and dancing men and women against the grotesquerie of the faux skulls in order to suggest a palpable admiration for the Mexican people’s ability to persevere, to triumph over death through love and laughter; after centuries of conquest, colonialism, dictatorship and revolution, Eisenstein’s compositions suggest, the citizens of Mexico are literally able to celebrate life in the “face of death.”

Eisenstein concludes the All Soul’s Day epilogue with a fictional, rather radical flourish: bourgeois attendants of the carnival, dressed in everything from tuxedos to ornate military uniforms, remove their skull masks only to reveal that they are members of a “doomed class” with actual skulls for faces. Eisenstein borrowed the skeletons needed to film this sequence from a medical school in Mexico City, and James Goodwin contends that he did so in order to fashion “a critique of contemporary Mexico, an act of unmasking which represents the continuation of class struggle” (Hershfield, 1998: 62).  Although Goodwin’s interpretation is compelling, it is equally possible to view Eisenstein’s finale more positively: specifically, as a celebration of the victories already won by Mexican revolutionaries, who first began their struggle for social justice in 1910. This latter reading—that the unmasking is less a critique than a commemoration of those despots already deposed by revolutionaries, like the dictator Porfirio Diaz—becomes even more plausible when one considers the scene in context with the other fictional threads that Eisenstein weaves into Que Viva Mexico!  In those fictitious episodes, Eisenstein portrays the pre-modern Mexicans as a genuinely strong and peaceful people, who are eventually driven by exploitation and repression into instigating a heroic and successful rebellion. Eisenstein’s representation of the “native” Mexicans in these passages is so adulatory and rhapsodic, in fact, that several critics would ultimately accuse Eisenstein of overlooking the complexity and heterogeneity of Mexican society in favor of a pre-conceived mythical archetype.

Narrativizing Mexico

Eisenstein intended the four fictional or acted storylines in Que Viva Mexico! to be a kind of poetic, polyphonic reenactment of events in Mexico’s history ranging in time from the “primitive” epoch to the modern, through which he planned to demonstrate—both explicitly and subtextually—how the country’s living history infused and informed the behaviors and beliefs of present day Mexicans (Eisenstein, 1985: 47). However, as Noble (2006: 179-180) observes, some scholars have viewed Eisenstein’s overtly impressionistic, idiosyncratic directorial approach as casting “an exoticizing gaze on Mexico,” one which inadvertently “elides the complexities of the cultures that it seeks to represent.” For example, Hershfield (1998: 62) argues that Eisenstein’s Mexican footage “reduces a number of complex and relatively advanced societies to the realm of an isolated and rural aboriginal culture living in a mythic paradise.”  She goes on to aver that the “mythical Indian, who personified for the director the hypothetical links between past, present, and future, barely even existed in Mexico in the 1930s” (1998: 66). In other words, Hershfield and company believe Eisenstein is guilty of what David Spurr (1993) has labeled idealization—that is, that  colonial and imperial impulse to view so-called native or primitive peoples not as they are, with all of their various dimensions and diversity, but as one wants to see them. For example, the concepts of the “noble savage” and “honest Indian” could thus be said to represent such acts of idealization.

eisensteinIn the case of Que Viva Mexico!, such imputations of idealization appear, at times, to be justified. Karetnikova and Steinmetz (1991: 4) theorize that Eisenstein had an “imaginary Mexico” which he mentally constructed throughout his youth, and there is some evidence to suggest that in Que Viva Mexico! he attempted to visually enact that figmental construction on-screen. For instance, in his memoirs, Eisenstein (1995: 413) speculated that the Mexican plains must be very reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, and indeed in Que Viva Mexico! Mexico’s pre-modern epoch is characterized as something akin to a mythological utopia.  Similarly, it seems no coincidence that Eisenstein chose to end his film with footage of the Day of the Dead festivities when, in actuality, it was an old photo of a Mexican hat shop (whose front window was decorated with a line of skulls dressed in hats, ties and collars) that triggered his fascination with Mexico in the first place. Acknowledging these aspects of idealization ingrained into the fictional passages in Que Viva Mexico!, though, does not mean that one should therefore dismiss them as containing no ethnographic value; for it is within these idealized fictitious scenes that Eisenstein includes some of the film’s most invaluable ethnographic information.

The filmmaker generally credited with pioneering the fictionalized recreation or re-staging of reality before a camera in order to cinematically preserve cultural practices and customs is, of course, Robert Flaherty. The dramatic reenactments of Que Viva Mexico! owe a great deal to the “salvage anthropology” of Nanook of the North (1922), but they also differ from Flaherty’s work in one fundamental way: whereas Flaherty always presented the action in his film as if it were unfolding naturally before the lens, without directorial mediation of any kind, Eisenstein makes his authorial presence felt by including brief introductory comments at the beginning of each of his filmic novellas (Nowell-Smith, 1996: 323). During the opening of the “Fiesta” chapter in Que Viva Mexico!, for instance, Eisenstein makes reference to the “action” of the “story” that we will witness in this section of the film; and in a segment titled “The Sandunga,” Eisenstein suggests that the ensuing tale about a woman’s wedding might actually be a young girl’s “daydream of the future” (Loizos, 1993: 58). The effect of these qualifying introductions to the narrative portions in Que Viva Mexico! is to cue viewers to the fact that what they are watching is not unvarnished, unmediated reality, but rather a “story” or a “daydream;” the idealized images are intended to capture and express the affective cultural aura of Mexico as Eisenstein understood it, and not be taken literally. That is also why Eisenstein drew upon the influences of Mexican artists like Diego Rivera, Olga Costa and Miguel Covarrubias, not to mention the artwork of the Mayan and pre-Columbian eras, in the design of his film’s mise-en-scène: just like the paintings and sculptures he is visually alluding to, Que Viva Mexico! is clearly intended as a conjectural interpretation of Mexican society, and not a mimetic reproduction. Or, as Noble (2006: 183-194) puts it, Eisenstein troubles the idea that his film may be straightforwardly viewed as visual evidence of Mexican society, and instead invites us to read the footage as a kind of “trace of contact” between the filmmaker and Mexican culture. Where Eisenstein does follow in Flaherty’s footsteps, though, is in his layering of these self-described stories and daydreams with copious and diverse ethnographic details, which thereby give his fictionalized portrait of Mexico—like the portrait of Eskimo life in Nanook—an anthropological and ethnographic resonance that would be missing from a more traditional, dramatic feature film on the subject.

Jean Rouch once claimed that his primary goal was to “create a cinema that is simultaneously ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’,” and one could argue that both of those qualities are present in the narrative filaments in Que Viva Mexico! (DeBouzek, 1989: 304). If these fictitious plots are the skeletal frame which give the film a compelling structure, then Eisenstein fills in that structure, and gives the film a scientific freight, with pieces and parcels of ethnographic truth. In “The Sandunga,” under the pretext of telling the tale of a young woman’s courtship and marriage, Eisenstein is able to instruct us on traditional Mexican customs (mothers are the matchmakers; a woman must accumulate a dowry before marrying) and document the activities and ingredients that go into a formal wedding day, including the food preparation, the raiment and pageantry, and the ritualistic ceremony itself followed by a feast and celebration. Similarly, in “Fiesta,” Eisenstein uses the stirring enactment of a bullfight as a guise for scrutinizing the pre-fight preparations of the matador (his customary visit to his mother; his elaborate dressing routine), and the standard post-fight practices (matador takes a bow while fans throw hats containing money into the ring). And in “Maguey,” Eisenstein visually catalogs the procedures for extracting a liquid from cactuses and transforming it into a fermented drink called pulque, and he even suggests some of the special occasions at which such a drink might be consumed.

When considered collectively, then, and in conjunction with the actuality and expressive documentary footage discussed earlier, these kernels of truth that Eisenstein laces artfully into the dramatized portions of the text have the effect of elevating Que Viva Mexico! beyond the realm of mere historical fiction, and into a category that is altogether more idiosyncratic, informative, and ethnographically meaningful.  Instead of simply telling a story (or stories) set in Mexico, Eisenstein attempts to suffuse his imagery with a detailed survey of the multitudinous ceremonies, festivals, functions, rites and quotidian behaviors that he witnessed during his stay in Mexico.  Instead of photographing certain events and activities in an ostensibly objective travelogue style, creating a cinematic inventory of sights and experiences, Eisenstein chooses to compose his shots with suggestive angles and depths of field in an attempt to convey not only the look but the feel (as experienced by the director) of Mexico, its culture, and its history. In the process, he creates a rich filmic tapestry that is neither fiction nor nonfiction, exactly, but a film symphony that functions equally well as dramatic entertainment or visual ethnography.

Of course, this is not to argue that Que Viva Mexico!, for all its fascinating and challenging experimentation, is not also—at points—an undeniably troubling viewing experience. Take, in example, those scenes in “Maguey” during which Eisenstein seems to put the safety of his film subjects in danger, as when three young men are buried in sand up to their shoulders and horses race by at breakneck speed, or when Eisenstein uses real bullets in a staged gunfight, one of which is reputed to have gone astray and accidentally killed a Mexican woman. At such moments, one cannot help but wonder why a director professing such admiration and affection for the Mexican people would deliberately put them in jeopardy during the course of filming. One possible explanation for this evident recklessness may be found, once again drawing from Spurr (1993), in the concept of insubstantialization. Insubstantialization refers to the process by which an explorer, artist or writer comes to view a foreign land and its inhabitants as an insubstantial backdrop for an inner journey, rather than literal, individual entities. Some scholars have theorized that Eisenstein used his time in Mexico as an opportunity for self-exploration, during which he may have grappled with his theretofore repressed homosexuality;[7] and Jay Leyda and Zina Voynow (1982) even posit that the images of cruelty found in Que Viva Mexico! and in the director’s Mexican sketches were Eisenstein’s attempts to come to terms with his malevolent father. If these various scholarly assertions are even partially accurate, then there is every reason to suspect that Eisenstein engaged—on either a conscious or subconscious level—in  a degree of insubstantialization with regard to the Mexican people. This insubstantialization would, in turn, explain Eisenstein’s willingness to endanger his subjects in the name of filmmaking: for, as Spurr (1993: 142) explains, on an artistic inner journey it is the construction of personal drama (in this case, the film) that is of primary concern to the artist, and not the “baseless fabric” (i.e., the Mexican people) with which that drama is constructed. In the end, then, while it is difficult to deny that the eventual result of Eisenstein’s journey of self-exploration, Que Viva Mexico!, is in many ways a moving (if flawed and incomplete)  work of art and an important milestone in the director’s development as a film artist, one must necessarily temper one’s enthusiasm for Eisenstein’s substantial achievements with the knowledge that his Mexican production reportedly cost an innocent woman her life, and put far more participants in harm’s way. Cinematic immortality purchased, in part, with all-too-mortal flesh and blood.

Conclusion: Hybridity and Poetry

Joanne Hershfield (1998: 57) has described Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! as “ethnography staged as fiction film,” and the characterization is an appropriate one. Following and elaborating upon the tradition established by Robert Flaherty in such films as Nanook of the North and Man of Aran (1934), Eisenstein fuses non-fiction footage with passages of staged reality in Que Viva Mexico! to create a text that is neither traditional documentary nor feature film, but a provocative amalgam of the two. Some have tried to recuperate this hybrid work as an example of Eisenstein’s evolving theories of montage, but due to the project’s “fragmentary and incomplete nature,” to use the phraseology of Chris Robé (2006), this essay has focused instead on the film’s visual construction, which is the only aspect of production the director had direct control over; for it is within the complex visual design of Que Viva Mexico!, painstakingly planned by Eisenstein, that the film’s ethnographic value truly lies. Eisenstein employs quasi-actuality photography, expressive and suggestive compositions, and detailed historical and fictional reenactments in Que Viva Mexico! to create a portrait of Mexico that is both emotionally affective and factually informative; in addition, Eisenstein skillfully encodes into the text his own ideas and observations regarding Mexican culture and history.  What all of these various cinematic maneuvers and machinations ultimately amount to, when viewed as a whole, is an ethnographically rich film that tells us as much about the filmmaker and his perceptions as it does about the people and places he filmed. Que Viva Mexico! is a film as concerned with visual lyricism as it is with scientific observation, and for this reason it may be considered a forerunner to the ethnographic “film poetry” later developed by Jean Rouch.



1] It is worth observing, however, that Robé (2006) pays more attention to the formal elements contained in each composition than does Hershfield. Employing Eisenstein’s theory of “overtonal” montage as a critical lens, Robé is attentive to “the dominant and residual montage elements operating both within each shot as well as those operating between them.”

2] Although, as Robé (2006) observes, Eisenstein’s earlier films were occasionally “re-edited due to both internal political reasons imposed by the state and the commercial mandates of creating international appeal in foreign markets.”

3] Pier Paolo Pasolini, no fan of Eisenstein’s, would in fact remark that all of the Russian director’s “films are failures, with the exception of Que Viva Mexico!, because he didn’t edit it” (Vassilieva, 2009: 693).

4] As Andrea Noble (2006) points out, Eisenstein’s Mexican footage would also be incorporated into Eisenstein in Mexico (1933), Mexican Symphony (1942), and Eisenstein’s Mexican Film: Episodes for Study (1955). 

5] My analysis of the film is based on this 1979 version.

6] This stylistic trend would continue throughout the remainder of Eisenstein’s career: his final three major films—Alexander Nevsky (1938), Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944), and Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1946)—are all more compositionally dynamic than those made prior to Que Viva Mexico!

7] This notion was colorfully explored in Peter Greenaway’s film Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015).

Works Cited

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Brandenburg F. (1964). The Making of Modern Mexico. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

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Hershfield J. (1998). Paradise regained: Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! as ethnography. In B.K. Grant and J. Sloniowski (eds), Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

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John Hodgkins is the author of The Drift: Affect, Adaptation, and New Perspectives on Fidelity, and his essays have appeared in such publications as Adaptation, Film and History, Journal of Popular Film and Television, and Screening the Past, among others.  He is currently Assistant Professor of English at CUNY-Borough of Manhattan Community College.

John Hodgkins © 2018

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Updated: 2018