Putin Provoking Director Peter Greenaway To Finland For His Gay Biopic

Picture: Elmer Bäck. © Submarine 2015

Elmer Bäck, a Finnish Swede, plays the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein in the biopic Eisenstein in Guanajuato. Picture: Elmer Bäck. © Submarine 2015

The British auteur, Peter Greenaway, will be this year’s major red carpet figure at the Espoo Ciné film festival (check out the highlights) with his latest venture about the iconic Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. First screened at the Berlin Film Festival in February, Greenaway’s film is a characteristically creative interpretation of the short period Eisenstein spent in Guanajuato in 1931 during a tour of Mexico, and stars a number of Finnish actors, including Elmer Bäck as the wild-haired Eisenstein.

Greenaway’s films are largely considered an acquired taste, and the director is known for his unashamed delight in theatricality, visual spectacle, and lush cinematography, as well as his relish for unabashed sexuality – which seems to infuse his films with the bawdy spirit of the historical paintings of his adopted country of residence, the Netherlands. Eisenstein in Guanajuato is no exception. Greenaway has chosen to focus on two aspects of the Soviet director’s life and oeuvre that are perhaps least well known – his journey in Mexico and his homosexuality. The film tells the story of the ten days Eisenstein stayed in Guanajuato, according to Greenaway largely engaged in a passionate physical relationship with his guide, the anthropologist Jorge Palomino Cañedo. In one erotic scene, Cañedo is depicted deflowering Eisenstein on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, after which he comically inserts the Red Flag into the director’s ravaged posterior.

The interlude in Guanajuato was part of Eisenstein’s fourteen-month adventure in Mexico, during which he filmed over 250 miles of reel for an ultimately unfinished project titled Que Viva México! Greenaway distills into his film something of the spirit that so engaged Eisenstein in his experiences of Mexican festivals and rituals, giving us a taste of how the famous Guanajuatense tradition of the Day of the Dead celebrations might have looked in November 1931.

In one erotic scene, Cañedo is depicted deflowering Eisenstein on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, after which he comically inserts the Red Flag into the director’s ravaged posterior.

Although some critics have already rejected Greenaway’s rather buffoonish and naive image of the Soviet director – who Greenaway claims as his idol and “the greatest cinematic practitioner we have ever seen” – the film has garnered much praise for its visual appeal, its raucous character, and for drawing attention to a little known and yet significant period in Eisenstein’s life and work. Greenaway may well over-simplify Eisenstein’s experiences in Mexico, but he essentially uses the passion of Eisenstein’s affair with Cañedo to symbolize what he sees as the enormous impact the journey through Mexico had on his work from the mid-1930s onwards. For Greenaway, this impact came through Eisenstein’s experience of the sensual, communal, and participatory nature of life in Mexico as he saw it.

Eisenstein’s journey to the Americas makes for a fairly surreal tale. (For those interested in reading further, a good account of it is detailed in Masha Salazkina’s In Excess: Sergei Eisenstein’s Mexico). After a failed attempt to make a film in Hollywood on the promise of Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Eisenstein – through the assistance of Charles Chaplin – was offered financial backing by a socialist author, Upton Sinclair, for a Mexican project which was underwritten by Lenin and ended abruptly in late 1931 on the orders of Stalin, who feared the great director might be deserting his homeland.

Beginning his travels in December 1930, Eisenstein first encountered the extraordinary festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City and shortly after filmed scenes of devastation in the wake of an enormous earthquake in Oaxaca. The sections he filmed for Que Viva México! included scenes of marriage and funeral in ancient and traditional communities, ceremonies of love and death, and terrible sacrifices consistent with his view of Mexico as “lyrical and tender, but also brutal.” No doubt also influenced by his friendship with Diego Rivera (another native of Guanajuato) and Frida Kahlo, Eisenstein constructed an image of Mexico that is no doubt still familiar to many who visit the country, including Greenaway: one in which the ancient and the modern, the lyrical and the violent co-exist in a stunning balance.

Interpreting Eisenstein’s Mexico experiences as pivotal in a humanist shift in the director’s work, Greenaway offers the theory that while Eisenstein’s pre-Mexico films were largely about ideology, his post-Mexico work was about people. It was in Mexico, according to Greenaway, that Eisenstein “learned about sex and death; he became humanized.” Again, although critics have opposed Greenway’s over-emphasis on Eisenstein’s sexual adventure in Mexico – some arguing that Eisenstein’s diaries tell of a far more worldly and sexually experienced life prior to his journey – Greenaway’s intention is to provide a sense of the reinvigoration and renewal that Eisenstein underwent in the Americas. At one point in the film Greenaway has Elmer Bäck pronounce this experience of revelation with a witty reference to Eisenstein’s 1927 film October: Ten Days that Shook the World, saying of his stay in Guanajuato: “I will consider these ten days that shook Eisenstein.”

On a personal and artistic level, Greenaway, born in Wales in 1942 and a resident of Amsterdam since the mid-1990s, clearly identifies with Eisenstein’s experiences as a cosmopolitan figure influenced by the differences in social and sexual mores often encountered when living abroad. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film has provoked the ire of the Russian film foundation for its focus on the homosexuality of this most iconic of Soviet directors. Greenaway, no doubt, is thoroughly enjoying this provocation of Putin’s imposition of current official Russian homophobia, which he has described as “a political and social phenomenon invented by a man who’s scared and wants to be in control.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film has provoked the ire of the Russian film foundation for its focus on the homosexuality of this most iconic of Soviet directors.

Significant from the Finnish perspective is that Greenaway’s film is partly funded by the Finnish production company Edith Film, and stars the three founders of the Finnish-Swedish theatre group based in Berlin, Nya Rampen: the lead actor Elmer Bäck, Rasmus Slätis who plays Grigori Alexandrov (Eisenstein’s assistant director who finally released a version of Que Viva México! in 1979), and Jacob Ohrman who plays Edouard Tisse (Eisenstein’s cinematographer).

Given Espoo Ciné’s long tradition in screening films about gay and lesbian relationships, the participation of Greenaway and the screening of his film at the close of the festival is not only a mark of the festival’s exceptional international profile, but is also another committed gesture from the organizers to the support of queer narratives in cinema.

All Greenaway quotes taken from article published in The Guardian March 30 2015 by Carmen Gray titled ‘Greenaway offends Russia with film about Soviet director’s gay love affair’.

More info

Eisenstein in Guanajuato is screened at the Tapioloasali in Espoo Ciné on Sunday 30.08.2015 at 20.00. The film is in English and Spanish with Finnish and Swedish subtitles.

More details about the Espoo Ciné programme can be found here.