Death of Sergei Eisenstein

Richard Cavendish remembers the events of February 11th, 1948

The body of Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, the most famous name in Soviet Russian cinema, was found on the floor of his Moscow flat on the morning of February 11th, 1948. He had died of a severe heart attack in the early hours, a few days after his fiftieth birthday. The body lay in state in the Hall of the Cinema Workers, beneath a gold-embroidered velvet pall and surrounded by a profusion of flowers, before being cremated on February 13th. The ashes were buried in the snow-covered ground of the Novodevichy Cemetery.

Eisenstein’s historical films were revered abroad and, ten years after his death, The Battleship Potemkin (1925), with its spectacular ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence of soldiers massacring innocent people, was voted the best film of all time in an international critics’ poll. In Eisenstein’s own country, however, Soviet cultural officialdom persistently criticised, hampered and insulted him. Of German-Jewish descent, he was born to a well-off family in Latvia, in Riga in 1898. The family later moved to St Petersburg. In 1917 the young Eisenstein joined the Red Army (his father joined the Whites) and later made a name for himself with experimental productions at the Proletkult Theatre in Moscow. His first film, Strike (1924), intercut scenes of Tsarist troops machine-gunning striking workers with shots of cattle being butchered in a slaughterhouse.

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