, 2021-03-04 02:00:00,
Why did Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) and Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) never meet? It may seem like an odd question, but there’s a reason behind asking such a thing. Benjamin visited Moscow in the winter of 1926 and stayed for two months. He didn’t see Eisenstein, but did get to see his “old teacher” Vsevolod Meyerhold.
At least three other people were critical links in the chain that connected these two outstanding figures who shared an ideology and orientation during a turbulent century. The first is Asja Lacis, the “Russian woman” who made Benjamin travel all the way to Moscow, and the second is Sergei Tretyakov, a colleague of Eisenstein and a key figure of the Soviet avant-garde. Bertolt Brecht is the third person who brought these two together. Lacis introduced Benjamin to Brecht, and Tretyakov was Brecht’s closest “Russian friend.” We do not know if Tretyakov met Benjamin in person, but at the very least there is evidence that he influenced Benjamin’s essay “The Author as Producer.”
Tretyakov visited Germany for a lecture tour in 1931 and stayed there for six months, during which time he quickly became acquainted with Brecht. In an interview with a Swedish paper in 1934, the same year when Tretyakov published the translation of Brecht’s work on epic theater, Brecht said, “In Russia there’s one man who’s working along the right lines, Tretyakov; a play like Roar, China shows him to have found quite new means of expression.” Just a year before Benjamin released “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin spends the entire first half of “The Author as Producer,” written while in exile in Paris, on Tretyakov.
Naturally, Eisenstein and Brecht met several times and knew each other’s work well. Eisenstein first met Brecht in Germany in 1929. Their mutual acquaintance, Edmund Meisel, was the music director for the German release of Battleship Potemkin and also the music director for Brecht’s Man Equals Man (1926). Eisenstein and Brecht took the train back to Moscow together in 1932, and crucially, in 1935, they saw a performance in Moscow by Chinese actor Mei Lan-fan. The now famous term “alienation effect” (Verfremdungseffekt) first appeared in Brecht’s review of this performance, and in fact, Brecht had met Viktor Shklovsky, the founder of the concept of “defamiliarization” (ostranenie) in Moscow in 1932. Tretyakov, then a secretary of the…
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