Pin It
Elmer Bäck gets weird in the role of Sergei Eisenstien
Elmer Bäck gets weird in the role of Sergei EisenstienCourtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

The Berlinale film that pissed off Russia

Shunned in Russia due to its depiction of gay director Sergei Eisenstein, we speak to the actor who plays the Soviet great

Losing his virginity at the age of 33 amid a captivatingly strange world of death iconography transformed the psyche of Sergei Eisenstein – according to Peter Greenaway’s vision of the legendary Soviet director’s visit to Mexico. In what is certainly no conventional biopic, the British auteur has brought his trademark style of visually opulent, transgressive spectacle (see Gaultier-costumed masterpiece The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) to Eisenstein in Guanajuato, which has reportedly scandalised the Russian state film foundation with its exuberant depiction of the homosexuality of Russia’s founding father of cinema, and which is the first of two films about the pioneer (the second of which is set to start shooting this year). A revelation in the film is Finnish star Elmer Bäck, who told us how he threw himself into his first major screen role at the Berlin International Film Festival last week, just before the film’s world premiere.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato, and your performance especially, are so energetic and exuberant. Tell us how you developed this approach to bringing Eisenstein to life.

Elmer Bäck: At theatre school in Helsinki we had a lot of physical acting training and I’ve also done some modern dance performances, so this kind of acting was quite close to me. Peter works close to theatre on film – he likes wide angles and long takes. It was a very beautiful script and I could feel the energy pulsing through it. I’m also quite energetic as a person. There was a lot of talking in the film, and I felt the body had to also be there. It came with intuition when I read it.

Did playing such a revered figure from cinema’s history add pressure?

Elmer Bäck: Of course. When you’re playing someone that so many people have a connection with, everyone has a different thought about him, so of course some people may think I got it wrong. But what can you do about that? Everything – the language, and working with Peter Greenaway on a film about Sergei Eisenstein, in the end could have become so intimidating that I just had to forget about it and just go. And the screenplay was so rich. I thought okay I’m playing Eisenstein, but I’m also playing Greenaway’s Eisenstein. Biopics are always just a thought about someone. I don’t believe this idea of a biopic as telling the truth, because in one and a half hours you can’t tell a whole person’s life. You try to find the essence. This is an artist’s portrayal of an artist, and Peter writes about him like a friend.

I was reading that the Russian film foundation had some reservations about the film since it showed Eisenstein was gay. Do you know if there’s still resistance with the making of the second film?

Elmer Bäck: Yeah, as I understand there was something like this. This first film was not being funded by the Russian film fund but we are making a kind of prequel that’s called The Eisenstein Handshake and that would have been funded by them. But that is not around the same themes so it became kind of a confusion with them.

The sex scene right at the centre of the film between Eisenstein and his guide Palomino is quite explicit and also wonderfully funny. How important was it to show this very sexual side of him?

Elmer Bäck: Peter’s thesis was that something really big happened in him, that he was basically humanised by Mexico and the sexual experience was a very big part of that, as it is in all our lives. So in that sense it was important to give the space to it – to actually dare to show it and not shy away from it. This is my first really big movie role and performing this scene was a challenge – not so much whether it was a man or a woman but that you’re very bare, and you have to give it your all.

“Everyone has a different thought about (Eisenstein), so of course some people may think I got it wrong. I just had to forget about it and just go”

From theatre in Finland, how did you come to be cast as Eisenstein?

Elmer Bäck: I’ve had a theatre group for 12 years called Nya Rampen together with my best friends Rasmus Slätis and Jakob Öhrman, who actually play my best friends in the movie. We moved to Berlin in 2011 and we’ve been based here since, working with theatre mostly. But in 2012 I was in a pan-European TV series called The Spiral. The line producer was a Dutch woman, Karin S. de Boer, who also came on as the line producer for Greenaway’s movie. She knew that Peter was searching for his Eisenstein. It was just about Eisenstein’s picture from the beginning – she said that I looked similar. I sent my show reel and they liked it enough at least to give me a casting. I had two castings and that was that. 

As Greenaway’s films are always this visually extravagant and precisely composed, I’m wondering if he’s a perfectionist to work with?

Elmer Bäck: He is a perfectionist. But he’s been working with painting, and I think he looks upon the screen as a painting. Everything is very thought out – the background, the lighting and how things are with that. Then again, he wants life inside that. He’s not there to tell you precisely how to hold your hands, or where exactly a word should come out. I think what all really good directors do is create the set, and a world that is so strong that it’s easy to live in it, and as an actor you just feel how you should be in this world.