Sunday, 21 August 2011

Eisenstein, Argento and the Occult

In November 2008 I travelled to Riga to present Monolog at a Butoh festival. I spent a whole day tracking down pretty much every single building designed by Sergei Eisenstein’s father, Mikhail Osipovich. Here are photos of just a few:

For a time Isaiah Berlin lived in this building:

Behind the baroque facades, these buildings were pretty banal: 

While taking these photos, all I could think about was Varelli, the fictitious architect in Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980):

Inferno features a plaque stating how Gurdjieff lived in Varelli’s New York building - the house for Mater Tenebrarum.

There has been much speculation about the relationship between Gurdjieff and Madame Blavatskaya, the founder of the Theosophical Movement.
Blavatskaya emigrated to New York in 1873 - Might Blavatskaya have partly inspired the 'Varelli' character in Inferno?

(Sergei) Eisenstein was certainly familiar with Blavatskaya.
In 1921 Eisenstein became a member of a Rosicrucian Lodge in Minsk founded by ‘Bishop Bogori’ - Boris Zubakin.
Later, when Eisenstein moved to Moscow, he became a member of a Masonic lodge, along with the theatre director Valentin Smyshlyayev, Pavel Arenskii (son of Anton) and the Mikhail Chekhov.
Eisenstein assigned part of his library to the ‘imprecise sciences’ (magic, cheiromancy, graphology etc.), including a copy of Eliphas Levi’s The History of Magic.

In his memoirs, Eisenstein writes of putting ‘as much ground as possible’ between himself and the Rosicrucians, Steiner and Blavatskaya.
However, it is worth noting that Theosophists like Blavatskaya shared an interest in comparative religion with many of the figures whose work Eisenstein engaged with in the period following 1928: the archeologist and linguist Nikolai Marr (whose ideas on the syncretic origins of language, derived from Aleksandr Veselovskii, bear certain parallels with Gurdjieff’s teachings - Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, founded in 1919, was supposedly influenced by Marr's ideas), the Classicist Olga Freidenberg and the biblical scholar Israil’ Frank-Kamenetskii.


  1. Funny, I don't remember much Art Nouveau architecture in Riga, but then I was only 12 when I visited. I think the interiors would have been 'cleaned' out during the Soviet time... but those facades are still amazing!!! Vigen

  2. Fascinating! I really need to visit Riga someday. Thanks for posting these photos.