Battleship Potemkin

Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin was contracted on 1925 by the Government Commission established to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 1905. The members of the commission were mostly Bolshevik intellectuals and members of the radical proletarian culture movement/institution Proletkult. The film was envisioned to be an episode of a series of films, titled The Year of 1905, that were meant to depict and celebrate the revolutionary events in Russia. Battleship Potemkin is narrated through five parts, beginning with the sailors who refuse to eat rotten meat that was taken on board. The unrest is then intensified with the death of Vakulinchuk and later suppressed violently by the army.

Battleship Potemkin is an innovative film due to the way in which Eisenstein used montage, narrative, and typage. Typage is referred to a technique of selection that Eisenstein used to select the actors for the film. Typage essentially is a way of choosing actors who look right for the part, where external appearances are the key criteria. Typage presents a way of seeing social class in an individual rather than focusing on the psychology of one character.

According to Eisenstein the shot is a montage cell and what characterizes the shot is a conflict between two fragments. Conflict can appear both within the shot and within the frame. The juxtaposition of shots can manifest a conflict whose tension stimulates the spectator to grasp a conceptual connection or symbolic meaning. Eisenstein used the collision of images for dramatic purposes and also to demonstrate the tension between opposing forces (in Battleship Potemkin the conflict exists between the army and the sailors). In his essay “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form”, Eisenstein argues that the central basis of montage technique is the clash between independent shots designed to create an emotion but also to implant an idea in the mind of the spectator. Thus, the technique is used to generate new political insights and give rise to new ideas, concepts, and emotions. Just as history is driven by class struggle, for Eisenstein conflict is the fundamental principle of art and the experience of art is dynamic. Eisenstein’s montage technique is a collision of independent shots where sequential elements are not perceived as next to one another but one on top of the other. Shots in a montage sequence were understood to be more powerful since instead of just showing a sequence of events they build towards a climax.

Act IV “The Odessa Steps” depicts the massacre of Odessa citizens by czarist troops. The sequences in this act are characterized by collisions of movements and dramatic patterns.  Close-up shots are followed by several shots depicting citizens running down the steps generally left to right. The source of the terror is revealed in the next shot from a reverse angle depicting a horizontal line of troops carrying riffles.  Throughout the sequence of The Odessa Steps different shots of isolated figures (such as the woman who confronts the army with her dead son in her arms) are juxtaposed with shots of people running down the steps. Eisenstein depicts chaotic masses of people running and the organized troops orderly descending from the stairs. The power of the sequences of The Odessa Steps is achieved by the continuous juxtaposing images, contrasting long shots of soldiers and close up of citizens and contrasting shots from above and below (the perspective of the soldiers and citizens).

Another example of Einstein’s montage technique which juxtaposes images to generate an idea or emotion, is the famous three-shot montage sequence of the stone lions. The sequence consist of three separate shots of stone lions in different positions: the first is asleep, the second is awake, and the third is standing up. The sequence gives the impression of a sleeping lion awakening and then rising up, symbolizing the awakening of the Russian people. Eisenstein also played with the temporality of the scenes by stretching real time. In the scene with the baby carriage, the fall of the woman is stretched and repeated by montage. Eisenstein replaces real time with emotional time to emphasize the violence of the troops and the powerlessness of the people.  He compared the dialectical filmic process with a series of explosions of an internal combustion engine, driving forward its automobile. Montage allows the director to manipulate our perception of time by compressing and expanding real time (another example of this is the scene with the smashing of the plate where a four second montage of nine shots shows the sailor smashing the plate twice). In these instances the content determines length.

Battleship Potemkin begins with a more continuous and flowing narrative and the sequences become more and more discontinues as the conflict in the narrative is intensified. Eisenstein’s film has no singular central heroic character. Rather, the film focuses on the masses and collective action. The film has a collective hero—the Russian masses. The bad and the good are somewhat clearly indicated in order to produce emotions that would allow the spectator to sympathize with the sailors. The most common understanding of Battleship Potemkin is that Eisenstein directed the film as propaganda and to test his theory of montage. In his Essay “A Course in Treatment” Eisenstein stated that the aim of film is not to entertain but rather to make the audience help itself. Eisenstein had a very dynamic understanding of cinema and the role and perception of film, which allowed him experiment with montage as a way to produce new ways of seeing and new political ideas. With political goals in mind, Eisenstein manipulated historical events in the film in order to bring forth an understanding of history as a conscious practice.





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One Response to Battleship Potemkin

  1. keborrowman says:

    Jeta, thanks for your post on Eisenstein. You’ve highlighted, for me, the most interesting and challenging aspect to montage: the replacement of real time with emotional time. As you note, the content determines the length, but also repetition; thus, we see events and shots more than once. In one case, in The Odessa Steps, we actually see the mother walking down the steps to the child, who had been shot and fallen down behind her (or up the stairs). I note this not really for the sake of consistency, but to further what you’ve said, here, on the manipulation of time: it does not matter if it happens twice or if we see it in inconsistent ways. Rather, seeing it twice works to the effect of emotional impression, which you note is key to montage.

    (I can’t help but think that perhaps if Disney had utilized not incongruent shots from frame to frame, but montage, in its retelling of the 1899 newsboy strike in the 1992 classic Newsies [now on Broadway!], it would have amounted to more than a campy musical starring the young Christian Bale.)

    I wanted to look at a few moments in the film when women appear, given what you’ve set up for us on montage. It’s true that, in a certain way, women in the film are not positioned, with regard to the struggle, separately as the men. Indeed, the Tsar’s regime is the great equalizer, making no distinction in the suppression of a people. Still, women crop up in notable places. Again, this is not with difference or distinction (from men), but I think Eisenstein highlights women as mothers in order to invoke at least two things: 1) the brutality of the regime, and 2) the sacrifice of the mother/woman, or the willing to be sacrificed.

    Quickly, there are two scenes that I want to note where women are participators in the motivation of and support for revolution, respectively. Of course, there are no women on the Potemkin, so it is only upon arriving at Odessa that women are participators. There, however, in the crucial moments of a rally, a woman is on the soapbox. Secondly, in the preparation of the Potemkin to be sent to see, we see women primarily in the first several scenes of the gift giving. I don’t think this is a way for Eisenstein to assert either that this is the only form of participation, or that women are more suited for this sort of participation. Rather, not taking lightly that the film is considered propaganda, I think its an incitation to action from a population which (is still) considered having a particular, limited, and often non-violent role in revolutionary action.

    I’ve already mentioned the indiscriminate killing at the massacre, but let us be reminded of the mother offering her son, who is ‘very ill,’ to the regime before being murdered herself (as I’ll go into this further in a moment), debatably the film’s most notable and widely referenced scene.

    (Another form of indiscrimination of the regimes firepower is in the setting of the scene: a woman, with a veil drawn, appearing in some way disfigured (pocked), [who later lifts her veil to her nose], a woman in a white dress, whose right foot we never see, then, explicitly, a double leg amputee, smiling in the sun. These aren’t the only indications of the ‘disabling nature’ of an oppressive regime, and it’s not revolutionary, cinema speaking, to use disabled bodies, or women for that matter, for emotional points. Here, though, I’d rather stick to the point on women, as I think an awful lot of projection would have to occur to read into the presence of disabled persons, often more dramatically than the first two I mentioned.)

    Because I’m becoming long winded, let me now highlight three scenes which invoke sacrificial capacities. First (not in cinematic order), there is the woman, the mother, with the baby carriage, which is a more inactive sacrifice than the other two instances. Second, the head-mistress type woman gathers those around her (also mostly women, and perhaps one older man) to move as a literal huddled mass (she is also shot, of course). And, thirdly, the notorious scene of the mother, approaching the troops with her son. The set up, here, reminds me of Hugo’s Ninety Three, when the scream of the mother upon realizing the mounds in the window are her three children is enough for Lantenac to assure his arrest. Here, it is not just Lantenac’s sacrifice I’m thinking of, but the cries of the mother, “Take them out of it, or throw me in, too!”

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