“There is no art without conflict,” Sergei Eisenstein (1926) once wrote, and Battleship Potemkin (1925) is a typical illustration of a film that led to become a sign for revolution. One can closely analyse and describe how this particular work attempted to form a “new cinema” through critically looking at the films theme/ideology, narrative structure, and filmmaking techniques – with paying close attention to the Communist ideology, Marxism, Futurism, and the use of propaganda and montage.
Cinema in the 1920’s was an important tool for Communism, and not many understood this better than the ruling leaders of the Soviet Union. The early Soviet films and film makers can commonly be seen as “artistically original- demonstrating new, innovative cinematic techniques.” (Kruger, 2003: 3-4) However, as far as the ruling leaders were concerned, these films would perform as propaganda to merge the revolution and continue to further extend the word of its victory.
In 1925, the year in which the film was produced, Russian society looked back on the 1905 Revolution in the light of the knowledge of a triumphant revolution ushering in an era of great change its society. October 1917 brought upon a huge wave of revolutionary potential in all spheres of life, including the arts – an aspect in which one needs to also consider when analysing this film. As Russian employees endeavoured to build the basis for a ‘new society,’ artists found themselves not only motivated by the successful outcome and achievements of the revolution but also able to build up on fresh creative techniques to reveal that inspiration. One can see this in Battleship Potemkin.
Presently as the new state deliberately intended to drastically transform economic and social life, so did the Bolshevik Party (the communists), who believed that; as well as art, but culture and entertainment needed dramatic change too. The Bolsheviks noticed and saw society growing through conflict: “the revolution of one conflict; opposition to tsarist oppression led to a new conflict – defending the new soviet republic whose resolution led to a further conflict”; (Kruger, 2003: 5) building the ‘new’ Soviet society.
On the subject of film techniques; “Eisenstein relates this to non-literary “writing” in pre-literate societies,” (Fabe, 2004: 2) such as the earliest use of images in sequence which are consequently in “conflict.” Because the images are relating to each other, their collision forms the meaning of the writing. Likewise, he explains “this phenomenon as dialectical materialism,” (Fabe, 2004: 2) which will be further discussed in this essay. Eisenstein then argued that the new meaning that emerged out of “conflict” is “the same visible fact found in the course of historical events of social and revolutionary change” (Fabe, 2004: 2) – a clear representation in this film. Einstein’s clear visualization was seen through movement and the clashing and opposing of ideas (conflict) to construct and create a new meaning overall.
The dramatic and huge change that came with the ‘conflict’ from the revolution consequently provided both a challenge and an opportunity for artists and film directors/producers – as they wanted to rejoice and celebrate the “new Russia.” This was inevitably done by trying out new techniques, styles and idea’s – such as in Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein used this propaganda film to experiment and test his theories of using montage (editing), in a way in which would inevitably create the greatest emotional reaction and response in the audience.
In the 1920’s there was a scarcity of nearly all means for producing a film, especially the most important ingredient; film stock. “Using already produced films to re-edit with new inter-titles to ‘improve’ their content was common.” (Fabe, 2004: 4) However, as established earlier in this essay, the Soviet state needed to build its own film production industry which could productively dramatise the revolution and correctly express its message. Without ignoring the influence effect of already produced films before its time, there are evident links between the rapid cutting in (a D.W. Griffith film) Intolerance’s (1916) ending and the kinetic editing of Battleship Potemkin. “Eisenstein freely admitted the influence of montage through D.W. Griffith’s films.” (Neuberger, 2003: 1)
As Neuberger (2003) explained, however, Eisenstein did dispute that montage, especially intellectual montage which will be discussed further on, is “an alternative system to continuity editing which was the basis for his influence of D.W. Griffith.” Where, he then went on to argue that Montage is, as identified, conflict (new ideas, emerge from the collision of sequence) and that “the new emerging ideas are not innate in any of the images of the edited sequence.” (Kruger, 2003: 7) It is clear that his understanding of montage thus portrays Marxist dialectics. Other film technique concepts feathering off montage that were evident in this film to the viewer can be seen as as Imagism- “The idea of associated concrete images creating a new (often abstract) image” (Petousis, 2011), Futurism -“New arts based in rebellion of old arts” (Petousis, 2011) or Cubism’s – “The attempt at synthesizing multiple perspectives into one painting.” (Petousis, 2011) This can all be seen in the general message of Soviet Cinema and through Contemporary Art.
Montage, juxtaposing images by editing, was one of the turning points to “new cinema” and is what grabbed the viewers attention to heights never reached before at this time in history. During the 1920s, the Russian film directors and theorists – Eisenstein and Vertov – demonstrated the technical, ideological and artistic potentials of montage editing. Eisenstein’s principles of montage were not only imperative to the viewer’s entertainment but were imperative to the development of film history- “film language and to cinema’s parting from other art forms into its personal sphere.” (Neuberger, 2003: 2) While this film was based largely on montage editing principles whilst sacrificing some narrative concerns, the film happens to detach the viewer from what is happening around them in reality to adsorbing ones full attention on the screen by continuously feeding off ‘attractions’ or ‘stimuli.’ Despite my claims about the film’s faultless and brief example of narrative structure above, Battleship Potemkin can definitely be seen as an uneven and uncomfortable viewing experience. Especially for us viewers being so normed to film techniques of the 21st century and now having to grasp this film.
Lev Kuleshov started formulating ideas about the result of montage, to which we are familiar with as ‘The Kuleshov Effect.’ One can explain this briefly by stating this as being the idea that “individual shots need not have meaning by themselves and their meaning is created by juxtaposition with other shots.” (Peppiatt, 1996: 1) A good example can be seen when Hitchcock explains the Kuleshov Effect to Fletcher Markle. (1964) on youtube “Hitchcock love bikini’s” as I have posted on the tutorial discussion group. In briefly understanding this effect, the ‘interframe’ characteristics take priority over ‘intraframe’ characteristics; or, as I understand it, the editing is more imperative in the building of meaning than the mise-en-scene is. As Peppiat (1996: 3) explaines; Eisenstein developed the theory by Lev Kuleshov further; identifying five different ways to use montage, as can be seen in Battleship Potemkin,
Metric – “Where the editing follows a precise number of frames, cutting to the next shot no matter what is happening within the image.” I find that this montage is used to haul out the most emotional of reactions amongst an audience. Rhythmic – Includes cutting that is formed on time, yet using the “visual composition of the shots along with an alter in the speed of the metric cuts” to clearly bring about more compound meaning than what is possible with metric montage. An example can be seen in the Odessa Steps sequence of this film. Tonal – A tonal montage can be seen as using the emotional importance of the shots, not just “manipulating its rhythmical features to draw out a reaction from the audience, but even more complex.” An example can be seen in the scene following the death of the revolutionary sailor; Vakulinchuk, a victim for sailors and workers. Overtonal/Associational – The overtonal montage is the build up of metric, rhythmic, and tonal montage to “synthesize its effect on the audience for an even more abstract and complicated effect.” Finally, the Intellectual montage can be seen to “use shots which are combined” and extract an intellectual significance and message. An example can be seen when he portrays the political state of affairs surrounding the Revolution.
It is evident after watching this film that Eisenstein whispered the understanding that film’s montage could create ideas and have an impact further than the seperate images. It was not just about images anymore, but about the message of them. Two or more images edited together produce a “tertium quid (third thing) that makes the whole greater than the sum of its individual parts.” (Fabe, 2004: 3) Eisenstein extended enormously on his montage theory to not only build up on suspense and rhythm, but to form rational concepts and links.
With using examples of specific scenes in the film, the various cuts in the ‘Odessa steps sequence’ build up the individual moments of fear and terror into an almost agonizing emotional climax (through montage.) The scene is not only a turning point in film history but also in mise-en-scene. The camera floats above the heaps of workers scrambling down the staircase where Eisenstein concurrently invents the building of thematic tension by using jump-cuts between the people flowing and falling down the Odessa stairs. On a brief level of understanding in this scene and many others, montage lets Eisenstein manipulate the audience’s perception of time by stretching out the heaps of workers movement down the steps for seven minutes, several times longer than it would take in reality to walk down steps in such a big group. The speedy development and alternation of images in the film as an outcome also gives a sensational event an even greater impact enhanced to stimulate both emotion and ideological feelings among the film’s audience.
At the finish of the ‘Odessa Steps sequence’, two sequences of images portray the concept of the ‘tertium quid’ (explained above as the third thing) as well as the ideological prospective of montage. In the first sequence of images, the fast montage of the three “cherubs” makes the petite angel seem to be, what looks like to me, throwing a punch in the air. In the second part of this sequence, three shots of stone lions portrayed fast in series, which illustrates being open to violence. The energetic editing of the three lion statues also shows the awakening of anger and rebellion in a straightforward but unforgettable instance regarding metaphorical juxtaposition. In Battleship Potemkin; both montage sequences can see be seen to symbolize a call to the people to rise up against oppression – a message through the Revolution.
Montage builds up and creates “thoughts in the minds and feelings in the hearts of the viewer – not dominated by the dollar” (Eisenstein, 1925), and is therefore an authoritative film technique to express Propaganda. For example, the film shows the majority of the destruction through the workers/characters eyes. A good example and a shot that really stuck out to me, is when a child is being trampled on and the reaction is displayed with a close-up shot of the horrified mother. The close-up detail in her eyes expressed emotion and reaches out to the audience. Fascinatingly, as this woman carries her child up the steps to meet up with the soldiers, it looks like she is looking at and speaking into the camera, as what felt like she was pleading me and the rest of the audience to stop the annihilation. As I, and the rest of the audience, obviously couldn’t change what was happening; we immediately became enraged at the guards as they gunned downed the powerless woman and child. This can be seen as an effective film technique, but also sends out a message of gender- woman vs. men. The sequence is so emotionally draining, one gains a new perspective on how powerful, and perhaps domineering, cinema can actually be.
Battleship Potemkin is most interesting in its structure and aesthetics. The film is broken into five key scenes that essentially follow from the theme of a working class uprising: the jumbled up shots of men sleeping in hammocks and the tracking shots of the heaps of people fleeing down a flight of stairs from the Tsar military. The form and style entails the editing as the most important aspect. The film has a lot of control over narrative structure, bringing in social forces, a large number of shots and the “Kuleshov Effect” of juxtaposition shots explained in paragraph 10 of this essay – as well as maximization of active tension through two conflicting editing techniques; overlapping editing and jump-cut editing. “Although Battleship Potemkin was seen around the world, its main impact was later – while certainly limited to style/technique, the content was not widely imitated.” (Fabe, 2004: 5)
Even with the outstanding shots and ‘obtuse’ story structure, Battleship Potemkin was personally an anti-climax to a degree for me as an audience member. It is blatantly evident that Eisenstein spends so much time on testing and experimenting with framing, light/dark contrasts and blocking, that the action does lose some of its meaning – ironically his purpose which is to create more meaning. An example can be scene with reference to a specific scene when after the men take over the ship; they spend at least 15 minutes preparing for battle against the rest of the Tsar fleet, but when the fleet is in sight and the tension built from the preparation montage crumbles, their working-class brothers had already overtaken the other ships. To what is to me, a big anti-climax.
Another clear influence from Griffith would be the sensational elements that make possible the film’s political goals. As seen in the film, the tsarist forces are utterly evil and sympathy is therefore evoked for the noble revolutionaries and their supporters. The issues and characters can also be seen as simplified for the greatest emotional impact. The officers on the ship are given sub-titles such as “I’ll shoot them down like dogs!” (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) when dealing with the disobedient sailors. What was even harder to watch, being a female too, is that all of the focused victims of the appalling violence on the Odessa steps are women or children.
One can see an idea of typage; “casting often non-professional actors based on their physical resemblance to a character type, allows the film to forgo character development and individuality.” (Neuberger, 2003: 8) Additionally, the nonappearance of a main character, except that of the group of Russian people, corresponds to the Marxist principles of the film which are noticeably seen. As seen in the film, one of the only possible protagonists, Vakulinchuk, dies early in the film for the revolutionary cause. The idea of it can also be seen that there is no star system as blatantly seen in today’s Hollywood films; which cleverly merchandises the film to ‘be for the people.’
The film’s silence, despite being hard for us in today’s time to adapt to, is actually its most vital element regarding its historic elements. Given the 1925 release date, the film was clearly made before the taking of sound in cinema. This therefore enhanced the strength of the images for me in both composition and montage, as one is drawn into its beauty and detail. At the very least, the film demonstrates the significance of the visual information that we gather from a film. “If a vast majority of human communication is non-verbal, than the same is true for film.” (Kruger, 2003: 4) The images speak louder than words, despite not having much choice to do otherwise, and Battleship Potemkin is the perfect reminder to me and should be to many others that silent cinema is not necessarily a genre that should be classified as dead and long gone, or a genre that should be overlooked because of technological shortcomings – because it does have meaning and history.
In conclusion, one can justifiably argue that Battleship Potemkin attempted to form a “new cinema” through its influence of the Russian Revolution (1917) and the effect that it had on artists, politicians and film directors. Through montage and propaganda; Battleship Potemkin is a film that remains passionate, committed and hopeful even in the face of the most cruel repression – still remaining contemporary in character and forever historic in the history of cinema.