Sergei M. Eisenstein
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 05 November 2008
Source Kino DVD
What’s left to say about the cinematic monument that is Battleship Potemkin? Its position in film history is assured and unchallenged, if only for the Odessa Steps sequence’s iconic demonstration of Eisenstein’s theories of montage, but I guess that most viewers respond to Potemkin with admiration rather than passion. Certainly for me the film still works amazingly well—and this reconstructed Potemkin issued by Kino in both English- and Russian-intertitle versions, as you prefer, looks great (just compare it to the cropped and washed-out look of the extracts at the start of Chris Marker’s Le fond de l’air est rouge). But as effective as Eisenstein is at working his magic - meaning, when the stone lions leap to life through montage, I’m ready to join the revolution - Potemkin is never able to move me at a deep emotional level. I can’t love this film as I can silent films like Pandora’s Box or Sir Arne’s Treasure.
Perhaps the problem here is the intellectual nature of Eisenstein’s filmmaking, the rather programmatic way he puts into effect certain ideas he has about cinema, above all his concept of dialectical montage arising from the “collision” of shots. (Still, the virtue of Potemkin is that it never runs to the simplistic contrasts like the attacked workers/slaughtered bull in Strike or Kerensky/the mechanical peacock in October.) David Thomson, for one, has based his own negative assessment of Eisenstein’s achievement at least partly on his declining influence on modern filmmaking. Certainly, things have changed since a kind of heyday in the sixties and seventies with its manifold examples - everyone from Resnais to Roeg - of an intellectually thrilling use of montage.
The faster cutting rates in modern Hollywood films have of course nothing in common with Eisenstein, being more a spin-off of TV commercials and music videos, and in any case having the intention of anaesthetising the audience into acquiescence rather than provoking them into changing the world. Contemporary art cinema with its sometimes extreme (e.g. Paraguayan Hammock) application of the long shot-long take aesthetic has pretty much turned its back on Eisenstein, which in itself is an interesting development: filmmakers embracing Bazin in equal proportion to academia’s rejection of his faith in the filmed image.
Still, there is one work of recent cinema that plays as an affirmation of Eisenteinian principles, and that is Godard’s monumental Histoire(s) du cinéma. Godard of course has always proclaimed a debt to Eisenstein, right back to his famous Cahiers du Cinéma article “Montage mon beau souci”, which title reappears as a refrain in Histoire(s) itself. Histoire(s) is in fact the ultimate modern Eisensteinian project, four-and-half hours of dialectic contrasts born from the bringing-together of differently-sourced sounds and images. Even if Histoire(s) stands out as a unique work in modern cinema, it’s at the same time a sign of how Eisenstein’s cinema still can have validity today. It’s not merely a historical artefact.
The original plan of Eisenstein’s team was to produce an epic reconstruction of the 1905 revolution, the failed set of spontaneous uprisings that the Bolsheviks read as a precursor to the 1917 revolution. In retrospect, it’s fortunate that a lack of time forced Eisenstein to radically reduce the range of events being covered. This is the force and success of Potemkin: its focus and concentration on one single incident, the mutiny on board the Imperial Russian battleship Prince Potemkin of Tauris.
Historical accuracy was hardly a central concern—this was after all a propaganda piece for the young Soviet state. The killings of the officers that took place on board - the mutineers killed seven of the eighteen officers - are all rather glossed over, as opposed to the death of the mutiny leader Vakulinchuk, whose killing the film builds up as a central incident of revolutionary martyrdom. On the other hand, it seems that the events portrayed in the film’s most famous (and one of film history’s most famous) sequences, the shooting down by Cossacks of unarmed citizens on the Odessa steps, never actually took place. Here, Eisenstein has created one sequence of events to represent a number of separate incidents that occurred all over Odessa where the Tsar’s troops clashed with and killed a large number of civilians.
In Potemkin the disparate and often unrelated series of strikes and uprisings that made up the 1905 revolution have been concentrated and symbolised in the single incident of the Potemkin mutiny. (Even the revolution’s catalyst, the Bloody Sunday massacre outside the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, is omitted). This intense focus is then replicated in Potemkin’s structure: five chapters, each of which is narrowed down to one central issue of concern:
In Potemkin Eisenstein was proclaiming a new kind of cinema, but this was not simply at the level of its editing style. New approaches to editing had been explored elsewhere. Abel Gance, for example, in La Roue had constructed sequences of rapidly-edited shots; but the difference between Gance and the Soviets was that Gance’s style, as impressive as it is (think of the flurry of shots, almost too fast for the eye to take in, as Élie lies dying), was put to the service of a conventional melodrama whose focus was the exploration of the psychology of the main characters.
Eisenstein was creating something very different. An early intertitle proclaims the “spirit of revolution” in Russia, and then continues: “The individual personality, having hardly had time to be conscious of itself, dissolved in the mass, and the mass itself became dissolved in the revolutionary élan.” On one level, the mass, the people swept up by this spirit of revolution, are the “heroes” of the film: the sailors of the Potemkin, the townspeople of Odessa, the fellow-sailors in the squadron. But this doesn’t mean there are no individual characters. Above all, there’s the figure of Vakulinchuk, the ordinary sailor who, in Eisenstein’s story of the mutiny, leads his fellow-sailors to revolt and whose death is the catalyst for the further events of the film.
In one sense this is conventional dramatisation of a historical event, where the audience experiences that event through the perspective of and its identification with a central character. Similarly, in the Odessa Steps sequence, Eisenstein first establishes a number of characters - the old woman, the student, the mother and her son, the cripple, all separately cheering on the boats welcoming the Potemkin’s arrival - before the shooting begins in order to give focus to the audience’s dramatic experience of the sequence and to heighten identification when one of those characters reappears.
Yet “character” is hardly the right word to use here. There’s no depth to them, no psychology; they’re “types” that represent nothing more than their surface appearance, their physical role in the revolutionary struggle. There are no individual crises of conscience, no ethical debates as to which is the right side to choose. Each “character” in the story has already chosen sides, from the beginning either for or against the revolution, and Eisenstein has chosen his actors for the way the look of their face and body project that. There’s a deliberate contrast between the homely features of Vakulinchuk, the round healthy face and friendly droopy moustache, and the caricatures of the class enemies: in the scene around the rotten meat, the sharp angular lines of the officer’s face that are redolent of his arrogance and cruelty; the diminutive ship’s doctor whose small stature, overabundant moustache, and pince-nez propped fussily on his nose both underline his petty willingness to subscribe to the oppression of the sailors and are also played for comic effect; the excessive look of the priest with his wild crop of hair and his thick eyebrows popping up and down…
The dynamism that Eisenstein’s editing style brings to Potemkin can still be felt today. Eisenstein builds up our understanding of a scene and leads us to an analysis of that scene through the way everything is broken down into an ever-varying series of individual shots. These shots may offer different perspectives, swinging between the points of view of oppressor and oppressed. The scene on the foredeck is a good example of this, when the sailors refusing to eat the rotten meat are punished with a heavy canvas sheet thrown over them. It’s a key moment of confrontation between the sailors and the officers, it leads directly to the mutiny itself, and Eisenstein wants us to feel the drama that’s been enacted here, the arbitrary cruelty that the sailors are being subjected to; which he does by quickly cutting between two point-of-view shots, from the petty officers’ view of the canvas being flung over the sailors to the sailors’ view as they flinch under the weight of the canvas falling upon them.
The Odessa Steps sequence is only the most famous example of a structural device that is repeated throughout the film. Scene after scene in Potemkin bear the same repeated urge to analyse what is taking place before us, to break down the physical location in shots that offer differing perspectives and angles, to isolate the telling, individual moment—the anonymous sailor on the foredeck glancing behind; the clenched fist of the mourner on the quayside; the parasol that rushes forward to fill up the frame. There’s a musical tempo to the structuring of the scenes, with the pace varying, slower for the introductions and scene-setting, increasingly faster in the cutting rhythm as the drama reaches one of its climaxes.
Time in the Odessa Steps sequence is stretched out and slowed down to an unnaturalistic degree (the Cossacks take an interminable time descending the stairs!) and yet at the same time, paradoxically, the sequence, with its rapidly edited-together shots, rushes to a conclusion almost too fast to fully comprehend. The final shot of the massacre, with the sudden shot of the Cossack suddenly looming up with his sword raised, ends things on a brutal and abrupt note. This makes the slower tempo of the Potemkin’s response, the slow turning of the gun turret before it fires on the Odessa military authorities (and, through Eisenstein’s editing, famously awakening the sleeping lion statue), an appropriately deliberate one.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Battleship Potemkin over the years; familiarity with Eisenstein’s editing patterns probably does lessen the impact of those classic sequences as much as I still appreciate them. But what really struck me with this viewing (particularly in a version that looks this good) was the film’s less remarked-upon moments of moody lyricism. Eisenstein’s cameraman Eduard Tisse draws out shadings of dark and light, and plays with sunlight, smoke and mist to evoke the requisite mood. This occurs above all in the central section of the film where Vakulinchuk’s body is taken to Odessa to be laid out on the waterfront. Tisse’s camera highlights the sombre beauty and clean lines of the prow of the boat as it cuts into the wide, pure expanse of water, soon enveloped in wreaths of steam. There’s a real beauty to the view of the harbour from the angle of Vakulinchuk’s body, the criss-cross of sailboats passing over the ever-darkening water that is occasionally lit in patches by the light of the setting sun. It’s a reminder that for all the propagandist drive of Potemkin, Eisenstein’s aesthetic sense still allows him to find moments of stasis, to pause ever so briefly in contemplation of the terrible beauty of the world—before moving on to trying to change it.