This is the third entry in the series “Independent Study in World Cinema,” in which this self-educated film nerd attempts to fill in some fairly serious gaps in his self-education. This week, I take a look at a film about revolution that sparked a revolution in film: Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 epic Battleship Potemkin.
And it is here, in only the third week of my self-directed coursework, that I fully grasp the hubris of my plan, and resign myself to what should have been a self-evident truth: that there is no way in hell I can—in the stolen hours of a single week—possibly hope to do justice to any one of these films.
I mean, I knew this from the beginning, and it didn’t really bother me: nearly every movie on my list has been studied and analyzed, examined and explained and explicated, picked apart and prodded and pontificated upon ad nauseum long before I got to it, and they will all continue to invite scrutiny long after I’m dead. Like all works of art, they are inexhaustible, and ultimately unknowable, and that’s just as it should be. My modest goal for this project was simply to watch the films, and think about them, and read just enough of what other people have said about them to put them in context and understand something about why they’re considered such landmarks in film history.
My favorite college professor had a favorite metaphor, which he used to describe the effort of grasping big ideas quickly: It’s like trying to take a drink out of a fire hose. Most of it, he meant, will inevitably blast past you: all you can hope to do is catch a few drops on your tongue and try not to get knocked on your ass. In trying to get a handle on these seminal films, I was willing to sustain myself on a bit of spray, but Battleship Potemkin is the first movie that made me feel like I was going to get taken off my feet in the effort. The movie’s story is remarkably straightforward—intentionally simplistic, even—but its execution is anything but. In its shot composition and revolutionary editing techniques, Potemkin is pure movie-nerd pornography, and I could happily take a month and 50,000 words just breaking it down on a shot-by-shot level.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, reading about Potemkin led me to reading about its director, Sergei Eisenstein. That led me quickly to reading a couple of essays by Eisenstein himself, and encountering a mind that could knock me on my ass with a couple of sentences. One of the real pioneers of film theory, and still considered by many to be the most important, Eisenstein is one of those guys you might spend a year studying just to figure out what the hell he was talking about, and then spend another lifetime trying to grasp a fraction of what he understood about filmmaking. (I mean, obviously the guy was a genius: look at that hair!)
Anyway, this is all really just a long disclaimer, and an acknowledgement that what follows represents a curious dilettante’s week-long, fumbling, surface-scratching attempt to understand a little about Russian history, Soviet montage theory, and one of the most brilliantly composed films of all time. It is undoubtedly incomplete, and I strongly suspect I’ve gotten a lot of it wrong, but I’ve sure enjoyed the few cool sips of water I managed to catch as the Battleship Potemkin blasted past me.
First, if you’ll bear with me, a few brief notes of historical context…
As you may or may not already know—I didn’t, before I started learning about Potemkin—the seeds of the 1917 Russian Revolution actually began to sprout 12 years earlier, in 1905. On January 9th of that year—a day that would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday”—some 200,000 Russians assembled at the Winter Palace of Tsar Nicholas II in St. Petersburg for a peaceful demonstration. They came to present a petition of grievances—which made such radical demands as an eight-hour work day, the right to strike, and an end to the disastrous Russo-Japanese war—and they carried banners of support and portraits of their Tsar, who they sincerely believed would listen lovingly to their concerns.
Instead, the Tsar sent in the Cossacks, who slaughtered hundreds of men, women, and children there in the snow in front of the Winter Palace. This was the catalyzing event in the 1905 Revolution, and led to ten months of general strikes, demonstrations, protests, military rebellions, and social unrest all throughout Russia. Though unsuccessful—in the short term—in overthrowing the Tsarist autocracy, the 1905 Revolution is seen as a seminal moment in its eventual demise; the real show may have happened 12 years later, but Lenin called what happened in 1905 “the Great Dress Rehearsal.”
In 1925, the young Soviet government formed a “Jubilee Committee” to plan celebrations around the 20th anniversary of the 1905 Revolution, and they enlisted director Sergei Eisenstein to help commemorate this glorious history on film. As Eisenstein biographer Mike O’Mahoney explains, the committee originally planned to make a series of films about the entire revolution, to be called The Year 1905:
Together with [screenwriter] Nina Agadzhanova-Shutko…[Eisenstein] began work on a scenario, conceiving the ﬁlm as a vast panorama of the events of 1905. These were to include, in six parts: the Russo–Japanese War; the massacre of innocent workers in St Petersburg…; popular uprisings throughout city and countryside; a general strike and its suppression by the state; counter-Revolutionary pogroms; and the emergence of a political movement in the workers’ district of Krasnaya Presnya. One small episode within this historical overview would address the mutiny on the Russian naval vessel Prince Potemkin…
—from Sergei Eisenstein (Critical Lives),
Mike O’ Mahoney, Reaktion Books, 2008
The plan for the first film in the series—which the committee wanted to release in December of 1925—was that it would cover a massive strike in St. Petersburg, with the story of the Potemkin as a brief prologue. However, shooting on location in the city formerly known as St. Petersburg (now called Leningrad) in the summer of 1925, bad weather was setting the project further and further behind schedule. Faced with their increasingly impossible deadline, Eisenstein and his team made the decision to go to Odessa, where the light was better, to film the “small episode” about the Potemkin while they waited for conditions in Leningrad to improve. Once there, Eisenstein decided to expand this sequence, and, by the time he was done rewriting, what had originally only been a couple of pages of scenario had now became the subject of the entire ﬁlm. (Thus did a bit of rain alter the course of film history.)
In December 1925, Battleship Potemkin premiered to a select audience of party officials and veterans of the revolution at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater in December 1925— the first film ever to be shown in the famous venue—and had its public premiere in January 1926: in both cases, the reception was enthusiastic. However, as Bruce Bennett explains in his essay “A Revolution on Screen,” included in the 2007 Kino International DVD release, Russia’s fledgling film industry was too small to make much of an international splash: it was Germany that was the center of the European film world. Thus, “Potemkin’s fortunes both at home and abroad would remain inexorably tied not to its Moscow debut, but to its premiere in Berlin in April of 1926.”
In the politically turbulent environment of post-war Germany, however, the Weimar Government feared the film’s political message could serve to strengthen socialist forces and even incite military rebellion: the Soviets actually ended up selling the negative to Germany—retaining only rights to copies—and the Germans heavily edited the film for content and deleted or rewrote many of the intertitles. (Even after making these changes, the German government forbade police and armed forces from seeing the movie, afraid they might come away with some ideas.)
I won’t try to summarize much further the bizarre history of the film and its battles with censors over its political content—which has led to so many heavily-edited versions—but what has become more important than Potemkin’s message is the legacy of its aesthetics. The Berlin premiere in April 1926 was a smash success, and among the audience members were American film giants Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, who recognized in Eisenstein’s film a radical new approach to movie-making. Fairbanks later called it “the most powerful and the most profound emotional experience in my life,” and it was he and Pickford who enthusiastically introduced Potemkin to the film community of America: first at a private screening for friends at Gloria Swanson’s home, and then at various screening rooms for industry leaders, and finally in theaters. After one screening for Hollywood bigwigs, Photoplay reported that “nobody went Bolshevik, but a lot of people left with some revolutionary ideas of filmmaking.”
To understand that reaction—and grasp why Battleship Potemkin was one of the most influential films in movie history, and remains such a fine example of Film Nerd Porn—we need to look a little closer at the movie’s director, Sergei Eisenstein, one of the first great thinkers about the medium.
Sergei Eisenstein and the Soviet Theory of Montage
Though I said above that the aesthetics of Battleship Potemkin have turned out to be more influential than its politics, the truth is that it would be a mistake to separate the two, for Eisenstein’s approach to his art was both fundamentally shaped by, and wholly in the service of, his ideology. He was not simply a brilliant craftsman who happened to accept commissions from the Soviet government: Eisenstein was a veteran of the Revolution himself, a faithful communist, and a dedicated Party member. He was, in short, a believer, and that belief shapes every frame of Battleship Potemkin: to call it “propaganda” is to miss the point, for I’m not sure Eisenstein thought art had any other purpose but to change minds in order to serve the communist agenda. (Lenin himself had emphasized the need to use movies to advance the cause, saying, “You must remember always that of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema.”)
As cautious as I am about presenting myself as an expert on Russian history or film theory, I’m even more reluctant to talk about Marxist theory. However, to oversimplify greatly, a key concept in Marxist thought is that all of human history is shaped by conflict—specifically class conflict—and that all social struggle and progress is the result of this conflict. Eisenstein saw art as simply another tool to achieve this progress: as he wrote in his landmark essay “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form” (from Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, 1949), “art is always conflict…It is art’s task to make manifest the contradictions of Being. To form equitable views by stirring up contradictions within the spectator’s mind, and to forge accurate intellectual concepts from the dynamic clash of opposing passions.”
I really don’t want this post to degenerate into a B-minus term paper any more than you do, but I swear, all of this is important to understanding what’s going on in Battleship Potemkin—which we will get to shortly, I promise. It informs every aspect of the film, from its story to its structure to—most importantly—its filmmaking technique, most notably the way its editing demonstrates Eisenstein’s theories of “the montage of attractions.” As film historian David Cook writes:
Eisenstein saw film editing, or montage, as a process which operated according to the Marxist dialectic. This dialectic is a way of looking at human history and experience as a perpetual conflict in which a force (thesis) collides with a counterforce (antithesis) to produce from their collision a wholly new phenomenon (synthesis), which is not the sum of the two forces but something greater than and different from them both…Eisenstein defined montage as a series of ideas or impressions which arise from “the collision of independent shots”…Just as the individual words in a sentence depend for their meaning upon the words which surround them, so the individual shots in a montage sequence acquire meaning from their interaction with the other shots in the sequence.
from A History of Narrative Film,
David Cook, W.W. Norton & Co., 1996
“Montage,” Eisenstein wrote in “A Dialectic Approach,” “has been established by Soviet film as the nerve of cinema. To determine the nature of montage is to solve the specific problem of cinema.” Again, I’m not going to attempt to do justice to his theories here, but a few basics are necessary to proceed. (For more information on this, an excellent primer is here.)
As Eisenstein points out, all film is fundamentally based on the concept of montage: you take one still shot and place it beside another still shot, and run them quickly together, and our brains assemble the individual components into motion. However, Eisenstein points out that this process is not sequential—one thing and then the next thing—but spatial and associative: one thing and another thing, coming together to form a third thing that is both more and different than the sum of its parts. (Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.) Eisenstein spends a lot of time identifying different kinds of montage, but they are all in service of what he calls intellectual montage: the idea that the collision between two representational images can create, in the mind of the viewer, a third image or idea that is not visually representable. Here’s a very simple example from Potemkin: a shot of a mother and child, followed by a shot of the Communist flag.
These are simply two separate images, juxtaposed: there is a narrative link (the mother is pointing out the flag to the child), but the meaning of these two shots—the emotion their juxtapositioning evokes—is something larger and more abstract than either shot can contain by itself. It is pride, and idealism about communism, and a message of hope for the future of Russia. All that stuff that the collision of these two images evokes in us is what Eisenstein meant by “intellectual montage.” If either shot were paired with a different image, its meaning would change and its intellectual impact on the viewer would be different.
(Not to get too much further down the rabbit-hole, but Eisenstein was building on the work of a filmmaker named Lev Kuleshov. Kuleshov edited together images of an actor’s perfectly expressionless face, and paired it with other images: a pretty girl, a coffin, a bowl of soup, etc. He then showed this to an audience, and established that viewers would interpret the expression on the actor’s face in relation to the surrounding images: it was lust, it was hunger, it was grief, etc. This idea really forms the basis of Soviet montage theory, and it became known as “the Kuleshov effect.”)
For Eisenstein, therefore, it is not in any single shot that the true art of cinema resides, but in this synthesis of conflicting images and ideas that takes place in the viewer’s mind. It seems to us now entirely self-evident—and in a way, it is. (Even in our limited selections so far we’ve already seen examples of it. In Nosferatu, for example, Murnau uses montage in simple ways, as when he cuts from the dinner between Orlok and Hutter to Orlok’s skeleton-clock to suggest danger and create a sense of foreboding.) Eisenstein didn’t invent the way the human brain processes images, but he was working in a new, entirely visual medium, and no one before had really taken the time to study and elaborate upon how montage operates. Eisenstein was the first director to really explore and explain how careful manipulation of the kinds of visual conflict—visual, spatial, directional, tonal, emotional, etc.—the director could achieve various desired effects. He was articulating, for the first time, the essential grammar and syntax of film, and by doing so he helped reveal its full potential as an art form.
For a demonstration of his theories in practice, we should look, finally, at Battleship Potemkin. As with most films in the public domain, there are several versions of the movie available for free online, and—as with most such films—their quality varies wildly. (With such movies I usually embed the full film here, but I can’t recommend any of the versions on YouTube with a clear conscience.) I highly recommend watching the Kino Restoration, which restores all of Eisenstein’s original shots and title cards, including material that was cut by the German censors. It is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, but is also streaming on Netflix (free with subscription) and for rental on Amazon Instant.
I’m going to do less actual recapping than I normally do, since the basic story of Battleship Potemkin can be described in a few sentences. Like most films of the era, Potemkin is broken into acts (with each act coinciding with a reel change):
In Act One, “People and Worms,” the crew of the Battleship Potemkin grow inspired by the news of the workers’ revolution happening in their nation, and grow increasingly disgruntled with the terrible conditions aboard the ship and the tyranny of the officers. The situation reaches a tipping point when the men refuse to eat borscht made from rotten, maggot-infested meat.
In Act Two, “Drama on the Deck,” the officers of the ship attempt to quell the growing discontentment with harsh discipline, but this strategy backfires: the crew—led by a sailor named Vakulinchuk—mutinies. The rebellion is successful, with the crew seizing control of the Potemkin, but Vakulinchuk is shot and killed by one of the officers.
In Act Three, “The Dead Man Calls Out,” the crew takes Vakulinchuk’s body ashore to the town of Odessa, where he is layed out for viewing. The people of Odessa all come to pay their respects to the fallen hero, and the funeral turns into a political rally as the spirit of revolution spreads.
In Act Four, “The Odessa Staircase,” the people of the town show their solidarity with the Potemkin by delivering supplies to the ship and gathering on the great stone staircase overlooking the harbor. However, their revolutionary zeal is punished when Tsarist forces arrive and begin shooting into the crowd: hundreds of men, women, and children are massacred on the Odessa steps, an act of brutality that inspires the Potemkin to fire its great guns at the town’s imperial headquarters.
In Act Five, “Rendezvous with the Squadron,” the Potemkin receives word that the Admiral’s Squadron is coming to intercept them: the crew decide as one to go meet their fate, and race towards the confrontation even though they are hopelessly outnumbered. At the last moment, however, the other ships refuse to fire on their brothers, and the Potemkin sails triumphantly through the middle of the squadron.
You may suspect from this summary that I am grossly oversimplifying the story, but I’m not: that is the story. There are no sub-plots, no tangents, no romances or villainous schemes or comedic diversions: it’s not that kind of movie. One of the most surprising and disorienting things about watching Battleship Potemkin is the realization that, in fact, the movie has no characters, at least not in the sense that we are accustomed to. There are people in the movie, of course, but there is no individual hero, no single villain, and nothing in the way of character development or arcs: our expectation to have a point-of-view character, or to identify with a hero, is totally thwarted. (The closest thing we have to a hero is Vakulinchuk—played by Alexandr Antonov—and he dies at the end of Act II.)
This is completely intentional, of course, and wholly appropriate to Eisenstein’s aesthetic purposes and communist ideology: Potemkin does not have an individual protagonist, but a collective one; it celebrates not a person but the people. In “Through Theater to Cinema,” an essay in his book Film Form, Eisenstein describes his determination in his early films to break away from traditional, individual-focused storytelling. “We brought collective and mass action onto the screen, in contrast to individualism and the ‘triangle’ drama of the bourgeois cinema,” he writes. “Discarding the individualist conception of the bourgeois hero, our films of this period made an abrupt deviation—insisting on an understanding of the mass as hero.”
This intention is announced in the very first title card from Potemkin.
“The individual personality…dissolved in the mass…” As such, Eisenstein stayed away for the most part from stars, choosing to cast a great many unknown and non-professional actors whom he chose for their physical “type,” not for their individual characteristics. On the ship, a few sailors are named, but mostly they are indistinguishable types, not individual characters: we see them in groups, cooperating in work or gathering in conversation.
In contrast, the officers—representing the enemies of this sort of collective, working class solidarity—are nearly all named, and they have very specific defining features that make them recognizable: the first officer, Giliarovsky (Grigori Aleksandrov) with his mustache; the ship’s doctor Smirnov, with his pince nez glasses; the aristocratic features of a senior officer, etc. Unlike the crew members, these men are frequently isolated in the frame alone:
I won’t dwell too much on this aspect of a “mass protagonist,” but it is consistent and thorough throughout Battleship Potemkin: the crew members have no existence beyond their function as part of the collective. In the very first shot of them (top left in the previous collage), they are sleeping en masse, the hammocks overlapping in a way that gives the scene the feel of a hive. “Heavy and gloomy is the sleep of the off-duty,” the intertitle says. In most war movies we are accustomed to seeing scenes of the lower decks where spirited soldiers might relax, banter, play cards, or talk about their girls back home—establishing, in short, their individual personalities and backgrounds—but here they are dormant, indistinguishable, and “gloomy:” when they are not at work they almost don’t exist, dissolving into a collective stupor. (This image of them sleeping is also symbolic, of course, of their not-yet-but-soon-to-be-awakened revolutionary zeal.)
It is a single sailor, Vakulinchuk, who rouses them from their stupor, delivering a speech about how the sailors must rise up and join their brothers across Russia in revolution.
But Vakulinchuk is not really the hero of Potemkin, though he appears to be for the first two acts. (Even then, however, we know nothing about him as a man: he has no character, just a purpose.) When the men refuse to eat the maggot-infested meat they’ve been offered, the tyrannical commander of the vessel calls them to the quarterdeck and threatens to have them all shot, but Vakulinchuk quietly organizes their numbers against the officers. While the guards train their guns on some members of the crew to be executed, Vakulinchuk starts mobilizing the masses.
What makes Battleship Potemkin such a favorite of film students is that it is possible to do meaningful shot-by-shot analysis of the entire film: there are no accidents here, and the composition of every frame is carefully planned to work with—and often against—the frames around it, and visually echo back to other shots in the film. I can’t begin to do detailed analysis here, but it’s helpful to look at just a few examples.
First, we can see a simple but incredibly effective example of how Eisenstein uses montage in the roughly 30 seconds just before the mutiny breaks out. (Actually, we can see it in pretty much any 30 seconds, but I’ve chosen these 30.) The sinister chief officer (literally twirling his mustache) has given the order for the guards to prepare to shoot a group of crewman, who huddle under a tarp, and the tension builds as everyone waits to see what will happen. Will they shoot? Meanwhile, we know Vakulinchuk has moved his men into position, and is deciding what to do. This, as far as the film is concerned, is the moment the revolution begins—the moment the workers decide to rise up and overthrow their oppressors—and Eisenstein intensifies it by cutting rapidly between different shots—of people and things—until the situation explodes.
We see, in turn: the firing squad; the officers watching; an old priest who taps his cross in his palm like a cudgel; an officer fondling his sword; the firing squad again, in indecision; Vakulinchuk, in indecision; the firing squad again; a shot of the name of the ship on a life buoy; a shot of the Tsarist eagle on the bow of the ship; a shot of a bugle at rest; the men on their knees beneath the tarpaulin; a close-up of Vakulinchuk’s face; a close-up of the chief officer’s face; and then finally the moment of decision in which Vakulinchuk calls his brothers to action. All of this, in just 30 seconds (and I even skipped a couple of shots in between.)
The effect of this takes so much longer to describe than it does to experience: a lot of visual information is conveyed, in a very short amount of time, but little or none of it is essential to the narrative. (A single, unbroken shot of everyone on the deck could accomplish the same storytelling purpose.) It’s the feel of it that matters: the rhythms of it, the tension of the moment intensified by the cuts between all the people concerned, punctuated by images of symbolic things—the cross, the sword, the bugle, the eagle—that tap into abstract meanings as well as literal ones. (Note the way, for example, the symbol of religion is visually paired with the weapons of violence and oppression.) This is not filmed theater: this is a pioneering example of how film can play on our emotions in much the same way that music does.
Eisenstein also repeats the same shots several times with slightly different composition, providing new information or emotional weight. The massive turrets on the Potemkin, for example, represent the machinery of power, which the workers must seize: there is a POV shot from the turrets that Eisenstein returns to several times, and in each shot you can see how the control of the ship has shifted. The firing squad initially emerges—on the orders of the officers—from beneath the guns; as they threaten the crew, Vakulinchuk has the rest of the crewmen move towards the turrets, effectively cutting the officers off from the center of power and taking symbolic ownership of them, so the turrets now seem to be aimed at the officers; finally, the crew completely takes over the turrets.
And once the mutiny breaks out, something else becomes clear about Battleship Potemkin: whatever else it is, this film is one of the very first kick-ass action movies. Eisenstein cuts quickly between various scenes of fighting on the deck, from many different angles, completely freeing the action from the sort of unidirectional staging earlier films had inherited from the theater: the action explodes in every direction, and—supporting Eisenstein’s intention of a mass protagonist—from every point of view at once. We are everywhere on the deck, seeing everything happening simultaneously.
This is Eisenstein’s theory of montage in action, and it’s glorious: if you compare it to most other films of the era—which were so linear with their storytelling, and so patient and precise in establishing exactly what the viewer was looking at in every shot—this truly was revolutionary filmmaking. (By way of comparison, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari features just over 300 individual shots in its 72 minutes, or about one cut every 14 seconds; Battleship Potemkin, at 69 minutes, features over 1,300 shots, or about one cut every three seconds.) Eisenstein trusts the audience to jump between different points of view, different characters, different locations—very quickly—and to not only process each individual image but to stitch them all together into a cohesive whole. And it works. It may not strike the modern eye as particularly unusual, because every film we’ve seen since has imitated these editing techniques, but it is very easy to imagine how someone like Douglas Fairbanks—who was no stranger to action on film—must have viewed Potemkin as an absolute explosion for the possibilities of film.
One of the things that is most remarkable about Eisenstein’s editing is his disregard for traditional rules of continuity. Artists like D. W. Griffith had laid the groundwork for this kind of expansive filmmaking, but had done so by being very careful about things like eyeline matching in order to allow the viewer to smoothly follow action across shots. Eisenstein, however—seeking those disquieting, provocative conflicts between frames—cheerfully breaks all those newly established rules, and thus makes the chaos on the ship feel that much more chaotic.
One example: it is a basic rule of filmmaking that a director should not violate the “180-degree” rule, which allows the viewer to maintain a sense of where everything in a shot is in relation to other things. For instance, if you shoot a conversation between two people, one is always on the left, facing right, and the other is always on the right, facing left: a director can shoot anywhere in 180 degrees around them, but crossing to the other side of the invisible line between them is visually disorienting. Or, if a horse in running from left to right in frame in one shot, another shot of the same horse should show it running in the same direction: violating this rule would make us feel like the horse has changed direction, and is no longer running towards a place but coming back from that place.
But Eisenstein doesn’t want us to feel so settled, so sure of our ground: he frequently violates the 180-degree rule to create a greater sense of chaos and disorder, as in these shots where sailors throw an officer overboard. We see them do so first from the left, then from the right, and then from behind: it is the same moment viewed three times, from three different angles, but spliced together so quickly it seems one disorienting, dynamic motion. We don’t even think about it—we probably don’t even register it as it happens—but the emotional effect is to heighten both the chaos and the significance of the moment.
Nowhere in Battleship Potemkin are Eisenstein’s ideas better expressed than in the justifiably famous fourth sequence, “The Odessa Staircase.” The central action sequence of this chapter—centered around the massacre on the steps—is only about 7 and 1/2 minutes in length, but it is one of the most powerful and influential scenes in movie history. (Below is most of the sequence: it’s not a great print, but it is watchable, and the score it uses is close in spirit to that of the original.)
Featuring a cast of roughly 3,000 actors and extras, and shot over a two-week period in the brutal Odessa sun, this is the sequence that taught filmmakers how to shoot massive action scenes. Though there had been comparably scaled action sequences in other films—such as Griffith’s Intolerance—no one had come close to portraying this kind of visceral action with such emotional impact. The magic lies in the inventive camera work by Eisenstein’s cinematographer, Edward Tisse—who was experimenting with new camera techniques as he went along—and in Eisenstein’s bold but precise editing, which pieces together over 170 individual shots to convey both the grand scale and individual heartbreak of the massacre.
I’m going to resist the urge to write another 5,000 words on this sequence alone—books have been written already—but a few observations are in order. The first thing that strikes me about it is that it is not “realistic” in the traditional sense of the word: for all its painstakingly staged, often brutal violence, this is not documentary style filmmaking, but carefully constructed storytelling for dramatic, emotional purposes. For example, it is self-evident that tricks are being played with time here: even the Cossacks—moving in a steady, terrifyingly robotic pace down the staircase—could not possibly take nearly eight minutes to reach the bottom; the crowd fleeing in terror would reach the bottom in a matter of seconds. Likewise, spatial relations are fairly fluid in this scene, with things often happening above or below where it makes any sense for them to occur.
What we are seeing, then, is not a single, literal recreation of many individual events, but multiple points-of-view of the same events, superimposed on top of each other for cumulative effect, not for documentary clarity. Though Eisenstein maintains a simple, unidirectional narrative through the progress down the stairs, this is not, ultimately, linear storytelling, but holistic: by cutting back and forth between different mini-narratives, different characters, different angles and approaches, he is conveying to us the full range of psychological and emotional experiences of his “mass protagonist” from within. By doing so, he is unlocking the storytelling power that is unique to film: no other medium could provide such a comprehensive, gestalt view of such a large, unwieldy event.
The other thing that strikes me about this sequence is an ironic one: much more than in comparable scenes by artists—like Griffith—who weren’t communists, and who were not committed as Eisenstein is to the notion of the masses as hero—this scene’s power depends as much on individual experiences as communal ones. To convey the true impact of the massacre, Eisenstein picks out a few select individuals amid the chaos to focus upon, and it is their experiences that become the emotional focus of our viewing. For all his focus on “the masses,” he never forgets—or lets us forget—that the masses are made up of individuals, experiencing individual human tragedies.
Though there are other recognizable faces we pick out and follow through the throng, there are two mini-narratives that serve as the heart of the sequence, and both of them involve mothers and children. The first is the woman whose son is shot as they flee down the steps. We have already seen this woman and her son in the crowd earlier. (They were the ones gazing at the Communist flag in the example I used above.) Eisenstein lingers on several shots of children, sentimentally evoking the hope for the future of Russia, and—in the lack of feeling shown them by the Tsar’s troops—the justification for the entire revolution.
Here we see how Eisenstein directs our attention to this one small moment in the overall chaos, engaging our sympathies in a single, relatable mini-narrative while simultaneously using it as representative of the overall cruelty. The mother and son begin as just two figures almost lost in the crowd, but as the shooting starts, and the crowd descends the stairs, Eisenstein keeps returning to this mother and child, and we see the monstrous Cossacks (whose faces we never see) fire their guns, and we watch the boy go down. (In a brilliant appeal to audience sympathies, we realize the child is hit before the mother does: she keeps running several steps before she realizes the child is no longer with her.)
Even as the boy falls, the crowd continues swarming around him until his tiny figure is completely obscured from sight. But the mother sees him, and so do we, straining our eyes to find his crumpled form in the sea of people. Eisenstein keeps cutting between shots of the crowd, shots of the mother’s horrified face, and shots of the tiny boy being literally trampled in the rush. (Even by today’s standards, the shots of the small, defenseless child being stomped upon are gruesome.)
If you look closely at the fourth shot in this sequence, you’ll see that the crowd here is made up entirely of children: it’s not something that registers in the moment—it goes by too fast—but it’s a clever subliminal effect to make this one murdered child stand in for all children, and perhaps to expand the innocence of the children to the entire crowd: the child is an innocent victim, and we are all the child.
With her son having been swallowed by the crowd, the mother goes against the tide and heads back up the staircase. Suddenly she is not just one of the masses, but the only person on the stairs, the only living thing standing in a sea of corpses. This is another example of Eisenstein’s willful departures from realism: given the fleeing crowds we see before and after this scene, it makes no logical sense, but he chooses for this moment to personify the entire massacre in one mother’s grief. (Thematically, it’s similar to how Vakulinchuk earlier became the lone martyr for the entire mutiny. There may not be room for individual heroes in Eisenstein’s ideology, but he recognizes the value of individual martyrs.)
The Cossacks are continuing their relentless march downward—their boots hitting to the beat of drums on the soundtrack—and their menacing shadows stretch out before them. The mother picks up the body of her son, and—cradling him in her arms—she climbs the staircase to appeal to the soldiers’ humanity. But of course, here, they have no mercy: as she reaches near them, standing literally in their shadows, they shoot her down.
The other stand-out story of this episode, of course, is the baby carriage; I’m not going to break it down here—I feel I’ve droned on long enough at this point—but it is a fantastic, bravura piece of cinema. As a symbol of the cruelty and indifference to humanity of the Tsarist regime, it’s a powerful bit of propaganda—What victim could be more innocent?—but simply as an example of suspenseful filmmaking it is stunning. The sequence has been directly imitated many times—most obviously by Brian DePalma in The Untouchables—but as that carriage teeters precariously on the very top step, and the mother slouches against it, tipping it over the edge and sending it on its terrifying trip down the staircase—it’s easy to imagine how this scene has influenced and instructed generations of directors, from Hitchcock to Spielberg, in how to create a suspenseful sequence.
One thing I do think is worth noting is the way, in both of these sequences, Eisenstein cleverly puts us in the crowd. Obviously, he does this by his extraordinary point-of-view shooting—which reportedly included a circus-trained acrobat with a handheld camera strapped to his waist—and through the “everywhere-at-once” style of editing that we’ve already discussed. But he also does this by intercutting shots of other people witnessing the same events that we are witnessing: faces in the crowd seeing the same tragedies, registering the same concern, expressing the same horror. As the baby carriage descends, for example, there are two individuals who see it happen amidst the chaos: an old woman and a young student. They, like us, can’t do anything to stop what is happening, but in cutting to them Eisenstein both reinforces our own emotional reactions and puts us, the audience, in the same sympathetic space as the masses in the crowd.
This chapter ends with the Potemkin responding to the tragedy by turning its massive guns on the Imperial Headquarters in the city. Historically, I should probably note, this didn’t actually happen—in fact, while there were massacres in the streets of Odessa, the entire scene on the staircase didn’t happen—but it doesn’t matter: for propaganda purposes, it’s the Shot Heard ’Round Russia, a mighty blow against a heartless regime that brings a nation to its feet. Eisenstein indulges in a bit more montage trickery here to punctuate the moment. First, as the Potemkin fires its guns, we get three rapid shots of stone cherubs, edited together so they appear to be throwing a punch for justice:
Then, three shots of the shells hitting the headquarters. (By the way, the interetitle informs us that this military headquarters was also the Odessa Theater: anyone suggesting a meta-element here—in which the great filmmaker is striking a symbolic blow against the outdated, hopelessly bourgeois medium of theater—would not be accused of craziness.)
And finally, three rapid shots of three stone lions, spliced together to create the illusion of a single lion roused from his slumber.
As I said when I began, I could spend a month talking about Battleship Potemkin and still not run out of things to say about it; I’ve already babbled on longer than I intended, and I largely skipped three out of the five acts of the movie. (The fifth act—though something of an anti-climax in story terms—is another stunner; if you watch it, pay attention to Eisenstein’s use of what he called “metric montage,” concerning the lengths of shots: the sequence begins slowly, with longer shots, but as the Potemkin draws nearer and nearer to its confrontation with the squadron, the various shots come more and more frequently—punctuated with repeated shots of the ships turbines churning faster and faster—until he builds up a pulsing, almost unbearably suspenseful rhythm.)
Battleship Potemkin is, as I called it earlier, film nerd porn, a virtual primer on how to make movies and, when studied, a perfect guidebook for how to watch movies. Even with a casual viewing, it is easy to understand its place in movie history and its influence on generations of directors. (In Sight & Sound’s decennial poll of critics to determine the greatest movies of all time, Potemkin was one of only two films—along with Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, which we’ll get to in a few weeks—to make the top ten list in every decade from 1952–2002. It got knocked to 11th place in the 2012 poll)
But, for all of that, here’s a question I should remember to ask myself as I’m going through this process: did I like it? It’s a tricky question: the film nerd in me got positively giddy during certain parts of Battleship Potemkin, and—even from a completely non-academic, non-analytical place—the Odessa Steps sequence is a powerhouse. At the same time, however, I’m a big fan of story, and a big fan of characterization, and Potemkin has little of the first and none of the second.
It’s not fair to call Eisenstein a propagandist, because he was unquestionably an artist and a visionary, and—regardless of its political views or intent—Potemkin is a masterful demonstration of the power of film. At the same time, however—as even Eisenstein seems to admit in the Odessa Steps sequence—the story of a “mass protagonist” is no substitute for individual drama, for personal triumphs and tragedies, for the sympathy and empathy we feel for a single, relatable soul. Whether you call it a political view, a historical view, or an aesthetic view, I guess I don’t ultimately believe that there is such a thing as a “mass protagonist,” or that it is possible to tell any story well without telling the stories of the individual men and women who lived it.
For this reason—while I’ll no doubt go back to study, and honor, and appreciate Battleship Potemkin—I don’t think I’ll ever learn to love it.
Coming Up on the Syllabus: So far, we’ve done a serial killer movie, a vampire movie, and a war movie; next week, we tackle a new genre as we head back to Germany for the granddaddy of sci-fi movies, Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis.
(Once again, I’ll be watching the Kino DVD, but there are many versions on YouTube, and a couple of versions streaming on Netflix, including the 1984 Giorgio Moroder restoration with the pop-synth soundtrack by ’80s bands; I’m going to stick with the Kino restoration initially, but I must admit I’m curious to experience it with music by Freddy Mercury and Adam Ant.) Then, in the next few weeks, I’ll be watching Carl Theodore Dryer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and—I think—the movie that knocked Battleship Potemkin out of the Sight & Sound Top 10, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929).
The following is a list—in no particular order—of works and websites I found useful in writing this piece. As always, anything I got wrong was my own damn fault.
Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, Sergei Eisenstein, Harcourt, 1969
The Battleship Potemkin: The Film Companion, Richard Taylor, I.B. Tauris, 2001
A History of Narrative Film, David Cook, W.W. Norton & Co., 1996
“A Revolution on Screen,” Bruce Bennett, Battleship Potemkin Two-Disc Special Edition, Kino International (link is to the press kit, which includes the essay by Bennett.)
Sergei Eisenstein (Critical Lives), Mike O’Mahony, Reaktion, 2011
“Battleship Potemkin,” Silents are Golden
“Sergei Eisenstein: The Art and Science of Cinema,” Russian Archives Online
Sergei Eisenstein and His Theory of Montage, Ewa Neumann
Battleship Potemkin DVD Review, Christian Blauvelt, Slant Magazine
“A Marxist History of the World part 65: The 1905 Revolution: Russia’s Great Dress Rehearsal,” Neil Faulkner, Counterfire
“The Battleship Potemkin,” James Steffen, Turner Classic Movies
“Cutter’s Way: The Mysterious Art of Film Editing,” Graham Daseler, Bright Lights Film Journal