A Short History of Cinema: Battleship Potemkin

“…the mass itself became dissolved in the revolutionary élan.”


With all the talk about the 100’th anniversary of Birth of a Nation this week, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at the other film that helped form the basis of the film language still in use to this day: The Battleship Potemkin. While it is 10 years older than Birth of a Nation, The Battleship Potemkin utilizes a revolutionary theory of montage, stretched to its greatest degree, used specifically to elicit emotional response from an audience. And it worked like gangbusters. The Battleship Potemkin is still referenced today as a classic of not only Soviet Cinema, but also as the best propaganda movie ever made and one of the best movies ever made, period. While the film may feel like a strange artifact from another world, one where villains are cartoonish and an ideology can be purported without irony or introspection of any kind, it still holds a raw power in its most famous moment: the Odessa Steps montage. (*Sadly, this is the best resolution offered on Youtube, but a better transfer does exist and the movie looks absolutely amazing 90 years down the line)


Soviet Cinema grew up in a strange transition. In 1917 revolutions around Russia dismantled the Tsarist autocracy and replaced it with the revolutionary government, the Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. It was a Marxist government ran by Lenin, using an extreme form of communism, where all private property was directly owned by the government. Lenin himself was a fan of the rising art of film, even calling it “the most influential of all the arts.” He saw in it the potential to sway audience’s emotions, and to stir up revolutionary feelings.  In 1919 Lenin nationalized the film industry, and established workshops to “undertake a systematic, theoretical study of film art.” Eisenstein, among other prominent silent Soviet filmmakers, attended and grew their craft through these workshops.


During this time there was a shortage of film stock in the country, so filmmakers began making new work by simply re-editing old films. While this seems like strange idea today, back then it grew into its own theoretical perspective on film-making, specifically “the montage”. Through the Re-Editing Department of the Moscow Film Committee, Lev Kuleshov gathered some prevalent theory from the Re-Editing Department and began putting them to film. His most famous experiment was taking a long shot of a single actor and inter-cutting footage of a plate of soup, a dead woman in a coffin, and a child playing, with the actor maintaining the same face. The effect was that the audience would change their opinion on the actor and his expression depending on what the image was being cut with. So was born the Kuleshov Effect, which laid the seeds for Eisenstein’s “Theory of Montage”.


Soviet cinema took a lot from America’s D.W. Griffith, in addition to his narrative construction in Birth of a Nation, they also saw the raw power the film had to lead the audience towards a particular emotion. Eisenstein is even quoted as saying “All that is best in the Soviet Film has its origins in [D.W. Griffith’s] Intolerance.” The Soviet film world then began forming its own unique voice, one which de-emphasized the actor in films (rather focusing on masses of people), which focused on revolutionary principles, and focused on an increased use of montage.  Eisenstein shared a passion for these ideals, all of which are on display in The Battleship Potemkin, but one aspect he did not follow was a heavy focus on realism. Eisenstein, coming from a theatrical background, preferred expressive movements, designed to excite the audience. Another aspect where Eisenstein differed was with Kuleshov’s practice of montage itself. Where Kuleshov believed that you could author the audience’s emotion by the images you choose to juxtapose, Eisenstein believed that the audience must act as your co-author in the process, so that you show them images meant to elicit a reaction, but you trust that reaction to an audiences mind rather than forcing it upon them. One example of how this may work is that with the Kuleshov Effect you would show a shot of a child begging for soup, intercut with a shot of a statue of Justice, where the scales are tipped to one side, forcing a comparison on the juxtaposition alone. In an Eisensteinian montage there might instead be a shot of a boy begging for soup and then a shot of the man refusing, then another shot over the shoulder of the Justice statue, looking over this interaction, giving the audience leeway to interpret the juxtaposition themselves.


Thereby Eisenstein developed his style of montage which is narratively constructed to lead the audience towards certain emotions. Putting his theory in words, Eisenstein posited “a ‘polyphonic’ montage in cinema that would interweave pictorial motifs.” In fact, Eisenstein pictured this as a kind of “montage of attractions”, created as a sort of revolutionary political circus. His theatrical productions followed this line of logic, as they did not take place on traditional stages, but in the center of a circle, much like an actual circus. The players would be many, there would be actions happening all over the “stage” and sometimes even poppers going off under peoples seats. It was a truly avant-garde way of looking at theatrics and the audience’s participation in them. This style of theater was not unheard of and Eisenstein warned that the kind of interactive theater that some art-houses participated in would release too much of the “revolutionary energy” that was built up during the performance. On the other end he worried that if the film were too placating, that the audience would not be sufficiently called to arms. He saw film in itself as a political action, and he shared Lenin’s thoughts that film, when properly used, could be the most powerful form of art in existence.


The Battleship Potemkin was commissioned by the Soviet Government to commemorate the 20’th anniversary of the 1905 uprisings against Tsar Nicholas II. Eisenstein originally envisioned the film as an 8-part historical retelling of the beginnings of the Russian Revolution, but after he saw the stairs that would later stage the Odessa Steps Montage he was moved to restructure the movie. He saw the stairs as a kind of stage to enact his play upon, even though the results of the film are far from anything a theatrical play could hope to accomplish. In restructuring the movie, Eisenstein focused on the true story of a Russian battleship that revolted against the Tsarist regime running the ship, as the regular crew mutinies and takes over the boat. The events that structure the Odessa Steps Montage are actually the few events in the film that did not occur in reality, Roger Ebert pointing out that “It is ironic that [Eisenstein directed the scene] so well that today, the bloodshed on the Odessa Steps is often referred to as if it really happened.”


I won’t try to dissect the actual montage scene, because better people than me have already done it many times (here’s a weak representation of that, but good pictures to highlight the concept of montage). I will talk about the movie a little bit, though, as it is a truly singular film. Like Griffiths Birth of a Nation you can see how the stepping-stones of film language are being constructed, as this new art form is slowly building itself. Stranger is how different the film style had shifted since Birth of a Nation. What defines early classical filmmaking is a sense of mise-en-scene, which in this context refers to how a scene is staged, like a theatrical production. The prevalent film-style (and one that Griffith helped create and move past) was to set up the camera and film the actors and sets as if they are on a stage. This creates a far-away and disconnected feeling with the film, but even by Birth… you can see Griffith move his camera  more,  come in for intimate moments, and use general baby steps to figure out how filming works. These growing pangs are most gloriously obvious in the Civil War scenes of Birth…, where large battlefields with people running around, small as ants, and random explosions going off represent the war. It looks strange and not very exciting, but it also seems to exist on such a naturally large scale that it inspires awe to this day, even when massive CGI armies are the norm.


By 1925, film language had moved past the concept of movies as filmed theater that pushed mise-en-scene as the standard mode of filmmaking. This allows for Eisenstein to use framing and close-ups to telegraph certain characters emotions. There are a few particularly telling scenes where the Tsarist Captain of the Potemkin is shown in close-ups, shot from below, with the lens slightly iris’ed in (as if the screen itself becomes a circle to focus on its subject). This creates a sense of isolation, of power, and of malevolence, all leading the audience’s emotions toward distrust and even hatred of this character. It is the small moments like this that lend The Battleship Potemkin its power all these years later. While it seems strange and foreign, it also feels intimately familiar, as a sort of proto-film that all other films were born from (which is exactly what it is).


Watching The Battleship Potemkin today still elicits the same emotions I'm sure it did when it first previewed, if not deadened by the knowledge of how Communism will turn out for Russia, or even recognizing the propaganda techniques that would later be popularized in Nazi Germany by Leni Riefenstahl. It is still an important film and infinitely watchable. It moves at such a brisk pace, and believes in itself so fully, that you cannot help but be pulled into the whirlwind of vague nationalism and rising up against the oppressive power structure. The film is so powerful that famed Nazi, Joseph Goebbels, said that The Battleship Potemkin is “a marvelous film without equal in cinema… anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film.” This film serves as a living time capsule, a testament to the wonders that men can create, and a warning of how easily people can be led in this world. While there may have been better films made, films that deal more with the human condition more so than personified politics, and films that generally have more to say, there is no denying how powerful film can be as a medium after watching The Battleship Potemkin.


*Information gathered from The Oxford History of World Cinema edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (p. 167-170) and Closely Watched Films: An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Technique by Marilyn Fabe (p. 19-24)


February 16th, 2015