Sergei Eisenstein & "Battleship Potemkin"
There is much that is fascinating about the life and work of Sergei M. Eisenstein. While critics turning to directing is not unheard of—the “Cahiers du cinema” writers of the French nouvelle vague, Paul Schrader and Peter Bogdonovich here in America, British critics like Lindsay Anderson—it is relatively rare for theoreticians to take their ideas and transfer them to actual filmic work, to practice what they preach, if you will. To the best of my knowledge, Eisenstein is unparalleled here. While his writings, some of which are collected in “Film Sense” and “Film Form” (two great, though dense, texts), delve into areas he never had the chance to experiment practically with—he was a proponent of 3-D, for example—the way his theoretical considerations manifested themselves in his regrettably few completed films is remarkable. Most famous of these pictures, and rightfully so, is Battleship Potemkin (1925). Here we find many of his ideas working themselves out in the arena of a film about revolution, class struggle, and politics, favorite themes of many Soviet directors of this era.
With ideas based around notions of psychological association, dialectical (see Marxist) concepts of collision, paths to synaethesia, conflicts of aesthetic attractions forming modes of montage (here a distinct idea from what we normally think of as editing), and even taken from concepts derived from haiku poetry and kabuki theater, Eisenstein’s theories, and therefore his films, Potemkin being the prime example, are richly and complexly layered.
Eisenstein felt, initially anyway, that in many ways the shot was the “raw material” of the cinema; it was an image with signifying features already firmly in place, the juxtaposition of which, against another shot, would result in a third shot producing a new idea unattainable from either previous shot alone—“two film pieces of any kind, placed together, inevitably combine into a new concept, a new quality, arising out of that juxtaposition,” he writes in his essay “Word and Image.”
That being said, many single shots, single frames, of Potemkin are strikingly constructed and meaningful by themselves. Take, for example, early on when we see the sailors lying in the hammocks. They are intersecting, with diagonal and horizontal planes emphasized, and depth and solidarity clearly in focus. Contrast this to when the revolt begins and these same sailors are shot standing upright, in line. They are still together, keeping the unity of the previous image, but now they are no longer at rest, they are engaged, and the contrast highlights this sense of action. Though not right next to each other, these two examples of shot construction in this film show how Eisenstein creates major significance with his mise-en-scéne.
His is a cinema too of bold faces and gestures (his actors hired based predominantly on their look, “typage,” somewhat like the Italian neorealists would later do). The close-ups of animated expressions of discontent and anger are quite powerful. We also see compositions such as the higher angle above the ship where symmetry is key, and within that the conflict is clearly expressed in the black and white opposition between the worker sailors and the officers. The sea of white hats mingling recalls later in Potemkin when the masses gather around the murdered Vakulinchuk. Memorable single frames also include when Vakulinchuk is thrown overboard and is left dangling above the sea; and also later, in the famous Odessa steps sequence when the mother, carrying her child in her arms, stands in the foreground while in the background the lower-halves of the bombarding soldiers make their way down the stairs, and in between these two unwavering forces are scattered bodies strewn across the steps—it’s an amazing image. Off-center framing and canted angles all add to independent frames of colossal dynamism.
But of course the combining through editing of single images is where Eisenstein is most famous, and where many of his ideas were concerned. Right off, and repeated later, we get images of the machinery of the ship. The mechanics of the impersonality of this vessel are at once isolated as repetitive and automatic, and yet through its sexual connotations we see a human side; this is representative of the duality of film in general, which, to use two of Eisenstein’s common and conflicting terms, can form either the “art machine” or the “art organism.”
The comparisons drawn when Eisenstein focuses on, first, the priest hitting the crucifix into his palm, followed by, second, an officer stroking his knife, again not only recalls some obvious sexual notions but also forms an idea invoking forms of aggression and actions, of a belief system and its application in a revolution. We get a great sort of flashback/forward associative montage when the doctor has been flung overboard and Eisenstein inserts a shot of the maggots on the meat (recalling his evaluation earlier) and then a shot of his glasses hanging (how he examined the meat earlier, and also pointing towards the graphic shot of the women getting shot in the face later in Odessa). Then, through two simple shots of sailors and their guns, Eisenstein conveys so much—when the firing squad is about to shoot the unruly sailors, Vakulinchuk pleads with them. We get a shot of their guns, perfectly straight, rigidly drawn; an intertitle comes in noting that the “rifles wavered”; then there is a shot of the guns shaking and coming down. The sense of accomplishment and solidarity established is explicit.
While the Odessa steps sequence has been much-discussed and justly-lauded (as well as frequently referenced—De Palma with The Untouchables and Scorsese with Gangs of New York are just two examples), while watching the film again I noticed particularly how well Eisenstein utilized the graphic conflict of the static camera placement with a mobile, even subjective camera operation (reminiscent of F.W. Murnau).
Additionally, if ever there was a film to be watched without the sound playing it would be this one. The rhythm of Eisenstein’s editing is extraordinary in the way it builds up to an action, shows that action, and decreases in impact.
There is so much to say about this masterpiece of the cinema and about Eisenstein as a filmmaker. It’s always extraordinary to look at the work of a filmmaker who, like Griffith, Welles, Godard, Hitchcock, and very few others, actually developed and altered the language of the cinema.