FOCUS Film History Art and Institutional Constraints

Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin is a drama about a mutiny on board a battleship. It is based on a minor (even farcical) incident from the unsuccessful Russian Revolution of 1905.

As history the film is unreliable, although it is a fascinating insight into the social and political attitudes of the period of its making (i.e. the first decade of the Soviet regime). Soviet cinema

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Battleship Potemkin. Courtesy of BFI Stills, Posters and Designs was a product of the Soviet Union. In February 1917 - after popular uprisings in Russia - the Tsar abdicated. In October 1917 the rather ineffective 'Provisional Government' was removed from office by a coup engineered by the Bolsheviks (with popular support). The Bolsheviks - led by Lenin - were committed to the use of all available means of agitation and propaganda, especially the cinema. As Lenin noted in 1922: 'for us the most important of all the arts is cinema.'

The Soviet (Bolshevik) government nationalised the film industry in February 1918. It set up a special cinema section in the Commissariat of the Enlightenment, with Lenin's wife in charge. Life was hard - there was a civil war raging (which in 1919 it looked like the Bolsheviks would lose) - but young cadres flocked to the film industry.

Many of the young directors had a political allegiance to the Bolsheviks. The Revolution had given them their opportunity to be film-makers. As the established producers and directors fled west, so Lev Kuleshov along with Eduard Tisse and Dziga Vertov seized their chance at accelerated progress in the cinema. Many others, including Esfir Shub and Eisenstein, would follow in the early 1920s.

The early works of these new film-makers were notable for their economy of style and virtuoso editing technique. Battleship Potemkin is one of those brilliant, formal pieces of film-making produced in the Soviet Union between 1924 and 1929. It is a very, very clever film. In addition, the film is an exercise book in the editing technique known as montage.

Montage is simply a form of editing, but it is editing that emphasises dynamic, sometimes discontinuous, relationships between shots and the juxtaposition of images to create ideas not present in either one by itself. Thus the Soviet masters went beyond the cross-cutting developed a decade earlier by Griffith (see Intolerance, chapter 1).

There is a controversy about who deserves the credit for the discovery of the intellectual power of montage. Eisenstein certainly did not invent editing. He was not even the first filmmaker/theorist to decide that editing was pre-eminent. That honour should rightfully go to Lev Kuleshov. It was Kuleshov who first used the term 'montage' in 'The Tasks of the Artistic Cinema' (1917): 'regularly ordered in time and space a cinema that fixes organised human and natural raw material and organises the viewer's attention at the moment of projection through montage.' Kuleshov returned from newsreel duty in the Civil War as a veteran of war and cinema (aged 20) to run his own workshop at the State Film School (GIK). He got so prestigious a position largely because he was the only experienced film-maker left in the Soviet Union. Making a virtue of the famine in film stock, he launched a series of experiments that led to the development of montage and the militant belief that the essence of cinema was in its editing.

Kuleshov, along with Vertov and later Eisenstein, was also a champion of cinema as cinema - not filmed theatre. Thus in a 1918 article 'The Art of Cinema' he wrote of 'cinema specificity' (.kinomatografichnost). Editing was the activity that separated film from theatre. Beyond this ideological position, the particular style of editing - montage - was the result of a number of factors.

• Practicality. Very little film stock requires no waste (so keep the shot length short).

• Newsreel experience. This led to the realisation that images can be juxtaposed to create effects. There was no time or need for smooth transitions.

• American influence. Kuleshov recommended American film as a model for: 'how much plot you can get into a very short film .. . they strive to achieve the maximum number of scenes and maximum effect with the minimum waste of film'. In 'American-ness' (1922) Kuleshov stated that a 'genuine cinema is a montage of American shots'.

Sergei M. Eisenstein (1898-1948) was an artist as well as a film-maker. He was also the author of a massive amount of theoretical work. That is why his name is linked more closely to montage theory than the other early Soviet innovators. Eisenstein began his public career designing in the theatre. His friend Esfir Shub - who was editing Western films (including Chaplin and Lang) for the Soviet authorities - revealed to Eisenstein the power of cinema and led to him changing career. In 1924 Eisenstein wrote in 'Montage of Attractions' of a new approach: 'a free montage with arbitrarily chosen independent (of both the particular composition and any thematic connection with the actors) effects (attractions) but with the precise aim of specific thematic effect.'

Eisenstein's first film, Strike (1924), was planned as part of a trilogy - the history of the revolution. The three films are:

• Strike, the stirrings of revolutionary consciousness;

• Potemkin, the first revolution (1905), a historical drama about a mutiny on board a battleship;

• October, the film of the revolution.

His slogan was to be: 'art through revolution: revolution through art'.

Eisenstein's attempt to fulfil his revolutionary remit can be seen in the climactic 'Odessa Steps' sequence of Battleship Potemkin. It is certainly one of the most celebrated (and copied) sequences in the history of film-making. The good people of Odessa have been feting the sailors who have risen against their cruel officers. A holiday mood has enveloped the crowd on the steps leading to the harbour - but the forces of repression are ready to strike.

Here is Eisenstein's own description of 'the steps' (from Battleship Potemkin, trans. G. Aitken (1968), p. 14):

movement - is used to express mounting emotional intensity.

Firstly there are close-ups of human figures rushing chaotically. Then long shots of the same scene. The chaotic movement is next superseded by shots showing the feet of soldiers as they march rhythmically down the steps.

Tempo increases. Rhythm accelerates. And then, as the downward movement reaches its culmination, the movement is suddenly reversed, instead of the headlong rush of the crowd down the steps we see a solitary figure of a mother carrying her dead son, slowly and solemnly going up the steps.

Because Eisenstein has such a clear sense of rhythm built into this sequence, he can insert images that appear unconnected - for example, members of the crowd filling the frame or moving in contrapuntal directions. He can also repeat sequences - for example, the mother falling as the pram teeters on the step, the pram's progress downwards and the final flourish of the Cossack officer's sword slash.

The coda to this section shows the power of associative montage. The guns of the battleship make their reply to the barbarity. They shell 'The Odessa Theatre - headquarters of the generals'. The stone lions, lying, sitting, standing, which decorate the theatre, are edited in sequence to produce an ideogram of a lion (representing the people) rising in defiance.

Battleship Potemkin has remained a famous - even controversial - film since it first appeared. Authorities in the UK and the USA viewed it as so powerful as to warrant banning for decades. To this day it remains a film to be studied by all film students, directors and so on. It is also consciously referred to in many films (e.g. Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, USA, 1987). Montage technique remains as an influence, in particular on action films, commercials and many videos for popular music performers.

Some Things to Watch out for and Consider

• Is Battleship Potemkin really such a good film, or is it just an important one?

• Why has Battleship Potemkin proved to be so influential?

• How successful is Battleship Potemkin as a piece of propaganda?

Further Viewing

The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, USA, 1915) Intolerance (Griffith, USA, 1916) The Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, USSR, 1929) Triumph of the Will (Riefensthal, Germany, 1933) Olympia (Riefensthal, Germany, 1936)

The Untouchables (De Palma, USA, 1987) Naked Gun 33 j(Segal, USA, 1994)

Further Reading

G. Roberts, On Directors: Eisenstein (London, forthcoming)

R. Taylor, Film Propaganda (London, 1999)

R. Taylor and I. Christie, The Film Factory (London, 1989)

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