Beyond Realism

A stunning illustration of Eisenstein's willingness to forego realistic representation in order to heighten the emotional and visual impact of an event occurs in the sequence in which another mother carries her wounded child up the steps to confront the armed soldiers. Eisenstein shoots the scene from behind the mother as she gets dangerously close to the soldiers, who appear at the top of the frame. The steps are dissected by a path of bright light on either side of which are strewn the bodies of the slaughtered people of Odessa. The path of light lends a mysterious religious quality to the image, as if it were lighting the mother's way toward martyrdom. As the woman ascends, her body casts a shadow into the path of light. (See figure 10.) The very next shot is taken from a reverse angle. Now the camera is looking down at the mother and child from behind the soldiers who are offscreen but whose elongated shadows loom menacingly in front of them on the steps. (See figure 11.) The effect here is compositionally brilliant, symbolically rich (the mother is walking into the shadow of death), but logically impossible. The two shots, arguably two of the most memorable in the film, directly contradict one another from the standpoint of realism. For the mother to cast a shadow before her in the first shot and then, an instant later, walk into the shadows cast by the soldiers, the sun would have had to have spun around 180 degrees in the sky. These two most mismatched of shots illustrate once more that Eisenstein was not interested in achieving realistic effects in his films. He conceived his films as made up of autonomous attractions, highly charged moments fascinating in and of themselves, with an undercurrent of pathos for polemical intent.

A final example of Eisenstein's departure from realistic representation to achieve a heightened emotional effect occurs near the conclusion of the Odessa Steps sequence. A sleeping marble lion suddenly rises up. According to Eisenstein, the image of the lion leaping up was intended to

Odessa Steps Sequence Potemken 1925
Figure 10. As a woman carrying a sick child ascends the steps, her body casts a shadow into the path of light before her. (The Battleship Potemkin, 1925, Sovexport Films.)
Film Potemkin 1925
Figure 11. In this shot, the soldiers' bodies cast their shadows on the woman and child. (The Battleship Potemkin, 1925, Sovexport Films.)

make literal the metaphor that even stone is moved to protest the outrageous oppression of the Czarist regime. Eisenstein achieved this effect by editing together shots of three marble lions—one asleep, one awakening, and one fully aroused, which in actuality were nowhere near the vicinity of the Odessa Steps. His cameraman Eduard Tisse discovered them at the Alupka Palace in the Crimea. Yet this animated stone lion, created from a composite of film fragments, lives in the memory of those who see the film as an outraged witness to the Odessa Steps massacre. Such is the power of associative montage.13

The wonderful irony of Potemkin's place in film history is that even though Eisenstein did not strive to create a mimetic illusion of reality, his film was nevertheless experienced as stunningly real. Jay Leyda in Kino, his history of the Russian and Soviet film, writes that "One of the curious effects of the film has been to replace the facts of the Potemkin Mutiny with the film's artistic 'revision' of those events, in all subsequent references, even by historians, to this episode."14 "Absolute realism," Eisenstein wrote, "is by no means the correct form of perception."15 His films teach us that a film can come across as even more authentic when a director departs from the conventions of realistic representation. Eisenstein's Potemkin may not have sparked political revolutions around the world, as the filmmaker had hoped, but its methods of montage revolutionized film art.

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