Despite the severe shortage of food, shelter, and money, the postwar period of the 1920s was a time of intense creative activity in the new Soviet Union. The revolution had killed the past, and artists were seeking radical new means of creative expression. The innovations Eisenstein brought to cinematic art were very much a product of his being an artist in the heady, idealistic first days of the revolution when the Soviet Union, for a short time, encouraged its artists to create original and vital new art forms in the service of the new society.
Lenin pronounced the cinema the most influential of all the arts. Film, he believed, should do more than entertain: the powerful picture language of the new medium could instruct the illiterate masses in the history and theory of socialism. Moving pictures, moreover, could be used to mold and reinforce the values of the people so that the Bolshevik revolution would prosper. On August 27, 1919, Lenin nationalized the film industry, and established state film workshops to undertake a systematic, theoretical study of film art. The goal of these workshops was to determine the best methods for shaping the film medium into a powerful tool of instruction and propaganda.
As they began to study film systematically in these workshops, Soviet film pioneers were deeply impressed by the emotional effects generated by D. W. Griffith's narrative techniques—his use of the close-up, his innovative camera movements, and the way he changed camera angles. They were especially excited by his crosscutting and editing rhythms. The Soviet pioneers were influenced most by Griffith's Intolerance (1919), the next film Griffith made after The Birth of a Nation. "All that is best in the Soviet film," Eisenstein later acknowledged, "has its origins in Intolerance."4 On the foundation of Griffith's achievement, Soviet filmmakers sought to establish general principles about film art which they could apply to their project of creating powerful political propaganda that would entertain, inspire, and instruct the masses.
The most influential of the state-run film schools was Lev Kuleshov's workshop. Kuleshov conducted experiments which seemed to prove that film art did not begin when the cameraman photographed an action (enframed the image) but when the individual shots took on new meanings as they were arranged in editing. A famous Kuleshov experiment, for example, purported to prove that it was the editing or arrangement of shots that creates meaning in the mind of the spectator, above and beyond the meaning of the content of each individual shot. In the experiment, a close-up of the prerevolutionary cinema matinee idol Mosjukhin was juxtaposed in turn with shots of a plate of soup on the table, a coffin containing a dead woman, and a little girl playing with a toy bear. According to an account by the Soviet director V. I. Pudovkin, who attended Kuleshov's workshop, "When we showed the three combinations to an audience which had not been let into the secret the result was terrific. The public raved about the acting of the artist. They pointed out the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead woman, and admired the light, happy smile with which he surveyed the girl at play. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same."5
Kuleshov concluded from this and similar experiments that "an actor's play reaches the spectator just as the editor requires it to, because the spectator himself completes the connected shots and sees in it what has been suggested to him by the montage."6 Kuleshov's experiments and the example of Griffith's powerful shot juxtapositions suggested to the Soviet filmmakers and theoreticians that editing was the foundation of film art. They termed the process of creative, artful arrangement of shots "montage," in order to distinguish it from the simple process of editing or splicing shots together simply to obtain narrative continuity. While few filmmakers today would accept the proposition that editing counts for everything in the art of making films, Soviet filmmakers were inspired by their fascination with the effects achieved through editing to create works that opened up new channels of expression for film art.
Like Pudovkin, Eisenstein attended Kuleshov's workshop, where he studied for three months in 1923, but originally he applied the principles of montage not to film but to the stage. Eisenstein's revolutionary ideas for the theater inspired many of his innovations in film art. The Proletkult theater where Eisenstein worked after the end of the Civil War was dedicated to promoting culture among the workers and encouraging them to seek artistic self-expression. But, as I noted above, the revolution had drastically changed Russian society's attitude toward art. The basic precept of the Proletkult theater was that bourgeois culture must be forced to give way to a new, purely proletarian culture. The purpose of art under the new revolutionary order was not to provide intellectual or aesthetic pleasure to the privileged few, but to educate the workers and reinforce their dedication to the values of socialism. The function of art was also seen as an energizer, a force that would pump up the people with the psychic wherewithal necessary for the hard work of building a socialist society.
In this context, the traditional, realistic theater (the theater of Chekhov and Ibsen) that created the illusion that the spectator was looking in on a slice of real life with the fourth wall removed, would not do. Realistic theater, it was believed, encouraged viewers to become too vicariously involved with the fictional action, a process that, it was thought, siphoned off their revolutionary energies. Eisenstein, who had been brought up on (and loved) the traditional theater, quickly realized that it was inappro priate for the new society. "What diabolical mechanism lies hidden in this art that I serve!" he wrote. "It's not merely a cheat and a swindle. It's poison—a dreadful, terrifying poison. For, if you can get your enjoyment through fantasy, who is going to make the effort any more to find in real experiences what can be had without moving from the theatre seat?"7
Heavily influenced by the famed avant-garde theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, Eisenstein enthusiastically developed original theatrical methods for conveying revolutionary themes. He sought a means to intensely affect the audience in a different way from that by which audiences are affected in the traditional theater, that is, not through the fantasy immersion in a realistic theatrical world where meaning and emotion are communicated primarily through the word. He thought theater should be based on what he called a "montage of attractions," which would take theater back to its primitive roots in spectacle or circus entertainment. Eisenstein envisioned a political theater in which spectators could be pleasured and thrilled by wondrous circus attractions and spectacles, while at the same time they were instructed in correct political views and values through carefully constructed political satires.
Eisenstein's theatrical productions were performed not on a traditional stage but in an area resembling a circus arena, with most of the players wearing masks. While the actors enacted political satires, acrobats performed. At one point in Eisenstein's production of Ostrovsky's Even a Wise Man Stumbles a player exited on a tightrope above the audience's head. Caps exploded under the audience's seats. As chaotic as it all seemed, there was a method to the madness. The caps were to keep everyone awake and alert. The acrobatics and circus performances both entertained the audience and mirrored and reinforced the emotions and ideas conveyed by the actors. As Eisenstein writes, "A gesture expands into gymnastics, rage [of an actor] is expressed through a somersault [performed by an acrobat], exaltation through a salto-mortale. . . .The grotesque of this style permitted leaps from one type of expression to another, as well as unexpected intertwinings of the two expressions."8
Eisenstein abandoned the traditional form of the nineteenth-century realistic theater for a theater based on attractions—spectacles and sights— in which the audience's attention is pulled back and forth between two or more simultaneous scenes, so that the meaning of one spills over into and reinforces the meaning of the other. As we shall see, Eisenstein would exploit more fully the methods of his montage of attractions when he moved beyond theater to film. The influence of his theatrical experiments is evident in his most famous and successful film, The Battleship Potem-kin, and especially in the style of the famous sequence in which the citizens of Odessa are massacred on the Odessa Steps.
The Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein's second film, was commissioned by the government of the Soviet Union to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the uprisings in Russia in 1905, a year of general strikes and demonstrations against the government of Czar Nicholas II. The government retaliated by killing hundreds of demonstrators, but the revolutionary spirit was never completely quelled. The 1905 unrest, including the takeover of the armored cruiser Potemkin in the port of Odessa by revolutionary soldiers, was understood by Bolsheviks as a precursor to their 1917 revolution.
Originally Eisenstein had planned a monumental eight-part work to capture all aspects of the uprisings of 1905, from the Russo-Japanese War to the armed uprisings in Moscow. In the original script, only forty-two shots had been planned to cover the Potemkin mutiny off the shore of Odessa. But when Eisenstein saw the dazzling white flight of marble steps leading down to Odessa's harbor, he saw a spectacular stage upon which to film a massacre of unarmed citizens who supported the mutiny, even though this event never actually occurred.9 Eisenstein reconceived the entire film. It would now center on just one revolutionary episode from the many uprisings of 1905—the mutiny of the sailors on the armored cruiser Potemkin. This one incident, culminating in the fictional bloody massacre on the Odessa Steps, would epitomize the age-old oppression of the Russian people by the corrupt Czarist regime and dramatize the necessity of revolt.
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