Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925)

Almost from the start of THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (Soviet Union, 1925) we are knocked for a loop by its furious kineticism.  The film’s director and editor, Sergei Eisenstein, believed movement was the essence of cinema.  Not so much the movement of the camera or the actors in front of it (though there is plenty of both in his films), but the movement created by the juxtaposition of shots in editing.  This is where the true energy, as well as the meaning in cinema, is found.  As POTEMKIN tells the story of the 1905 rebellion aboard the titular Russian battleship, fury and energy are perfectly served by Eisenstein’s editing or “montage”.  In the early moments of the film when the men’s anger erupts over their inhumane treatment, we get a taste of Eisenstein’s approach.  While washing dishes a sailor is infuriated by the prayer printed on a plate.  Driven to violence by the hypocrisy, he crashes the china onto a table.  The shock of the shattering ceramic is intensified by Eisenstein’s shattered editing, as he breaks the scene into a series of quick shots: The hand raising the plate, a close up of the man’s face, the hand coming down and so on.  All of this is done in such quick succession that we barely perceive the cuts. 

There are also moments in the opening shipboard scenes that rise to a level of symbolic poetry.  As the mutiny approaches, Eisenstein shows us men oiling the ships cannons, giant swabs inserted into the barrels. Seminal goo drips out as the swabs go in, and it is clear that the imagery is meant in a sexual, procreative way.  It is the insemination of the Russian revolution, which would finally be birthed in 1917.  Early on, the men are forced to eat maggot infested meat that hangs in the ship’s galley.  The rotting carcass may be a symbol of the old tsarist Russia, now on its way out.  When a wild-eyed priest brandishes a cross in an attempt to get the men to surrender, he pounds it into the palm of his hand like a hammer.  Religion as a violent tool of oppression, implies the filmmaker.  Later when the priest is killed by the Bolsheviks, the cross falls from his hand and sticks in the deck like a dagger.  This and the earlier prayer emblazoned plate demonstrate Eisenstein’s distaste for the church.  There are other symbol laden images in the film, but it is the editing that places POTEMKIN in the pantheon of classics.  Never is this more evident than in the Odessa steps sequence.  The citizens of the city, having heard of the rebellion, come to give their support to the sailors as the Potemkin pulls into port.  Eisenstein depicts the revolution spreading with scenes of ordinary people making speeches in honor of the revolt against the tsarist regime.  The scenes carry a sense of zeal and brotherhood as the people bring gifts to the sailors and children smile and wave, when-“Suddenly”.  The title card is a shock and leads to one of the most frightening and famous scenes in all of cinema.  From the top of the great stone steps, the Tsar’s Cossacks approach the people gathered below.  The soldier’s weapons point ominously at the town’s citizens in preparation for the slaughter of the innocent.  The Cossacks march inexorably forward and both the cutting down of the people and the cutting of the scene begin…Shots are fired.  Eisenstein cuts to three quick shots of a woman’s head jerking backward.  There is a close up of a man’s knees buckling, then a violent vertical movement of the camera as he falls to the ground.  People rush down the steps in terror.  A boy falls, followed by a series of extreme close-ups of his Mother’s horror stricken face.  Feet trample the boy in a  brutal close-up.  People huddle for safety, their faces captured in the shock of the moment.  We are confronted by an extreme close up of the mother’s eyes, wide with fright.  She picks up the boy and carries him toward the Cossacks.  Against the odds she will try to reason with them, as a shaft of light illuminates her path to the soldiers.  She walks away from the camera toward the butchers, then a reverse angle: The camera tracks along with the woman as she ascends the steps.  The crowd pleads with the Cossacks.  A wide shot from behind the Tsars’s thugs shows them firing at the woman and boy.  They fall dead.  Then, the most iconic image of all. Close-up: A baby in a carriage.  (Another seminal image of the revolution).  The Cossacks fire again.  After a series of startling close-ups of the baby’s mother, she falls to the cold cement, sending the baby and carriage down the long flight of steps.  At the bottom stands a bloodied woman wearing glasses,who looks on in horror, as does a  male University student.  Here we have what amounts to montage within a shot as the young man’s profile is reflected in a mirror next to him, creating a form of split screen.  The baby carriage reaches the bottom and a Cossack, waiting there, swings his sword.  Eisenstein cuts to a close-up of the woman’s face, blood gushing from her glasses. 

This is just a bare bones account of the scene.  A detailed analysis would be impossible here.  All of these shots, some of them no longer than nine frames (It takes eighteen frames to make one second of screen time in a typical silent film) are on a collision course with each other, creating a montage of shocks.  Yet Eisenstein nearly tops this scene with the finale.  Another squadron of ships is sent to do battle with the Potemkin, and the director-editor uses a rhythmic form of cutting to show the sailors preparing and the ships engines revving for the challenge.  An incredible amount of tension is created as we await the onslaught.  But it never comes…

Einstein was obviously influenced by the editing experiments of French filmmaker Abel Gance, whose rhythmic cutting in films like LA ROUE (1923) revolutionized cinema.  Sergei Eisenstein used these techniques to tell his own story of revolution.  Finally, it was a revolution with a very dark outcome and he would be one of its victims.  Accused of  “formalism”, or making movies that were too intellectual for his audiences to understand (and therefore useless as propaganda), he faced constant harassment by the Soviet authorities.  Once the great director was forced to publicly apologize for his “transgressions”.  Nevertheless, he created other impressive films such as ALEXANDER NEVSKY (1938). None, however, came close to the artistic achievement of THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN.  After a series of illnesses, Sergei Eisenstein died on February 11, 1948 at the age of 50.

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June 23, 2010 - Posted by | Abel Gance, film directors, French film, Russian film, Russian revolution, Sergei Eisenstein, socialist cinema | , , , , , , , ,

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