Four Eisensteins: Battleship Potemkin

Lucas De Barros Silva - March 28, 2016

To some, Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin is a technical breakthrough that nevertheless has aged into a tame textbook film that lost its sparkle; to others, it is still an unquestioned masterpiece that boils with its energetic portrayal of a revolution and its restless, almost mythological, structure. Whether it warms you up or cools you down, Battleship Potemkin transcends criticism: in nearly every single list of the best films ever made, it is there, near the top, begging cinephiles to visit and revisit it time and again; it is in the top ten lists of directors like Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel, Samuel Fuller, Orson Welles and Billy Wilder, who liked to call it the greatest film ever made; it is the stepping stone for any editor and film student, and deservedly so. What is there to say about this film that hasn't been said yet?

Similar to other cinematic breakthroughs like Citizen Kane, The Birth of a Nation, Star Wars, Breathless, Battleship Potemkin is a film made in the right place at the right time by a director who saw beyond the boundaries of contemporary filmmaking and brought several ideas together in order to make something that would push the envelope. Eisenstein, who started in the Proletkult theater group but craved for more, was already working with montage in his plays, adding the short Glumov's Diary to his play Wiseman, and writing film theory for the Left Front of the Arts. By 1925 at the age of 27 (a year older than Orson Welles when he finished Citizen Kane), he completed his first feature film, the awkward but ultimately engrossing Strike, in which he put many of his theories to practice. With Battleship Potemkin, however, Eisenstein took the world by storm.

It is fair to say that Eisenstein was one of the first filmmakers to define the uniqueness of cinema, as inherent to the principle of montage, or the cutting and assembly of multiple images. What started as a creative measure designed to compensate for the lack of film and a frame of reference to draw inspiration from, the act of cutting and pasting footage from other films in order to make stories of their own became the realization that the superimposition of images furthered the potential of film to contrast, associate, and amend ideas and synthesize material of which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The explanation of this theory, or rather a visual conception of this theory, is actually very simple you wouldn't call the mixture of red and blue red-blue for instance; you would call it purple. You would also react differently to green next to blue than you would to green next to yellow, or black, or purple, or white - that is, after all, the reason why the color field theory and the paintings of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and others are so popular and so widely acclaimed for their impact on viewers. If in painting and graphic design the elements of montages are colors and shapes, in film they are the filmmakers' images, theses, and antitheses that are synthesized to make what we see in the picture as a whole. Filmmakers like Lev Kuleshov, Dziga Vertov, and others worked extensively on discovering new effects that eventually became the cornerstone of classical and experimental filmmaking. What is different about Eisenstein's approach is how he brought these discoveries to narrative filmmaking and aligned them with artistic and political purposes. If Strike is, in the words of film critic Mike d'Angelo, a dress rehearsal, Battleship Potemkin is a ceremony of art at its finest, in all its power to drive the audience. If Alfred Hitchcock liked to play the audience like a piano, then Eisenstein was the first master of the harpsichord.

So what story does Battleship Potemkin tell, anyway? Set in 1905 amid the Russo-Japanese war, it tells the story of a group of sailors who organize a mutiny against their officers due to unanswered complaints about the food and the officers' harsh treatment. While the mutiny is successful, there are major casualties, and subsequently the czar's Cossacks violently react to Odessa's people and their welcoming of the mutinous sailors. The film is divided into 5 episodes so as to mimic a real time development of the historical events it is covering; this is part of his ever-present interest in connecting all of Russian history with contemporary times, linking for instance this war with an emerging Soviet Russia. In his first three films, including October, this purpose is more explicit, but this also true of his subsequent films, especially Alexander Nevsky, which ties the eve of World War II with the 13th century war against the Teutonic Knights. Interestingly enough, however, the famous Odessa Steps sequence is Eisenstein's own invention, which became so iconic that it is often taken as an actual event. That probably says something about what political filmmaking can do to an audience.

In Roger Ebert's review of Breathless he says, it is dutifully repeated that Godard's technique of 'jump cuts' is the great breakthrough, but startling as they were, they were actually an afterthought, and what is most revolutionary about the movie is its headlong pacing, its cool detachment, its dismissal of authority, and the way its narcissistic young heroes are obsessed with themselves and oblivious to the larger society.

A similar thought exercise can be applied to Battleship Potemkin: if the film is still worthy of praise for its meticulous compositions and electrical pacing, it is also an essential example of political filmmaking. It has a degree of ferociousness that, while similar to that of Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, for instance, is even more passionate and better crafted in the alignment of state-of-the-art filmmaking with political agenda. Eisenstein shook the world and opened the gates to other films to push strong intellectual messages: the film was banned in the United States, in Nazi Germany, and even in the Soviet Union after a misunderstood Eisenstein was criticized for allegedly diverging from the strict ideals of Soviet realism. Even for a world that understands the historical failures of socialism, Eisenstein's film still speaks for the political injustices of our time, and what it takes to drive a message forward through art.

There is no protagonist, for example, in Battleship Potemkin: despite the film's carefully framed faces and powerful closeups, Eisenstein used a process he called typage to refrain from attributing protagonism to any specific characters in order to depict the Russian people as uniformly relevant and worthy of representation. As a result, his films are less straightforward than other classics of the Silent era, but Battleship Potemkin's handling of group dynamics, facelessness, and pure action make it one of the most engaging films. To witness the people of Russia fighting in Eisenstein's films is like witnessing a hero's journey if everyone was both the hero and the victim.

Speaking of heroes and victims, Eisenstein is not concerned with ambiguity: there can be no villain but the czarist regime and its imperialistic purposes. Eisenstein even includes in his vicious attacks everyone involved with Russia's pre-Soviet existence (he does not even spare the Provisional Government in his October). The intertitles, which are filled with socialist messages of strength and unity, offer long critiques of the system, as it was in 1905. The actions of officers, Cossacks, and politicians are crass and deliberately evil, impossible to be less concerned about the well-being of their subordinates; think of the Potemkin doctor, who dismisses complaints of worms in the meat (shown in a long, strategically inserted close-up) and says the food is perfectly fine. And most importantly, Eisenstein never refrains from showing violence that was considered particularly graphical for its time: children's hands are stomped on, baby carriages are pushed down staircases, and sailors are shot for insubordination. All people suffer before there is a glimpse of good in the evil wrongdoings of the establishment.

Battleship Potemkin is angry about the atrocities and the hypocrisy of pre-Soviet Russia. Before Do the Right Thing posed incredibly relevant questions about race, before Night and Fog and Hiroshima mon amour debated our perception of war and genocide, and before Leni Riefenstahl made poetic tours de force for unbearably evil purposes, Eisenstein laid bare the ideas of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin on the screen. And whatever you might think of its ideals, one thing is certain: it stands the test of time.

Lucas De Barros Silva

Lucas de Barros Silva is a freshman double majoring in Communications and Cinema Studies. Born in Los Angeles and resident of Porto Alegre, Brazil, Lucas is the Events Director of the Penn Cinema Initiative and a regular writer for The Moviegoer. A dedicated cinephile committed to watching one film every day, he is a huge fan of uncompromising directors like Andrei Tarkovsky, Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick, David Lynch and Yasujiro Ozu.