“Battleship Potemkin” – Andrew Guarini

In the mid-1920’s, when the Soviet Montagists were at the pinnacle of their artistic expression and creativity, Sergei M. Eisenstein in 1925 released Battleship Potemkin, a primary example of all the facets of the group’s groundbreaking theories and technique. Essentially, it works as a piece to showcase the Kuleshov School of filmmaking ideals in testing the effects of film editing on the audience and how it could evoke emotion from them.

The pinnacle of these teachings would have to be the incredibly famous and influential segment known as the “Odessa Steps Sequence” during the “Odessa Staircase” segment of the film. This is an example of “rhythmic editing,” where cutting is based on time but using a visual composition of the shots, along with speed of the cuts, to introduce more complex meanings than what is possible with metric montage. This is an instance where the editing is used to evoke a sort of freeform chaos and imperative conflict between different sets of shots, in this case pinning the Odessa civilians against the Tsarist soldiers. Montage is seen as lacking establishing shots, instead the composition seems to serve more as build up to a pay off. We see a shot of the steps as hundreds of civilians rush down it and then are given a sense of impending doom as it quickly cuts to the feet of Tsarist soldiers marching in unison down the stairs. From here, the juxtaposition between powerful and powerless is fast and furious, as the cutting shifts between the ones doing the shooting and the ones being helplessly shot.

In this way, it serves as a contrast for the montages and sequences that have come almost directly before it. The segment prior, “A Dead Man Calls for Justice,” is centered around the mourning for the dead sailor, Valkulinchuk, who was killed over “a bowl of soup.” Eisenstein constantly cuts to the body, both while we observe lines of people somberly paying respects and in parts of buildup for the oncoming revolt. These cuts back to Valkulinchuk serve as a reminder of what is disgusting these people and the reason that things must be changed. This arrangement of shots plays further into the conflict that is going to soon boil over into bloodshed.

The editing is mainly so rapid in the vein that the scene is a fictional portion of the film and is, in essence, very dramatized in order to condemn the Czar and the imperial regime. Classmates complained that the sympathy was too easy to place, and in this way, the film became very one-sided. This is a given, considering the film served as a piece of propaganda, and the characterizations are simplistic on purpose, so the direction of sympathy and attention is easy to focus. Therefore, the editing reflects this. We see the civilians in broad strokes of their weakness, unarmed and unintimidating: a child, a devastated mother, an old woman, and so on. In this way, the sequence becomes more jarring. The close-up of the old woman’s face is preceded by the carriage tumbling down the stairs and then followed by the smoke leaving the gun of the soldier. The next image is both sudden and shocking: the woman’s eyes and glasses destroyed by the bullet, blood running out of the shattered hole.

Eisenstein also uses non-dietetic insert through the editing to evoke meaning between separate images that still relate to the off-screen action. Again, collision between the shots. I speak of the famed rising lion: a shot of the sleeping lion statue, a shot of it crouching, and then a shot of it fully risen and roaring. The jump cut is used here to symbolize the parallel between the tiger rising and the impending revolution and chaos. Eisenstein’s argument that “montage is conflict” (or further dialectical) is emphasized here, because the converging nature of the images is creating a deeper meaning, something he described as dialectical materialism.

In all these ways, the “Odessa Steps” sequence of Battleship Potemkin exemplifies how Eisenstein cut together images to force the audience into synthesis and thus a more active participation in actually understanding the film. As much as I can appreciate the film on this level of revolutionary technique, it truly is a double-edged sword, considering the number of times I’ve seen the film and still can’t fully piece together certain segments of the story, nor the eventual climax. But when a film is so dedicated to putting you into the action in such an explosive way, you can forget those small things nagging you and just sit back and watch that collision between shots.

Rating: ★★★☆

-Andrew Guarini

Leave a Reply