Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein / Screenplay: Eisenstein & Nina Agadzhanova / Editing: Eisenstein & Grigoriy Aleksandrov / DP: Eduard Tisse / Score: Edmund Meisel
Cast: Aleksandr Antonov / Vladimir Barskiy / Grigoriy Aleksandrov / Ivan Bobrov / Aleksandr Levshin
Up the Workers!
Battleship Potemkin is a landmark of World Cinema. Eisenstein’s achievement has, for nearly a Century, been lauded and feted by film students and self-regarding Cineastes alike, for its perfect execution of form. But its very ubiquity as a cultural touchstone is also the film’s Achille’s Heel.
After all, when a cultural artefact is this well-regarded, be it the Mona Lisa, The Great Pyramid or whatever else you have in-mind, then it’s hard to bring objectivity to-bear. All I can do, is set a context for Potemkin’s importance and leave the rest to you, Dear Reader.
Let’s begin by considering the film itself. Stretching over five Acts, each about fifteen minutes long, Potemkin charts the return to Tsarist Russia, in 1905, of the eponymous battleship, following action in Russia’s war against Japan. Morale is low among the crew, as they grow dissatisfied with being served ‘rotten meat’. Things reach boiling point, out in Odessa’s harbour, culminating in a mutiny that has the hated senior officers thrown overboard to drown and Potemkin itself, in the hands of the mutineers. However, one of the rebels dies in the struggle, so his comrades take his body ashore and place it, reverently, in a tent pitched on the quayside. Inevitably, crowds are drawn to take in the sight of this noble sacrifice to ‘the cause’.
Its position now threatened by the masses, The Establishment, sends both the Army and mounted Cossacks against the mob. This leads to the film’s indelible climax on the ‘Odessa Steps’: a sequence that, even today, remains a masterclass in composition & editing. The film ends with Potemkin facing-down the arrival of the Admiral’s own Squadron of ships; successfully challenging the other crew crews to join them in their heroic struggle…
All straightforward themes, but that’s no accident when we look at its Director’s background. Sergei Mikhailovitch Eisenstein trained as an architect but, after service with the Red Army, in the vanguard of the struggle for ‘a new Russia’, he found his calling in the performing arts; first as a stage designer for theatre, then as a film director. This was to place Eisenstein in one of those rare intersections between Art and Politics: a time and place, where resources of the State, are given freely to an artisan working to promote the ideals of the patron.
It was no coincidence that I mentioned both the Mona Lisa and The Great Pyramid as examples of cultural touchstones, as both Leonardo and the Pyramid’s architect (believed to be Hemon) did their greatest works in similar circumstances. Da Vinci, for example, had the Florentine State among others, at his back, whereas Eisenstein found himself supported by both Lenin and the Soviet Politburo.
The objective was clear: to create a work of stylised propaganda celebrating – and mythologising – one of the key events in Russian history that led, twelve years later, to the Revolution.
In-service to that ambition, Eisenstein employed a new stye of film-making he termed ‘Montage’ in which shots were always kept brief and generally cut-away to others deliberately chosen to be in-contrast, either in composition, theme or tone. In this way, a filmed narrative is broken-down into a shifting repeat-pattern of imagery with scant continuity other than the minimum required to keep a narrative moving. To achieve this, Eisenstein moves the propulsion of his narrative away from characters, each pursuing a dialogue & action-driven path. Instead, it focusses on massed-ranks of humanity that hammer-home a message through sheer visual spectacle. Given its age, Potemkin is of course a silent film and relies on inter-titles for dialogue – for information about what we’re seeing – but it rejects any concession to the idea of developing characters as vessels through which a story might be told.
The result? Potemkin’s central figures are little more than ciphers; two-dimensional cut-outs, that function as little-more than heroic stereotypes. Their only purpose, is to illustrate that propagandist imperative.
One only has to gaze upon the faces of the sailors, the panicked civilians on the Steps or even the faceless ranks of the oppressors, to see that idealism at-work. For here are the real heroes of the Revolution: gaunt, tired men & women, hungry for change and justice. People like you and me. We might glimpse them for a second or two at-most, but Eisenstein knows that, amidst the shifting sands of his montage, these faces will endure in the memory. He’s pulling-off a trick, but we forgive him, because it’s so effective. Unlike the Mona Lisa or The Great Pyramid, that both steadfastly refuse to yield all their secrets, we can at least pick Eisenstein’s film apart, to see what makes it tick: which just makes his achievement all the more impressive.
He even gets away with it, in the close-confines of Potemkin itself. By placing his camera high above the Foredeck, he gives us a Godlike perspective onto the sailors, who’re reduced to anonymous blobs, scuttling about the deck. Rare, is the shot that places us amidst the action itself and when we are, Eisenstein’s sheer fluidity as a film-maker, has a very contemporary feel about them. All he’s lacking is a Steadicam…
Which brings us to ‘the Steps’. Potemkin’s most famous sequence, the Steps have imprinted themselves into film lore and it’s not hard to see why. Boiled-down, Eisenstein has assembled a sequence depicting a crowd, massed on a grand set of steps, leading down to Odessa’s harbour. He takes pains to show a cross-section of Russian life: from the well-dressed Middle-Class woman to the legless beggar, all human life is here: including the massed ranks of soldiers, who descend the steps in-formation, firing on the defenceless crowd. In their panic, the people flee downwards, only to be met by the aforementioned Cossacks. The montage here, juggles multiple viewpoints from above, beside and below the Steps.
Eisenstein also fills his lens with the horizontal parallels of the Steps themselves, that are cut-through by the fleeing people: the ‘verticals’. It’s impossible to convey in words; you just have to see it, to understand what he’s going for here, but make no mistake: his choice of compositions and editing (with close-ups dropped-in as if from nowhere) still have the power to shock.
To cap it all, we then get the climax. Somewhere near the top of the Steps, a mother shields her baby’s pram from the bullets but to no avail: at a critical moment, she’s shot. After teetering on the edge of a step for long moments, her collapsing body finally pushes it over the edge. It picks up speed as, finally, it bounces its way down.
Past the bodies. Over limbs already stilled. Down. Down. Sickeningly Down.
Made in 1925, the Soviet public already had a good idea of what horror looked like en-masse. Now, Eisenstein was showing them what it looked life, up-close and personal. This is propaganda at its most potent: a blunt instrument intended to shout its intention with the least amount of subtlety. In this case, to celebrate the Brotherhood of Socialism, not only to the furthest reach of the vast Motherland but – perhaps – to light a fire in other countries harbouring smouldering resentments of their own.
Little wonder then, that this film was seen by so many Western governments as subversive and brimming with unwelcome potential. Take the UK for example, where Potemkin was consistently denied mass-distribution until 1954… With a Second World War under its belt and with an expansive Soviet Union now seen as the new enemy, it’s reasonable to suggest that the country was then beyond Socialism’s seductive embrace. But thirty years earlier, things were different. Britain had emerged from World War One, economically ravaged and, in 1926, was experiencing ‘The General Strike’ amid a paralysing collapse in its domestic economy. Pure Socialist principles were seen as an attractive, collectivist alternative to the ongoing misery and the Establishment feared its own demise. Potemkin was therefore relegated in the UK, to a bevy of independent, left-leaning film societies, who could revel in its techniques as much as rue the wider opportunities lost.
To the wider world, it would inspire countless film-makers, artists and free-thinkers to consider structure and form, as much as the potential of The Image. Musicians, too. In the BFI-released version of the film that I watched, the rousing score turned out to have been composed by the Austrian Edmund Meisel and was, apparently, Eisenstein’s favourite of all the scores ever written for the film in his lifetime. But over the decades, as new generations discover Potemkin for themselves, its potent mix of imagery & suggestion often trigger new artistic responses. For instance, back in 2005, British pop duo The Pet Shop Boys re-scored the film with a suite of their trademark symphonic dance music, that premiered in a new screening of the film in London’s Trafalgar Square. They’ll not be the last to reinterpret this rich – and subversive – seam.
That’s the problem with propaganda: it’s tricksy. The truth, once discovered, is often less than inspiring. In this case, while there were a few skirmishes between civilians & soldiers in Odessa, there was never a ‘massacre’; as far as we know, the Steps never witnessed a single gunshot. And what of the Potemkin herself? While the mutiny itself did occur, the ship actually slipped away to asylum in a Romanian port where both it and her crew, were impounded until 1917. One crew member, frustrated at life in-exile, chose to return to Russia, only to be summarily executed, which proves only that we should be careful about what we wish for.
Eisenstein would make more films. He would travel, promoting his ‘language of cinema’, even after the German Expressionists had moved the game on, beyond his discordant montage. And he would live long enough to see The Motherland survive The Great Patriotic War against Hitler’s Germany. His response? The two-part, patriotic epic Ivan the Terrible.
But that’s another story…
‘One! Together as one!’