Sons of the Silent Age: The mesh and montage of Battleship Potemkin
LAST time on Sons of the Silent Age, we looked at one of the all-time pioneering works of true American cinema in Birth of a Nation. This time, we’re sweeping away the cobwebs from one of Russian cinema’s indisputable classics and, in itself, one of the most influential and important films of all time: Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin from 1925.
Cinema at its finest is persuasive. It persuades the viewer to empathise with characters, to marvel at the words they speak, to ride along with the sequence of images conveyed onscreen, the result of thousands of individual snapshots cut, assembled and projected for our consumption. Cinema is, by and large, entertainment, distilled into a medium designed for the pleasure of the masses. Like any other medium, however, it can act as propaganda: an act of creation designed with the specific goal of influencing its audience’s thoughts and furthering an ideological agenda.
Battleship Potemkin is one of the finest pieces of propaganda ever made. Its power, even after 90 years and a Second World War, remains undiminished. It was so influential in its age that it was banned outright in several countries – including Britain and, hilariously, Stalin’s Russia – for fears it would incite an actual revolution. Made a mere eight years after the Russian Revolution, its resonance persists in a contemporary era when the rights of individual citizens are constantly infringed upon by our governments.
It’s a film that demonises the moral complacency of authority while glorifying the men and women rebelling against it. It is 75 minutes of unflinching polemic that succeeds in grabbing the most vitally amenable of organs: The heart and the mind. It also represents a milestone in film editing. Much of the film’s persuasive power resides in director Sergei Eistenstein’s editing techniques, used to immensely enhance the central message of revolution with ideas that were equally as radical.
His ideas of “montage” and “distinct conceptual impression” – that the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – create a collision of independent shots that are not “placed next to each other, but on top of each other.” These images, separate and yet connected, tell the bigger picture, informing the audience through suggestion.
The culmination of this philosophy is the legendary “Odessa Steps Sequence”, an astonishingly raw and violent scene that – even if you’ve never heard of Potemkin – you’ll recognise from the countless parodies, homages and references made in its wake. But Potemkin neither begins nor ends with the Odessa Steps; it actually opens onboard the titular ship, where Tsarist commanding officers levy their crew with maggoty food, cramped living spaces and casual brutality.
A lone sailor, named Vakulinchuk, appeals passionately to his “brothers; comrades” to mutiny against these conditions. The crew’s growing murmurs of dissent are punished by firing squad, but just as the salvo is about to be fired, Vakulinchuk rallies his peers. Together, they succeed in taking the ship but Vakulinchuk is killed in the process. This rebellion is accomplished with a five-minute frenzy of quick cuts and raised arms, where the angles amplify the righteousness of the sailors and the cowardly ineffectiveness of the officers.
The film then deals with the aftermath of the mutiny, focusing on the sailors, the civilians supporting them and the imperialist pig-dog-scum-bots sent to gun them all down. Potemkin’s emphasis, almost exclusively, is on collectives: The sailors, banding together against a common foe; the civilians of Odessa, united in support of the sailors and mourning for Vakulinchuk; and the anonymous exterminators arriving to quell the rebellion. Even Vakulinchuk is killed within the first 20 minutes, and he spends most of that time inspiring the crew with platitudes of fellowship.
His role is encapsulated by the image of his corpse, lain in state in a small tent beneath the setting Odessan sun. As a ship sails past, obscuring the light, we know implicitly that Vakulinchuk has passed from man to martyr, with all the mythic clout of Arthurian legend. This is driven home by the mourning of the assembled townsfolk, all reading a scrawled epitaph on his chest: “Dead for a spoonful of soup.”
This scene also features a brief cameo by a pair of immaculate bourgeois ladies, who take a sneering glance or two at the man’s body and blithely pass on. The static, unadorned shot of the ladies contrasts with the longer takes of the mourners’ stricken, weeping faces. The effect is surprising, considering how quickly they move on. There’s another such moment when the crowd, declaring its design to “overthrow the tyranny” and “make tomorrow ours”, round on a grinning aristocrat who loudly announces, almost comically, “Smash the Jews!”
Potemkin’s editing is so superb because it keeps adding little moments and layers like these. There’s a stunning aerial shot of the narrow pier where Vakulinchuk is laid, panning across to demonstrate the hundreds (if not thousands) of townspeople who have come to pay their respects, blending into one enormous mass. More extras are seen trooping over bridges and through city streets, marching in perfect, militant unison, signifying the scale of the dissent. The inertia of Vakulinchuk’s death is swept aside by the momentum of violent uprising.
Eisenstein’s skill in direction and editing is mirrored by his use of intertitles, many of which are laden with “come together, comrades” and other exclamations of brotherhood. Potemkin is divided into five distinct acts, each bearing a title. The third, “A Dead Man Calls for Justice”, is an example of how he uses propulsive metaphor to imbue his film with power on a more transcendent level. Taken literally, a dead man obviously can’t do a whole lot; metaphorically, however – as a symbol – he can do so much more.
The musical score is a perfect complement to the rousing images onscreen. Edmund Miesel, actively working with the shots themselves, enhances the action, inextricably linking music and film. Eisenstein’s idea of montage was primarily a rhythmic concern, consisting of layered elements brought together to create a whole impression; Miesel understood this just as well, if not moreso.
He layered individual musical themes, depending on the visual rhythm, emphasis or climax, combining them to lend aural credence to the scene. A gunshot is heard in a cymbal crash; a brief snippet of the French national anthem indicates martial zeal, and the funereal march of the third act speaks for itself. Like Joseph Carl Briel’s score for Birth of a Nation, Miesel understood the importance of visual and aural cross-pollination, writing the score especially for the film.
This layering of individual themes on top of a collective whole, both musically and visually, is mirrored in the film’s approach to a protagonist. Vakulinchuk’s mantle of heroism is taken up by the people and his fellow sailors, ceding the limited power of the individual into the unlimited power of the masses.
Here, Potemkin flashes its propagandist steel most obviously – aside from the strikingly red flag of Communism fluttering in the wind at Act 3’s conclusion, the only colour in an otherwise black and white film – but it is a perfect union of visual, aural and narrative structure, all complementing each other and the film as a whole, providing an ideal foil for the demonisation of the pre-Soviet autocracy.
For all its shouting about “brothers” and “comrades” – well-known Soviet epithets – the film often, surprisingly, smacks of documentary in its subdued, naturalistic performances and matter-of-fact intertitles. Based on the true story of the 1905 Potemkin mutiny, there is little evidence within the film itself to suggest it is partially fictitious, even given the nature of adaptation; 1905 was still in living memory, after all.
This is why it’s so interesting that the massacre on the Odessa Steps never actually happened. Eisenstein conjured it wholesale for the film, making it all the more remarkable. “The Odessa Steps” beings with Odessans shown in enthusiastic close-ups, pans of crowds and shots of ships bobbing happily in the sea; all is well, and then BAM, the scene descends into carnage. A faceless mass of White Russians, marching with metronomic rhythm, open fire on the citizens.
Eisenstein messes with the very fabric of time in this scene, cutting as to stretch out the amount of time it would take to actually reach the bottom of the steps. It should take around a minute and a half to reach the bottom from the top; in Potemkin, the scene takes around seven minutes. He focuses on the bloodshed and the endless, automaton marching of the imperials, throwing together bloodied faces and rifle barrels. The faces of the victims, rendered in horrifying close-up, are contrasted with the featureless mass of the soldiers.
A child is shot and trodden over; a mother is killed defending her baby (in a carriage that rattles down the steps, one of the most famous images), and an old woman is blasted through the eye, all of which we see in graphic detail. These moments come in such rapid succession that it’s overwhelming, the victims’ expressions progressing from shock to horror to screaming.
This spectacle of violence is a gut-punch, an emotive polemic. As a theatre is bombarded, there is a triptych of shots featuring a lion statue: first laying down, then stirring, and finally rising. This evokes a militaristic call to action, with the lion, representing martial force, rising with the people to overthrow oppression. All this while Miesel’s score crashes angrily in our ears. It’s filmmaking at its most persuasive and powerful; so powerful, indeed, that many audiences thereafter thought that the massacre on the Steps actually happened.
“One Against All” might seem like an anti-climax after the incredible sequence prior, but this fifth act is actually a beautifully co-ordinated exercise in restraint. It is the calm before the storm, and an unbearable tension takes hold when a squadron of battleships emerges out of the mist to blow the Potemkin out of the water.
Accompanied by the ever-rising velocity of the score’s tempo, the shots cut back and forth between the nervy sailors and enemy cannons slowly – excruciatingly slowly – swivelling into place. The release, when the squadron joins the Potemkin in glorious revolt, is triumphant and equally as powerful as the Odessa Steps.
Considering its advanced years, it’s a massive achievement just how arresting Battleship Potemkin remains to this day. In our modern age of political uncertainty and worldwide discontent with current economic systems, the film is a bolt of lightning for the revolutionary in us all. Conversely, it also reminds us of the rhetorical power of propaganda. No one’s going to be singing ‘L’International’, certainly, but its potency has not gone gentle. La resistance lives on.