Battleship Potemkin (1925) is a typical illustration of a film that led to become a sign for revolution. One can argue how this particular work attempted to form a “new cinema,” and through critically looking at the films theme/ideology, narrative structure, filmmaking techniques and editing (montage), with paying close attention to the Communist ideology, Imagism, Marxism, Futurism, the Hegelian theory, and Mexican influence – one can justify that Eisenstein founded the start to this “new cinema.”
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“Imagine a cinema which is not dominated by the dollar; a cinema industry where ones man pocket is not filled at other people’s expense; which is not for the pockets of two or three people, but for the heads and hearts of 150 million peopleâ€¦ Suddenly a new cinema arises.” (Sergei Eisenstein, 1926) It was without a doubt a moment for specifically Sergei Eisenstein creating a benchmark in cinema history, a means of promotion to become a Bolshevik (a communist) and of course; a new overall experience that began for cinema screening audiences in the 1920’s that was not dominated by the dollar but reached into the hearts of the audience. The recent Bolshevik state saw film as “a vital tool in the revolutionary struggle, and immediately set about reconstructing the film industry.” (Annette Kuhn, 1991: 3) Thus, in reconstructing the film industry, a new cinema was formed.
The society looked back on the 1905 Russian Revolution ushering an era of much change in not only the society structure but in the arts field. It was what anyone could understand it as a chance to shed some new light, to bring something new to the shelves, to be creative, to rebel on the past and most of all – to become ‘new.’ This was inevitably a chance for Eisenstein, with all his influence from past Directors and with the success of Eisenstein’s Strike (1925), to become an historical figure and role model to future films and directors.
Battleship Potemkin was inevitably created in order to “celebrate the abortive Revolution” (Annette Kuhn, 1991: 3) Eisenstein then, with which we clearly see in this film, fed off the Potemkin rebellion as the central metaphor for the Revolution. The propaganda is seen to be Marxist propaganda for it merely being “a socio-political view that surrounds a political ideology” (Avineri, 1968: 6) of the Russian revolution. We can also see the films techniques through Imagism; “Images used to create a new image” (Avineri, 1968: 8) and finally Cubism; “Putting together several perspectives into one frame which creates one overall message.” (Avineri, 1968: 14)
“New cinema” can also be seen through how Russian film-makers “found themselves in an industry almost completely devoid of native traditions.” (Karel Reisz, 1954: 6) Thus, these film makers had a) nothing that they had to follow, stick to and carry on with and b) had a big opportunity to incorporate a ‘new cinema.’ One could only imagine that there directors thus became propagandists and teachers to the society and had a task to “use film medium as a means of instructing the masses in the Russian Revolution and to train a young generation of film-makers to fulfill a task” (Karel Reisz, 1954: 7) Thus, this opened doors for filmmakers such as Eisenstein to set about finding new ways to express idea’s in order to communicate the Russian Revolution, and secondly, to develop a theory of filmmaking that could be seen as a benchmark in cinema history.
Instead of only taking a look into the historical background of this film (the Revolution) one can also see the influence that Eisensetien’s background had on the coming together of this film, and the ‘new cinema’ aspects and techniques. Eisenstein went to Mexico where he went to help his friend film the country. “The whole country was montage-editing – theoretically speaking; the way we see birth to death is all but a continuous cycle.” (Marilyn Fabe, 2004: 48) Inevitably this could be apparent anywhere in the world, but we can see a link with the goddesses and catholic saints that clearly relates to Mexico. Thus, one can argue that this is a metaphor for Mexico seen to Eisenstein – as well as an influence.
Typage is a term used to describe that characters in this film were chosen based on their type, rather than their star reputation. Not only does this conflict with Classic Hollywood’s star structure, but it fed off on to Italian Neorealism, as one can see in Bicycle Thieves. (1948) Typage is purely to enhance realism and make the audience feel like they can relate as such characters are common, every day, people. This technique also influences the emotional response (stimuli) and engagement from the audience, who are ideally the critiques of all means of art. The effect that Typage has on this film, is that it not only takes power and sentiment away from the political statement as much as possible – but correlates the message more to the action, rather than to the individual actor matter and power.
It is clear that if one takes “new cinema” into perspective, and correlates it with new-found means of filmmaking – montage editing was evidentially the new foundation of film art. “There is no art without conflict,” Sergei Eisenstein (1926) once wrote and thus we see that he merely created conflict by the juxtaposition of shots, which created an underlying symbolic meaning that can be seen through realism, compressing of time and audience engagement – and is inevitably more important than the mise-en-scene. Thus becoming new to the screens as mise-en-scene can be argued as the most important aspect to past film directors.
For someone who doesn’t understand montage, it is simply briefly understood as the cutting of shots and then bringing them back together. We can see that through all the cutting and putting back of shots, it produces one overall idea which ties in with the story line. Lev Kuleshov (1970) explains this best when he correlates images of his facial expressions cut to a woman playing with a baby, and then the same facial expression cut to a woman in her bikini. It immediately changes the idea behind the shot.
The relationship of shots can either be seen as similar, or contrary, can be seen as opposite. This is where conflict comes into play and forms a message. For example, when two men enter from either sides of the screen with guns or swords in hand, the juxtaposition creates significance by signifying conflict between the two men, but also signifies that they will unite.
Montage also enhances movement. Early film’s that would go on for hours on end would drag out the movement to tell a story. However, the jump-cutting still creates a “known-movement” without the characters actually following through the whole entire movement. Ideally the editing takes place in the removal of the “body”, and the audience is shown the “introduction” and “conclusion” of the movement. Thus, we can gather what the “body” entailed for it to have gotten to the conclusion. Reference to this can be seen in Odessa Steps scene analysis to follow.
When looking back at the earliest films, some of them hours and hours long, we can understand when watching this film that not only did editing enhance the viewing experience of the audience, but it cut down shots that need not be shown. Thus, resulting in a film only “80 minutes long with over 1000 shots, compared to the regular 90minute film with half the amount of shots.” (Marilyn Fabe, 2004: 48) However, it was not only about enhancing the viewing experience, but was also about a tool for education and propaganda, thus creating a powerful narrative structure.
With reference back to the Juxtaposition conflict between shots was not only about using shots up against each other that were so different, yet flowed, but an underlying meaning also added to this new cinema. As what I can begin to understand it as a conflict of innocence vs. violence; as one can see when the young child is trampled by the laborers’ and when the mother brings attention to the soldiers. Throughout this film, innocence and violence become so apparent and inevitably enhances the political and social statement of the Russian Revolution.
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This movement feeds off into repetition, rhythm, and content. When shots are repeated often it can either bring a story together or it can take a story back to that time (as we see in many films today that jump cut to the future, or likewise to the past) and it can enhance fear or contrary, bring a calm atmosphere to the audience. The rhythm aspect of montage is ideally a series of shots that create the rhythm and movement motion, which can be used to add suspense or to compress time. Juxtaposition of shots with intended detail added; inevitably creates the content – as we can see in Lev Kuleshov’s (date) example above. This feeds off to the metaphor of the film, which in this case is the Russian Revolution.
Battleship Potemkin is centered around five sub-themes. These can be seen through “Men and Maggots; Drama on the Quarterdeck; An Appeal from the Dead; The Odessa Steps; Meeting the Squadron.” (webpages.csus.edu/~abuckman/POTEMKIN.htm: 26/04/2011) The above sub-themes can be seen to in many wayscorrespond with the historical reminiscence of the Russian Revolution event in order to execute the revolution metaphor. This is seen as the plot outline.
In men and Maggots, this scene cleverly shows the political and social condition – which enhances the realism in this film and introduces the environment of which the story will be told. We are shown the uniforms, the battleship and the cleaning of the ship with boiling soup – this can be seen as a metaphor for how they are slowly but surely arriving at boiling point. Here we are also shown The Hegelian theory.
The Hegelian theory is a theory that plays a huge role in Battleship Potemkin. It inevitably means that this film holds a “utilitarian purpose as well as an artistic purpose.” (webpages.csus.edu/~abuckman/POTEMKIN.htm: 26/04/2011) Thus, meaning that this is propaganda along side art. This is used by Eisenstein mainly to affect the viewers, and actually create meaning and effect in their own personal subjective social and political views. “Eisenstein used a psyhco-psychical approach which ideally re-moulds the reflexes of humans and gives them a new perspective on the revolution, leading them in a preferred direction” (webpages.csus.edu/~abuckman/POTEMKIN.htm: 26/04/2011)and can personally be seen as manipulative way.
Inevitabely, one can then see through this film, that he enhances a ‘physiological consciousness’ as his film illustrates happenings and actions instead of just portraying emotions. -Which refers back to Typage. This is effectively portrayed in the Odessa Steps sequence which will be analyzed below. However, in ‘Men With Maggots,’ we are shown the contrast of faces of offices in “conflict” with the crew. As what follows from the effect of this theory is the two contrasting forces interim to create a third meaning, thus a third force. This goes back to the example of the two men entering either sides of the frame, and of course, the Lev Kuleshov theory.
As we can see in ‘Drama on the Quarterdeck,’ a subjective-camera is used to add sentiment, and create more realism. We can thus, fully feel and understand the emotion behind the bodies hanging – the terror and disgust. In this scene, I also find the cross-cut very interesting in meaning as it shows a connection and linkage between the place of prayer and the rulers. This can illustrates power, or likewise, Eisenstein is portraying a meaning behind ‘belief of the rulers.’ In the next scene, ‘Appeal from the Dead’ – the one thing that stuck out was the close-up. The close-up of the fist which becomes bigger as the camera sweeps in on it, and as we are shown a fist that slowly clenches as the masses finally make a decision to revolt. It brings about power in the frame and emotion. Close-up’s used in this film suck sentiment out to the audience, and are cleverly used on rare occasion to enhance the effect even more.
The ‘Odessa Steps’ is probably the most iconic scene in this film, and effectively portrays such editing to an audience who have never experienced such before. This scene uses montage to build tension; singular moments of fear and terror that finally provoke a violent emotional response from the audience. In this scene one can also clearly see how typage comes into play, and how it enhances the motional response as this scene portrays the force of the action rather than the individual roles of the men and woman. Here we are also shown the laborers scrambling down the steps from a high angled shots – not only showering the meaning behind power, but shows the action on a whole and not from one main characters perspective, as we would see in Classic Hollywood. Here we are also shown conflict forces with the disordered rush of masses coming down the steps in relation to the soldiers.
If we look at the Odessa Steps in far more detail, we can start to understand how this scene was the turning point in not only Eisenstein’s career, in history, but also in the film. We are shown close-ups of the laborers facial expressions in relation and in conflict to long shots of the scene as a whole – the action of what is actually happening. The rhythm is also increased tremendously, which increases the intensity and emotions of the scene. Lastly, a turnaround of downward movement cleverly portrays the crowd’s movement in conflict, to the emotions of the woman crying with the baby. And finally, in the last act; ‘Meeting the Squadron’ we are illustrated by suspense. The shots are slow in rhythm, however, there is a sense of strong unity.
In conclusion, one can justifiably argue that Battleship Potemkin attempted to form a “new cinema” through Eisenstein using the Russian Revolution as a metaphorical benchmark for fresh, innovative idea’s that were seen through mainly montage editing, as well as propaganda. As Eisenstein (date) said, “We tried to take the historical events just as they were and not to interfere in any shape, manner or form, with the process as it was actually taking place to still bring reality to the screens to portray a real event.”
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