Sergei Eisenstein is a name familiar with anyone who has ever been part of a media class. The Director and theorist is at the very root of the Russian exploration of Montage theory pursuing the philosophy that juxtaposition of images, rather than smooth succession, creates story, emotion and meaning. It is all in the cut. Battleship Potemkin is the proud example of this theory with multiple infamous sequences deemed so dangerous that it was banned in several countries, including the Motherland. Finally struggling from the grip of censorship, audiences watched the communistic propaganda piece in awe as the mutinous crew of the eponymous ship fought for freedom from an oppressive regime.
Battleship Potemkin is akin to Eisenstein’s previous piece Strike! in as much that it champions a mass. The individual is not emphasised or explored. Oppressed citizens fight and fall in numbers on the infamous Odessa Steps and the sailors rise up against their oppressors in triumphant mass. They are a collection against a political evil with no individual drama stealing focus or pathos. Strike! flirted with this style of storytelling but did not achieve the resonance of Battleship Potemkin.
This new found power in Eisenstein’s masterpiece is due to symbolic representation and removal of individualisation. The men rebel in unison and citizens swarm in huge numbers. No character is three dimensional and dialogue is unanimous outrage. Everything is achieved in groups. In the opening, the Sailors are sick of the rotten meat and when a few agitators are to be shot, the fuse is lit. Vakulinchuk calls ‘Brother! Who are you shooting at?’ and the powder keg explodes in a frenetic and triumphant mutiny. Vakulinchuk as an individual, falls but the revolution evolves and spreads. It is no longer a single plight of a ship. As the film continues, the few individuals of Mother, Child and Man are simple collective representations of all mothers, all children, all men.
Eisenstein’s proficient editing and matured cinematography confidently portrait the close-ups of disgruntled Sailors, or a horrified blinded citizen, or hands curling into fists and pumping in vehemence. Eisenstein captures the atmosphere and clearly defines a widespread view of humanity lost and gained. It is a highly passionate and inflammatory piece because we, the audience, are not singular. We are placed within the mob storming through the city or calling for retribution. Seen in cinemas, it is an experience ever more potent.
A vital component of the Montage theory concerns Rhythm. A film should progress to a certain point through rhythmic cutting and not linger for story purposes. The result is far greater than the individual moments. In the final sequence, the crew of the Potemkin cautiously sails out to meet other battle cruisers of the regime, loading guns, readying arms, aiming canons and hoping for the red flag to fly in the winds of change. The terror and anticipation of each face mimics our own as the cuts increase pace until frenetic snapshots explode in a triumphant climax. It is exhausting but a vital experimentation with the power of rhythmic storytelling which terrified censurers believed could inflame masses to revolutionary arms. In the correct environment, perhaps it could.
Battleship Potemkin is an obligatory watch for any interested in a cinematic revolution.
There could be no other. The Odessa Step Sequence is one of the most infamous in cinema. No massacre actually occurred on the legendary steps, but Eisenstein is not unnecessarily demonising the Czarists. Instead, he is fuelling the outrage and concentrating the massacre of innocents throughout Russia into a single, passionate and shocking sequence.