Battleship Potemkin

05/04/2021

Dynamizing the Image

Perhaps we can start with the maggots. If an army marches on its stomach then why shouldn’t sailors mutiny in Battleship Potemkin when they find larvae in the meat? It isn’t the only reason the sailors take over the titular ship as they see fellow sailors pushed around and others hanged. But it is an image that remains in our minds for a long time afterwards. It is, if you like, a great and original cinematic synecdoche, a part that signifies a wider whole which is the oppression of the sailors by the corrupt Russian regime. The year is 1905, twelve years before the Russian Revolution, while the film was made eight years after it, just as Stalin came to power, and the film’s purpose is, like many Soviet films of the twenties, to speak about revolutionary change. But for the filmmakers, the purpose wasn’t only to make propagandistic films heralding a new political world, but also to instigate on ongoing cinematic revolution. 

One way of understanding the importance of this is to acknowledge that while all Soviet filmmakers were formalists, not all believed in the same level of innovation. In other words, while Lev Kuleshov, VI Pudovkin and others believed that editing was the most important element of cinema, that images needed to be put together in a manner that was dynamic rather than static, Potemkin director Sergei Eisenstein insisted on a far greater level of dynamism, towards what he called kino-fist: a proper cluster of images. For all of them, cinema could not be much of an art form if it just put together scenes end to end, if a car crash was more or less shown in one shot, if a person was shown looking in the same shot at a person on a bed. No, the car crash should be broken down into numerous shots to generate the tension as the car is about to crash and the damage done once it has. As Pudovkin insisted, “when we wish to apprehend anything, we always begin with the general outlines, and then, by intensifying our examination to the highest degree, enrich the apprehension by an ever-increasing number of details.” (Film Technique and Film Acting) For Kuleshov, editing didn’t only intensify a situation, it could initself create meaning. In a series of famous experiments, he showed that, in film, acting itself wasn’t necessary — the editing created the feelings in the viewer rather than the actor. Working with the actor Mozhukhin, Kuleshov would cut from the actor’s expressionless face to a nude woman, a child, a dead body, and the viewer would read into that face lust, affection and grief even though the expression on the face was exactly the same. For both Pudovkin and Kuleshov, this showed the importance of editing.

Yet for Eisenstein these uses were still a little too mechanical; Eisenstein wanted a cinema indicative of a more advanced physics. While Pudovkin and Kuleshov saw the importance of linkage, Eisenstein was interested much more in collision. Linkage was merely what Eisenstein called “a special case.” It was a special case because in physics there are all sorts of combinations from the impact of spheres. “Depending on whether the spheres be resilient, non-resilient or mingled. Amongst all these combinations there is one in which the impact is so weak that the collision is degraded to an even movement of both in the same direction.” (Film Form) Such a method is fine for a conventional approach to cinema, one that still, to this day, relies chiefly on what Eisenstein calls a degraded impact. 

There are two aspects to extract from Eisenstein’s formalist fascinations in the context of Battleship Potemkin. One is the montage cell; the other the aforementioned kino-fist. If for filmmakers before Eisenstein the image was chiefly an event containing its own reality that could be no more than augmented (as in Pudovkin’s car crash), for Eisenstein events were small pieces of recorded reality that could be reimagined and re-shaped in numerous ways in the editing suite. There were other experiments by Kuleshov which proved this to be the case: he showed that creative geography could fool a viewer into believing a coherent space even if the spaces have nothing to do with each other. Usually, this is done seamlessly by cutting from an exterior shot of an actual building to an interior shot of a studio. But more radically it can show someone on a bus in Moscow and then showing them jumping off in New York. The viewer will momentarily believe the scene because the cuts are logical even if the geographical connection between the two places isn’t. Such an approach showed that filmmakers can use the recorded pieces of film creatively and not be held to geographic fidelity. Thus for Eisenstein what matters is seeing the shot as a montage cell, as a small unit that rather than following one from another as in linkage, can be offered in dialectical combinations to produce constant collisions and constantly new thoughts. 

Yet this isn’t what happens in the scene with the meat and the maggots. The sequence remains linked rather than colliding. Was Eisenstein preaching what he refused to practice, or is the cell either thematic or dynamic, according to where it happens to be in the story and according to the ends to which you want the cell to serve? The ship’s doctor arrives to look at the meat and the film cuts between the doctor, the sailors and the meat on the hook, sometimes with all three in the same shot. At one moment it cuts to a close-up of the doctor looking closely at the meat as he uses his glasses folded for magnification to see clearly what is crawling around on it. There is no repetition of the image without the logic in the drama of the scene dictating it: when it cuts to the meat several times, the shots are organised according to the look of the sailors or the doctor. A more dynamic style could for example have cut several times to the meat from different angles with no character motivation dictating what we are seeing. Yet there is no reason why Eisenstein should reject linkage, only that he needn't be beholden to it. Describing the film, which is in five sections, Eisenstein said the first act is an “exposition of the action. Milieu of the battleship. Maggoty meat. Discontent ferments among the sailors.” (Film Form) Eisenstein is well aware that the close-up of the meat is what matters in this first period of the film, the detail that can catalyse events that can lead later to the much more geographically and rhythmically creative Odessa Steps sequence in the fourth act. When the doctor insists the meat only needs to be cleaned properly and it will be ok to eat, numerous idioms come into play: the worm will turn, the straw that broke the camel’s back; as you sow so will you reap, revenge is a dish best served cold. Not all images allow for such an idiomatic profusion but occasionally cinema produces moments that needn’t be juxtapositional but instead productive. They contain multiple meanings in themselves rather than in conjunction with other images. When in Strike, Eisenstein wanted such idioms he insisted on juxtaposition to achieve them: there is the character sneaky like a fox and Eisenstein allows a dissolve from one to the other to register the metaphor. But numerous moments in films don’t need the juxtaposition; they only need to release the idiomatic profusion. When in The King of Comedy De Niro goes on a dinner date we can say he makes a meal of it, that the date goes as flat as a pancake, that his date takes what he says with a pinch of salt. There is no need for the film to cut from a debatable comment De Niro makes to the salt; the situation itself contains the idiomatic without overt manipulation. The same is true of the maggots in the meat in Battleship Potemkin

From a certain point of view, the meat sequence in the film isn’t ‘creative’, if we accept that, as Dudley Andrew says, when “the filmmaker is truly creative he will construct his own sense out of this raw material; he will build relations which aren’t implicit in the meaning of the shot. He will create rather than direct meaning.” (The Major Film Theories) But there are plenty who would disagree with this and wonder why anyone would create a meaning when it is already present. In doing so, in generating another meaning, the image becomes overdetermined, as we find when Strike shows us the fox-like character dissolving from a fox into the young man. Yet in the Odessa Steps sequence, the film is properly created, as Eisenstein understands that the recorded aspect initself will not generate the tension Eisenstein seeks, a tension that is both an immediately narratively pertinent one, as we see in the second half of the sequence where the Cossacks mow down the well-wishers welcoming the mutineers, and the tension in the images as Eisenstein changes the pace and repeats certain moments. Here he incorporates a dynamic method that combines all five of the aspects he sees as going into montage editing. This is the metric, the rhythmic, the tonal, the overtonal, and the intellectual. The metric is putting shots together based exclusively on the exact length of footage from one shot to the next irrespective of content, while rhythmic montage edits according to the meaning of the sequence., to the internal and not only external aspect. Tonal editing captures mood or atmosphere, evident when a film plays on the emotional resonance in a scene, where Eisenstein reckons “movement is perceived in a wider sense. The concept of movement embraces all affects of the montage piece.” (Film Form) If Rhythmic montage captures the necessary movement, as we might see the cuts speeding up as the villain gets closer to the heroine, in tonal montage the cuts are based more broadly on capturing for example the consistency of light, of fog or of the sequence. In overtonal montage, the film mixes tones and moods, creating a broader and often physiologically complex response to the image. While in tonal montage a film will emphasise the mood for love, or mourning, or joy, in overtonal montage these moods can be mixed. Finally, intellectual montage is interested in creating an Idea, a concept between the cuts that arrive at a proposition. Eisenstein illustrates his different categories with very few examples, but for the latter he gives “the sequence of the “gods’ in October, where all the conditions for their comparison are made dependent on an exclusively class-intellectual sound of each piece in its relation to God.”(Film Form) But he also offers examples of rhythmic montage from Potemkin in contrast to the metric cutting from The End of St Petersburg. He also suggests that the foggy sequence after a sailor’s death in Potemkin illustrates the tonal. We could fill in a few of our own but anyone going online can find a very good illustration using numerous contemporary films under NittyGrittyStudios.

Yet if Battleship Potemkin is seen as one of the great works of cinema, and The Odessa Steps sequence the most important in so significant a film, can we not find most of the examples we are looking for in this one act? However, our purpose shouldn’t be just to put images to Eisenstein’s words but also to indicate why the methods he theorised upon are useful to this sequence as a more straighforward editing system works fine for the scene with the maggots. But the complex topographical, historical and ideological emphasis of this fourth act demands a much more ingenious approach, giving to film an organic composition that relies greatly on putting images together. Initially, the scenes shows the people of Odessa going about their business in a series of brief shots before moving onto briefer shots still in close up as the film cuts to various people waiting by the quay and back to long shots of slightly greater length as we watch the boats come in. There is much repetition here, as Eisenstein isn’t just providing narrative information — he is generating a broader mood that will be shattered. The slower, the more repetitive the rhythm and the images, the more idyllic is the atmosphere he creates. This is the metric meeting the tonal, which will lead into the rhythmic and the overtonal as the mood changes when the Cossacks arrive. Now the cutting isn’t based on tranquillity but on the frenetic, so that the pace of the editing emphasises the threat the characters are under. There is again a lot of repetition but for different ends. As the film cuts back numerous times to people running down the Odessa Steps, Eisenstein sacrifices the topographical to the ideological, making us aware of the unrelenting nature of the troops by extending the sequence far beyond its logistical parameters. It would only take a minute or two to run down the albeit 200 odd steps of Odessa but Eisenstein keeps expanding their length to suggest just how completely the Cossacks are mowing people down. There is nothing organic here; the editing dictates the feeling: the rhythm is what matters. But at the same time, the overtonal is important too, creating different moods and feelings simultaneously. Some people are cowering, others defiant, still others horrified. Rather than focusing on one or two characters, the director keeps shifting perspective, indicating that what counts isn’t the individual struggle but the collective chaos. Certain stories do more clearly come out of the sequence, especially a mother whose child is trampled upon and stands up to the troops while she holds his badly injured body in her arms, and also the famous moments when a baby in a pram trundles down the steps. But the film is interested in generating different moods and tones rather than following characterisational specifics. This works all the better for the dialectical and impersonal approach Eisenstein seeks. It isn’t whether baby in the pram will survive that matters, but what forces can counter the might of the Cossacks. It comes in a counter might. The mutineered ship fires at the general’s headquarters and the stone lions are shown in a brief montage lying asleep, awake, and up straight, an intellectual montage that makes clear the people will not lie sleepily accepting the situation but will fight back. 

What Eisenstein shows in this bravura sequence is that editing can be a dynamic force very far removed from either an organic situation based on minimum editing (as we find in examples as different as the maid making coffee in Umberto D, to the central character crossing an empty swimming bath with a candle in Nostalgia), or the dramatic editing Pudovkin and others so promoted. It remains the finest example of kino-fist in film, even if numerous other directors have learned enormously from it, including Peckinpah for The Wild Bunch, Coppola with Apocalypse Now, and Arthur Penn in Bonnie and Clyde. For Eisenstein editing gives to cinema a cellular dimension that when combined creates a properly organic work of art that has nothing to do with the organic as the scene integral initself. For Eisenstein, this was indeed political, as the biological met the revolutionary and absorbed the mechanical. “Only when organicness itself takes on the strictest forms of constructing a work, only when the artistry of a master’s perceptions reach the last gleam of formal perfection,” Eisenstein says, “then and only then will occur a genuine organic-ness of a work, which enters the circle of natural and social phenomena as a fellow member with equal rights, as an independent phenomenon.” (Film Form)

 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Battleship Potemkin

Dynamizing the Image

Perhaps we can start with the maggots. If an army marches on its stomach then why shouldn't sailors mutiny in Battleship Potemkin when they find larvae in the meat? It isn't the only reason the sailors take over the titular ship as they see fellow sailors pushed around and others hanged. But it is an image that remains in our minds for a long time afterwards. It is, if you like, a great and original cinematic synecdoche, a part that signifies a wider whole which is the oppression of the sailors by the corrupt Russian regime. The year is 1905, twelve years before the Russian Revolution, while the film was made eight years after it, just as Stalin came to power, and the film's purpose is, like many Soviet films of the twenties, to speak about revolutionary change. But for the filmmakers, the purpose wasn't only to make propagandistic films heralding a new political world, but also to instigate on ongoing cinematic revolution.

One way of understanding the importance of this is to acknowledge that while all Soviet filmmakers were formalists, not all believed in the same level of innovation. In other words, while Lev Kuleshov, VI Pudovkin and others believed that editing was the most important element of cinema, that images needed to be put together in a manner that was dynamic rather than static, Potemkin director Sergei Eisenstein insisted on a far greater level of dynamism, towards what he called kino-fist: a proper cluster of images. For all of them, cinema could not be much of an art form if it just put together scenes end to end, if a car crash was more or less shown in one shot, if a person was shown looking in the same shot at a person on a bed. No, the car crash should be broken down into numerous shots to generate the tension as the car is about to crash and the damage done once it has. As Pudovkin insisted, "when we wish to apprehend anything, we always begin with the general outlines, and then, by intensifying our examination to the highest degree, enrich the apprehension by an ever-increasing number of details." (Film Technique and Film Acting) For Kuleshov, editing didn't only intensify a situation, it could initself create meaning. In a series of famous experiments, he showed that, in film, acting itself wasn't necessary the editing created the feelings in the viewer rather than the actor. Working with the actor Mozhukhin, Kuleshov would cut from the actor's expressionless face to a nude woman, a child, a dead body, and the viewer would read into that face lust, affection and grief even though the expression on the face was exactly the same. For both Pudovkin and Kuleshov, this showed the importance of editing.

Yet for Eisenstein these uses were still a little too mechanical; Eisenstein wanted a cinema indicative of a more advanced physics. While Pudovkin and Kuleshov saw the importance of linkage, Eisenstein was interested much more in collision. Linkage was merely what Eisenstein called "a special case." It was a special case because in physics there are all sorts of combinations from the impact of spheres. "Depending on whether the spheres be resilient, non-resilient or mingled. Amongst all these combinations there is one in which the impact is so weak that the collision is degraded to an even movement of both in the same direction." (Film Form) Such a method is fine for a conventional approach to cinema, one that still, to this day, relies chiefly on what Eisenstein calls a degraded impact.

There are two aspects to extract from Eisenstein's formalist fascinations in the context of Battleship Potemkin. One is the montage cell; the other the aforementioned kino-fist. If for filmmakers before Eisenstein the image was chiefly an event containing its own reality that could be no more than augmented (as in Pudovkin's car crash), for Eisenstein events were small pieces of recorded reality that could be reimagined and re-shaped in numerous ways in the editing suite. There were other experiments by Kuleshov which proved this to be the case: he showed that creative geography could fool a viewer into believing a coherent space even if the spaces have nothing to do with each other. Usually, this is done seamlessly by cutting from an exterior shot of an actual building to an interior shot of a studio. But more radically it can show someone on a bus in Moscow and then showing them jumping off in New York. The viewer will momentarily believe the scene because the cuts are logical even if the geographical connection between the two places isn't. Such an approach showed that filmmakers can use the recorded pieces of film creatively and not be held to geographic fidelity. Thus for Eisenstein what matters is seeing the shot as a montage cell, as a small unit that rather than following one from another as in linkage, can be offered in dialectical combinations to produce constant collisions and constantly new thoughts.

Yet this isn't what happens in the scene with the meat and the maggots. The sequence remains linked rather than colliding. Was Eisenstein preaching what he refused to practice, or is the cell either thematic or dynamic, according to where it happens to be in the story and according to the ends to which you want the cell to serve? The ship's doctor arrives to look at the meat and the film cuts between the doctor, the sailors and the meat on the hook, sometimes with all three in the same shot. At one moment it cuts to a close-up of the doctor looking closely at the meat as he uses his glasses folded for magnification to see clearly what is crawling around on it. There is no repetition of the image without the logic in the drama of the scene dictating it: when it cuts to the meat several times, the shots are organised according to the look of the sailors or the doctor. A more dynamic style could for example have cut several times to the meat from different angles with no character motivation dictating what we are seeing. Yet there is no reason why Eisenstein should reject linkage, only that he needn't be beholden to it. Describing the film, which is in five sections, Eisenstein said the first act is an "exposition of the action. Milieu of the battleship. Maggoty meat. Discontent ferments among the sailors." (Film Form) Eisenstein is well aware that the close-up of the meat is what matters in this first period of the film, the detail that can catalyse events that can lead later to the much more geographically and rhythmically creative Odessa Steps sequence in the fourth act. When the doctor insists the meat only needs to be cleaned properly and it will be ok to eat, numerous idioms come into play: the worm will turn, the straw that broke the camel's back; as you sow so will you reap, revenge is a dish best served cold. Not all images allow for such an idiomatic profusion but occasionally cinema produces moments that needn't be juxtapositional but instead productive. They contain multiple meanings in themselves rather than in conjunction with other images. When in Strike, Eisenstein wanted such idioms he insisted on juxtaposition to achieve them: there is the character sneaky like a fox and Eisenstein allows a dissolve from one to the other to register the metaphor. But numerous moments in films don't need the juxtaposition; they only need to release the idiomatic profusion. When in The King of Comedy De Niro goes on a dinner date we can say he makes a meal of it, that the date goes as flat as a pancake, that his date takes what he says with a pinch of salt. There is no need for the film to cut from a debatable comment De Niro makes to the salt; the situation itself contains the idiomatic without overt manipulation. The same is true of the maggots in the meat in Battleship Potemkin.

From a certain point of view, the meat sequence in the film isn't 'creative', if we accept that, as Dudley Andrew says, when "the filmmaker is truly creative he will construct his own sense out of this raw material; he will build relations which aren't implicit in the meaning of the shot. He will create rather than direct meaning." (The Major Film Theories) But there are plenty who would disagree with this and wonder why anyone would create a meaning when it is already present. In doing so, in generating another meaning, the image becomes overdetermined, as we find when Strike shows us the fox-like character dissolving from a fox into the young man. Yet in the Odessa Steps sequence, the film is properly created, as Eisenstein understands that the recorded aspect initself will not generate the tension Eisenstein seeks, a tension that is both an immediately narratively pertinent one, as we see in the second half of the sequence where the Cossacks mow down the well-wishers welcoming the mutineers, and the tension in the images as Eisenstein changes the pace and repeats certain moments. Here he incorporates a dynamic method that combines all five of the aspects he sees as going into montage editing. This is the metric, the rhythmic, the tonal, the overtonal, and the intellectual. The metric is putting shots together based exclusively on the exact length of footage from one shot to the next irrespective of content, while rhythmic montage edits according to the meaning of the sequence., to the internal and not only external aspect. Tonal editing captures mood or atmosphere, evident when a film plays on the emotional resonance in a scene, where Eisenstein reckons "movement is perceived in a wider sense. The concept of movement embraces all affects of the montage piece." (Film Form) If Rhythmic montage captures the necessary movement, as we might see the cuts speeding up as the villain gets closer to the heroine, in tonal montage the cuts are based more broadly on capturing for example the consistency of light, of fog or of the sequence. In overtonal montage, the film mixes tones and moods, creating a broader and often physiologically complex response to the image. While in tonal montage a film will emphasise the mood for love, or mourning, or joy, in overtonal montage these moods can be mixed. Finally, intellectual montage is interested in creating an Idea, a concept between the cuts that arrive at a proposition. Eisenstein illustrates his different categories with very few examples, but for the latter he gives "the sequence of the "gods' in October, where all the conditions for their comparison are made dependent on an exclusively class-intellectual sound of each piece in its relation to God."(Film Form) But he also offers examples of rhythmic montage from Potemkin in contrast to the metric cutting from The End of St Petersburg. He also suggests that the foggy sequence after a sailor's death in Potemkin illustrates the tonal. We could fill in a few of our own but anyone going online can find a very good illustration using numerous contemporary films under NittyGrittyStudios.

Yet if Battleship Potemkin is seen as one of the great works of cinema, and The Odessa Steps sequence the most important in so significant a film, can we not find most of the examples we are looking for in this one act? However, our purpose shouldn't be just to put images to Eisenstein's words but also to indicate why the methods he theorised upon are useful to this sequence as a more straighforward editing system works fine for the scene with the maggots. But the complex topographical, historical and ideological emphasis of this fourth act demands a much more ingenious approach, giving to film an organic composition that relies greatly on putting images together. Initially, the scenes shows the people of Odessa going about their business in a series of brief shots before moving onto briefer shots still in close up as the film cuts to various people waiting by the quay and back to long shots of slightly greater length as we watch the boats come in. There is much repetition here, as Eisenstein isn't just providing narrative information he is generating a broader mood that will be shattered. The slower, the more repetitive the rhythm and the images, the more idyllic is the atmosphere he creates. This is the metric meeting the tonal, which will lead into the rhythmic and the overtonal as the mood changes when the Cossacks arrive. Now the cutting isn't based on tranquillity but on the frenetic, so that the pace of the editing emphasises the threat the characters are under. There is again a lot of repetition but for different ends. As the film cuts back numerous times to people running down the Odessa Steps, Eisenstein sacrifices the topographical to the ideological, making us aware of the unrelenting nature of the troops by extending the sequence far beyond its logistical parameters. It would only take a minute or two to run down the albeit 200 odd steps of Odessa but Eisenstein keeps expanding their length to suggest just how completely the Cossacks are mowing people down. There is nothing organic here; the editing dictates the feeling: the rhythm is what matters. But at the same time, the overtonal is important too, creating different moods and feelings simultaneously. Some people are cowering, others defiant, still others horrified. Rather than focusing on one or two characters, the director keeps shifting perspective, indicating that what counts isn't the individual struggle but the collective chaos. Certain stories do more clearly come out of the sequence, especially a mother whose child is trampled upon and stands up to the troops while she holds his badly injured body in her arms, and also the famous moments when a baby in a pram trundles down the steps. But the film is interested in generating different moods and tones rather than following characterisational specifics. This works all the better for the dialectical and impersonal approach Eisenstein seeks. It isn't whether baby in the pram will survive that matters, but what forces can counter the might of the Cossacks. It comes in a counter might. The mutineered ship fires at the general's headquarters and the stone lions are shown in a brief montage lying asleep, awake, and up straight, an intellectual montage that makes clear the people will not lie sleepily accepting the situation but will fight back.

What Eisenstein shows in this bravura sequence is that editing can be a dynamic force very far removed from either an organic situation based on minimum editing (as we find in examples as different as the maid making coffee in Umberto D, to the central character crossing an empty swimming bath with a candle in Nostalgia), or the dramatic editing Pudovkin and others so promoted. It remains the finest example of kino-fist in film, even if numerous other directors have learned enormously from it, including Peckinpah for The Wild Bunch, Coppola with Apocalypse Now, and Arthur Penn in Bonnie and Clyde. For Eisenstein editing gives to cinema a cellular dimension that when combined creates a properly organic work of art that has nothing to do with the organic as the scene integral initself. For Eisenstein, this was indeed political, as the biological met the revolutionary and absorbed the mechanical. "Only when organicness itself takes on the strictest forms of constructing a work, only when the artistry of a master's perceptions reach the last gleam of formal perfection," Eisenstein says, "then and only then will occur a genuine organic-ness of a work, which enters the circle of natural and social phenomena as a fellow member with equal rights, as an independent phenomenon." (Film Form)


© Tony McKibbin