BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN - SERGEI EISENSTEIN

 

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I was undecided how to start, so in time honoured tradition, lets start at (or at least near) the beginning... so no women tied to train tracks... but at the risk of putting you all off from the start, a Soviet classic beloved of film studies the world over, Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin!!! 

I suppose I started with this partly because I’m working on a documentary about the 100 year anniversary of the Russian revolution that includes clips and an analysis of this film. Obliged to watch it again for the first time since Uni, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s better than I remembered but I also chose this because I was reminded that it undeniably established important and fundamental developments in cinema. 

But why are all film students made to watch this film? Well, another Russian filmmaker called Kuleshov had, around the same time, conducted an experiment in which he showed the same shot of a famous actor followed by another juxtaposing shot.

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He found that viewers then 'read'  that same shot of the actor as displaying an emotion appropriate to and suggested by the subsequent image, so the actor followed for example by a shot of a plate of sausages would be read as hunger, actor followed by a woman in a coffin would read as grief and so on, even though the shot of the actor hadn't actually changed.

Put into practice in the film, Eisenstein called this kind of editing 'Montage', and when they added sounds and music, they called it 'vertical montage'. You can still see the  principal of juxtaposing images and sounds every day on your telly (or smart device), especially in advertising (which I'm sure would have had poor Eisenstein turning in a Bolshevik grave).

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You will also notice that compared to a lot of later art house films, this film is cut very fast. This may be due to the style they had developed in the Soviet Union in response to a shortage of celluloid to work with but may also be due their habit of re-cutting Hollywood films multiple times to make new films. The Soviets were very keen to make sure that only certain films were allowed past the censor, film was already understood as a very powerful medium for influence and Stalin himself took a close personal interest in the Soviet film industry (much like Goebbels with the Nazis in Germany), so because of these restrictions they had to make the most out of the few films allowed through and the even fewer that were permitted to be made (by various no doubt interminable committee meetings).

Giving Battleship Potemkin the green light proved uncontroversial for the censors as it tells the story of a key point in Soviet revolutionary history, the mutiny by a crew of the eponymous naval ship near Odessa.

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The idea behind Soviet filmmaking was that film could become a kind of universal language that could carry Marxist ideas to the masses internationally, without needing dialogue, but instead using lots of very fast juxtapositional cutting and non-synchronous sounds to help the propaganda, ahem, story along. You might think that the result is unsubtle, but consider that Eisenstein knew his audience; many of this film's first viewers would probably never have seen a film before.

For us Westerners used to Hollywood narrative films, Battleship Potemkin might seem a bit strange and maybe difficult to engage with as Soviet filmmakers rarely used a central protagonist, rejecting this as bourgeois individualism and deviationism… (Are you all totally put off this whole film club thing already?)

I hope not, because when you've seen it you can say you know the famous Odessa Steps sequence, a landmark and much copied scene (The Godfather, The Untouchables, various and is even satirised in Naked Gun 33 1/3) - this scene also uses the idea of 'stretched time’ (influencing every single thriller ever made since, ever). 

 Scene from The Untouchables, Dir. Brian De Palma

Scene from The Untouchables, Dir. Brian De Palma

Personally, I think Eisenstein gets his Bolshy point across with a lot of dynamic style and a pretty great musical score. This may not be the most fun film we will watch but it is hugely influential and anyway I had to watch it, therefore so must you. 

Mish.

January 2018.