Friday, 14 January 2011

Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

Sergei Eisenstein's Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925)

The 1920s were an innovative time for cinema. While the German Expressionists were experimenting with cinematography, Soviet pioneers such as Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein were experimenting with editing - specifically the use of montage. Expressionists such as Robert Wiene and F.W. Murnau sought to tell a story through images - the use of darkness and shadows. In the wake of WWI these films also had sociopolitical context, but within the grand scheme of what film author J.P. Telotte calls "the power of spectacle" - perhaps also in reference to the grand architectural design of the Weimar films, best exemplified in Fritz Lang's Art Deco masterpiece Metropolis (1927). The Russian Film School, as they were known, sought to tell stories through the editing of the image, while also focusing on great sociopolitical issues. Eisenstein has written of the technique in various articles and books, but never better than in Film Form, a collection of twelve essays on film theory written between 1928 and 1945 - demonstrating key points from his own oeuvre. Eisenstein's understanding of film language and technique is explored well in the book, perhaps best summed up by this statement:

"For example, in painting the form arises from abstract elements
of line and colour, while in cinema the material concreteness of
the image within the frame presents - as an element - the greatest
difficulty in manipulation."

What Eisenstein wanted to do then, was manipulate through the collage of images, informing emotion and message through the juxtaposition of two shots. This way he could also employ metaphor without explicitly creating meaning within the frame of a shot. A prime example would be in the superior Stachka (1925) where the sight of striking workers being attacked by a police force is juxtaposed with a shot of a bull being slaughtered, demonstrating the idea that the workers are being treated like cattle; their will and freedoms are not considered. Here, death is a mechanical process. Eisenstein developed what he called "methods of montage" and they were...
  1. Metric (follows a specific number of frames)
  2. Rhythmic (cutting based on time)
  3. Tonal (exploits the literal emotional meaning of the shots)
  4. Overtonal (a combination of three previous methods)
  5. Intellectual (the juxtaposition of shots for metaphorical or intellectual means)
... most of which appear in Bronenosets Potyomkin. Although I believe Stachka (released eight months earlier) to be both a superior and more important film, this is by far his most famous, with a thrilling centerpiece later recreated in Brian De Palma's gangster classic The Untouchables (1987). The story is split into five chapters; Men And Maggots; Drama At The Harbour; A Dead Man Calls For Justice; The Odessa Staircase and The Rendez-Vous With A Squadron. The film opens in 1905 with the battleship Potemkin nearing Odessa on the Black Sea, after a defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. The crew of the ship are given rotten meat and a mutiny uprising faces opposition from a firing squad. The shooters hesitate and an innocent solider named Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov) intervenes and is killed. The men take his body to the shore with a sign that reads 'KILLED FOR A BOWL OF SOUP'. Eventually a crowd appear to mourn the death of the young solider, and a proletarian uprising begins to take shape against the Tsar. The citizens take formation at the Odessa Steps where the Tsar military oppose them - they begin marching down the steps opening unprovoked fire against men, women and children. The peasants of Odessa are slaughtered including a mother who knocks her infants carriage down the steps, in a frighteningly tense sequence. Obviously Eisenstein intended the film to be as much a propaganda piece as anything, to criticize the Tsar and glorify Communist revolution. The characters are definitively one-dimensional, split into 'groups', and speak not so much a natural dialogue as theoretical stance, or sociopolitical argument. This way Eisenstein needn't waste time with exposition or characterization; an audience will recognize the side they take through the bullet-point title cards, and elements of mise-en-scène such as costume, performance and lighting (the side of good is more illuminated than the shadowed forces of the Tsar). In this sense, combined with the revolutionary editing techniques, Bronenosets Potyomkin is a masterclass in storytelling. It is however, by todays standards, a little primitive.

This is the reason why I regard Stachka the stronger film. Not only is it full of strikingly beautiful imagery and more imaginative edits, it has a finer balance between character and politics. Bronenosets Potyomkin may make a stronger argument for its cause (that is fit for debate) but the art of cinema has come a long way since the days of Eisenstein. Now it's character and story that really invites the viewer into a film and watching this mini-epic can often be a detached, cold experience. It's a technical masterpiece, and a work to be constantly admired, but outside of the shocking Odessa Steps sequence the film offers very little to engage with. Audiences at the time would have felt differently, of course, as they could identify with the 'sides'. But today Stachka is the more involving film - it's not exactly a character piece, and it doesn't exactly soft-peddle its political ideals, but it does portray the workingman as a real person, and not a message. There is a stronger sense of community to the film, and respect. When watching that film I get a feel for the life of the factories and families, which makes the final raid all the more chilling, and devastating. Still, the chance to see Bronenosets Potyomkin on the big screen once more is not one to be missed - there's nothing quite like it today...

The newly restored version of Battleship Potemkin is re-released in select US theaters today.

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