Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 revolution film, squeezes meaning out of every shot and cut, and holds it’s own with modern Hollywood editing. The technical limitations of the time forced Eisenstein to be creative with the camera, glue, and scissors if he wanted his film to stand the test of time. And stand the test of time it did. We’ll see how Eisenstein used his tools and montage theory to advance the art form and help establish the bedrock for the film language that plays in theaters 93 years later.
The first thing that I noticed about the film is that the cuts can be fast. Unlike the beginning of Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov 1929) which gives us time to soak in the nearly-static images presented on screen, mull over their details and meaning, and beg for the next shot, Potemkin’s shots either have movement in frame, or move between the cuts. For example, Potemkin’s hammock scene (0:02:10) shows us sailors rocking in their hammocks from one angle for two seconds, then cuts to another angle. There’s twenty seconds of footage of just sleeping hammock-users before the shift officer pokes a heel down the hatch, and eight different shots or angles, that’s an average of just two and a half seconds each. It gives an otherwise boring scene some diversity, as well as give the viewer a glimpse at the heroes of the story. I’ll note that the first shot lingers just a bit, at 3 seconds, it gives viewers more time to see the setting, men sleeping in hammocks with corners of sailor’s uniforms hanging out. Then the shots speed up ever-so-slightly, because the viewer already knows the important points, plus it subtly gives the appearance that the scene is picking up momentum, building towards conflict.
Once the officer (denoted by his dark-colored uniform, more on that later) comes down the stairs (0:02:30), now-common combinations of shots tell us what he’s thinking while giving visual context for where in the scene he is, which Eisenstein uses to draw the viewer in. Later in the movie, the famous Odessa steps sequence throws visual context out the metaphorical window which confuses and disorients the viewer, an effect that the filmmaker was going for. But, for now, we are provided visual context; the officer is shot from some of the same angles that we saw seconds before, poking his head between laden hammocks. He walks up to the camera and emotes with his arms, head, and mustache, a relic from theater, but at least it’s clear that he’s unsettled. A title card interrupts a shot. Twice. The officers is seen looking to his right; cut to: what he’s looking at. The officer’s back is seen squeezing between two hammocks, and then his front is seen squeezing out the other side. Cut after cut after cut. We see the officer wake up a sailor with a whack, which is overlapped in subsequent shots, something that Jackie Chan does to give power to a hit in a fight scene (Ramos). This wakes up the viewer too. Continuing to cut, the 5 seconds of the windup, whack, and reaction take 5 different shots. There’s a ton of film going on in this short and relatively tame bit of this film. It’s hard for me to consciously appreciate these details in real-time, but my subconscious can, and I bet it’s what gives this movie it’s classic status. Let that be Eisenstein’s lesson, to make a classic, treat every scene like it’s your last.
I’ll briefly mention some composition details. The powerful characters, including Matyushenko and Vakulinchuk are shot from below, looking up, to emphasize their strength (0:01:40). Sailors who feel oppressed are shot through grates or in the shadow of grates; the literal bars through which we see them imply that they feel imprisoned (0:10:08). There is visual contrast between officers, representing the oppressive ruling elite, and the sailors, representing the subjugated Russian citizenry. Officers wear dark colored jackets, and sailors wear white shirts (0:17:21). Even the ship’s priest is dressed in dark colors, and looks intimidating with his unruly hair, beard, and cross tapping (0:22:12). Remember that the church was viewed unfavorably after the revolution, so it’s expected that the character of the priest would be shown as such. The events that Eisenstein wants to emphasize are drawn out, including the Drama on the Deck scene and the Odessa Steps sequence. In these cases, the duration of the scene about these events can be many times longer than the realistic length of the events. Especially the Odessa Steps scene (0:48:26-0:54:42), which takes six minutes and sixteen seconds of screen time, but by the most generous estimate would’ve taken a minute or two in reality. On the other hand, like all films, events that are less important to the film are given less screen time, or omitted altogether. After all, the (mostly fictional) events of the film probably took between a day and a week, but the screen time is only seventy-three minutes.
Speaking of the Odessa Steps sequence, at this point in the film continuity and context are mostly sidelined as Eisenstein tries to find out how far his montage theory can go. In an example from “From Film Form”, he shows how hieroglyphs in Eastern writing combine to form something new. I’ll just let him explain it:
“the combination of two hieroglyphs of the simplest series is regarded not as their sum total but as their product, i.e. as a value of another dimension, another degree: each taken separately corresponds to an object but their combination corresponds to a concept. The combination of two ‘representable’ objects achieves the representation of something that cannot be graphically represented. For example: the representation of water and of an eye signifies ‘to weep’ […] But – this is montage!!” (Eisenstein 15)
Eisenstein then claims that this concept applies to cinematography too, not just hieroglyphs. He thinks that the juxtaposition of shots implies something that cannot be expressed with one image. To some extent, history has proved him right, his Odessa Steps sequence is famous for implementation of these montage concepts. A soldier slashes his sword, and a screaming woman’s glasses are shattered with blood (0:54:39), implying the brutality of the oppressors. Eisenstein isn’t concerned with continuity either, a woman’s son gets shot and she continues running down the steps, but when she returns to him in despair, she arrives from the uphill side (0:49:50). Context isn’t a priority either, the terrified spectators, for lack of a better word, are presented looking to the left in close or medium shots (0:50:44), but with no context for their relation to the main steps action, it’s all implied.
Battleship Potemkin certainly deserves the respect it’s been given, considering the bold use of editing and use of experimental montage theory to some success. However, after closer examination and more thought, I appreciate the context, continuity, and style of the realists more than the implicit style of montage.
Eisenstein, Sergei, director. Battleship Potemkin. Mosfilm, 1925.
Eisenstein, Sergei, “From Film Form,” Film Theory & Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Braudy, Leo and Marshal Cohen. Mew York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 20-40
Ramos, Taylor. Jackie Chan - How to Do Action Comedy. YouTube, 2 Dec. 2014, youtu.be/Z1PCtIaM_GQ.
Vertov, Dziga, director. Man with a Movie Camera. VUFKU, 1929.