The Dramatic Principle

Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925) ia a dramatization of the 1905 mutiny on the eponymous Russian ship. Sergei Eisenstein had two, parallel aims for his film. He wanted to create a piece of cinematic propaganda to support the new, post-revolutionary Russian regime, and he wanted to experiment with editing techniques to create ‘intellectual montage’. The end result is an interesting symbiosis between the two in which the political and social message drives the editing style, and the editing techniques exaggerate the narrative.

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Eisenstein employs a multitudes of closeups of the actors playing his mutinous rebels and revolutionaries. He’s especially keen to show their reactions when they’re suffering under the oppression of their leaders. He’s clearly putting his audience in the position of embodying (rather than empathising with) his heroes; in this respect it’s not dissimilar to the classical Hollywood style of editing which seeks to place the audience in the role of the protagonist. But from there Eisenstein’s film diverges from Hollywood’s norms. Instead of creating smooth, invisible, continuity editing, he works according to his belief that cuts should not only be seen, but should be so jarring as to interrupt the narrative. In this way, he’s a forerunner of the French New Wave, whose dedication to form over content led them to use jump cuts, freeze frames, flash pans and rapid reframing to constantly remind the audience that they were watching a film, not reality. In some ways, Eisenstein is perhaps what La Nouvelle Vague filmmakers might have been if they had followed the ‘all art must have a political message’ mantra of the left, rather than the ‘art for art’s sake’ doctrine of the right (but it’s obvious that they were heavily influenced by him).

The way Eisenstein achieved this jarring effect is, of course, through montage and the sequencing of apparently unrelated images juxtaposed to create an emotional response in the audience that neither image could create on its own, a kind of 1 + 1 = 3. He theorised about this idea as the merging of thesis and anti-thesis, two opposing points which clashed to produce synthesis, an intellectual result greater than the sum of its parts.

In Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein repeatedly juxtaposes the villainous officers with the rotten meat that spurs the sailors to mutiny.

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When one of the Potemkin’s officers is thrown overboard by the mutineering sailors Eisenstein cuts straight from his demise to an image of maggots crawling through the rotten meat.

Eisenstein continually references butchery of both meat and men in Battleship Potemkin, a thematic element which he explored in his previous film, Strike (Eisenstein, 1925) which juxtaposes a battle sequence with scenes of slaughter in an abattoir…

The most famous sequence in Battleship Potemkin is the section dedicated to the massacre at the Odessa steps. I was caught of guard by how graphic some of Eisenstein’s shots were; a mother is shot defending her baby (whose carriage then famously rolls all the way down the steps); another child is shot and falls, still alive, only to be trampled in the panic; this boy’s mother rushes to help her son and carries him, grief stricken, to face the attacking Cossacks.

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Eisenstein uses montage to magnify the horror of this sequence, by stretching out the time over which it takes place, making something which in reality took only moments last many times longer. He gives the audience time to process what they’re seeing and reiterates the hard hitting imagery to make sure that they come to the ‘right’ conclusion.

In his essay A Dialectic Approach to Film Form from his book Film Form: Essays in Film Theory (Eisenstein, 1949), Eisenstein quotes German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it, and over it” (von Goethe in Eisenstein, 1949)

He goes on to say that montage is “the nerve of cinema” (Eisenstein, 1949) and that editing cannot be thought of “a means of description by placing single shots one after the other like building-blocks”(Eisenstein, 1949), but is instead “an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots-shots even opposite to one another: the ‘dramatic’ principle” (Eisenstein, 1949).

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Eisenstein’s work influenced a raft of filmmakers. Some went for full homage, like Terry Gilliam who spoofed the Odessa steps sequence in his film Brazil (Gilliam, 1985). But his influence in rhythmic montage, juxtaposition and multiple viewpoints can be seen in the work of other filmmakers like Hitchcock, Scorsese, De Palma, Marker and of course the French New Wave directors, Godard and Truffaut et al.

References…

Gilliam, T., (1985) Brazil, Embassy International Pictures

Eisenstein, S., (1925) Battleship Potemkin, Goskino

Eisenstein, S., (1925) Strike, Goskino

Eisenstein, S., (1949) Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, San Diego: Harcourt

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