Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Battleship Potemkin (1925)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #11

"Propaganda" has become a dirty word. When we think about propaganda - at least in the United States - we think about evil regimes brainwashing its citizens into misguided patriotism, supporting dictators and oppressive systems in the name of a stronger society. Images of Nazi Germany, Maoist China, and modern North Korea come to mind. But that's all a matter of perspective: the United States is not innocent in the creation of positive propaganda supporting our nation, just as every other government in the world does. To use a very recent example, just look at the opening/closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games. These ceremonies ostensibly celebrate the spirit of international cooperation and community in sporting competitions, yes. But more importantly, they're an opportunity for the host nation to celebrate itself, and more often than not they put their best foot forward to showcase the pride and historical high points of their history. Propaganda isn't always the work of the schemers.

When it comes to propaganda films, two films always dominate the conversation: Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935) and, the focus of this year's Sight & Sound Sunday, Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein's film is a dramatization of the 1905 mutiny aboard the Potemkin, in which the crew rebelled against their Tsarist officers. The film was intended to celebrate the Bolshevik uprising, to praise the power of the Soviet Union over the Tsar's Russia, and to honor the revolution of the common man over the aristocratic class. In doing so, the film keeps the characterizations simple: the crew and citizens of Odessa are pure and good, while the officers and Tsar's soldiers are clearly evil and murderous. This is common in propaganda films: clear dividing lines make it easier for the audience to know who to sympathize with.

More after the page break.

It wasn't enough for Eisenstein to simply make a nationalist narrative. More than just a filmmaker, he was also a film theorist, and saw this film as an opportunity to experiment with his theories of montage. He wanted to find a way to elicit a stronger emotional response through editing, by carefully selecting precise images and placing them in a particular order that is more impressionistic than linear. These cuts aren't meant to necessarily make narrative sense; it's not moving from one character to the next as they speak, or constantly moving the story forward. Instead, the editing works to make stronger political points and more potent emotional reactions.

When it comes to discussion about this film, the infamous "Odessa Steps" sequence is most-often referenced, and for good reason. The sequence is so effective that it has not only been lifted for and alluded to in other films (Brian De Palma's The Untouchables being an obvious example), but it is often mistaken for an actual event in the 1905 revolution. The editing in this sequence is as chaotic as the event itself, and Eisenstein's decision to cut back and forth between the pandemonium, the victims in despair, and the white-uniformed soldiers firing into the crowd is emotionally powerful. It's a very violent sequence, too, and was considered to be extremely graphic for it's time (though it is still violent by today's standards too).

However, there are other great sequences in the film that showcase Eisenstein's editing brilliance. Take, for example, a sequence of shots from early in the film, when the crew first tries to rebel against the officers over pitiful borsch. Using shots from the same perspective, he diagrams the separation between the officers and crew and the deterioration of the status quo. First, he establishes the order:

The officers have the crew lined up in formation, with Commander Golikov (Vladimir Barsky) asking everyone who's satisfied with the borsch to step forward. When he commands that everyone who did not step forward will be executed, the crew responds by gathering under the turret:

However, one faction gets separated from the group. In response, this smaller group has a tarp thrown over them to be executed...

…but when the armed officers choose not to fire, chaos ensues:

In the midst of it all, a number of the crew manage to obtain weapons from the armory, and the crew takes control of the ship and celebrates their victory over their brutal officers.

Now, these shots don't come one after another; there are a lot of other shots interspersed between them. But this is indicative of Eisenstein's use of montage in the film: he continues returning to the same shot compositions, but he changes it a little each time, showing the audience the current status of the situation onboard. The inclusion of other shots between these establishing ones add to the emotional potency of the situation.

One terrifically powerful example of Eisenstein's montage, though, comes during the aforementioned sequence. It's a quick succession of shots, lasting less than ten seconds, but it illustrates the connections that were integral to the politics of the film. A priest emerges, urging the rebellious crew to see the error of their ways, and it's clear that the priest is on the side of the officers. As the firing squad raises their rifles, Eisenstein inserts a shot of a crucifix:

Then cuts to Commander Golikov:

Then follows up to Golikov touching his saber:

Just through the order of these simple images, Eisenstein connects religion to authority and authority to violence and, through this analogy, religion to violence. This is, of course, in line with the Soviet stance on religion, which was that religion is dangerous to society. It's a clearly Marxist-Leninist statement, but what's revolutionary about it is that Eisenstein doesn't explicitly state this. Instead, he relies on the audience to pick up the subtle suggestion through the montage, and as a result he's created a powerful propaganda film. More importantly, though, he's created a powerful new form of filmmaking, and his principles of editing have been taught and practiced in film schools around the world. Battleship Potemkin may not be as politically relevant since the fall of the Soviet Union, but it's cinematically relevant as a revolutionary film.

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Pierrot le fou (1965)

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