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Battleship Potemkin as Propaganda Essay

The Battleship Potemkin (Segei Eisenstein, 1925, USSR), an attempt to record the historical 1905 mutiny upon the Russian Naval ship Potemkin, is renowned for its application of the Soviet Montage technique; A methodology pioneered by Eisenstein himself. The aim of this brave new cinematic vision was to elicit emotional and intellectual responses from audiences; A dialectic approach to film harking back to the ideals of Karl Marx.

This particular strategy toward filmmaking proved incredibly useful in terms of propaganda within the Soviet State and as a result Potemkin is often cast aside as an artifact from this point of history, merely regarded by some as a piece of agitprop. But how did Eisenstein capture his audiences’ minds and passions, and to what extent is the Montage technique responsible? Montage’s origins can be traced back to Lev Kuleshov’s (referred to by David Gillespie, author of Early Soviet Cinema: Innovation, Ideology and Propaganda as “… the father of Soviet cinema… (2000:23)) experiments with editing.

Heavily influenced by American filmmakers such as D. W. Griffith, his view was that previously filmed fragments must be assembled and “… linked… ” to each other, comparing this process to how “… a child constructs a word or phrase from separate scattered blocks of letters” (Eisenstein, 1929:163). However, in his essay “The Dramaturgy of Film Form”, Eisenstein condemns Kuleshov’s methods as “… outmoded… ”. Eisenstein believed that it was not adding shots to one another that created a successful montage effect, but by “… colliding… two shots independent to each other. The analogy he adopts to express this method is the structure of Japanese hieroglyphics. He reeled in the notion that two separate graphical representations, for example that of an eye and that of water, could be placed together (ie. collided) and merged to create a whole new meaning, in the case of the eye and the water, our new meaning would be to cry.

Two separate, unrelated images which when alone hold their own individual meaning, can be conjoined and take on brand new significance. It was this way that Eisenstein believed audiences would cease “… efining an object exclusively in terms of its external course” (Eisenstein, 1929:163) and begin to explore new meaning and depth within the montage. Although an abstract theory at first, it is easier to explain Montage’s ability to shape audience reaction by singling out a particular example from The Battleship Potemkin. Toward the beginning of the film, as tension begins to build toward the impending mutiny, the ships crew take issue with the quality of the meat they are to be fed.

As the unappetizing joints hang before them, each man examines its condition. We’ve had enough rotten meat! ” one exclaims; “It’s not fit for pigs” says another. The ship’s Doctor, Smirnov, comes to lend a critical eye over the men’s judgement and upon inspecting the rations himself, declares them to be satisfactory and departs, leaving the men irate. As Smirnov leans in to take a close look at the meat, we are given a particularly graphic eye-line match, allowing us to see the maggot invested meat, imbedding the image in our minds. Later, when the officers of the ship are being cast overboard, including Smirnov, we are treated to another shot of the decaying meat.

However this time the maggots are beginning to drop off. As Smirnov plummets into the ocean, we cut to the image of the maggots falling off the meat, thus combining, or rather “… colliding… ” (Eisenstein, 1929:163) the two elements. Eisenstein is clearly making a parallel between the oppression of the officers and the infestation of the meat. The only way for the meat to become serviceable again is to rid it of its infestation, and the only way for Potemkin to function efficiently is for the crew to do away with their tyrants (clearly a larger comment of the political society and Communist ideals).

The reason that Eisenstein chooses Smirnov to be part of this montage is clear as it was he that previously ignored the meat’s poor quality. Irony is then instated by sailor Vakulinchuk’s line “He’s gone to feed the fishes”, a job that would usually be that of a maggot’s. Although punishment of a character who has antagonised our heroes is no concept unique to Soviet filmmakers, the use of combining the two images to draw the audience’s attention to the metaphor is almost entirely unique to the Montage cinema.

Take the two images (the officer falling into the ocean and the meat crawling with maggots) and the two shots could almost be from two completely different films. However, collide these images and they work to define each other, thus establishing a greater meaning. As a piece of propaganda, it is arguably The Battleship Potemkin’s main purpose to bestow upon the audience ideology of the Communist regime in a positive light. This is where a lot of Montage’s persuasive elements really become apparent.

Karl Marx famously stated that “Religion… s the opium of the people” (Marx, 1844:72), thus, the Soviet Union made it an ideological objective to completely eliminate religion. In his film October (Segei Eisenstein, 1928, USSR), through a Montage sequence, Eisenstein compares religious paraphernalia from Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Aztec era and various primitive faiths, implying that they are all the same. In Potemkin he once again portrays religion in a negative sense through the Montage method, but this time his message is much more pointed toward Christianity.

In the midst of the sailor’s rebellion, a priest comes forth to express his (and his god’s) anger towards the mutiny. “Bring the unruly to reason, O lord” he declares, standing atop of a set of stairs, brandishing his crucifix. The symbol of the cross, the most significant icon of this Christian faith, representing everything embodied by the church, takes on a new, radically different meaning in this sequence. Amid the violence, he wields it like a weapon, thrusting it in the face of those opposing the tyrannical officers.

Were this scene on his own, the clergyman would appear to be the innocent figure, fending off attackers. However, as we know that it is he who is in the wrong, his actions are seen as antagonistic. Upon being beaten to the ground, his crucifix hits the ground, sticking in the floorboards of the ship’s deck, like one would expect a hunter’s knife to do upon striking a surface. The holy man is transformed into a figure of evil, his wild hair and unkempt beard making him seem old fashioned and representative of the church’s negative fire and brimstone image.

Vakulinchuk, a character who has already been established as one of honor and integrity, labels the priest as a “sorcerer”. A less than favorable term to use when referring to a man of religion, conjuring up images of witchcraft and lies. This is supported when, as the brave soldiers fight on, the priest is seen lying on the ground. Again, take this image out of context and he is a victim. However, the following shot, the priest opening his eye, observing the action and then closing it again, shows he is a deceitful coward. A comment perhaps on the church, or indeed religion’s untrustworthy practices.

This powerful visual imagery of the deceitful cleric collided with the images of the brave, fighting sailors creates a dynamic portraying the collective workers as a much stronger force; Especially after doing away with the religious figure. Audiences are led to detest the priest and see him as a negative influence, and thus read this as another comment on Religion in the new society; Another example of Eisenstein’s intellectual montage. Another example of a similar effect being used to achieve the same goals, is when a young sailor is washing an officers dish.

As he drenches it in water, he begins to read the words inscribed upon it. “Give us this day, our daily bread” words taken from The Lord’s Prayer. In anger, he casts it to the ground and it shatters into pieces. Were we to just witness him casting the plate to the ground, it would not effect us in the same way. However, because the previous shot develops the religious context, we can translate this shot as an act of rebellion against religion and the morals enforced through it. Montage, however, was not a method limited to merely establishing thoughts in the viewer’s head: It can distort the very world we are presented onscreen.

The process of editing allows one to be in control of time; To possess the ability to have complete manipulation of the fourth dimension. Whereas conventional Hollywood editing techniques were used to clarify timelines, Eisenstein used Montage to warp and distort the passage of time. An example of this in Potemkin can be found in the famous Odessa Steps moment. In this scene, Cossack forces fire round after round into crowds of innocent civilians. As they flee down the great steps, a moment which should by rights only last a minute or so, is stretched to over six minutes.

We are forced to stare in dismay as more and more innocent lives are gunned down: Men, women and children. The elongating of time acts as a way of enhancing the power of the moment, stretching it like a hard to forget memory. With every moment that passes, the event gets more and more unbearable to watch. The eliciting of this emotion is completely down to the rapidly cut Montage of screaming faces and horror. However, a later Soviet filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky, took issue to this. Tarkovsky relished in the long take, and very much looked down on Eisenstein’s method of Montage.

On the topic of Eisenstein’s technique, he once commented that “… the audience… is dogged by the feeling that what is happening on screen is sluggish and unnatural. This is because no time-truth exists in the separate frames. In themselves they are static and insipid” (Tarkovsky, 1970:161). Tarkovsky implies that by distorting time, Eisenstein has sacrificed the film ’s sense of reality, therefore enforcing his audiences to lose interest or feel distracted by the lack of fluency in the piece. Another manipulation Montage allows is the distortion of recognizable objects through rapid cutting.

In one of Potemkin’s most famous scenes, three shots of lion three different lion statues are plays in quick succession. The first statue we see is a slumberous lion, with its head rested on its paws. Next, we quickly cut to an awakened lion, in a similar position to our previous statue, but this time with its head slightly raised. The last statue we see is that of a fully awake, fully alert lion. This could be seen as “Metric Montage”, a Montage technique in which the shot is changed according to a pre-set time, creating a rhythmic cutting pace.

However, in its presentation, it almost reminds one of an animation (a series of frames strung together to give the impression of movement) and as Eisenstein was vocal about being a fan of Walt Disney, this could quite possibly be true. When talking about the Disney, Eisenstein praised the way that “… poetry’s principle of transformation works comically in Disney, given as a literal metamorphosis” (Eisenstein, 1928:142). Through this, we can attribute his inspiration of manipulating static objects to Disney’s animation techniques.

The most common reading of this scene is that the horror of the Odessa massacre is so great, that even the stone statues are rising up in protest of this display. In “Film as Film”, V. F. Perkins makes an interesting reference to an old Russian phrase “The stones roared” (1972:117); Essentially meaning “All hell broke loose”. However, he then goes on to criticise Eisenstein’s reasoning behind this short burst of pseudo-animation. He refers to the moment as “dead matter” in relation to its irrelevance to the rest of the scene’s content. “… he lions served no purpose in the movie beyond that of becoming components of Montage effect”.

They have no connection to the scene’s narrative and are poorly placed in the sequence. Although they are supposed to be commentary on the massacre, they come after Potemkin’s attack. They feel separate to the Odessa Steps scene and more relative to its succeeding moment, that of the battleship’s retaliation. As Perkins states, when concerning our aroused lion, one would be forgiven “… to think of it as awakened (and none too pleased about it) by the din of the guns”.

Interestingly, when writing about this moment himself, Eisenstein states that “The marble lion leaps up, surrounded by the thunder of Potemkin’s guns firing in protest against the bloodbath”. It seems clear that Eisenstein is conscious of the Montage’s arrangement, and yet fails to notice that its placement appears clumsy, considering what the lion is supposed to represent. Although this moment is memorable, it serves no use to the progression of the film’s narrative and thus, is merely there to show off the abilities of Montage.

Interestingly, this scene once caused somewhat of a dispute between Sergei Eisenstein and his composer for The Battleship Potemkin Edmund Meisel. In his autobiography “Immoral Memories”, Eisenstein speaks of how Meisel “… ruined a public showing of Potemkin… by having the film projected slightly more slower than normal… This destroyed the dynamics of rhythmic relationships to such a degree that for the first time in Potemkin’s whole existence the effect of the ‘lions jumping up’ caused laughter” (1983:88).

Could this serve as evidence that even at the time of its release this out of place moment of Montage raised eyebrows? Needless to say, it is evidence of how precise and reliant Eisenstein was when it came to the dynamics of Montage and its effect on his audiences. However, many critics of montage use this point to hinge arguments against Montage’s effectiveness. Film theorist Andre Bazin, like Tarkovsky, was a champion of the long take and quite often spoke out against the effectiveness of Montage. He states that “[Montage] by its very nature exposed the expression of ambiguity” (1967:33).

Bazin almost seems to insinuate that Montage patronises its audiences. Instead of allowing them to draw to their own conclusions, Eisenstein holds his viewers’ hands and points out the representation and messages for them, leaving nothing open to interpretation. Virginia Woolf wrote about her experiences attending British Film Society screenings of German Expressionist and Soviet Montage films, her major criticisms being similar to those of Bazin. In his essay “Virginia Woolf and The Cinema”, David Trotter explains “What Woolf didn’t like about films of this kind was… heir determinism, their reduction of suggestiveness and meaning” (2007:157). He goes on to write “To her, the underlying notion of authoritarianism was such an abuse of language, in this case the language of film, abuse that the freedom of ambiguity and of continuously created meaning outside the author. ” Again, we have this accusation that Montage doesn’t allow the film as a text to carry its any meaning outside of its origins. As a piece of propaganda, its meaning is fixed and therefore cannot be interpreted in any other way.

Tension and the generation of tension was very important aspect to Eisenstein’s persuasive filmmaking style and can be seen in The Battleship Potemkin through the use of pathos. In Eisenstein’s previous work, his moments of Montage were developed to stir the audience. One need only make reference to Potemkin’s predecessor, Strike (Segei Eisenstein, 1925, USSR) and it’s most famous application of the Montage method towards it’s climax. First we see a shot of a cow being slaughtered, a knife plunged into its chest and its innards spilled onto the ground.

This image is juxtaposed with a shot of the striking workers being attacked by Cossack forces. This powerful collision draws comparisons between the two acts. The Cossacks are slaughtering the workers. However, with Potemkin, Eisenstein doesn’t so much as “shock” his audience, but rather entice their emotional involvement. In the Odessa steps sequence, we are shown images of children being shot, trampled on, and in one instance, a mother is shot and her pram is left rolling down the steps, infant still occupant.

Putting these images of children suffering amongst the hell of the Cossack’s attack manipulates the audiences emotions in order to win them round to investing emotionally in the film. Eisenstein himself, in the essay “On The Structure of Things”, credits pathos as the technique that “… achieves the greatest dramatic tension” (1987:10). However, pathos’ control over the audience caused a lot of negative criticism concerning Potemkin.

In his autobiography, he responds by stating that in order for the film to thrive in a world in a “… till tottering and insecure status quo, had to mean an appeal to an existence worthy of mankind: Is this pathos justified? People must learn to hold their heads high and feel their humanity… the intention of this film is no more and no less” (1983:85). In order to have his message reach the most people possible, Eisenstein used pathos as a means to connect with his audiences emotionally. Whereas intellectual montage may exclude some audience members, emotions are what links mankind as a race and thusly is the best target for when it come to conveying a message.

At the films climax, we are displayed the words “All for one and one for all”. When discussing the slogan, Eisenstein states “The slogan… was not confined to the screen. If we shoot a film about the sea, the whole navy is at our disposal; If we shoot a battle film, the Red Army joins in the shooting… because we are not making films for me or for you or for any one person but for us all” (1926:74) This is very much the heart of Marxism and Communism so the presence of the phrase is clear; Particularly when it comes to the characters of the film.

With the exception perhaps of Vakulinchuk, Eisenstein doesn’t create or individualise any independent characters. Actors were cast by their appearance (or, in Eisenstein’s words, their types) so that one character could represent the group to which they belong; Be that a workers, officers, working classes or middle classes. All action in the film is driven by the masses; It is only by acting together that the workers can overthrow their oppressors. Eisenstein represents the crew’s togetherness through Montage.

Film theorist Bela Balazs notes how “The montage rapidly juxtaposes close-ups of the sailors’ faces with engines” (2010:116). As We begin to associate the workers with the ship’s machinery, it’s clear to see that this is yet another intellectual montage. Each worker represents a part of the engine, all relying on each other to keep the ship operating, or rather on a much wider reading of the scene, it takes all members of the community to work in order to keep the society thriving. Through montage, Eisenstein has once again connected with the audience in order to enforce another piece of Communist ideology.

It’s clear that in establishing tension and invoking audience response, Eisenstein’s montage was a particularly effective technique. However, one has to impose a question of morality. Is it really right to preach political ideologies through such a powerful, manipulative method? When trying to gather interest for the movie within Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, David Selznick sent a memo to producer Harry Rapf. He refused to discuss Potemkin’s political contexts and stated “[one must] view it in the same way a group of artists might view and study a Rubens or a Raphael” (ed. Christie & Elliott, 1988:72).

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