Battleship Potemkin: History in Eisenstein’s Making

potemkin

” ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ has been so famous for so long that it is almost impossible to come to it with a fresh eye…it has become so familiar that we cannot perceive it for what it is…the fact is ‘Potemkin’  doesn’t really stand alone, but depends for its power upon the social situation in which it is shown.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, July 19, 1998


Battleship Potemkin (Dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) in our hyper edited age, runs for too long. Even at a short 115 minute running time, a duration not seen in our feature films of today, it still drags near the end. The ageing of a film’s mechanics throughout time is a curious feature that is very hard to measure, and harder to discuss. I often try to purposely avoid a meta-analytical slant on these essays, instead preferring to discuss each film in itself, set by its own standards rather than the ones I impose on it. Eisenstein didn’t have the cultural history of 100+ years of cinema that I am a part of. There was very little history of cinema for him to place his works in, while now Eisenstein’s works, so radical, daring and provoking at the time, have been carried through the drifting of history to occupy a place for film enthusiasts, film historians, and not much else. It’s what happens to any work of art, but the experimental nature of Eisenstein’s style of cinema means that his vision morphs quicker in time. It’s neither good, nor bad, just an effect. To an audience unused to the hyper edited media we watch daily, the audience of 1925, it must have been very well timed, perhaps even going too fast at points.

Regardless, Battleship Potemkin is an iconic piece of cinema for a reason. Besides being an incredibly potent piece of revolutionary propaganda for the newly established USSR, it is also a film which uses the most intense and visually arresting tool cinema of the time possessed: sheer visual spectacle. From the hundreds of extras, the incredible sets of the battleships provided by the Soviet government, to the infamous ‘Odessa Steps’ sequences, the sheer impression of the pure reality of what was being shot, the knowledge that every person in each shot was not digitally inserted, not crafted by an animator sitting behind a computer somewhere, gives it such a visceral and tactile feel, of cinema reflecting the mass of people, as a spectacle to be watched in its own right. It is the sheer number of faces that help to reflect the mass empathy it seeks to inspire, the suffering on both the micro level, the woman’s eye bleeding through the shattered glasses, alongside the mass trampling down the steps, that is at the core of when the film impresses most powerfully on the mind of its watcher.

I at least find it hard to hold the film to the same kind of standard that I may hold a film now, its techniques incredibly unconventional to the current world I live in. It’s editing in particular, a staple of Soviet film theory, takes precedent here. Coined as montage“, Eisenstein really best employed a technique he called the “kino-fist”, the smashing of two conflicting elements in a jarring, conscious way to provoke a very reactive response. It turns the film into a far more active, aware experience than most seamlessly stitched together movies, and its ability to allow thematic elements into play rather than a clear logical chain of progression again feels…unnatural, at least in a mechanical way.

The question I feel that is burning in the back of my mind, is beyond its historical value for cinema, which is immeasurable, is the film still worth watching? Has it become so embedded in cultural history that it might actually be better to just appreciate it indirectly? It may sound ghastly, and I can say (with great pleasure) that this is not the case, that it still deserves to be seen, the Odessa Steps sequence alone is an enrapturing spell-binding piece of the raw power of cinema, and while the rest of the film does not equal those heights, it still shines. It is heavier cinema, more thought-provoking, more hard work. But it was never made to be simple mass entertainment, the opiate for the masses. It can’t fail at a race it was never running.

It is not made for our times, it does not move at our pace, it is not such an instantly gratifying experience as the movies may be now, but it still performs its drama, its power and its relevance. Eisenstein wanted the movie to be re-scored every 20 years to remain relevant, and while it may not hold the same potency it did in 1925, it comes from a time when cinema was more thoughtful, more conscious, more…revolutionary. And that spirit can’t be lost. There’s still that “kino-fist” (though it may not possess the “kino-eye” of Dziga Vertov which the blog’s spirit lies in) behind the work, and there’s still the truth of its propaganda purposes lying in wait, ready to be seen by each individual who finds it.

And here it is.

-Alex

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Battleship Potemkin: History in Eisenstein’s Making