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Potemkin’ remains revolutionary cinematic model

Observer Scene | Monday, September 18, 2006

It is near the middle of the film, which is no mistake – it is obviously the centerpiece. Once it has been seen, it can’t be shaken, much less forgotten. The images remain burned in the consciousness, stay in the back of the mind, linger in their relentlessness.

Crowds frantically fleeing down the steps. A mother carrying her fallen child. A woman screaming silently in utter terror. The legs of stormtrooper-like Cossacks, marching along robotically with their rifles drawn. The baby carriage.

Passionate and purposeful, this segment of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece “Battleship Potemkin,” known as the “Odessa Steps” sequence, came to define Soviet Montage, an important cinematic movement of the 1920s. The director chose to frame “Potemkin” around this real-life 1905 event, in which innocent civilians were gunned down by Czarist Cossacks.

In Eisenstein’s hand, it becomes a rallying cry, a call to arms and stunningly effective Communist propaganda. In the eight decades since its release, countless movies have been made. Most of them can’t be remembered. Here is one that can’t be forgotten.

What is Soviet Montage? Eisenstein’s beliefs ran contrary to popular thinking at the time, which was that each shot in a film is a building block that creates meaning. Instead, he believed that the true worth of the juxtaposition of shots is conflict. The meaning created from the combination of shots was far greater than the value of each individual shot in of itself.

This theory manifested itself most clearly in “Battleship Potemkin” – more specifically, in the “Odessa Steps” sequence. The film uses editing as a tool that creates tension and meaning in a powerful way. The lasting images of “Potemkin” are as indelible as anything committed to celluloid.

Split into five acts, “Battleship Potemkin” follows the eponymous vessel through a mutiny. Mistreated and poorly fed (a shot of rotting and maggot-infested meat is particularly memorable), the sailors decide to act against their treacherous Czarist commanders and take over the ship.

“Potemkin” flies through its 65 minutes, with two major sections – the “Odessa Steps” and the tense climax – anchoring the film. A silent picture, “Potemkin” depends exclusively on images, which is the essence of Soviet Montage. Eisenstein’s sense of composition and editing was unparalleled at the time, which is evident throughout the picture.

“Battleship Potemkin” was and still is problematic for many due to its nature as Soviet propaganda. The film is incendiary, however, it is incendiary against the Czarist regime and casts the Soviets in a supremely positive light. It is at times difficult to overlook the obvious nature of the propaganda, but once a person is able to do so, the filmic genius of the picture shines through.

Eisenstein was, above all else, a man who loved the cinema. His extensive writings on Soviet Montage were revolutionary, but it’s the films themselves that stand as lasting evidence of his passion.

“Battleship Potemkin” may be Soviet propaganda, but it is cinematic propaganda as well. Eisenstein believed that the construction of shots creates meaning and the meaning of “Potemkin” is clear – marvel at the power, greatness and deserved righteousness of the Soviet Union. But the hidden meaning, the greater meaning and more timeless meaning, the meaning that Eisenstein is ultimately remembered for is also clear – marvel at the power, greatness and deserved righteousness of the cinema.