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Different Aspects of Eisenstein’s Theories in ‘Battleship Potemkin’

Different aspects of Formalism by Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film “Battleship Potemkin” is a classic example of formalist editing in cinematography, a style championed by Eisenstein himself and other enthusiasts like Pudovkin. In formalist editing, the significance of a film’s mise en scène isn’t explored dialectically but rather constructed to convey meaning.

From the very beginning of the film, Eisenstein demonstrates how formalist editing can create a powerful dramatic effect. The film opens with a shot of the battleship’s physician wearing a monocle, symbolizing his association with the bourgeoisie (00.05.43). This is followed by a shot of maggots crawling over a piece of meat, intended as food for the sailors (00.05.45). Eisenstein then abruptly shifts to a shot of the angry expressions on the sailors’ faces (00.05.60). Semantically, these shots don’t directly connect, but they collectively convey the idea that sailors in the Russian Imperial Fleet endured various abuses that led to their revolt. Eisenstein’s skill in manipulating viewers’ psychology allows him to impose his subjective ideas as objective values.

Another example of Eisenstein’s formalist editing can be seen when revolutionary speakers address an angry mob (00.41.32 – 00.42.19). Since “Battleship Potemkin” is a silent film, the sight of impassioned revolutionaries rallying the crowd with intense gestures and expressions might seem irrational, given the absence of sound. However, Eisenstein’s intention isn’t solely Communist propaganda; it’s about making viewers psychologically comfortable with such propaganda by associating emotional intensity with intellectual honesty.

The pivotal scene in the film is the one where czarist police shoot at civilians in Odessa. After the police fire at demonstrators, Eisenstein presents a sequence of seemingly unrelated shots: people running down the “Potemkin stairs” (00.49.23), distressed children on the stairs (00.50.08), an emotional woman (00.50.12), an older woman making gestures (00.51.18), a one-legged man on crutches (00.51.48), more police firing (00.51.51), a woman with a baby catching a bullet (00.52.53), chaotic running (00.53.07), and finally, a baby carriage with a baby rolling down the stairs (00.54.57), climaxing the scene.

Eisenstein understood that the depiction of such a violent scene, though rare in reality, would be perceived as plausible due to its emotional intensity. These emotional undertones were masterfully crafted through formalist editing, creating a lasting impact on the audience.

In summary, “Battleship Potemkin” showcases Eisenstein’s expertise in formalist editing, using seemingly unrelated shots to construct meaning and manipulate viewers’ emotions. Through his skillful techniques, he conveys powerful messages about the struggles of the sailors and the impact of revolutionary fervor, ultimately cementing the film’s status as a cult classic in the history of cinema.

Different montages by Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein, a renowned filmmaker, once emphasized that montage is the essence of cinema, setting it apart from other art forms like theater or painting. This concept revolves around the idea that when two separate shots are juxtaposed in editing, they create a new, unique idea that transcends the sum of its parts. Eisenstein’s approach to editing, known as a “dialectic” approach, was heavily influenced by dialectical materialism, the official philosophy of Soviet communists during his time. Dialectical materialism posits that historical events emerge from conflicting social forces and their resolutions, a philosophy mirrored in Eisenstein’s film editing, where ideas emerge from the collision of shots. Eisenstein was also inspired by the Constructivist art movement, which sought to utilize art for social purposes, aligning with the Communist party’s objectives.

In 1925, Eisenstein directed “Battleship Potemkin,” a propaganda film commemorating the revolutionary events of 1905. He employed groundbreaking editing techniques in this film to elicit sympathy for the rebel soldiers aboard the Battleship Potemkin. This discussion will focus on two prominent editing techniques from this film, metric and rhythmic montage, which continue to be influential in modern filmmaking.

One of the most iconic montages in “Battleship Potemkin” is the “Odessa steps” scene, where civilians face brutal massacres by the Tsar’s soldiers. The sequence begins with quick close-ups of a startled woman, capturing her reaction to the sound of gunfire. Eisenstein then utilizes a mix of point-of-view shots to immerse the audience in the chaos, wide shots showing the masses of civilians fleeing from the soldiers, and individual close-ups of victims’ faces expressing shock and horror.

Within this sequence, there is a moment when a mother, in a moment of desperation, pushes her baby carriage down the steps. Eisenstein employs metric montage to elongate the time it takes for the mother to fall to the ground dramatically. He achieves this effect by cutting from a medium shot of her hands clutching her wound as she slowly descends, to a close-up of her grimacing face and subsequent drop off-screen, then back to the medium shot with her fall repeated and another drop off-screen. This sequence repeats, interspersed with shots of the soldiers mechanically marching down the steps, various camera angles capturing her fall, the crowd fleeing from mounted Cossacks, and one final shot of her tumbling along with the baby carriage. This manipulation of time intensifies the moment, creating suspense and tension in the audience.

In addition to metric montage, Eisenstein employs rhythmic editing in this sequence. As the mother falls, he intercuts between the baby carriage descending the stairs, an old woman wearing pince-nez, a man in glasses, and the mounted Cossacks. The tempo of these intercuts accelerates, and the shot length progressively shortens, building a sense of urgency and excitement. This rhythmic editing culminates with a close-up of a Cossack brutally killing the baby and concludes abruptly with a close-up of blood splattering on the old woman’s face.

Eisenstein’s use of these editing techniques in the “Odessa steps” sequence showcases his mastery of montage. Metric montage elongates moments for dramatic effect, while rhythmic montage intensifies the sequence's pacing and emotional impact. These techniques have had a lasting influence on the art of film editing, with modern filmmakers still drawing inspiration from Eisenstein’s innovative approaches.

In conclusion, Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” remains a landmark in the history of cinema, not only for its powerful storytelling but also for its groundbreaking editing techniques. Eisenstein’s commitment to the concept of montage as the nerve of cinema is evident in his meticulous use of metric and rhythmic montage to evoke emotion, suspense, and social commentary. His work continues to inspire and inform filmmakers, underscoring the enduring significance of his contributions to the art of filmmaking.

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