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Eisenstein's Visual Revision of History through Battleship Potemkin

In putting forth an analysis of any segment of Battleship Potemkin, specifically the scene transpiring on the Odessa steps, it must be acknowledged that the film and the technique of montage employed by Eisenstein throughout, in the context of cinema and its studies, has “been famous for so long that it is almost impossible to come to it with a fresh eye.” (Ebert 2009) Demanding the examination of the criteria, taken into account by the director in establishing the mise en scène, likely, will not yield anything novel in regard to the material, beyond an opportunity for demonstration of proficient understanding of the material.

In regard to the graphic conflict depicted in the montage comprising the Odessa steps footage, both in respect to the lines constructed and the qualitative intent, there's a clear distinction between two forces. Eisenstein establishes a motivating body in the form of the Tsarist army maintaining one solid line and form, an unyielding and dehumanized element. By contrast, the citizenry is reactionary, moving as an organic body, racing down the stairs along a loose diagonal and scattering, much as water runs downstream and splits into tributaries. The individuation occurs with the figures who speak out, who vocalize and move independently against the flow to stand in recognition and opposition of the Tsarist line.

As an additional point of note, Eisenstein contributes both a title card and additional conflict in the form of the arrival of the Cossacks in a cavalry raid. Their position in the scene is no less hostile to the citizenry attempting to flee, but far less regimented. They are represented as a second element of oppression, but given their historically distinct cultural nature as a militant body, their violence is depicted by the director not as part of the plodding onslaught of the Tsarist regime, but as an instigator of greater violence and chaos amidst the rabble of the citizenry. The cavalry line is brief and blurred and never concretely discernible in the wide shots where the storm amongst the peasantry at the bottom of the stairs.

The conflict of direction is, however, notably exemplified in the actions of the peasant woman who scoops up her young child, struck down in the chaos, plodding her way back up the stairs, shouting at the Tsarists to relent. In regard to temporal duration, her resistance to the flow of the rest of the rioting crowd seems to dilate, taking up a disproportionate amount of screen time in relation to the actions of the masses, which comprise a certain amount of repetition. The crowds are repeatedly shown scattering down the same flights of the stairway, over and over as the peasant woman's individual narrative continues. Eisenstein is concurrently moving the camera, tracking along with the woman's upward struggle, which serves as a break in the path of movement evident in both the crowd and camera after the riot begins.

This dramatic decision to set individual actions against the two primary movements of the Tsarists and the rioting civilians serve as a means of punctuation for the director, allowing the audience a moment to connect with a human figure standing against the line, which effectively creates clear symbolism for the horrifying consequences of authoritarian oppression. Given the opportunity to connect with this individual and the group of citizens following her up the stairs in resistance, drawn out by Eisenstein by intercutting additional crowd footage with the intention of eliciting an even stronger response when she is struck down by the Tsarist line, there is a moment of increasing tension in which the audience is prompted to affiliate with the woman. The others plodding up the stairs, hoping to reason with the military forces, exist as an audience on-camera, with whom the viewers of the film may relate and share in their horror at the atrocity laid bare for all to witness. Eisenstein provides characters in the same position as the audience watching the film within the context of the scene; that of the ultimately helpless and horrified bystander.

The conflict of volume can be encapsulated in the transitional image in which one of the various women rushes toward the screen shortly after the initial title cards demarcating the inciting incident of the riot on the stairs, wherein her umbrella transforms from being just another element amidst the crowd to fill the entire screen. It can be easily interpreted as an image: of how quickly the actions of one anonymous individual can grow into an event that overtakes and encompasses an entire scene.

This example of anonymity reinforces the absence of any strong protagonist or individual character development within the narrative structure of Battleship Potemkin.This is a film driven by image, and the persistence of vision allows Eisenstein's deliberate selection of frames to reinforce his rhetorical point in place of building a strong association with the personal history and motivation of a central figure.
However, as marked before the title card where the word “suddenly” is displayed, the depiction of the scene prior to the riot is almost entirely comprised of mid-shots and close-ups from the front of all of the citizens looking on, smiling and waving at the arrival of the ship. In constructing this innocent and welcoming scene prior to the massacre, this “. . . simple combination of two or three details of a material kind yields a perfectly finished representation of another kind–psychological” (Eisenstein 32). At the beginning of the Odessa Steps sequence, the principles of montage are used to create a series of portraits of human figures succinctly and effectively. Intercutting close-ups of the individuals in the crowd such a manner provides characterization someone present on the steps wouldn't be able to glean simply by glancing at the scene.  It adds personal association and emotional weight when, moments later, all these figures are violently disrupted by the Tsarists. Recognition of this effect on the viewer by Eisenstein shows his command of the psychological power of juxtaposition of images in cinema.

Of course, in taking a closer look at the contextual reinforcement throughout the selected reading from Eisenstein's writing, it becomes clear his treatment of images and their superlative value finds an immediate corollary in the way he handles the power of photography, and thus, cinematography. Part of the great power he possessed as a pioneer in filmmaking was his ability to take superlative understanding of image (by way of his translation of the function of ideograms as linguistic tools). It is done to show a conscious command of photographic information, both in terms of objectively capturing a constructed image and commanding an understanding of the emotional response that image will elicit when conveyed as an object of communication.

Where Eisenstein mentions in his book, “By the combination of two 'depictables' is achieved the representation of something that is graphically undepictable”, (Eisenstein 30) he is acknowledging the power of montage in cinema to bridge a gap in sensory experience analogous to the  power of juxtaposed ideograms in language to bridge an equivalent gap in conceptual experience. By making that intention clear, he establishes the power of each separate shot as “a montage cell” (Eisenstein 37) wherein cells can create a successfully communicative montage “By collision. By the conflict of two pieces in opposition to each other.” (Eisenstein 37).

In regard to the examples of conflict noted above, none of the images being edited into specific sequences alongside each other throughout the depiction of the massacre on the Odessa steps, would have been possible to view without the conscious application of the cinematographic ability of applying the principle of montage. An individual standing at the bottom of the steps would experience no juxtaposition in volume, scale, or light and dark. That individual would be viewing the massacre from the fixed position of their own perspective, and the reality of one individual present on the scene would be far less potent and arresting as a communicative device because the entirety of what transpires wouldn't be available to process and interpret. Being cognizant of these narrative qualities and the demonstrative possibilities provided by the new technological process of cinema allowed Eisenstein unrestricted reign over the senses of the audience.

This is why “Battleship Potemkin” is no longer considered the greatest film ever made, but it is obligatory for anyone interested in film history” (Ebert 2009). The conceptual weight of montage experiences loss with a change in context. The fastidious work Eisenstein applied in constructing such an arresting and unique scene on a grand scale in nineteen twenty-five, has since suffered from the consistent reference and re-examination of what precisely makes it potent. Merely knowing that upon being revealed to the public, Battleship Potemkin created a sensation, unlike, anything experienced up to that point in the history of film, diminishes the impact upon the senses for any subsequent viewer aware of the uproar surrounding its initial theatrical release.

Of course, the greatest moment – the finale of the scene, in which a panicked mother is shot down in an attempt to protect her baby, sending the carriage careening down the stairs to the abject horror of every bystander, has become a point of homage and parody through countless permutations over the decades that have followed. In those moments, we see Eisenstein take the elements of conflict that create seamless montage to heights none had reached at the time. From the cuts between wide shots of the mother trying to maneuver the carriage away from the relentless march of soldiers to the extreme close-ups of her gaunt, twisted face and her hands clenched at her wounds, no mercy is presaged, only death.  As she collapses and the carriage begins its tumble down the Odessa steps, time once again dilates, moving at an agonizing pace as we're now shown close-ups of citizens looking on, portraits of pained, and agony-stricken faces merely watching as an infant rolls relentlessly toward a tragic end. Alternating between these close-ups, we see wide shots of the entire stairway, no one venturing to stop the carriage in its descent, the camera tracking along, row by row, intercut with the scramble of other civilians trying to escape their own demise.

This is where the director creates for the audience the most potent sense of fear and helplessness. No one can save the innocent. The carriage tumbles, and every peasant in the crowd is running scared or paralyzed with fear, paralleling the viewer's inability to take action and interject him amidst the scene to alter its course. The tragedy must proceed as directed, as Eisenstein intended.

The repercussions of witnessing the montage he created for the Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin became for the rest of the world, not present in Russia during the Revolution of 1905 the pervasive image of the atrocities that occurred. It's worth noting “there was, in fact, no czarist massacre on the Odessa Steps . . .”, but the reality of history “. . . scarcely diminishes the power of the scene” (Ebert 2009). Eisenstein's understanding of montage as a visual and narrative device allowed him the power to consolidate the horror of war and oppression into a series of images; of conflicts, that translated beyond Russia to the filmgoing audiences around the world. It was divisive and arresting in a way no art form until that point had ever been, and no film would match again in such a context.