Friday, May 13, 2011


The Battleship Potemkin (1925) is a masterpiece of early cinema and one of the greatest films of all time. It was directed by Sergei Eisenstein who was a major figure in the development of film language with his emphasis on montage which used an editing technique of quick cutting between shots to establish an emotional impact on the viewer.

The film presents the story of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their officers of the Tsarist regime.

The film is composed of five episodes:

1) Men and Maggots, in which the sailors protest having to eat rotten meat.

2) Drama on the Deck, in which the sailors mutiny, but their leader, Vakulinchuk is killed.

3) A Dead Man Calls for Justice, in which Vakulinchuk's body is mourned over by the people of Odessa.

4) The Odessa Staircase, in which the Tsarist soldiers massacre the people of Odessa.

5) The Rendez-Vous with a Squadron, in which the squadron who is supposed to stop the Potemkin declines to do so and cheers on the rebellious battleship.

The Odessa Steps sequence is one of the most powerful scenes in the history of cinema. The Tsar's Cossacks march down a seemingly endless flight of steps in a machine-like fashion firing into the crowds. The victims include the family of an old woman, a young boy with his mother, a young schoolgirl, and a woman pushing a baby carriage. As she falls to the ground the carriage moves away rolling down the steps with the baby inside in the middle of the chaos. This scene also includes the famous close-up of the woman screaming as she is shot in the eye through her glasses. Eisenstein uses his montage technique here to its full effect creating a stunning sequence of great emotional depth. The scene was fictionalized, but based on news reports that the soldiers had fired on the people.

Eisenstein's first full-length film was Strike (1924) and depicts a strike in 1903 by workers in a pre-revolutionary Russian factory. The film is famous for a sequence near the end where Eisenstein cross-cuts the violent suppression of the strike with images of cows being slaughtered. A major theme of Strike and Potemkin is collectivism where the characters work together to make changes in a social and/or political structure.

October (1927) celebrated the 1917 October Revolution and was influenced by John Reed's book Then Days That Shook The World.

All of these early silent, black and white works were propaganda films, but also were important in establishing a film language that used montage as a visual story-telling device to create thought and emotion in the viewer.

In 1930, Eisenstein travelled to Mexico to work on a project with the American socialist  writer Upton Sinclair. The film was never completed because of political and monetary problems, although some of the footage would eventually be released in other forms. During his stay in Mexico, Eisenstein met Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

In 1938, Eisenstein made Alexander Nevsky which was a historical drama depicting the attempted invasion of Novgorod in the 13th century by the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire and their defeat by the Polish people, who were led by Prince Alexander, popularly known as Alexander Nevsky. 

The film was made during the Stalinist era, when the Soviet Union was at odds with Nazi Germany and the film contains obvious overtones that refer to the relationship of the two countries. The film is less experimental in its narrative structure than the earlier films. It tells one story with a single narrative arc and focuses on one main character. 

Sergei Prokofiev composed the score for the film and collaborated with Eisenstein in the editing process, resulting in a match of music and imagery that set a standard for films that followed.

Ivan The Terrible was the final project of Eisenstein. It was slated to be a trilogy, but only two parts were released. Part 1 came out in 1944, but Part 2 wasn't released until 1958 due to political censorship. Part 3 was being shot when Eisenstein died in 1948.

The film presents Ivan as a national hero, as Stalin admired him as a brilliant, decisive, and successful leader. In Part 2, Ivan is depicted less as a hero, and as a man who uses murder to impose his will. This depiction lead to its censorship. After Eisenstein's death, all of the footage from the third film was confiscated and for the most part destroyed.

In the narrative of Ivan, Eisenstein experimented with form and color and used shadows extensively in the symbolism of the film. 

Eisenstein was the father of montage and wrote two books - Film Form and Film Sense, that explain the significance of montage in detail. The Battleship Potemkin was a major influence on many films that would come after, and also on the 20th century British painter Francis Bacon.

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