“Of all the arts…cinema is the most important.” ~ V. I. Lenin
We are told that they are the seven most important minutes in film, and at the time of this writing they are ninety years old. These minutes comprise a scene hailed by critics—both of their era and beyond—as the first true moment of filmic genius, which, by virtue of their “dialectical” approach, grandeur of spirit, and prowess of production, finally overcame—or better yet, overthrew—the encumbering concreteness of the celluloid image.
To the director himself—and a good many officials in the Communist Party, pragmatic and serious men as they were—they held even greater promise: they were a key discovery, a new agitational tool, an advance in propaganda that if scientifically applied directly struck the psyche, shocking it awake from its proletarianized slumber; a technique to readjust the very rhythms of thought, re-pacing them to match the clashing thrusts of history’s theses, anti-theses, and syntheses; and the final stage of the revolution, the revolution of consciousness. They embodied a method to alter the minds of the people of the new Soviet Union, stirring them to “dialectics.”
The tool was an editing theory known as “Soviet Montage,” the genius was Sergei Eisenstein, the seven minutes are his famed depiction of the 1905 massacre in Odessa (which he set for dramatic purposes on the Odessa Steps), the film was The Battleship Potemkin, the year of its release was 1925, the tail end of the silent era and eight years after the October Revolution. We’ve been studying these seven minutes ever since.
“И вдруг” (or as the intertitle translates it, “Suddenly”)
Crash cut! Extreme close up! Extreme close up! Extreme close up! Extreme close up!
A woman’s face blurred
Head jerks violently
Four shots; four cuts; one composition; for a duration of one second.
Medium shot. North. Camera faces the Potemkin Stairs. Panic: the people of Odessa flee downwards and towards the frame. Something looms behind them. What moves in from the north?
A woman center frame, black dress, holds a white umbrella which obscures her face. She plunges forward, her umbrella engulfing the frame in white. Four-second shot.
Medium shot. Many tones—grey, white, black. The camera’s line of sight jumps northwest 45 degrees (to the left) of center stair. The crowd surges.
In the background, men and women fly south on a dirt path that runs parallel to the stair; in the foreground, on the stair itself, dark silhouettes stream past the lens. Mid-ground, a legless man, the focus of the shot, spins on his palms to see the threat behind, then turns to bolt on his hands. Six-second shot.
Long shot. Establishing shot—or at least what we would normally call one. The perspective has jumped from looking upstairs to down. The camera is positioned high (on a crane, most likely), angled tightly downwards to show the full length and breadth of the Potemkin Stairs.
The enemy enters bottom frame: the tsar’s soldiers in imperial white, rifles ready. Four-second shot.
Medium shot. We are no longer viewing the whole of the action, but are again looking upstairs, back among the people. Now, northeast, 45 degrees right of center, a woman has fallen. No one stops to lift her. She clambers to her feet and continues her escape. Three-second shot.
Long shot. New perspective. The whole stair is visible, from the bottom landing to the top, all 192 steps. Majestic, aggressive, imposing, unnecessary—imperial.
A guess: 150 or 175—maybe 200—men and women, old and young, bourgeois and proletarian, in a full run before the advancing soldiers. (Amazingly, according to reports, no one was injured during the filming.) Seven-second shot.
Montage! A signature move of Eisenstein’s: show one full action from multiple angles, parts out of sequence, without care for continuity or exactness of performance.
One death; four shots; four versions.
Extreme close up! A man falls, collapses to his knees. Three-second shot.
Close up! Back on his feet, he falls face forward, plunging towards the camera. One second.
Flash!—extreme close up! He tumbles sideways. One half-second.
Medium shot. On his feet once more, he tumbles sideways, hits the ground and dies. Three seconds.
The Math and Music of Montage
So what have we seen, and why have we seen it? Thirty-six seconds in and we’ve discovered contrasting tones, irregular lengths, leaps in perspective, and adventurous editing—in, out, up, down, straight, askew, whole, part, long, brief, briefer still. Montage.
The scene at first appears chaotic, but Eisenstein is in complete control. The improvisational opening sets the stage for an ever-more-complex sequence in which Eisenstein rounds these wild elements into an orderly, almost mathematical, organization, creating a rhythm of edits. By scene’s end, Eisenstein makes 159 splices (by my count), with some shots as brief as six frames long (less than 4/10 of a second in the 16 frames per second that he shot in). As the scene grows steadily in scale and ambition, its ballooning scope morphs into a sustained and driving tempo, which gives way to a surging pace of edits and actions that fall on increasingly hard beats. Allegro, vivace, allegrissimo, prestissimo!
Marks of Marxism
We never get a good look at the tsar’s troops. They are faceless and ruthless. By contrast, as the montage unfolds, Eisenstein introduces us to some of the personalities in the fleeing crowd—a mother, for instance, who holds her dead son in her arms, counter-marches up the stairs, against the scattering tide, towards the tsarist soldiers who greet her with a volley of rifle fire. This is also the famous stroller-careening-down-the-steps scene, one of the most iconic moments in film, reproduced by Brian De Palma so memorably, if cartoonishly, in The Untouchables.
Eisenstein whips the scene into a furious gallop. As the images grow more violent—blood pours from a woman’s belly; a child is trampled in the stampede—the shots decrease in duration. And as they decrease in duration they grow in number—and as they grow in number their frames become tighter and their depths shallower (with a few exceptions), showing less and less in each image. Thus, each interacting part becomes by sequence’s end an isolated reality, even as they remain locked in conflict.
This is a creature of Eisenstein’s Marxism. Soldiers. Crowd. Their interests are so divided that they cease to appear in the same shots. We no longer see the soldiers firing on the fleeing people. They are broken apart into non-overlapping images—the soldiers firing, cut to the crowd bleeding. This is an opposition so deep, so endless it cannot be depicted; it can only be realized by a division in the image; by an edit, or as Eisenstein would have it, a montage.
“Montage is Conflict”
Eisenstein was always and ever a partisan of montage. His theoretical understanding of what it was, however, underwent several major revisions during his career. In the years directly following the release of The Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein was called on to explain or defend (depending on the audience) the theories which drove his film. He was now a global star—a prized guest in the avant-garde circles of the European continent and an honored invitee to the homes of Hollywood greats such as Walt Disney and Charlie Chaplin, both of whom regarded Eisenstein as a personal friend. It is said that Chaplin counted The Battleship Potemkin as the greatest film ever made. He was not alone. Eisenstein was clearly a master. The world knew him as a genius.
From the years 1925 to 1929, the years that saw the release of Potemkin and its thematic sequel, October: Ten Days that Shook the World, Eisenstein took to explaining film form as “conflict” itself. “Montage is conflict,” he writes in “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram” (1929). And film is, he writes, “first and foremost, montage.” He asks, “By what, then, is montage characterized and, consequently, its cell—the shot?” He answers:
By collision. By the conflict of two pieces in opposition to each other.
By conflict. By collision.
And this conflict goes all the way down. A six second shot is in conflict with a five second shot. A character angled to the right is in conflict with a character angled left. Down is in conflict with up. A long shot with a short. A fast with a slow. A dark toned with a light toned. A close up with a medium. And so on. It’s, well, silly.
But to be fair, these crudities were shared with subtler thinkers of a similar hue, such as Viktor Shklovsky, and were far more sophisticated in their hands. To be fairer still, Eisenstein eventually left this notion behind. And Eisenstein’s temporary focus on oppositions and differences was fruitful. It gave him an eye for stark compositional contrasts and made for elaborate (and yet controlled) configurations. The soldiers marching down the steps, for instance, should be intercut with a woman trudging up the steps. Not only is the woman defying the soldiers, but, in this approach, up is also defying down.
Intellectual Montage: Editing to Reveal Symbols and Themes
The Odessa Steps scene is a rhythmic elaboration on one theme, violence, which takes the very form of montage (as Eisenstein believed at this point). At the end of the seven minutes, the relations of the shots are no longer perceived by the eye, but are pieced together by the mind. The images cease to be the constituting elements of the story; instead, the edits, which place the shots in conflict, narrate the images themselves.
Eisenstein believed that this link between the edit, the mind, and meaning could be exploited. The longer the mind thinks along with his edits and the greater the distance the mind and montage travel together—over sharp contrasts in composition, time, space, and theme—the more the mind becomes attuned to conceptualizing what’s not ‘there.’ He theorized that his montage could direct the “vibrations” of the psyche to spring, if only momentarily, into dialectical consciousness, because it had been trained by the montage to perceive dialectical conflict. This trained perception, if brought to climax, would drive the psyche to new heights of conceptual vision. (And also because, to be honest, he saw his fellow Russians—or really, the peasants and the proletariat—as mere matter to be re-programmed by his own hand and the hand of the party.)
In the scene in question, his attempt to stir such consciousness came via a clever editing trick. He filmed three stone statues of lions—one sleeping, one waking, one rising—and then edited the shots together, producing a fluid stop-motion animation of a stone lion roused and at the ready. The animation is the capping image: after the slaughter, after the battleship’s massive guns have fired on the city in retaliation, and after he has spent seven minutes building the rhythm, contrasting compositions, and driving the scene to a point—one, two, three, the lion rises!
The audience is supposed to recognize this as an apt symbol of the rise of Russia in revolt against the tsar, avenging those massacred at Odessa. It alludes to the 1905 Revolution, the foreshock of 1917. Eisenstein called this type of signification “intellectual montage,” when the edit produces a symbol unexplained by the story, but the mind, stirred by the rhythmic modulations of the scene, leaps to understanding. Such a leap, Eisenstein mused, would herald nothing less than a “revolution in the general history of culture.”
The meaning of the sequence, however, historian Oksana Bulgakowa tells us, was lost on Eisenstein’s audience. Or at least it was lost on the proletariat, certainly the peasant, perhaps even the avant-garde (although no such admission was forthcoming).
A far more effective example of Eisenstein’s forays into intellectual montage is found in his first feature, Strike! (1924), a film about a labor strike sparked by a worker’s suicide which concludes with a long battle between factory workers and policemen. Eisenstein crosscuts footage of a bull being slaughtered, blood gushing from its neck, heaving on the floor, with shots of the police mowing down strikers with machine guns. The bull twitches, dying, and so do the workers. The symbol needs no interpretation: the workers have been sacrificed to the gods of capital.
A Beauty of Power
Eisenstein thought these symbolic interjections the purest of agitation and his crowning propagandistic achievement (despite their failure with proletarian and peasant audiences). Yet they were something still more: they were Art. To wrench a symbol from the “concreteness” of photographic images, for Eisenstein, was to join the ranks of the great modernist movements of the day—especially futurism, cubism, and suprematism—which were doing their own hard work of liberation, on canvas, in verse, and with whatever material sculptors could get their hands on. But don’t imagine that his dedications to Art and agitation pulled Eisenstein’s work in opposing directions. He was a constructivist through and through who saw it as his duty to use his immense talent for the purposes of the state. Eisenstein claimed, “For art is always conflict: (1) according to its social mission, (2) according to its nature, (3) according to its methodology.”
Eventually, despite his obvious dedication to Bolshevism, Eisenstein’s cinematics were singled out, and loudly, publicly renounced by the party. It’s unclear, due to his evident loyalty, why, but such are the mysteries of Soviet Communism. And yet, until the end Eisenstein remained a believer. And if his cinema is beautiful, it reflects the beauty he found in the regime he supported. Eisenstein’s role in the revolution was to make a beauty of power. Using the first mass art, film, he told the story of the new reality, created an iconography of the new man, and heralded the dawning of the new age. Over 1,300 furious shots later—almost twice the number in American films made at the time—it appeared to many that he had succeeded. David O. Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind and then an associate producer at MGM, upon seeing The Armoured Cruiser Potemkin, as he knew the title of the film, circulated this memo:
“It was my privilege…to be present at two private screenings of what is unquestionably one of the greatest motion pictures ever made…The film is a superb piece of craftsmanship. It possesses a technique entirely new to the screen, and I therefore suggest that it might be very advantageous to have the organization view it in the same way that a group of artists might view or study a Rubens or a Raphael.
Rubens? Raphael? Overblown, but Selznick identifies rightly the spirit of the film and the moment: what Potemkin offered (or seemed to offer) was newness. And while it no longer offers that, it offers something quite like it: other possibilities. Just ask Hitchcock, Coppola, and Scorsese, who drew and draw heavily on the Soviet.
But also consult with another man: “A genius doesn’t adapt his treatment to the taste of tyrants!” That’s gulag prisoner K-123, from famous dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), decrying Eisenstein. Perhaps he’s the one who deserves our ear. After all, our study of these seven minutes cannot separate Eisenstein’s art from the regime he served.