With the Cut of a Sickle: Battleship Potemkin and Montage Theory

The Cinema Edition

Battleship Potemkin (1925), film poster

Film is the art for the masses, created by large-scale productions that employ hundreds if not thousands of people, and are viewed by millions around the world at massive screens where hundreds of people share in a singular cinematic experience. The Soviet’s saw the potential in this adolescent art born of the modern era, in cinema they saw a medium that could help rally the masses and spread a communist red rhetoric across the globe. Through celluloid Lenin and the Bolsheviks aimed to create propaganda reels that could turn immaterial ideologies and the abstract into something tangible and visually engaging. To achieve this they needed to deconstruct and bring theory to film and film form, they needed to break film down to its very fundamentals. For the Soviet School the one aspect of cinema that separates itself from all other forms of artistic expression is the edit. The soviet’s held up the cut was the most powerful and influential tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal capable of producing emotions and meaning through juxtaposition, tonal transitions, shot duration, etc. Through experimentation and critical analysis of world cinema particularly American Cinema (with a major focus on the work of D.W Griffith) the Soviet School built the foundations of the theories of montages, the Kuleshov effect and many more fundamentals of editing. 

Of the many prestigious alumni of the Soviet Montage School, Sergei Eisenstein and his critically and commercially acclaimed Bolshevik propaganda piece Battleship Potemkin is a stellar archetypal representation of the revolutionary montage theory of editing breed within Communist Russia and the halls of the Moscow Film School. Loosely based of true events the 1925 film tells the story of the revolt of the sailors on the Battleship Potemkin and the ripple effects it has on the nation at large. It is a call to arms and radical departure from the conventional continuity editing styles of Popular American and European Cinema at the time (but in many way maintaining the core of the “cinema of attractions”). Eisenstein intended to break the rules of time and space established by the popular narrative driven continuity style, and instead wanted to produce and express the unfilmable abstract (ideologies, philosophies, etc.) in his work (ideology over narrative). The basis for Soviet Montage and frankly most editing is the Kuleshov Effect, which is the meaning produced by the juxtaposition of two shots shown in succession. The manipulation of these basic facets of editing creates montage in cinema; while this can be used further the narrative (as seen in Classical American Cinema), Eisenstein wanted to express ideas. Eisenstein was never shy about the purpose of the film; it was propaganda for the spreading Communism and Bolshevik ideals, and he used editing to express these ideas. To do so Eisenstein formulated his own take on montage theory. According of Eisenstein there are in five kinds of montage – Metric, Rhythmic, Tonal, Overtonal and Intellectual/Ideological Montage. 

The first two types of montage we will explore are Metric and Rhythmic montage. Both of these find their roots in music theory and focuses on the inherent musicality found in the edit. Metric montage is based of shot duration and the tempo & timing of the edits themselves, while Rhythmic montage focuses on the tempo & timing of the movement of subjects and objects within the frame. 

Metric montage is used very early in the film to show the mechanical routine of the sailors. Every shot of each cannon the sailors arm and prime, pieces of wood and steel they clean, and chucks of rotten meat they chop up are assembled together with a certain pattern, tempo and musicality, expressing the artificiality and sterility of the work done by the sailors, and heightening the hardship they face – all by manipulating the timing of the shots across the meter. Rhythmic montage finds its use most vividly in the famous Odessa steps massacre, where the frantic fleeing of the crowd away from the highly ordered, machine-like movement of the Tsar’s troops dramatically builds a stirring sense of tension and dread. By contrasting the very human distress and fear of the people to the monarch’s mechanical military goose stepping guns raised towards a crowd of men, women and children running away doesn’t just build tension and suspense but also produces the grander idea of the Tsar’s ruthlessness and inhumanity within the mind of the viewer. 

Through Metric montage Eisenstein shows how the Tsar will make sailors (in the bigger picture the proletariat) repetitively slave away with no reward, and with his use of Rhythmic montage in the Odessa Step scene the tyranny and bloodlust of the Tsar and his forces is produced through the juxtaposition of soldiers’ clinical violence and crowd’s chaotic humanity. 

The next two variants of montage are Tonal and Overtonal montage. As the name suggests Tonal montage is concerned with tone over time & tempo, focusing on the juxtaposition of shots on a varied tonal spectrum (based of attributes like light, shadows, texture, etc.).  This most interestingly could be scene in two particular scenes, the final resting of Vakulinchuk and the death of a young mother in the Odessa Steps scene. After the death of Vakulinchuk he is laid to rest by the sea and is left there for the people to morn the loss of a hero, the shot of Vakulinchuk shrine is intercut with shots of the tides, the sunset, grieving bystanders and a burning candle to highlight the tragic tone of the moment. This tragic tone is also continued in the death of the mother in the Odessa step scene. As the mother is slayed by a solider she collapses and her fall is intercut with her baby in a stroller falling down the steps showing horror of the massacre. 

Overtonal Montage is more of a macro overarching system of montage that involves the assimilation of all previously mentioned types of montage. This is more ethereal, involving entire sequences in a film and the interactions between metric, rhythmic and tonal montage within those scenes. The entire Odessa steps scene and the Sailor’s mutiny are stand out examples for the use of Overtonal montage in the film – one sequence creating outrage and dread in the minds of the viewer, and the other creating exhilaration and a sense of victory.

Finally we will explore Intellectual or Ideological Montage, which captured Eisenstein’s attention more than any of the other form of montage.  Intellectual montage used the juxtaposition and association of images to express a greater intellectual or ideological abstraction or thought. While aforementioned variants of montage focused on instilling a visceral emotional response from the audience intellectual montage attempted communicate complex and abstract ideological concepts through image and association. In Battleship Potemkin two specific scenes stand out as interesting illustrations of the power and purpose of intellectual montage. The first being the rise of the people (proletariat) shown through the rising of a marble lion; this sequence is once of the most archetypal representation of intellectual montage, here through the association the image of a lion statue rising in three shots (sleeping, awake and roaring) to the growing power of the proletariat, Eisenstein places the symbol of an awoken lion as the image of proletariat. A force of nature, a sleeping beast pulled from its slumber by the misdeeds of the bourgeois monarchy – this grand moment is further heighten by intercutting the now sailor controlled Battleship firing at the city opera house (another symbol for bourgeois culture). 

The final scene we’ll explore will be exploring is earlier in the second act of the film (Drama on the Deck), here before the men mutiny against the Tsar’s troops the ships Priest in a bellow of smoke rises up and demands the men stay obedient, doing so by tapping his cross. This is then intercut with one of the Troops taping his sword with same gesture. This edit creates an association between the Church and Monarch, two powers that hand in hand have worked to maintain control over the masses through the fear of God and the fear of Violence, both demanding loyalty and obedience to a singular figure above everyone else. By creating this association between these through symbols of tyranny and “unquestionable” authority Eisenstein in stills in the mind that both these institutions are built on grounds of bloodshed, subservience, and exploitations. In Eisenstein’s thought and extending further to Communist ideology the bourgeois monarch and theocratic church being institutions of oppression and violence – which need to toppled and replaced. 

Eisenstein wanted create a form of expression using cinema to produce ideas of revolution, the oppressive nature bourgeoisie and propagate the communist ideologies that founded the Soviet School of thought. Using Metric, Rhythmic, Tonal, Overtonal and Intellectual/Ideological Montage Eisenstein attempted to create work that could inspire the common people to rise and over through their bourgeois oppressors, done so by producing both an emotional and ideological response through juxtaposition, tempo, contrast, association, movement, tone, etc. This is a propaganda film Eisenstein isn’t hiding it, and keeping his motives clear Eisenstein has cut and assembled a tapestry of repeat edits, image associations and montage to express the abstract through celluloid. 

By Mrinal Rajeev

Mrinal Rajeev is a third year student at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Film studies. He has been an avid film lover for years, and amateur filmmaker, working part time as an editor, screenwriter and director for various feature films, short films, advertisements, and music videos. He’s crazy for anime, Kung fu movies, Area 51 memes, Lemon Tea, Cheesecake, 60s rock and Outkast. You’ll usually see him playing Pokémon Showdown and raging about writers block and the latest Chance the Rapper Album… 
Check out his short films on Instagram: @soulandsilverscreens


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