"Potemkin" and its legacies

Battleship Potemkin: the Odessa steps sequence.

Pauline Kael once referred to Battleship Potemkin (1925) as a “cartoon”; we can assume that she was referring not only to this great film’s rudimentary Marxist characterizations (virile, heroic proles vs. grotesque, corrupt figures of authority) but also to its kinetic visual energy.  It’s a polemical film of cartoon heroes and villains cut together at breakneck speed, one in which action and motion are used as tools of cinematic as well as ideological rhetoric.  For all its reputation as a classroom movie—a staple of Intro-to-Film-Studies courses around the world—Potemkin is compulsively watchable, lean and punchy, perhaps because it was designed as a piece of agit-prop made to engage mass audiences.  Woodrow Wilson is alleged to have said that The Birth of a Nation was like “writing history with lightning,” a claim that could just as easily be applied to Potemkin, the violent shorthand rhythms of which resemble other forms of modern discourse: the clackings of the telegraph and the newspaper press, the screaming capital letters of a broadside, the jagged, stabbing repetitions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.     

The plate-smashing sequence: broken crockery and montage editing, a shower of fragments.

Potemkin is an action movie organized around three action set pieces: the mutiny, the massacre on the Odessa steps, and the rendezvous with the squadron.  In these set pieces we can see not only the seeds of the modern action thriller but the creation of an entire language for generating cinematic tension.  The visual vocabulary of something like Game of Thrones’ “Battle of the Bastards,” with its elaborate clashings of individuals and groups, owes everything to Eisenstein (Potemkin as well as Alexander Nevsky); the battle sequences in Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King are structured as a series of miniature narratives much in the same way that Potemkin’s mutiny and massacre are big stories made up of many smaller ones; and one can’t help but think of Hitchcock’s use of close-ups when, during the finale of Potemkin, the barrels of the cannons stare down the eye of the camera like the assassin’s gun in the Albert Hall sequence of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 version).  Is it too much of a stretch to see the half-second-long, almost subliminal close-up of the Union soldier being shot in the face by Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind as bearing the influence of Eisenstein’s famous close-up of the bloody woman with the pince-nez?  Perhaps; though the reach of Eisenstein’s influence has been so vast that who can say where it stops?


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