The Warfare of Montage (The Battleship Potemkin)

Dylan Hintz

English 402, Film History

Professor Johnson

The Warfare of Montage

“Revolution is war,” begins a famous quote from Soviet Revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in the opening slate to Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece of Soviet Montage, The Battleship Potemkin. This statement links clashing close up images of water crashing upon rocks- a natural violence of warlike proportions displayed to give the viewer a feeling of great chaos- to the entirety of the film in a message and theme of collision and amassed disturbance. This quote, delivered through a black and white slate of words and expressing the emotions of the time towards warfare, explains in Lenin’s own words how something of great change, a Revolution, can only come through the great destruction of War. Two juxtaposed ideas, change and destruction, give a concise and explosive example of Eisenstein’s film theory of Montage, most prominently displayed in The Battleship Potemkin. When put together in a subconscious mindset, the words can create an idea of revolution and war- the fulfillment of the formula he created. Eisenstein carries over this equation of words to the medium of film and the images it can convey in the succession of editing- the ultimate storytelling power of a film. He carves out the themes of this film through the use of conflict to convey images within the montages, giving deeper meaning to scenes as well as providing an artistic angle to almost documentary-like situations.

There is one key scene in the Potemkin story that depicts its primary revolution through the use of a heavily edited montage. During the second act of The Battleship Potemkin, the captain has called all sailors and soldiers to the deck to demand information on possible treason. The treason in question is based around a paranoid request: Did the sailors enjoy their meal? In the oppressor’s, the pristinely clothed and thick mustached captain, view had they not, they are obviously denying the consumption of the provided food in an act of rebellion against their suppliers and should be duly punished for such treason. Thus starts the most dramatic montage of this act as the soldiers prepare to fire on the dissenters in following their captain’s orders. In a slow build of solid images, the marines raise their guns in preparation to fire upon the dissenting sailors. Displaying a solemn acceptance of the doom draped upon them, the sailors lower their heads in shame and despair as the rifles are pointed upon their brothers. It is in a slow and breathe-like take that Vakulinchuk, in a dramatic medium shot, is the only man to raise his head upward and take in the image of the oppressive act. The angles then conflict, as victory appears on the side of the oppressors, with their shots being taken from a low angle, putting their guns in the top of the frame, with the cloaked men kneeling towards the bottom of their frame from a high angle, accepting their doom.

Adding horror to the situation, an oncoming suspense of things to come, are tightly framed close-ups of separate archetypal objects in the mis-en-scene that, when associated with each other, contain an almost tyrannical meaning. Involved are the rhythmic thumping of the Priest’s cross in his hand followed by the malicious captain stroking his swords: both objects are representative of different powers- religious and military might, but when put together like that seem to have the same goal of persecution and fulfillment of cleansing. There is a tone in these shots that wanders into a pleasure-based territory; it is somehow pleasing for these men to have tools so aptly capable of enacting their orders and completing their goals with minimal opposition. The thumping of the cross also feels like some sort of rhythmic countdown, building the tension even further for the oncoming firing squad.

Many shots are introduced during this scene to give a feeling of spatial awareness to the situation: the turrets at medium range, the ship at a wide angle, a life preserver from a closer point of view, a close up of a lowered trumpet, and the bow of the ship. These images, edited in rapid succession with each other, provide a feeling of utter condemnation upon the sailors- God has abandoned them, even prosecuted them, in the name of the Tsarist regime. They are cut off from all rational help. To further the condemning of the sailors, they are bound and covered in a white sheet- a prop that can be seen as representing a blanket of “purity” over their “sin” of rebellion- and set in front of the gun-pointing men dressed in black. The contrast of colors, even in a film of only black and white, deepens the feeling of two radically different ideas and equates to the purification of unity through the destruction and cleansing of military action. The dissenters appear as sacrificial lambs to be purified through the slaughter.

Vakulinchuk, the Soviet sympathizer and hero of the scene, calls out to the soldiers, “Brothers, who are you shooting at?” When they begin to lower their weapons, the chaos breaks out. There is one final and intense flash of montage as a close up of the well-groomed Captain is flickered to a close up of the priest and back, demonstrating the persecution is one powerful united entity of Government and Religion. Damnation falls at this point, not upon the sailors but upon the oppressors, as Vakulinchuk ignites the rebellion. In his wide but tightly framed shot of the deck, Eisenstein mixes the sailors around the marines upon the deck like a giant artery being strangled from within, and the white sailors descending upon the dark clothed marines as if they were so much prey. The blocking and the editing flow hand in hand- scenes of marines raising their rifles and sailors raising their arms in an act of rebellion jump together in quick cuts to display the clash of weaponry and ideas. Sailors stomp over the sheet they were imprisoned in, while another sheet- the ship’s flag- flows wildly in the wind.

The vectors of movement even conflict in most shots: The rebels pull the oppressors across the deck when gaining an upper hand as the marines push the sailors whenever they are winning by force. Almost every image is followed by some spatially or energetically opposing image even during the massive rebellion. Some conflicts are provided through violent actions upon otherwise placid props in the mis-en-scene: when escaping through his quarters, the captain struggles over his piano, over the candles, both objects shown dramatically in close ups, crushing the representative foundations of society as he fires violently at the men. These forms of shots and different vectors add to the chaos and never make the any similar shot feel exactly the same, especially in terms of the different rates and patterns in which they are displayed. With everything being pulled and pushed in separate directions, and the props in the scenes being destroyed mercilessly, the entirety of this scene depicts such a chaos that it is as if there is a full-scale war occurring on the ship.

To show the overtaking of the ship by the sailors many different types of shots are slated together towards the goal of filling space. The sailors descend the stairs, enter the cabin, climb the sides of the ship, knocking the officers off of the ship, then ascend the stairs, and then climb back down the ship. In one shot there are so many sailors on the deck that it appears as if they are a flood- encompassing the entirety of the space and subjugating it to their masses. It is a true image of rebe