Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’ was not about 1917 but, in the film, the director unleashed upon the screen the possibilities the year’s cataclysmic events had allowed artists from all walks of life to imagine. The depicted mutiny by the crew of the vessel was part of the wave of insurrectionary activity sweeping across the Russian Empire in 1905; the packed up anger of peasants, freed from serfdom and newly proletarianized, set alight the existing vlast with a festival of strikes and direct action against the Tsarist order.
This story is universal: rebellion; but it is its particulars that are the seeds of its continuing relevance. To unmask the cutting edge of Potemkin, we must not be afraid to also traverse roads that may lead us to unexpected destinations.
I. Prologue: 1905
By January, the firing of the Putilov workers rendered St. Petersburg paralyzed by protests. Papon, the priest and part-time collaborator, will lead a still servile assembly, chanting psalms, to an empty Winter Palace only to be fired upon by the Imperial Guard. From there, the powder keg erupts and industrial action rocks the urban centers. These mass strikes were not isolated events, rather they were a gradual coming of an age for the Russian working class as Abraham Ascher notes: ‘Between 1886 and 1894 the annual average number of strikes was thirty-three; between 1895 and 1904, one hundred seventy-six…in 1903, 138,877 workers engaged in 550 work stoppages.’ At the height of the revolution in December, 1905, more than 418,000 workers refused to go to work. (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905: a Short History, 6).
Neither did the intelligentsia remain idle. Universities became hubs spawning radical thought. Witte, the future prime minister called the ‘decree on university autonomy…the first breach through which the revolution, having matured underground, emerged into the broad light of day.’ (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905: a Short History, 197).
The Russification policies that attempted forced assimilation of other ethnic groups also came back to haunt the government, as Poles, Jews, Finns and others joined the insurrection.
The famous organs of October, the Soviets, too, were first formed during this period of upheaval. Its membership counted 200,000 workers amongst its ranks. Its spontaneity and potential was reflected upon by Trotsky when he called the Soviet, ‘an organized expression of the mill of the proletariat as a class.’ Undoubtedly an exaggeration by a distinguished participant, but this was but the embryo. It was not time yet.
Amidst all this, The soldiers were on the frontline but did not stay loyal for long. Nicholas II’s military adventures against Japan in Manchuria and Korea saw desertions multiply, legions return home in coffins, and those lucky to survive carried home only bags of resentment.
And this strikes at the heart of the action. Without the monopoly on violence and the trust of the soldiers, no revolution could survive. Imagine Liberation, if the battalions of the East Bengal Regiment and the Rifles never left the cantonment. Post-Independence Col. Taher understood this, and so did Lenin when he called the uprising on the Battleship Potemkin an ‘attempt to form the nucleus of a revolutionary army.’ (Lenin, Lenin Collected Works, 562)
And this is where Eisenstein takes off.
II. Frame: Potemkin
Something is about to happen. The Black Sea Fleet is going through turbulent times. Sedition is rampant amongst the navy: Kronstadt last year, and Sevastopol in November.
The orchestra soars as the waves crash upon the Ukrainian beachfront at Tendra, and interspersed by the animated discussion between sailors Vakulinchuk and Matyushenko, we see the pitch black silhouette of the anchored, eponymous ship reflected upon the stirring waters. With the stark contrast, the frame foreshadows later turmoil, but also the ships’ temporary isolation from events; unrest is fomenting, and make no mistake, it is inevitable, but the cruelty of the unjust order is yet to be laid bare. And the effect is exactly this, it is laid bare: when Vakulinchuk appears at the off-duty cabin in an attempt to rouse the sailors from their slumber, he is topless, signifying a naked expression of contempt from below.
As the rank and file congregate at the butcher’s, they start to examine the meat. The verdict announces it as unfit for even a dog. The bespectacled ship doctor, Smirnov, intervenes. He takes off his pince-nez, the insignia of the gentry, to investigate. First, we see his pupil through the folded glasses; and continuity: the close up of the meat infested with maggots. Smirnov does not even blink as he waves away the men’s protests: you can wash them off with brine.
He leaves to join his colleague, Gilyarovsky at the gate, who stands judiciously, like Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer,’ with his foot rested against the frame. The Enlightenment, which proclaimed men as free, is imposing its conditions on that freedom. For now, the chief officer is the warden, foregrounded against the open sky. The sailors seethe with ‘impotent rage.’ They will overthrow the officers. But only temporarily. It will be February, twelve years later, when perhaps the prisoners will finally feel, in Gramsci’s words, that, indeed, the ‘world had changed.’ (Gramsci, Notes on the Russian Revolution)
The hints only grow stronger; at the start of the second part ‘Drama on the Deck,’ the trumpet signals the sailors to line up in attention. The image we see is unmissable: the guns of the turret aimed squarely at the black-coated officers. The shot is audacious in what it portends. There is no sugarcoating, and the mandarins’ obliviousness to their impending doom only fastens us to our seats.
Nevertheless, Commander Golikov still commands authority. A gloomy vignette lays siege to the portrait to spotlight his dominance. The sailors have refused to eat the spoilt borsht and so as insubordination demands, the Commander sentences them: hang them on the yard. The finger points; the shot cuts to the yard of the ship; an officer takes a glance and smirks; but the sailors heads pivot in unison; a gasp; a fade; we witness the unspoken: lynched corpses.
But The rebellion succeeds, though Vakulinchuk, the closest we shall get to a protagonist, is felled in the crossfire. A martyr, his make shift grave on the pier attracts a city in fever pitch. The waterfront becomes a site of pilgrimage. It echoes the other famous mausoleum, at the Red square and we see the limitations of the cult but even here, as Ahmed Sofa wrote, ‘the crimson dreams of revolution have no death to meet’ (Salimullah Khan, Ahmed Sofa on the Russian Revolution). Hence, elsewhere, there are massive crowds of jubilance greeting the sailors, with lines snaking from beyond the narrow promenade. Odessa is installed as the centerpiece, and the city’s architecture is used to transport the congregation. Arches open up to swallow the unending waves.
The mythical Odessa Steps, too, make their appearance for the first time on an elongated canvas. But it is a harbinger. Suddenly, to puncture the euphoria, the Cossacks stride in. The top shot peeks over the shoulder of the statue of the Duke de Richelieu, the founder of the city, mounted on the boulevard, to the landing below. The background plants the orthodox Church. With this single shot, the film briefs us on centuries of oppression: of feudalism, of serfdom, of authority, of servility. The twin permanent Estates, the statue of nobility, and the church of clergy, are barricades on the path of history. The commoners trapped in between with only their blood and toil to sacrifice.
III. Edit: of Pamphlets and Poetry
Stability: it encapsulates the American ideal. The Dream was written later. This conservative myth is a recurring motif in the American story, in both content, and especially, in form. It seeps in at every opportunity. So then we must ask, when does the American editor cut? She cuts to maintain this chimerical stability; at action; at zoom; at cross-motion; in other words, at continuity. In cruder, more ideological terms, the American edit seeks to annihilate itself; it seeks to instill in the viewer passivity, an almost dream-like, hallucinogenic state of entertainment. The American editor is the guardian of the status quo. Any aberration to the norm, that is not simple affectation, is quickly stripped of its thorns, and appropriated into the mainstream. This more or less pertains to this day.
In comparison, the Soviet Montage, pioneered by the Moscow school, is heresy. It rips the script to shreds. Even where Series editing, which sought to compress time in the American cutting room, is used, it is subverted for the purposes of agitprop.
All films manipulate. This was a realized as a sine qua non of the medium. Thus theorists and practitioners like Pudovkin, Kukeshov, Eisenstein and others made no bones about the fact that they were partisans. It was impossible not to be at the time. As the Bolsheviks cautiously counted their days past the Paris Commune, the Whites, allied with the imperial powers, launched a barbarous counter-revolt, alternately tinged in shades of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, all the while harboring a predilection for the extinct monarchy. And so the propaganda ensued with leaflets and literature running the printing presses overtime; locomotives and ships toured the country to boost morale and to proselytize. All eyes became glued to the screen.
The studios became enclosures of experimentation. Spools were unwound; stocks were slashed through and stitched together to transform shots ‘single in meaning’ and ‘neutral in content’ to induce profound emotion (Eisentein, Cinematographic Principle). When renowned film critic Roger Ebert theorized that ‘…the Marxists were wrong. If a movie changes your vote or your mind, it does so by appealing to your emotions, not your reason,’ one needs to wonder which Marxists he was talking about it.
Of course, Ebert homogenizes a multiplicity of ideas and reduces them to what became the exported artistic doctrine of the Soviet Union: Socialist Realism. Championed during Stalin’s reign, Socialist Realism claimed to promote a ‘proletarian culture,’ but was in hindsight a drab, grayscale illustration of banality. It mistook the mechanical factory workshop for culture. Art did not have to be austere and drenched in piety to appeal the commoner. But it became so. Eventually. Experimental expression, however abetting the cause politically, came to be deemed as abstractions and denounced as formalism. They were too ‘intellectual’ for the hinterland proletariat. The tendency towards state centralization meant that the arts became bonded to apparatchiks. Pamphlets won out over poetry eventually in the Eastern Bloc, but not without resistance.
The revolution had reinvigorated the avant-garde: the new world could not make do with old art. State grants expelled doubts over producer sanctions, but where the capital was managed, especially after the promulgation of the NEP, private initiatives also took charge. Institutions like the Proletkult and the LEF (Left Front of the Arts) propped up. Expression, apparently unbounded by profits, combined experimentation and trial to subvert the forms.
The radical intelligentsia and artists who had huddled underground for so long were finally deemed kosher. Art was not at odds with politics, but rather maintained its independence while continuing to further the cause of communism. Lissitzky’s ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ depicting the Bolsheviks victory in the Civil War is a prime example of melding ideology onto the canvas. Post-revolution, the artist could be a card carrying member but that did not mean her art did had to be dictated by the Politburo.
At same time, the movement was by no means a monolith. Dziga Vertov, for instance, despised the overly traditional films still churned out in times of ‘permanent revolution’, what he called ‘the same old crap tinted red.’ He would win over the masses not with didactic posturing from the lectern, but with the aesthetic form. In Man with the Movie Camera, the images contrast, the funeral and the live birth, the divorce and the marriage; they fuse, reverse in motion; they dream surreal angles and exposures all the while adhering to cinema verite; they splice together the metropolises of Odessa, Kiev and Kharkiv to show a singular contorting symphony in motion that both has the self-consciousness to freeze midway through to let us admire it and the temerity to invite us into the editing room where Svilova labors away. It does not flinch when it undresses. But it is not all docile beauty; there is grief, inequality: between men and women and machines.
At the other end, in October, Eisenstein pairs shots of the ex-head of the provisional government Kerensky’s face with the images of a mechanical peacock and Napoleon to underscore the former’s arrogance in power.
In the golden goose, Potemkin, the frame cuts at regular intervals. Metrical in their regularity, they never miss a beat, irrespective of the action on screen. They coax us into the brutality. The centuries old Romanov dynasty that forces the sailors into a life of drudgery is subterranean. It simmers under the surface, appearing like cracks against the fortitude of the newly conscious crew.
The camera is embedded in the story. It records and retains history waiting for the right moment, when it exculpates itself from all nostalgia, so when the ship doctor is thrown overboard, the sight that ignited it all reappears: maggots; pince-nez stringing on for dear life.
On the Odessa Steps, as the Cossacks rip through the crowds, we never see a linearity in all of the violence. There is no neat frame. It is an explosion. Everyone seeks shelter from the storm. Stragglers stumble. Some try in vain to convince. Throughout the frenzy, the camera is never still, following several divergent threads and always keeping pace with the sense of panic. Towards the end of the much emulated sequence, we see the file of rifles pull the trigger at a mother with her baby carriage. The bloodshed is gradual. The woman’s face is zoomed onto, and we see the terror in her gothic eyes. She latches onto her belt, and her fingers are deluged by blood. An elder woman with glasses gasps as the carriage tumbles down the steps. A saber rattles and slashes, and we return to see her glasses penetrated by a bullet, as the carriage overturns.
But the artillery arrives, as the Battleship, to retaliate against the massacre and pummels the army headquarters with its guns. As the Opera House is reduced to ruins, the bombings are juxtaposed with the ascending stone figures of lions, vicariously standing in for the working class, who, like Shelley had once prophesied, finally ‘rise…after slumber/in unvanquishable number!’
Art: Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, El Lissitzky, 1919