Sergei Eisenstein and the Developing Language of Film

An exploration of Eisenstein’s development in the context of his times, examining his technical and philosophical innovations, and highlighting fragments of his enormous legacy.
If Battleship Potemkin is really “more written about than any movie ever made” (Milne, pg41), then its auteur Sergei Eisenstein must surely be one of the most analysed directors in film history. Eight decades after the release of Strike, his place as one of the two most influential filmmakers in movie history is widely accepted (Dart, pg 145). While the presence of this embodiment of the “fulfilment of human potential under socialism” (Chen, pg10) can be widely felt, from arresting television adverts to the homage’s of modern Hollywood, his legacy has often been questioned. Respected film critic David Thompson declaimed his influence, dismissing the “demonic, baroque...theatricality” of his oeuvre (Shaw, pg1). Andre Bazin failed to include him in his holy trinity of critical favourites (Shaw, pg4). Less respected film critic Joseph Stalin saw a “light-hearted, irresponsible” artist at work! (Jha, pg1) With Stalin’s critical injunctions released from the infallible cocoon of his malevolent shadow and Thompson’s similarly dismissive opinion of Hitchcock (Shaw, pg4) bringing his critical musings to heel, we are left to consider criticism of this director, not as mere dissection of his art, but as blows in the ongoing struggle between realism and expressionism in the historical canon of movie critique (Shaw, pg1). That Eisenstein is in the eye of this struggle is fitting, for, if ever a moviemaker personified and codified conflict, struggle and shock, it is he.  
Soviet cinema, like all art produced in an authoritarian climate, cannot be critiqued without constant reference to the political environment that produced it. Politicians, none more than Russia’s revolutionary leaders, quickly appreciated the mass propaganda potential of the early cinema. V.I. Lenin famously declared, “There is no form of science or art which cannot be linked with the great ideas of Communism and the diverse work of building a Communist economy”, (Grant, pg2). Pre-revolutionary Russian cinema has long been regarded as derivative, an artistic “colony” run by subsidiaries of the great European film companies (Mast, 164). While the post-Soviet freedoms of scholarship have afforded us a fresh perspective on the Tsarist cinema (Sklar, pg136), it is a plain truth that the upheavals of 1917 produced revolutionary cinemain both senses of the word.
Musicians like Chaikovsky were notable amoung Russian creative artists for displaying monarchist affections. Most of Russia’s intelligentsia abhorred tsarism and its stifling effect on the creative spirit (Service, pg11). It’s ironic then that the revolution that freed them from monarchist oppression was so awesome in its intensity that the first Soviet decade was marked by an artistic famine. Music, art and literature wilted under this social apocalypse. Despite needing intellectuals to help effect their cultural revolution, the Politburo nurtured the arts through suppression, deportation and murder (Service, pgs137-9). The one art form that flourished in those early days was also the newest – cinema. Marxists saw the new medium as the art of the machine age, the art of the Marxist epoch (Watson, pg88). Lenin, seeing cinema as, above all other arts, the most important, encouraged this medium of “education and enlightenment of the masses” (Wyver, pg50). Despite the chronic shortage of film stock, mobile agit-prop teams produced and screened newsreels and propaganda films throughout the battle-torn country, especially on the civil war frontlines. In a portent of future authoritarian regimes harnessing of the media, August 1919 saw a decree nationalising the film industry, tellingly under the Commissariat of Education (Wyver, pg50).  The industry drew to it young and brilliant iconoclasts, searching for new means of expression, rejecting tradition and convention, creating an artistic facsimile of the ferment around them (Sinyard, pg165). The greatest of these was Eisenstein whose “Kino-fist” approach to film making (Shaw, pg4) would not only shock audiences and governments, but also produce one the mediums enduring classics in Battleship Potemkin.
Goethe may have believed that “genius is formed in quiet”, but he hadn’t accounted for the Revolution. The genius that had created two cinematic masterpieces by 27 was forged in the tumult of 1917. Throughout his life, Eisenstein acknowledged his many influences, but always stressed his prime one. “The Revolution gave me the most precious thing in life – it made an artist out of me...The revolution introduced me to art, and art...brought me to the revolution,” (Chen, pg2). Without the Revolution there would have been no Eisenstein, no surprise then that his silent movies are homages to this formative event.

He was a voracious scholar, his intrigue for images fuelled by Japanese art, French literature, Freud, Leonardo di Vinci’s diagrams (Grant, pg2). A study of classical paintings informed his framing of key shots, like that of the mother confronting the soldiers with her child 52 minutes into Potemkin. Occupying the “point of maximum tension” in the frame, with bodies behind her and the “agents of death” in front, this cinematic Madonna is depicted precisely in the proportions of classical composition (Chen, pg7). This was not by accident.
His study of Japanese ideograms, where two contrasting symbols can be juxtaposed to create a third meaning, combined with his studies of Kuleshov’s experiments, contributed to his development of a “Dialectic Approach to Film Form” (Shaw, pg2). This is best illustrated in the famous scene in Strike when the shot of suppressed workers is juxtaposed with one of cattle being slaughtered. The resulting equation of workers as livestock may seem a laboured analogy now, but at the time was profoundly shocking.
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The techniques of montage he developed were both technically and philosophically adventurous. As a theorist, following the lead of Marx and Trotsky, he aimed to use his art to transform the audience’s consciousness and awaken any innate revolutionary emotion (Shaw, pg3). Despite his debt to, and admiration for, D.W. Griffith, he was critical of the American film form. Because their use of montage was for the naive and simpleminded provision of entertainment, their resulting works were flawed and bereft of power. To Eisenstein they lacked the necessary ideological principles to make true and revolutionary art (Dart, pgs154-5). He achieved power through his use of conflict in montage. His composition of the ‘Odessa Steps’ scene in Potemkin is his highest realisation of this.  Four distinct methods of contrast can be discerned. Firstly, the continuous juxtaposition of violent images against ones of violence. The mother facing soldiers; the child being stampeded; panicked citizens fleeing an ordered mass of military. The effect is blatant. Secondly, he uses long shots and close-ups with clear purpose. The soldiers are seen in “depersonalising” long shot, emphasising their inhumanity. The citizenry are seen in close-up, personalising studies in empathy. His third technique is perspective. Shots from below emphasise the crowds panic, shots from above enforce the menace and control of the army. Finally his use of gender contrast is emotive. Maternal anguish represents humanity against the amoral masculine leviathan (Grace, pg3). The combination of these effects gives us an emotional attachment to the ‘good guys’, an empathy with our fellow humans. Because we never see development from the opposing perspective, the enemy is dehumanised, malign and spectral. Eisenstein had clear purpose here. “Living through an historical moment is the culminating point of the pathos of feeling oneself part of the process, of feeling oneself part of the collective waging a fight for a bright future,” (Severson, pg4).
Thankfully, all this theorising was matched by great technical skill and patience. The pivotal ‘Plate Smashing’ sequence from Potemkin is a case in point. His dramatic use of dialectic process transforms the briefest of scenes into a watershed moment. Eleven different shots, some as brief as a quarter second, are cut into six dynamic, violent seconds (Mast, 170-1). In 86 minutes of this tour de force our attention is held through nearly 1350 shots (by way of contrast, Birth of a Nation’s 3hrs 15 only contains 1375) (Shaw, pg5). His editing innovations stemmed from his study of Pavlovian reflexology, leading him to experiment with montage and it’s effect on our biomechanics. He found that film cut rhythmically to mirror the human heartbeat had an intense impact on an audience. Making shots shorter and shorter to build to a climax could “whip his viewers to a frenzy” (Shaw, pg4). Whilst these techniques are well understood by even the average filmgoer now, we must never forget the impact they had on those early audiences and the bold vision that led to their development.
Eisenstein’s legacy is profound. Ironically for such a committed Marxist, his hand is most visible on commercial television advertisements. While it’s open to debate whether the television commercial is the “advanced and sophisticated film form” that some critics suggest (Dart, 156), a cursory study of some of the prestige productions and the small screen beginnings of directors like Ridley Scott clearly show that a discerning artistic sensibility is often present. Advertising exists to foster an emotional attachment in the viewer to the product being sold. This emotional use of rhetorical images through montage is exactly that pioneered by the Soviet filmmakers, albeit, depending on your political persuasion, for a more noble principle (Dart, 156).
Eisenstein is also the (great grand-) father of the music video. With shared antecedents and proponents, music video is itself a form of advertising and thus guided by the same influences. A more concrete link to Eisenstein is in the director’s experiments with music inAlexander Nevsky. Prior to this, most directors had music played or composed to match the existing film. Eisenstein reversed this and cut Nevsky to the rhythm of the pre-existing music (Shaw, pg4) of the composer Prokofiev.
Such artistic slumming aside, thankfully Eisenstein is alive and well in the works of ‘proper’ filmmakers! Hitchcock’s superlative use of accelerated montage in the crop duster scene ofNorth By Northwest and the rapid cuts, no pun intended, of the shower scene in Psychohave influenced subsequent generations of directors (Shaw, pg4). Eisenstein’s hand is formative in Hitchcock’s craft. While De Palma’s Odessa Steps pastiche in The Untouchables is the most obvious manifestation of the master in recent cinema, Coppola clearly evokes Strike in the climactic bull/Kurtz slaughter in Apocalypse Now (Chen, pg1). The cardinal position of Eisenstein in any film school programme will ensure his influence over further generations of filmmaker.
Arguably though, his most profound legacy may be with that blackest of movie arts, film propaganda. None more black than Joseph Goebbels damned Eisenstein with praise when he memorably called in a speech for a Nazi Potemkin. The director’s riposte, that the Nazi system couldn’t create anything the Soviets had because “only truth created the Soviet system,” rings hollow. (Grant, pg4). The director’s retelling of the Potemkin Mutiny was abridged to convey historical victory as opposed to the relative failure of the actual event. While the Russian authorities reacted to the unrest of 1905 with characteristic brutality and wanton violence, the Odessa Steps sequence is an invention, presented as fact, to stir us to the revolutionary cause. (Severson). However good the intention in these story-telling decisions, the use of untruth in such a powerful medium makes it propaganda of the most dangerous kind. We may forgive his rewriting of history in October, through the emasculation and removal of Trotsky from ‘history’, as the forced hand of a political pawn. Omnipotent Stalin’s wishes were best attended to (Chen, pg8). It still does not absolve a filmmaker, especially one so vocal in his revolutionary zeal, from propagandist charges. Modern directors, notably Mel Gibson in The Patriot and Braveheart, have since used historical abridgement, character assassination and the polarising of protagonists and events to disturbing effect. In Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, we can see Eisenstein’s innovations in the service of evil (Shaw, pg7). A disturbing skeleton in such a brilliant closet.
Chen, Anna, (1998), In Perspective: Sergei Eisenstein, in International Socialism Issue 79 [on line], 12.03.2004.
Dart, Peter, (1973), “Griffith to Eisenstein and Back: Soviet Reciprocity”, in The American Cinema, Voice of America Forum Series, Washington.
Grace, Helen, (2000), Battleship Potemkin, [on line], 12.03.2004.
Grant, Catriona, (2004), Sergei Eisenstein – Relative And Silent Genius, [on line], 12.03.2004.
Jha, Sumana, (Trans), (1992), J.V. Stalin: The Discussion with Sergei Eisenstein on the Film Ivan the Terrible, [on line], 21.03.2004.
Mast, Gerald & Bruce F. Kawin, (2000), A Short History of the Movies, Allyn and Bacon, London.
Milne, Tom, (1989), The Time Out Film Guide, Penguin, London.
Service, Robert, (1997), A History of Twentieth-Century Russia, Penguin, London.
Severson, Gregg, (1998), Historical Narrative in The Battleship Potemkin, [on line], 21.03.2004.
Shaw, Dan, (2004), Sergei Eisenstein, [on line], 12.03.2004.
Sinyard, Neil, (1995), Silent Movies, Smithmark Publishers Inc., New York.
Sklar, Robert, (2002), A World History of Film, Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York.
Watson, Chris, (2001), Topics in Film History: The Great Theories, Massey University, Palmerston North.
Wyver, John, (1989), The Moving Image : An International History of Film, Television & Video, Basil Blackwell Ltd., Oxford.²

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