Ninety-two years on, it goes without saying that Battleship Potemkin is a sketch more than an aria, but Eisenstein stencils better than just about anyone. Disposing with the character-first politics of American cinema then expediently working overtime with enough charisma to turn film into the de facto bourgeois art form, Potemkin is politically flimsy. But that’s acceptable: it’s a polemic, a red-hot screed, the charred apex of a garbled wail of revolutionary fervor, and if it isn’t quite the feeding frenzy for inventive technique that Strike or some of Eisenstein’s future films were, it’s exciting enough to fulfill Pauline Kael’s declaration (on another film) of the proverbial “movie in heat”. Agitprop it is, which isn’t a problem. The issue, and it is exclusively relative (that of a lesser masterpiece vs. Strike, a greater masterpiece) is that this particular agitator isn’t as agitated as Eisenstein’s greatest films.
Take the film’s clockwork-like famed Odessa Steps sequence, brandishing acuity and visual alchemy but not the contentious mortal agony that Eisenstein’s best moments do, the ones where he feels weary of cinema up to that point and primed to brazenly point the art form in new directions. Not to cast aspersion on possibly the most famous mini-aria in all of cinema, and it’s fascinatingly turbulent on its own terms. With almost talismanic qualities, Eisenstein throws his barbed-wire images into an ion storm of edits, orchestrating a car crash out of the mesmeric principles of space and time in a feat of pure cinema. Capable of rejuvenating the rubble of desecration with an ounce of demented whimsy, Eisenstein also plays with the continuity style to animate and activate a stone lion from a resting pose to erect a barking hellhound commenting on the action like an interrogatory Greek chorus. Yet, although the Odessa Steps massages time out across eons of soul-scraped suspense and flexibly intercuts wide, medium, and close-up shots at a staccato and increasingly frenzied tempo, the near-massacre of the sailors on the decks of the Potemkin is, for my say, the sequence to beat here, the only one with the libertine, incendiary style of Strike as fossil fuel for the libratory politics.
Why? Because Odessa is a little too trapped in its own elegance to play outside the lines like, say, Strike’s beautifully dysfunctional opening. It’s a little too focused on completing itself, on buttoning-up the scene, to let loose with agitated abandon like the earlier moment on the Potemkin where the soldiers almost massacre their rebellious comrades. This initial whisper of rebellion on the Potemkin casts aspersion not only on bourgeois politics but blighted continuity style. Eisenstein juggles our perspective, casting the audience as cannon-wielders one second and as victims facing the barrel of the cannon the next. More flamboyantly, he staggers the edits, cutting between shots of the death squad holding their guns off screen-left and then screen-right, as though they are aiming at one another, shooting themselves vicariously through the act of listening to their superior and killing their friends in arms. It’s a divine little mini-study in unsettling of the boss man’s control by foraging for discontinuity out of continuity, something of a metaphor for Eisenstein’s entire catalogue. At the time of the film’s release, this scene was nothing less than the pinnacle of cinema the world over.
Anyway, Eisenstein’s project was, as it always was, to massage a visual Molotov out of the disgrace and agony of the working class. His film’s stellar achievements include evoking the breathing pulse of communal life fractured by compulsory contentiousness and spatial fragmentation. The group dynamics of his film surge with potency and wonder, Eisenstein visualizing the tectonic shifts in primordial emotion and feeling as desecration and passion externalize in movement and visual incongruity, all a conduit for a dazzling aria of pure cinema. In a sense, Eisenstein invented and possibly perfected the confluence of radical style for radical aims.
Compare to other so-called “propaganda” films and the film’s luster shines brighter. The platonic right-wing “formalist” masterpiece Triumph of the Will suffers comparably not for the moral caliber of its politics (although it does that) but for the ideology of its images, which are as lock-step compulsory as the dull ritual of Nazi march. They feel like monolithic pillars, composing a monomaniacal one-note forward thrust without the permeable, ceaseless tension of juggling contrast or the bristling alchemy of visual collision and multiplicity. They have no dialectic capacity.
It must be said, though, that Potemkin is not immune to this very problem, being partially divorced from the sheer aesthetic and associational play of Strike. In that, his first and most youthful film, political radicalism was more-so a conduit for aesthetic and imaginative opening-up, unmooring the mind from existent frameworks for perceiving the world. The delirious interplay of Strike’s opening passages were replete, almost engorged, with orgiastic mental acrobatics: dissolving and overlaying men and machines, reversing the movement of the frame so men walk backwards, corroding an intertitle so that the letters lurch around the frame and violate each other spatially rather than sitting next to each other.
Although the film was political, its Marxist aim seemed less to create a window onto a failed revolution to infuriate the masses than to conjure an imaginative and ideological reckoning for the masses by inviting pure mutability. The film iridescently manipulates imagery to breed new awareness and create new contexts for understanding the visual relationship of man and machine. The very understanding of a “word”, nominally a totem to mankind’s stable and pre-assumed communicative abilities, became fodder for Eisenstein’s progressive aesthetic of conjuring new representations of letters, deconstructing words (literally) to engender awareness that social structures can be challenged in the first place.
Comparatively, Potemkin is so focused on its mission of suspense and excitement, aspiring to nothing less than the Soviet answer to Griffith’s monolithic treatise to American exceptionalism and an American worldview of editing governed by the agency and action of individual and communal white men. Potemkin though, seems an attempt to assimilate or beat America at its own game, exhibiting a semi-slavish devotion to the gargantuan aesthetics and rational causal relationships that governed most American films of the time. It is not emancipatory at an aesthetic level, but assimilatory, and it is wholly less permissive of the cheeky and cunning visual digressions and playfulness that jutted Strike into quasi-avant-garde regions at times. Ironically, while Potemkin worships at the altar of forward thrust, too much of the editing has a getting-nowhere feel of forwarding a plot without exceeding or transcending that plot. While Strike alternately boasts the gusto and anarchic alacrity of an alien work rocketing into the future, Potemkin occasionally has the dustiness of a museum piece. A wonderful museum piece, but it is too composed (read: compromised) to flair with danger like its older companion film, a work which lurched and bounced with alarming energy, imbuing the filmic medium with all the sublime messiness of the human mind sculpting cinema without compunction or restraint.