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The Russian master’s 1925 bombshell Battleship Potemkin, showing for a week at Film Forum in its definitive restoration, was cinema history’s third great game-changer, after The Birth of a Nation and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Just 27 when he directed this montage-powered expression of kino-revolutionary fervor, Sergei Eisenstein was the original film intellectual to come to power. “I am a civil engineer and mathematician by training. I approach the making of a motion picture in much the same way as I would the equipment of a poultry farm or the installation of a water system.” His first theory proposed Pavlov’s behavior psychology as a model for film production: “The [cinematic] attraction is every element that can be verified and mathematically calculated to produce certain emotional shocks.”
Eisenstein’s 1924 debut Strike, a try-anything-once attempt to ramp up revolutionary consciousness, was merely sensational. Battleship Potemkin, commissioned to mark the 20th anniversary of the failed 1905 revolution, made history—literally. Eisenstein used his new form of agitational montage to celebrate mass action and collective heroism. Shot on location, entirely with non-actors, Potemkin was designed to look like a newsreel and function as a drama—if “drama” is the word to describe the hysteria of the movie’s key scene, a massacre set on the steps leading down to Odessa harbor. The power and violence of editing has never been better demonstrated than by this space-pulverizing, time-distending, emotionally alarming barrage of two-second shots, half of them close-ups. Potemkin inspired not only the surrealist shocks of Un Chien Andalou but the ballet mécanique of Metropolis. In some ways, the movie is a war of machines—liberated battleship versus robot Czarist army.
After 80-something years, it’s not easy to recapture a movie’s initial impact. Seen through the prism of its descendents, however, Potemkin is something like The Battle of Algiers (plus Triumph of the Will, Psycho, and Scorpio Rising), shot by Akira Kurosawa and edited by Alain Resnais. Dynamic conflict is present in and between every filmic image as Eisenstein orchestrates a percussive shift in angles, cutting usually on action, from long shot to close-up. At the same time, each shot is a metaphor—the maggoty meat of the ancien régime, the shadow of the Cossack regiment. For all Potemkin’s rabble-rousing propaganda, Eisenstein’s aestheticism is everywhere apparent.