The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Directed by Sergei Eisenstein


The Battleship Potemkin was a Soviet propaganda film made about the events of an uprising in 1905.  It’s a silent film, with the occasional text to tell us what the soldiers are saying, but otherwise it relies on Sergei Eisenstein’s editing to not only make the story clear but the emotion as well.  As a propaganda film, the point is to make us feel a certain away and to make sure we feel strongly that way.

In this case, we see the horrible treatment of soldiers on the Potemkin, and then they finally rebel in what is meant to be a rousing sequence against their officers.  Later, in probably one of the most famous scenes in film history, there is a massacre on the Odessa steps.  In this sequence we watch people run for their lives.  Eisenstein chooses to focus his camera on women and children, particularly one baby in an unmanned carriage, as well as a few men with missing limbs.  The point is to make sure we empathize with them.

Now, a lot of movies do this now and have always done it.  In a typical story, the filmmaker wants you to love and empathize with the protagonist.  Sometimes a character will have a “save the cat” moment, meant to refer to anything the protagonist might do, unrelated to the plot, in the film’s opening minutes to make sure the audience is on his side.  So if we’re watching a movie and Mark Wahlberg goes out of his way to ‘save a cat,’ we’re more likely to be on his side going forward.

And isn’t that a type of propaganda?  Maybe not, I don’t know.  Because if the point is to identify with the main character, then more often than not that character is probably doing something positive.  We don’t find ourselves empathizing with John McLane, for example, and then discover that he’s actually the villain.  He’s very much the good guy in Die Hard.

Some movies don’t force you to empathize with the protagonist.  Maybe the main character is an antihero or just plain unlikable, as Jason Schwartzman is in Listen up Philip.  In Rushmore, another Schwartzman movie, Max isn’t particularly likable, but the way he’s treated so poorly by certain other students and the way he stands up for a younger kid, his best friend, acts as that ‘save the cat’ kind of moment.

So anyways, how do you come up with this kind of audience empathy?  Like on a very technical level, particularly without sound, as in The Battleship Potemkin.

This is called the Kuleshov effect.  It seems simple now, but it’s incredibly meaningful, and it’s the basis for visual storytelling.  As Hitchcock says, you can derive new meanings from a character’s expression based on what he or she is looking at.  First of all, when we see a character looking, we naturally assume that the following shot, after the cut, will reflect what that person sees.  Then when we return to the next shot of that person, their expression will have more significance because we attribute it to what they’re looking at.

In other words, we see a shot of a guy’s face, and he looks sad.  We don’t know why he’s sad, and if you want to maintain a certain amount of mystery, then maybe it works in your favor not to know why he’s so sad.  But generally we want to convey information, so we cut to a shot of… let’s say a wilted flower.  Now when we return to that man’s expression, we can reasonably assume that he’s sad because his flower has died.  What’s interesting, to me at least, is what potentially happens if you remove the third shot from that sequence.  What’s left is a shot of a sad man, then a shot of a wilted flower.  Yes, these shots form a kind of sequence, but the sequence is incomplete because we never return to the man’s face, thus completing the thought.  If it’s only the two shot sequence, the wilted flower could be seen as a visual metaphor for the man’s state of mind, yet we still don’t know definitively why he’s sad.  It seems to me like David Lynch would be inclined to remove the third shot of such a sequence, thus not explicitly giving you the answer as to why the man is sad.

But in the Kuleshov effect, you must return to the subject’s face to complete the thought, like adding the second layer of bread to complete a sandwich.  In The Battleship Potemkin, so much meaning is derived from such an effect, but the story is aided by the text that occasionally pops up between shots to tell us what the silent characters are saying.

In the Odessa steps sequence of the film, for example, we watch person after person ascend the steps, and there are a lot of shots of this, as if to just build up the horror that is about to occur.  Stripped of the story’s context, this is just a series of shots of people walking up stair,s and there’s nothing dreadful about that.  But then we see the armed riflemen, and suddenly every shot of an innocent person ascending the stairs becomes a sign of what could or is about to go wrong.  When you see the guy with one leg, for example, you become filled with a sense of dread, knowing that he probably won’t survive what’s about to come.

Now, the Kuleshov effect is about the meaning derived from the juxtaposition of two shots, and not the meaning from any one particular shot.  But in The Battleship Potemkin, you can tell a lot from a single shot, particularly once the massacre on the steps occurs.  Take any image of people sprinting down the stairs, for example.  You can tell right off the bat they they’re running for their lives.  Then you have shots of the crying baby in a carriage that rolls helplessly down the stairs.  Or there’s a shot of a woman screaming with blood on her face.  There are plenty of striking, troubling images that don’t need much context to make you feel a certain way.

It seems to me that Eisenstein simply uses all the tools as his disposal to make us empathize with the people being slaughtered and the people who fight back.  He finds a lot of power in wide shots that show dozens, even hundreds of people in some cases.  Eisenstein conveys his point not just in the detail of a struggling individual, but also in the movement of the fleeing masses.  He conveys scope, in other words.

I’m not sure what else to say about this film only because I don’t think I’m equipped to say anything more than I already have.  I studied the Kuleshov effect in school, but I had to look it up again to brush up on the term.  I never studied this film, though I know many have.  Like other great early films, the importance of this one is the influence it had on cinema and its language.  It’s the same reason Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is so important today.  His style of editing, including jump cuts, was meant to rebel against the Kuleshov effect, I suppose.  He deliberately made cuts for no clear reason, cuts that didn’t advance the story but that questioned the way film language works.  He wanted to break down the language this film helped create.  At least, that’s how I understand it.

Now that I think about it, anytime you see a dog in a scene that you know is about to be disastrous, that’s kind of propaganda.  It’s not political propaganda like The Battleship Potemkin, which sought to make you feel a certain way about things and people outside of the film, but it’s propaganda within the film.  Or again, maybe that’s too strong of a word.  But people like dogs and don’t want to see them die.  So including a dog in a scene in which Godzilla rises from the ocean to terrorize a Hawaiian city is meant to make us really hope that dog gets away.  It invests us in the audience’s escape from the monster:

In a movie like Godzilla, there is mass destruction, meaning a lot of people die, but we’ve seen that before in movies, many times, so the filmmaker has to do something to make sure we worry for the people at risk.  How does he do that?  Well he gives us a dog and a kid, two kids actually, and suddenly we’re a little more invested than we were before.

Hitchcock did the same thing in Sabotage (1936) a film, like many, that I only reference because I recently happened to see it.  In that film, there is a scene in which a kid unknowingly carries a bomb onto a trolley, unaware that it’s about to go off.  Not only does this fill us with a sense of dread because it’s a bomb, but there’s an innocent little kid and a puppy.  As if we didn’t already root for the bomb not to go off, now we’re just a little more invested.

And I don’t know if this is explicitly the Kuleshov effect… in effect, but it seems to have the same result on the audience.  You show one thing (a puppy or a kid) which makes us look at the other thing (imminent disaster) with a new perspective.  In these latter examples it doesn’t change how we feel about what’s about to happen, but it does magnify how we feel.  I guess the way I’m looking at it is that these earlier examples, in a film like The Battleship Potemkin, the effect is meant to make sure we feel a certain way.  In the later examples, the effect is to make sure we feel more of a certain way.  Everything is meant to be to the max, in some ways.

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