Battleship Potemkin reveals the notion of collision within its opening frames of waves crashing upon a man-made seawall. Eisenstein’s camera lingers on these crashing waves from various angles, and it’s easy to interpret a suggested tide-change from the effects seen in this visual one. Later, Eisenstein also fills his frame with flags flowing in the breeze – a visual wind change that echoes the rebellious crew of the battleship itself.
Using the quotations “Cinema is, first and foremost, montage,” and “Montage is conflict,” from Eiseinstein’s own writings Beyond the Shot, we find a suitable framework in which to interpret the power of the Potemkin-viewing experience. As a film, Potemkin is full of incredible conflict, both in plot (naturally, given the subject matter), but more importantly in the way it is pieced together. For Eisenstein, aspects of what we know as the Classical Hollywood model of filmmaking are disposable in favour of the creation of movement, emotion, and sensation. The notions of the axis of action (crossed every which way in Potemkin) and traditional filmic continuity (in particular matching action on the cut) are of little use to Eisenstein, and the effect is one that is both disorientating and overwhelming.
One particular example of a sequence in which Eisenstein plays by rules of his own comes in the smashing of the plate in the galley by an angry sailor. Reading the prayer around the edge of the plate (“Give us each day our daily bread”) and contemplating the rotting meat composing the dinner the crew just refused, the young sailor snaps and smashes the plate. The actual smashing of the plate, however, occurs over the rapid succession of several shots – we’re shown the crook of his elbow, the raising of the plate (more than once, this action is repeated), and even the plate changing hands before it is smashed. Through a shot as strangely composed as a man’s elbow bent upwards in frustration, Eisenstein communicates the fury of the crew. Similar to Dreyer’s bizarre framings in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Eisenstein’s choices in Potemkin never fully give us an easy lay of the land.
But, undoubtedly the most disorientating and overwhelming sequence in the film are the events taking place on the Odessa Steps, arguably as nearly a disorientating an experience as the true event itself. Without revealing a thorough geographic landscape of the steps themselves, Eisenstein is able to create a seemingly never-ending staircase. The soldiers descending the steps with guns blazing seem at once both hot on the heels of the fleeing crowds and simultaneously miles away. By focusing on feet, parts of fallen bodies, and terrifying close-ups (mostly medium close-ups, interestingly), Eisenstein creates a frenzy. It’s almost as though we as viewers are also fleeing the scene of the massacre, unable to take in more than fleeting, brutal impressions of the events unfolding in front of us.
(Personally, I also find the bombing of the Odessa Opera House as a particularly effective use of montage editing, if not one of the showier examples of it on hand. As the first bombs fly in, we see a statue of a sleeping lion. As they explode, Eisenstein cuts to another statue, this time of a fully awake and vicious-looking lion. The visual metaphor created here is a hard one to miss, but achieved so fluidly via the editing that it’s not only worthy of a text book, but also makes a stark and elegant point of the changing attitudes in Russia – and film itself).