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April 11, 2008

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Silent Reflections – The Battleship Potemkin (1925), in light of Metropolis (1927)

by HELEN GEIB

Metropolis and The Battleship Potemkin achieved immediate fame and remain among the best known silent films. Commonly acclaimed as exemplars of their respective national cinemas of the silent era, the films are widely admired for their visual filmmaking. Both are readily accessible and continue to be watched and written about. Beyond that, it would be difficult to find any points of commonality between these two films, a total opposition that encompasses audience reception. Metropolis is studied and enjoyed today; Potemkin is only studied.

Metropolis (follow the link for my review) is a crazy quilt of narrative themes and visual motifs. Direction, production design, all the visual and technical aspects are brilliant. In contrast, ideology in Metropolis is confused, even incoherent. That would be a serious problem if the filmmaking was directed towards promoting a message. Fortunately the filmmaking is directed at telling a story. Ideology is only one of the many colorful trappings that dress up the simplest of all possible plots: boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy and villain have knock-down, drag-out fight; boy gets girl.

Paradoxically, Metropolis‘s artistic failings contribute along with its artistic successes to its enduring appeal. Anyone with basic film literacy, from any culture in any decade since the film’s release, will understand and respond to it in essentially the same way. The story is exceedingly familiar and simple; therefore, it is universal and ageless. Intellectually the film is an overstuffed mess; therefore, it has no dated or alienating political agendas. The wildly fantastical world of Metropolis resembles no known human society in either its social constructs or physical settings; therefore, the film seems to exist outside of time and culture.

The Battleship Potemkin is not a film that is fun to watch. Of course, the creators and admirers of Potemkin would reject my critique that it is not enjoyable as irrelevant, the product of a hopelessly bourgeois mindset. The purpose behind the film was not to give an audience pleasure, it was to instruct and persuade in the service of justifying and promoting Soviet socialism.

The film’s sphere of influence, a tremendous influence that continues to operate on contemporary filmmakers, and its continued fame rest on director Sergei Eisenstein’s pioneering use of montage. Montage is the word film theorists use to describe the visual technique of editing together single shots or very brief scenes in such a way as to convey the impression of movement or an associative significance. The “waking lion” sequence (shown in the image with this post) accomplishes both purposes. Single shots of three different stone sculptures of lions in three different poses are edited together to convey the impression of a lion rearing up in response to the scene before it, an action rich in symbolism.

The “waking lion” is part of the justly famed “Odessa steps” sequence. The entire film is constructed around the use of montage, but reaches its apex in the depiction of the slaughter of civilians by the military on the Odessa steps. That sequence is both artistically and ideologically the most successful part of the film. The propagandistic nature of the sequence is evident, as it is in every part of the film, but unlike the rest of the film the propaganda does not overwhelm the material.
The film’s first segment, detailing the mutiny on board the battleship, additionally suffers from the broad caricatures that stand in for the enemies of the people – the officers and priest. It is no exaggeration to say the officer who is the focus of the camera’s attention is rendered as a mustache-twirling villain. At first glance, the painfully melodramatic representation seems something that is unworthy of a talent the size of Eisenstein’s, but it is necessary to the story’s dramatic construction. To portray the target (victim) of the mutineers’ murderous rage as a real, living and breathing human being would evoke emotions more complex than simple glee. And a complex emotional response would most assuredly interfere with the film’s didactic purpose.

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