Tuesday, March 11, 2008
The Battleship Potemkin
“Myth,” the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote, “is language.” Insofar as that language develops exponentially over time, so do components of a story, and can be individualized as ‘mythemes’. But, what Levi-Strauss only hints at, is that at the kernel of myth is – however murkily, and however mediated – a truth. It becomes a primal means of language to describe history and the present and the human condition.
If film is a language, Sergei Eisenstein’s brief, urgent masterpiece uses myth as its logical centre but has also become a myth in itself. And, as Levi-Strauss posits, at the heart of both is truth. The truth of brutal struggle against oppression, and in the film’s afterlife and Eisenstein’s memory, the truth of its furious, bracing genius.
Eisenstein’s reputation is largely unassailable; the only quibbles are about what was his greatest film (Strike (1925)? Potemkin? Alexander Nevsky (1938)?). Briefly setting aside the politics (to totally separate this from Eisenstein’s vision is dissimulation of the worst kind), Battleship Potemkin is a visually stunning essay in the montage techniques pioneered at Mosfilm by Lev Kuleshov in the extraordinarily bizarre ferment of creative energies unleashed by the Bolshevik October Revolution, which gave the world visual artists such as Tatlin and Malevich, composers Shostakovich and Roslavetz and the theatrical innovators Stanislavski and Meyerhold.
The film is a straightforward bellow against oppression, with a rising of matelots on the eponymous ship against their Imperialist bosses in the signature year of 1905, the year of the failed Russian revolution that first Kerensky and then Lenin set out to avenge.
It’s in your face. Of course it is. But it’s an embrace you don’t mind. The grotesquely-treated sailors take control of the ship, the port city of Odessa mobilizes its poor and hungry who are shot down by Tsarist battalions in one of cinema’s iconic moments – and it is here that myth takes hold. Apart from a stream of superbly composed images, devised on the hoof in partnership with conematographer Eduard Tisse - there is the still-stunning Odessa Steps sequence, the tumbling baby carriage, the smashed specs of the screaming babushka, the jump-cutting from this to that agonized figure, hard-pedalling of the dehumanizing banality of evil – even 80 years on, this grips like a vice. The savagery, for 1925, must have reduced cinema audiences to silence, but the harsh contrasts of light on the steps lent film an entirely new language, and thus the visual patois of the last century. The massacre never happened – although Tsarist troops did commit atrocities in the town. The triumphant peroration as the squadron of ships sent to destroy the Potemkin join in its revolutionary fervour is another myth, as naïve as the Socialist-Realism of smiling peasants with huge shiny biceps atop collectivized tractors. And yet, while it is a great big clenched fist, it retains its own individual, inimitable beauty and integrity.
The American cultural critic Garry Wills railed against the ‘fist’ approach of Hollywood blockbusters, telegraphing images and creating its own mythology but Eisenstein – no matter how one views the USSR – did this with good taste and a visual language that simply had not been invented until he did so. Not by Méliès, not by Griffiths. There are period references – the florid gestures of the players, for example – but Eisenstein reinvented the cinematograph in the same way that George Martin reinvented the recording studio.
Watch carefully. Kuleshov and his pals were schooled in revolutionary idealism and their experiments in montage technique were aimed at measuring emotional response in viewers. This is not to diminish the extraordinary pacing of Eisenstein’s cutting from the face of a sailor to a terrified Odessan – the continuity of Hollywoodian visual narrative, still so familiar today, was cut to ribbons, as vital scenes (the slash of a sabre, for example) were reduced to nanoseconds – or the beauty of his sometimes homoerotic dwelling on military hardware. It’s easy to see why Goebbels admired this visual language, as it prefigures his vision of stahlende Romantik – steely Romanticism, as a metaphor for the elemental struggles of the 20th century. But Eisenstein is no totalitarian patsy. Far from it. Indeed its very success – it was an international sensation, not just among communist or even leftist critics and audiences – helped create cinematic myth, in the same way as Citizen Kane (1941), or Triumph of the Will (1935) or Psycho (1960). It used a form of mythology to create its own.
In the last years of his life, Eisenstein stood in ever-increasing isolation, accused of formalism, or the deliberate promotion of style over revolutionary content, and while Nevsky was a masterpiece, Ivan the Terrible (1942) remained a tantalizingly unfinished monument to Stalinist nationalism. Other great Soviet directors followed him through the Party mill – Tarkovsky got into the crap too, and even Elem Klimov, whose 1985 WW2 film Come and See is widely considered to be the most harrowing war movie ever made, never quite made it past the commissars. We should be grateful that Eisenstein’s pre-eminence entered western consciousness before Stalin’s dead hand regimented USSR cultural life. This is not just one of the greatest films ever made, but, along with Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, Joyce’s Ulysses and Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, one of the defining cultural works of the past 100 years. Potemkin is a myth. But as with all myths, there’s truth in the reasons for its fame.