Friday, July 25, 2014

Sergei Eisenstein | Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin)

the distracted gaze

by Douglas Messerli

Nina Agadzhanova (writer), Sergei M. Eisenstein (director) Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin) / 1925

It has been decades since I first saw Sergei Eisenstein’s renowned film Battleship Potemkin, and I now no longer even remember what my childhood impressions of film might have been. But watching it again yesterday, I was struck my certain elements of the film that, surely given the years of commentary on this 1925 work, has been described before; but since I have not read any such commentary, I thought I might at least proffer my own (perhaps unoriginal) perceptions.

Everyone, of course, has spoken of Eisenstein’s montage, the rhythm of sequential cuts by which he constructs his films, and, particularly in this work, the great director is clearly determined to shift images every few seconds, creating a sense of reality very much like the real-life duration of experience, where second by second the eye is forced to encounter a new way of perceiving reality. Playing his camera over the various parts of the Battleship—almost as if it were a lover of the metal beast—alternating with sweeping views of the ocean, clouds, and, most importantly, the sailors and officers on board the ship, we soon recognize that the vessel and humans have almost become one: particularly in his use of shadows and patterned projections, we see these individuals, particularly the ordinary sailors, not only as a force who control the ship, but as beings who have become one with their vessel, revealed particularly in the image of a Russian sailor whose body is completely overlaid by the shadow of a circularly grilled metal divider.

      At the same time, however, we quickly get the sense that something else is occurring on board, a different force that has begun to separate the sailors from their allegiance to the battleship they sail. A Boslshevik supporter, Grigory Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov) argues below deck that it is time he and his shipmates join the forces who have already rebelled against Czarist rule in Russia, challenging them to question the ship’s officers, who control their lives with an iron hand. When the soldiers perceive that the hanging carcasses of meat, filled with “worms,” are to be served up as food for their bellies, they complain. The ship’s doctor, decked out with an intense pair of spectacles, insists that what they describe as “worms” are merely “maggots” that can be boiled away, making the meat quite edible.

     Skeptical of his prognosis, many of the sailors refuse to eat the soup served up for their dinner, relying instead on fish they have caught from the boat and canned rations bought from the ship’s commissary. Eisenstein brilliantly reveals the significance of this seemingly small act by centering his camera on the swaying tables, unattended by human presence, the fact of which infuriates the Chief Officer Giliaroysky (Grigori Aleksandrov). Soon after, the men are called to the top deck where the ship’s Commander Golikov (Vladimir Barsky) demands that those who did not enjoy the borscht to step forward. The few that had been chosen to represent the other sailors, do so, while the remaining sea men retreat to the fore-deck. Golikov orders a tarpaulin to be thrown over the offenders and orders his military guard to shoot. At the last moment, Vakulinchuk steps forward to demand of the gunmen, “Brothers! Who are you shooting at?”—a question which will be silently reiterated at film’s end, when the Battleship Potemkin, in a face off with the Russian squadron, will win over their would-be enemies.

      Yet Vakulinchuk’s direct confrontation with his opponents and the last scene of the film are exceptions in Eisenstein’s work. The Bolshevik’s appeal for reason and empathy, for the brotherly-love represented by the revolutionary song “The Internationale,” stands against the actions of the much of the rest of the work. Soon after, the sailors mutiny, sending most of the ship’s officers overboard into the depths of the sea, and at the very moment they perceive that their actions have succeeded Vakulinchuk is killed by Giliaroysky.

      Already we sense, early in this film, that, despite this successful attempt at revolution, the men and women who would attempt to speak out vocally against the Czarist rulers will not be met with open reciprocity. Indeed, from some of the very first images of Battleship Potemkin we perceive that each of the sailors, whether presented alone or in small posed groups, cannot communicate with the others around them, particularly the officers to whom they complain.      One might even describe Eisenstein’s central imaging device is to pose his figures in a way that they look toward what photographic critic Murat Nemet-Nejat has described as the “peripheral space” of photography. Whether he films his figures singularly, in twos, or in threes, they seem to be unable to engage in a communal sharing of language with either their perceived opponents or even with themselves, as they sometimes look off in different directions toward the edges of what Eisenstein presents as a frame. Even when they are presented as facing straight-forward they appear to be less responding to their interlocutors than to us, the hopefully sympathetic viewers (and would-be evaluators) of their actions. Despite the quick cross-cutting of officer and sailors in scenes representing their arguments about the quality of their meat or the far more important show-down between accusation and rejection on the deck of the ship, any real communication is clearly revealed, by the director’s isolated images of the distracted gaze of sailors, to be out of the realm of possibility.

     With eyes shifting to the left, right, and down of the film’s frames, the sailors of Battleship Potemkin stare off into spaces that permit no human interrelationships.

      Nowhere in this film is this fact made more apparent that when the action shifts to the harbor of Odessa in Ukraine. With the dead Vakulinchuk laid out in a small tent like a Russian, the citizens of the city, who have all seemingly heard rumors of the ship’s mutiny, descend upon the harbor to pay their respects to the new hero. Eisenstein makes little attempt for these admirers to speak to one another. Through an occasional inter-title, we gather that some speak to the general group, but visually these pilgrims are once again represented in complete isolation, eyes looking into the burial tent with open wonderment, faces distracted, temporarily at least, from the world surrounding them. Once more, the director presents them as looking everywhere except into the faces of one another.

     Even more dramatically, the famed slaughter of innocents on the now revered Potemkin Steps (named for the film, despite the fact that in real life the murders of Oddessans occurred mostly on the surrounding side streets) is played out from several odd perspectives. First, we witness the crowds moving down the steps en masse, but each locked into their separate race with terror.

    Soon after a child is shot dead, however, a few of the fleeing citizens singularly arise and turn back to the Czarist troops in the hope—as Vakulinchuk was able to do with the ship’s military guard—that they might dissuade the troops in their mindless mission of mayhem. The mother of the child, picks up her son and turns back toward the proceeding soldiers, facing them head on, one of the few times that such a direct encounter is portrayed in Eisenstein’s movie.     These individual acts of entreaty, however, have absolutely no effect, as one by one those who implore for the cessation of the soldier’s act are shot dead. The soldiers no longer represent human beings but some horrific machine that has no comprehension of its brutal acts. As Cassock troops  suddenly appear at the very front of the steps to further beat and maim the fleeing masses, Eisenstein’s camera moves now behind the citizens, watching from their backs as a child, captured in its carriage, careens out of its dead mother’s arms down the blood-stained steps.

     We now observe the actions not from the viewpoint of the Odessa citizens but from the automaton-like troops marching behind them, returning us to the world of the distracted gaze of beings who refuse to face one another in open communication. The result of this inhuman situation is so horrifying that, when the ship reacts to the slaughter of innocents by shooting into the city’s grand opera house, even the sculpted lions surrounding its entrance to rise up in absolute outrage.

     Given what we have just witnessed, it is no wonder that the sailors of the Potemkin, now moving back to sea in order to face a “stand off” with the squadron of vessels under Czarist Russian control, are now portrayed again as looking off into space, independently standing on look-out, sleeping. It is only when the squadron is sighted that, as the ship’s figures move into position, we recognize that we are now moving toward the longed-for direct confrontation of the other. But it is presented by Eisenstein less in terms of the sailors in control than in the forward-facing cannons and by the direct confrontations of the ships themselves, as they have become, somehow, stand-ins for what has failed on the human level. The language these leviathans speak comes in the form of a waving flag: Join us!

     The refusal of the other ships to fire is greeted with cheers by the mutinous sailors, who have won the day if not the battle. The actual story is far more complex, and, alas, far more similar to events that happened in the central portions of this film. Ultimately, the Battleship Potemkin, after wandering for some period of time, was surrendered to the Romanians

Los Angeles, July 25, 2014

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