Sergei Eisenstein is one of the legendary figures in cinematic history. Eisenstein is the Godfather of montage, which is basically just a fancy term used to describe the way that editing can be utilized for the purpose of making a movie about a theme rather than about plot or character. No memorable characters step off the screen during Battleship Potemkin to take their place alongside the great mythic figures in celluloid history. Nor can even most huge fans of the film boil down the plot of the movie into a one or two sentence caption. This is because the real star of this film that harsh critics may deride as mere Soviet communist propaganda is its thematic positioning of how a nationwide revolution affects the average working stiff.
The film that became Battleship Potemkin began life as an idea for a single chapter within a film experience of a much more expansive and epic presentation detailing how it was precisely the failures of the 1905 Russian Revolution that directly led to the successful Bolshevik overthrow of the tyrannical tsarist monarchy. That grand vision fell through, but its failure to come to fruition did nothing to lessen the impact of the montage of images that eventually came to the screen intact as the isolated feature Battleship Potemkin.
That original vision would have comprised eight different episodes to tell that story; Battleship Potemkin is a film with five distinct section that each together create a montage effect to forward the film’s them about the impact of economic revolution on the common worker. The movie’s release date should instantly telegraph to anyone with even the barest knowledge of film history that it is a silent film. As such, director Sergei Eisenstein was moved by necessity to put across his theme primarily through the impact of visual images. The result was some of the most astonishing visual images ever put on film and that includes in comparisons to movies made in the wake of its release. In fact, Eisenstein’s standing as the Godfather of montage is based to a large degree upon one particular segment within Battleship Potemkin that was so influential that one very famous movie director copied it nearly shot for shot for inclusion in a very famous movie. That movie was Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables and the sequence in Battleship Potemkin is known as “the Odessa Steps sequence.” Those familiar with DePalma’s gangster epic will doubtlessly recall the famous shootout sequence involving a baby carriage. Even the baby carriage is included in Eisenstein’s original.
That famous sequence is an iconic representative of the full power of montage as envisioned by Eisenstein. The sequence builds suspense and emotional intensity through the editing of a series of shots that cover the entire event from various perspectives and camera distances. The ultimate effect is to show boil down from the collective experience of the huge cast of characters involved in this pivotal moment in the failure of the 1905 to a far more personal perspective by effectivey situating the viewer right into the action so through the power of editing he becomes almost an active participant. Eisenstein further intensifies the emotional impact of this individual connection to the collective experience by replicating that universal psychological perception of time slowing down during moments of exceptional stress and duress. This is accomplished by virtue of the editorial choice of montage making the event on screen take longer than it would have if shot as mere documentary-style cinema-verite.
The Odessa Steps sequence is just one of many segments within Battleship Potemkin that not only established Sergei Eisenstein as the Godfather of montage, but helped to advance the movement of film from a mere novelty into genuine art form. In the course of a just a few short years, the film industry had gone from YouTube-style stationary camera documentation of events without plot or story, much less theme or ideology. Battleship Potemkin was released a mere ten years after D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and represented just as much a great leap forward in the art of filmmaking as Griffith’s film marked a leap over what existed before. Only Sergei Eisenstein advanced the art of cinema without revising historical fact by making heroes out of the bad guys of his movie’s historical context.