The Odessa Steps and the use of Montage (Battleship Potemkin)04/12/2011
Of the many pioneers of modern editing theory, one of the most important is Sergei Eisenstein. Known for his use of montage, Eisenstein was capable of directing audience emotions through juxtaposition of images that would collectively bear a given meaning. Much of this theory would later be pursued by Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese, ultimately finding its most extreme form in the medium of Music Videos. Eisenstein’s famous “Odessa Steps” sequence from The Battleship Potemkin is one of the most influential montages in film history, with references to it finding their way into The Untouchables and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.
What makes this sequence so memorable? Is it the content? Or the cinematography? Can editing alone be given credit for the end result? I think it is all these things and more that makes this sequence work as it does. The fact that the sequence takes place toward the end of the film, after we’ve already been introduced to a number of peasants that get murdered in the scene, helps give us a narrative context for how to feel. The fact that the soldiers are on top of the stairs walking down imbues them with a sense of authority and power, making their slaughter of the poor masses seem that much more unnecessary. The soldiers’ actions could have been portrayed as acceptable, or even heroic, had the civilians not been portrayed in such a miserable and sympathetic light. Typically audiences are much more accepting of battles between equal opponents, and much less accepting of any powerful figure beating down a weaker one. The only context in which we enjoy watching a stronger force defeat a weaker one is if it comes at the defense of weaker characters that we identify with, as is the case when the Potemkin comes to the rescue of the peasants.
In respect to the meaning and purpose of something being edited this way, it was Eisenstein’s belief that two images juxtaposed together would create a mental image greater than the individual parts. By extension, this means that eighty shots put together will call for a uniquely strong response within the audience. This is the heart of Eisenstein’s use of Montage. To him, film is a language that communicates emotion, and having proper editing is the equivalent to having proper grammar.
In his essay, Film Form, Eisenstein describes the Odessa Steps sequence as a “Rhythmic Montage” where the film is cut to certain beat, giving a methodical impression of the scene. But as the director points out, the marching of the soldiers and the beat of the drum consistently come in off-beat, creating a sensation that something is amiss, things are not as they ought to be. The rhythm of the scene is transferred over from the soldiers marching to the baby in the carriage, garnering methodical sympathy from the audience. This whole sequence causes something in the viewer to cry out at the tragedy. We naturally try to make sense of the world and the things in it. But there is no rationality here. Just meaningless violence. There is no rational response to this. We only feel. And what we feel is technically contrived, by the many tools at the filmmaker’s hand.
It is no surprise that this film (and the Odessa Steps sequence in particular) has gone on to influence a wealth of filmmakers around the world. In some cases the homage is deliberate, as in The Untouchables or Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. In other cases, it is implicitly felt, as in the various training montages in every movie ever made about an underground fighter going for the gold. Is the montage an artistic tool, or a linguistic discover? Or perhaps the real question is, is there a difference?