When contemporary filmmakers want the audience to feel a sense of dread, they have a formidable technological arsenal at their disposal to make it so. Even so, few modern movies can capture the emotive power of a scene shot way back in the early days of cinema, when films were still silent and not even sound effects could be used to heighten the drama of what was unfolding onscreen. Yet the jaggedly repeated image of an occupied baby carriage careening down a long flight of stairs – the famous Odessa Steps – has become such an iconic evocation of pulse-pounding fear that it has popped up again and again in movies ever since.
In Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables, for instance, the runaway baby carriage sequence happens on a moving escalator in a train station. Cynics might complain that such an obvious hommage to Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece Battleship Potemkin is just a way of waving one’s hands in the air and saying, “Hey, look at me, I went to film school!” But Potemkin, for all its relative technical crudeness, retains its punch today, and has earned an occasional genuflection from modern auteurs who learned the art of montage editing – so ubiquitous in today’s Hollywood output – at the knees of its early Soviet masters.
The film, which tells a highly colored (though shot in black-and-white) version of a short-lived 1905 uprising against the Tsar that prefigured the 1917 Russian Revolution, is a bit of a cinematic education in itself. Eisenstein didn’t invent the film montage; that distinction is usually conferred on his mentor, Lev Kuleshov, whose name is best-remembered today in the context of the “Kuleshov Effect”: a filmic experiment demonstrating that audiences will impute vastly different emotions to the blank face of an actor depending on the content of other images with which it is intercut. But in his quest to magnify the effects of film as a propaganda tool, Eisenstein took editing to a new level. He actually defined five separate types of montage, which use different time signatures and other variables to produce predictably different effects on the viewer.
Battleship Potemkin was actually a sort of filmed dissertation on Eisenstein’s theories; beneath the obvious pro-revolutionary message, he used it to illustrate by example several of his categories of montage editing. With its pounding visual rhythms set by the relentless march of Tsarist soldiers down the stairs, driving the panicked crowd of protestors into the ranks of Cossacks waiting at the bottom to kill them, interspersed with cutaways to bloodied individuals, the Odessa Steps scene is the director’s classic example of what he called “rhythmic montage.” It accomplishes its purpose – to rouse the viewer’s sense of outrage against the forces of oppression – precisely as designed even today, despite the fact that historically, the Odessa Steps massacre never happened.
Such is the magic of cinema. Who needs real history, when you can manipulate the masses simply by juxtaposing conflicting images with expert timing? Battleship Potemkin is often cited as the greatest propaganda film ever made, and was even grudgingly admired by such ideological opposites as the Nazis: “Anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film,” said Joseph Goebbels after viewing Potemkin.
For its revolutionary message as well as its explicit violence, the film was banned in many European countries until the 1950s and rated X in Britain until 1978, despite the fact that much of the Bolshevist rhetoric of the original title cards was bowdlerized in translation and many of the goriest images edited out. Nevertheless, Battleship Potemkin was named the greatest film of all time at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels.
Hollywood today mostly uses montage editing in a “continuity” style to accommodate the ADHD of contemporary audiences raised on the jump-cutting of Sesame Street and its TV progeny, who have no patience for exposition: as a way of telescoping time, conveying many crucial nuggets of information in a short sequence. But now and then you’ll see a montage that truly exploits the power of the technique: the gloriously uplifting depiction of the universality of love conveyed in the fragmenting closing moments of Love Actually, for instance, or the buildup of dread evoked by a tapestry of views from hundreds of security cameras just prior to the terrorist bombing of a marketplace near the beginning of the recent thriller Closed Circuit.
Once you’ve seen Battleship Potemkin, you’ll appreciate such scenes in a whole new way. And you can do it for much less than the price of a Film Appreciation 101 class by visiting the Rosendale Theatre on December 1 at 2 p.m. It’s the latest in the regular Sunday Silents Series presented by the Rosendale Theatre Collective – sometimes accompanied by live music, just like in the movie palaces of bygone days. Such will be the case at this Sunday’s screening.
It is said that Eisenstein hoped that the score for Battleship Potemkin would be rewritten every 20 years to refresh its relevance for each new generation. So it will be interesting to hear which of the many scores inspired by the film over the years will be chosen by pianist Marta Waterman – perhaps the 1985 version for solo piano composed by Keith Jarrett’s younger brother Chris? Or maybe she’ll just wing it.
Find out for yourself, deepen your cinematic education, be wowed by the power of Battleship Potemkin and check out the spruced-up amenities of this recently renovated community cinema at the competitive price of $7 per ticket general admission, $5 for Rosendale Theatre Collective members. The entryway now boasts a wheelchair ramp and lift, but for this disturbing movie, it’s still probably best to leave the baby carriage (and contents) at home.
Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin with live piano accompaniment, Sunday, December 1, 2 p.m., $7/$5, Rosendale Theatre, 408 Main Street, Rosendale; (845) 658-8989, https://rosendaletheatre.org.