D.W. Griffith's 1916 film Intolerance was a major influence on the Russian development of montage. Russian filmmakers closely studied how Griffith used his cuts to drive the narrative, to integrate diverse material, to intensify emotions with its rhythms, and to mirror internal thoughts and sensations. The following essay will show how Sergei Eisenstein used Griffith's techniques to achieve those four results in his 1925 film Battleship Potemkin.
One of the best examples of Eisenstein's use of cutting to drive the narrative is the mutiny sequence, where we are first shown, one by one, the various affronts and abuses that are the reasons for the men's anger, then given the final straw that starts the mutiny: the attempted execution. In the uproar that follows, cutting is rapid, showing the men running about, grabbing weapons, and the fate of each officer after the chase. Eisenstein intersperses takes of the men chasing and dispatching the officers with dramatic shots of the Potemkin's flag flying high, as if urging them on.
Directly before the mutiny sequence, Eisenstein used his editing in a slightly different way. To build up the tension before the mutiny and to amass evidence for the benefit of the audience, Eisenstein enumerates the cruelties wreaked upon the harried crew, the foremost among these being the rotten food. The unsympathetic doctor, the vicious First Mate, the crazed priest, and the difficult working conditions are also highlighted. Eisenstein juxtaposes the men going about their daily routine with shots of the stew containing the rotted meat; shots of their exhausted sleep with the belligerent night-snooping of the boatswain, and takes of the men buying food with those of the uneaten stew to show that they've refused it. Later in the film, Eisenstein again links up diverse material through the narrative by playing shots of the freedom-loving Odessans against the oppressive, freedom-shattering Imperial Guard.
Eisenstein's rhythmic cutting plays on the emotions, building suspense, terror, or anger almost to a fever pitch. His quick switches from the terrified Odessans fleeing down the steps in screaming disorder and the calm, unfeeling onward march of the soldiers creates an irregular rhythm that is quite disquieting. His cuts from the sailors of the Potemkin waking and preparing to face the oncoming fleet to those of the ships as they approach builds suspense—this sequence seems to go on forever, until the tension is released by the information that the fleet has joined the revolutionary cause.
Although this film depicts large numbers of people as its “main character”, Eisenstein still manages to show individual emotion: the anger on the face of the dishwasher as he breaks the plate; the clenching of the fists of the funeral observers; the expression on the face of the mother who sees her boy prone and trampled on the steps; the tearful embrace of the sailors who believe they are going to their deaths. All these and many others give the audience a sense of pathos, stirring emotions enough to generate genuine interest in the story and heartfelt sympathy for its characters and their cause.
Potemkin is one of the greatest examples of Soviet montage because of the way Eisenstein's editing has shown all of these things, creating drama and intensity in an artistic way while still maintaining a clear narrative.
To read more, including a plot summary, visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battleship_Potemkin
The film can be seen here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4Qfuzn25sI
Image of Battleship Potemkin from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.