“Anywhere there is film, the film-maker is only the child of Eisenstein. For he is the guardian, the father—he is Adam, the primeval Adam of the cinema, the first man.” -Ritwik Ghatak
A shot of the rebellion of workers being put down juxtaposed with a shot of cattle being slaughtered, producing a shocking effect which makes the viewer sit up and take notice. This technical innovation, whereby two images are juxtaposed to imply a third image greater than the first two particular images, is dubbed by Sergei Eisenstein as “intellectual montage.” Contrary to the popular believe of smooth continuity in films, Eisenstein believed that a film should progress by continuous collisions and series of shocks arising through continuous images. ‘…the juxtaposition of two shots by splicing them together resembles not so much the simple sum of one shot plus another – as it does a creation.’ The father of montage, Eisenstein, is most renowned for his “Revolution Trilogy”: Strike, Battleship Potemkin, and October. He was a Marxist, and was thoroughly influenced by Da Vinci, Baudelaire, Dickens, Goethe, et al. He quotes them quite often in the essays and books that he had written.
While in Zurich, Lenin noted that the medium of film was an effective way to influence the mindset of people. In Lenin’s words, “the cinema is the most important of all the arts.” He had made it clear that in the post-revolutionary Soviet, the value of a film which promoted the form and idea of the revolution was far greater than a film projecting an imaginary story. Eisenstein was a propaganda film maker, who wanted to make films to influence the mass. He was of the opinion that art should raise class consciousness and transform the viewer. He worked towards this goal of his. He wanted to work towards “a purely intellectual film, freed from traditional limitations, achieving direct forms for ideas, systems, and concepts.” He believed cinema was a synthesis of science and art. Eisenstein believed that the revolution had made an artist out of him. “The revolution gave me the most precious thing in life – it made an artist out of me. If it had not been for the revolution I would never have broken the tradition, handed down from father to son, of becoming an engineer… The revolution introduced me to art, and art, in its own turn, brought me to the revolution.”
Eisenstein’s path-breaking film “Strike” was a film about workers on strike and their rebellion which was crushed. According to him, there should not only be conflict between scenes, but there should also be shocks and collisions in the scene itself. He exhibited a mastery of editing, which he later identified as metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal, and intellectual. The second film in the trilogy is perhaps the most popular one: “Battleship Potemkin.” The film was based on its mutiny. It was banned in the UK till 1954, the armed forces of Germany were forbidden from seeing the film in fear of a mutiny. Charlie Chaplin said that it was “the best film in the world.” The best known sequence of the film is the Odessa steps sequence, where a civilian crowd runs down the steps away from Cossack gunfire. A boy is killed in the confusion, and the crowd tramples over the body of the boy. 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.
In 1927, he was commissioned to make “October: Ten Days that shook the world,” based on the book by John Reed to celebrate 10 years of the revolution. Unlike the book, however, Trotsky’s role in the film has been singularly reduced as a weakling pitted against Lenin. Stalin had made sure that all other scenes of Trotsky were removed from the film, as at that time there was a major power struggle because of Trotsky’s opposition to Stalin. Eisenstein did not appreciate the interference of Stalin to tamper his work.
Eisenstein’s last film “Ivan the terrible” was written during the Second World War It was a three volume historic magnum opus. The first part was screened in the Soviet in 1944. The second part was banned by Stalin because Stalin was of the opinion that Ivan was projected as very cruel and that the director wanted to corrupt history.
Battleship Potemkin, and in particular Odessa Steps, has been a staple part of syllabus of film schools all over the world. It is not difficult to see the overwhelming shadow that Eisenstein’s genius casts even today over films. Besides large amount of inspired work in Hollywood, he has influenced artists like Ritwik Ghatak and Utpal Dutt. Dutt had written and staged “Kallol” which was a play based on the Indian Naval Mutiny of 1946, centering around a battleship Khyber off the shore of Bombay and Congress complicity before independence. It drew heavy influences from Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein’s work has stood the test of time and his name has gone down in history as one of the finest propaganda artists. His revolutionary advances in film theory and montages will be etched in the memory of people forever.