This March, our Akira Kurosawa Online Film Club will be discussing Sergei Eisenstein‘s 1925 classic Battleship Potemkin. Considered one of the greatest films of all time, it is particularly famous for its exploration of film techniques such as montage, as well as for its use of film as a propaganda tool. Both of these aspects will be of interest to us.
Battleship Potemkin has influenced generations of films and filmmakers, Kurosawa being no exception. As one concrete example, the riot scene which takes place on the steps of the prison camp in The Hidden Fortress is typically considered a direct homage to Battleship Potemkin‘s Odessa Steps sequence, one of the most iconic scenes in all of cinema history.
Kurosawa’s wider debt to Eisenstein has also been often discussed (for instance in Stephen Prince‘s book on Kurosawa, Eisenstein is the most often mentioned director other than Kurosawa), although I think Yoshimoto (150-151) summarises much of that discussion very well (outside of Prince, it must be said):
Kurosawa has often been compared to Eisenstein, and the comparison is almost always focused on the similar visual quality of their works: geometric shot composition, dialectic montage, dynamic motion, visual shock, and other characteristics. This type of comparison often points out significant aspects of Kurosawa’s work; however, its inadequacy is also hard to deny, since it tends to end up trivializing not only Kurosawa’s but also Eisenstein’s work. What is often overlooked is the reason why Eisenstein was so interested in exploring the possibility of dynamic montage and graphic design in the first place. Eistensein did not theorize montage in his writings and films just to make his films visually enticing or entertaining. Different types of montage are conceived in such a way that they dialectically develop into more complex, sophisticated types, which approximate the inner process of both human thought and affect (e.g., intellectual montage, inner thought, etc.). Likewise, Kurosawa is not interested in graphic composition or dynamic movement per se. The stereotype of Kurosawa as a mere artisan of graphic dynamism has been circulating in criticism of Kurosawa films partly because thematic motifs and stylistic aspects of his films are often examined separately. To make a comparison between Kurosawa and Eisenstein truly relevant, we must abandon the stereotyped image of Kurosawa as a superb artisan on visual dynamism without sophisticated ideas and thoughts. True, Kurosawa’s films can be at time thematically too bourgeois and naive. But to the extent that this thematic understanding of Kurosawa’s films takes what characters or narrators say in his films at a face value, it is as naive as the putative object of thematic criticism.
Kurosawa himself typically appeared to deliberately distance himself from other filmmakers, including Eisenstein. When once asked about the possible influence of the Soviet filmmaker’s Ivan The Terrible on Ran, Kurosawa had this to say:
No, I’ve never been influenced in such a way. I like The Battleship Potemkin, but by the time of Ivan the Terrible — by that point in Eisenstein’s career — I had stopped looking at his films. (Quoted in Cardullo, 179)
In any case, in one way or another, Eisenstein’s influence is definitely visible in Kurosawa, just like it is present in much of the history of cinema. There is quite a bit to be said about Kurosawa and Eisenstein, or indeed Kurosawa and the wider tradition of Russian cinema and literature.
At the same time, Battleship Potemkin is relevant to us also as a propaganda film. And what a propaganda film it is! Beyond its admittedly simplistic (but functional) didacticism, Eisenstein experiments with the potential of cinema as a propaganda tool and in the process creates something of a blueprint for all propaganda films to follow. In our film club’s schedule, Battleship Potemkin follows Kurosawa’s The Most Beautiful, which we discussed last month as the first film in our year long exploration of propaganda.
To find out more about Battleship Potemkin, you can head over to Wikipedia which does a fairly good job at introducing the film. As for the film’s availability, Battleship Potemkin is fairly widely available, with numerous releases in English and other languages. The film can also be freely watched at YouTube and Archive.org, the latter also offering a free download option.
For more information and the full schedule of our film club, see the film club page.
6 March 2016
I think that trying to identify any influences on film makers by Eisenstein is a bit pointless – his work is so fundamental to cinema that every film maker is ‘influenced’ by him to some extent, either directly or indirectly. In some ways you can compare him to Kurosawa in this way – his techniques are inherent to a huge percentage of films and tv.
I first saw Battleship Potemkin a few years ago in the cinema. I was blown away by it, not least because I hadn’t realised just how many film makers put overt tributes to him in their films – it was like the old joke about the woman who didn’t like Hamlet ‘because it was full of cliches’. Half the film felt entirely familiar for that reason, despite it being the first time I saw it. I can’t begin to imagine how exciting and fresh it must have been for the original audience. It must have been very successful as propaganda, how could you not be cheering for the Reds after watching it?
Having said that, as ‘propaganda’, I think the film is very straightforward. There doesn’t seem to be any subliminal messages or subtlety – its a straightforward action film featuring the ‘right’ side as good guys and the ‘wrong’ side as the bad guys. As such, it is as much ‘propaganda’ as most mainstream action and war movies from the last century or so.