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The sequence from The Battleship Potemkin that the paper at hand is going to analyze is the closing episode of Act I “Men and Maggots.” It shows three sailors washing the plates immediately after the conflict, in which a group of sailors discovered that the meat for their soup was maggot-ridden and refused to eat it (Bascomb 24). One of the sailors suddenly sees that one of the plates he is washing has a mocking phrase, “Give us this day our daily bread” written on it. The sailor smashes the plate in a fury (Fabe 18).
The episode is the borderline between the introductory part of the movie and the climax. At this point, the entanglement is finished, and the major conflict begins to develop. This is made clear to the viewer in no small part due to the montage techniques Eisenstein applies. Before the rebel begins, the tempo of the movie is comparatively low, which is created by the combination of long shots (Fabe 20). However, when the sailor realizes the hypocrisy of the inscription, the tempo immediately increases. It is now the right time to appeal to the viewer’s emotions and involve him/her in the conflict. The agitation is created intentionally in order to make the audience feel the turning point of the plot.
Eisenstein achieves this effect through the use of metric and rhythmic types of montage. The former type is the simplest and relies on the length of shots. It creates an acceleration of tension with the help of the shortening technique. The rhythmic montage is more complicated and engages mise-en-scene characteristics rather than cutting the length (Robertson 54). The scene consists of shots that stand separately but still overlap. The sailor smashing the plate is shown from his right and then from his left side using distorted angles. Such a technique perfectly aligns with the principle of the montage of attractions, which states that sudden outbursts of aggression can move the viewer emotionally and even physically.
It can manipulate the reactions of the audience and give them any direction that is required by the purpose of the movie (Begin 1128). The juxtaposition of various shots in the sequence first shows the perplexity of the sailor and his confused thoughts and then expresses his anger and emerging violence. It is clear that now he is ready to fight for his rights (Dickstein 92). This scene answers the director’s propagandistic goal by showing viewers a humanistic aspect of the situation: they are made to sympathize with the sailor seeking revenge for all the injustices made to him and others, whose hands (symbolizing hard labor in the episode) are shown much more often than their faces, which makes them impersonalized.
Close-Ups vs. Long Shots
The overall effect created by the combination of close-ups and long shots is confusion and escalating tension. The director attempts to show the moment when the true emotion is born triggered by a seemingly insignificant object. He traces the change of the reaction from total dullness to fury. The general pattern of the shot combination identified in the episode is the following (Robertson 58):
- the sequence starts with a close-up of hands washing plates;
- a close-up of the perplexed face of a sailor who notices that something is written on one of the plates;
- a close-up of his hands with the plate when he is moving it around in order to see the inscription properly;
- a close-up of rage in his face;
- a long shot of others (another sailor is trying to discern the inscription);
- a quick long shot of the three sailor from the high angle and the sailor who is starting to lift the plate;
- a close-up of the same action;
- a long shot showing the fast and abrupt movement of his hands;
- a close-up with his hands moving from the other shoulder;
- a close-up of his enraged face expression again;
- a long shot with the hand moving down one more time;
- a long shot with the plate breaking onto the edge of the table.
As we can see from this pattern, at the beginning of the scene, only close-ups are used. After several close-ups are shown, they give place to a sequence of long shots that reveal the context of the situation. However, as the tempo grows, close-ups and long shots start to alternate quickly and abruptly, creating havoc that demonstrates the main character’s state of mind at the captured moment. Since the sailor with the plate is the one on whom the viewer should concentrate his/her attention, Eisenstein uses the sequence of shots with the purpose of making this particular sailor stand out from the group. First, he is shown as a part of the close-up shot with hands, which does not allow identifying to whom those hands belong. However, after that, his face is demonstrated to the audience from different angles –he is the only one whose face is demonstrated in a close-up, which makes the viewer identify with him. The audience feels that the wrath in this face is the beginning of the mutiny (Rizvi 80).
Bascomb, Neal. Red Mutiny: Eleven Fateful Days on the Battleship Potemkin. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008.
Begin, Paul. “Buñuel, Eisenstein, and the ‘Montage of Attractions’: An Approach to Film in Theory and Practice.” Bulletin of Spanish Studies, vol. 83, no. 8, 2006, pp. 1113-1132.
Dickstein, Morris. “Battleship Potemkin and Beyond: Film and Revolutionary Politics.” Dissent, vol. 58, no. 3, 2011, pp. 90-95.
Fabe, Marilyn. Closely Watched Films: An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Technique. University of California Press, 2014.
Rizvi, Wajiha Raza. “Politics, Propaganda and Film Form: Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Triumph of the Will (1935).” Journal of International Communication, vol. 20, no. 1, 2014, pp. 77-86.
Robertson, Robert. Eisenstein on the Audiovisual: The Montage of Music, Image and Sound in Cinema. IB Tauris, 2011.