Analysing the Narrative Structure of Battleship Potemkin Sergei Eisenstein’s seminal 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin, is often regarded as one of the finest silent films ever made, and as perhaps the greatest example of a propaganda movie in history. Eisenstein’s film tells the story of the mutiny aboard the Battleship Potemkin, a historical event which took place in 1905. The work can be seen to provide an excellent example of a film that uses an unusual narrative structure when Judged by todays standards of cinema.
The director employs a large number of imagery and narrative techniques which help to create a vivid, striking icture of the mutiny aboard the Potemkin, an image intended by Eisenstein to remain in the mind long after the film ends. One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the film’s narrative structure can be found in its division in to 5 distinct episodes, each with its own title and each relating to a clearly distinguishable set of events that progresses the story of the film.
As the film is silent, the different episodes are interspersed with title cards detailing the name of each episode, with each title giving a clear and easily discernible notion of the events to follow. For example, the first episode, in which the sailors protest gainst being made to eat rotten meat, is named “Men and Maggots”. The division of the film into these five acts ensures that the narrative of the film progresses at a steady pace, with each act seemingly anticipating the events of the next.
As the foundation for the story is laid in the sailor’s refusal to eat rotten meat in the first act, the events of the second episode, entitled “Drama on the Quarterdece, in which the sailors mutiny, can be seen to be a direct consequence of the events of the first. Each of these episodes could be seen as a smaller narrative in itself that fits in to one verarching meta-narrative, with clear relation between them. The film’s five episode structure can be seen to bear resemblance to the construct of the classical tragedy.
Battleship Potemkin’s first episode seemingly mirrors the traditional prologue of classical tragedy, in which the tragedys topic is presented and the core topics of the work are raised. (pg. internet) In “Men and Maggots”, the foundation of the story is laid as the setting and reasons behind the sailor’s mutiny are brought to light. The film’s narrative is also unusual in its lack of a single protagonist who is followed hroughout the film.
Rather than focusing on a single character, the film instead places emphasis on a large group of characters, namely the sailors on the Potemkin (pg. 178 corrigan). Whilst some characters are focused on more than others, such as the ship’s doctor or Vakulinchuk, the de-facto leader of the uprising, these characters cannot be considered as protagonists of the film. These characters instead seem to represent certain ideologies or important viewpoints that can be found in the film.
For example, whilst Vakulinchuk is the member of the uprising that is seemingly most rom his perspective, thus he does not hold the role of the protagonist, but more seems to stand as a symbol of the revolution and uprising. This notion is further compounded when he is killed in the mutiny, and the character of Vakulinchuk becomes something of a symbolic martyr for the cause, as can be noted in the scenes found in the third episode of the film, “A Dead Man Calls for Justice”.
This scene heavily implements the technique of montage, cutting to the mourning faces of sailors and civilians alike, driving the narrative by illustrating the pain caused by the actions of the Tsarists by killing Vakulinchuk. Whilst Vakulinchuk is seemingly a symbol for the revolution, other characters, such as the ship’s doctor, can be seen to drive the narrative by representing the forces of the oppressive bourgeoisie. In the opening episode, the ship’s doctor can be seen to state “These are not worms. They are only maggots. Wash them out with brine. These few words can be seen to immediately place the ship’s doctor on the side of the Tsarists, serving to oppress the sailors of the Potemkin and caring little of their plight, encouraging them to eat maggot infested food despite being the ship’s doctor. This technique clearly creates a ision of two opposing sides, the Tsarist oppressors, and the oppressed masses, represented by the sailors. Eisenstein’s techniques seemingly aim to express a narrative of ideology more so than a narrative of characters. One might say that the lack of a central protagonist helps to proliferate the communist message behind Eisenstein’s film.
Each of the characters in the film is given a similar level of importance, something which promotes the notions of fraternity and togetherness that are so central to both the mutiny of the sailors and the communist propaganda message of the film as a whole. Whilst Eisenstein’s film does contain some dialogue in the form of intertitles, these are used sparingly and do not appear often throughout the film. As a result, Battleship Potemkin requires the use of other techniques as a means to progress the film’s narrative.
Whereas the subtleties of dialogue often lead the viewer to conclusions about characters or situations in a film, the lack of dialogue in Eisenstein’s film leads to the use of seemingly more simplistic techniques in order to impart information upon the viewer. One such example of this can be seen in the uniforms of the different groups of characters in the film. For example, the sailors, representing the forces of good, can be seen to wear white uniforms throughout the film, whereas the Tsarist soldiers are seen to sport a darker uniform.
Here Eisenstein uses easily identifiable visual cues as an effective narrative technique, as commonly held ideas of light and dark representing the forces of good and evil respectively are imparted on the viewer. This provides an excellent example of the way in which narrative can be furthered through the use of visual indications alone, whereas one might normally expect aspects such as conversation or the views of the protagonist to etermine the good and evil forces in a film.
Eisenstein expands on this use of imagery to further the narrative throughout the scene. This section of the film depicts the massacre of civilians by the imperialist forces on the steps of the city of Odessa. One can note Eisenstein’s use of Soviet montage to elicit emotional resonance on the part of the audience. The scene uses the technique of parallel montage to Jump between Juxtaposing images of the boots of the imperialist soldiers marching down the Odessa steps and the distraught and terrified faces of the civilians at the foot of the staircase.
By focusing on the marching boots of the soldiers they are given an almost inhuman quality, the fact that one does not see their faces prevents the viewer from associating themselves with the soldiers, who seem to be simply a callous mass with the sole intention of killing the civilians on behalf of the oppressive regime. These shots are Juxtaposed with the fearful faces of the civilians, a narrative device that serves to prompt an emotional response from the viewers on the behalf of the innocent civilians, with the intention of invoking empathy from the audience.
The isolation of specific civilian fgures in this sequence erves only to increase the viewer’s emotional response. One can note particular focus on a mother with a baby carriage, as the mother pushes the carriage in an attempt to save her child, she is shot down, and scenes of her clutching her stomach and falling to the ground are interspersed with shots of marching soldiers and Cossacks killing civilians.
One can note here in the absence of any previous mention or shots of this mother and her child something of a lack of narrative structure, rather than using narration to further the story, the scenes are only present to elicit motional response from the audience. The scene on the Odessa steps is long and drawn out, with the soldiers seemingly marching down the steps for an extended period of time, prolonging the suffering of the people, with, as critic Seymour Chatman states, the intention of “stretching out the viewer’s experience of the soldier’s descent to the point of excruciation. (pg. 73 chatman) One is also able to note that the scene never depicts the descent of the soldiers down the steps by looking down the steps, as if from the soldiers’ viewpoint, but rather only provides hots looking across the steps or up them. This serves to distance the viewer from the marching soldiers, as empathy is invoked in the viewer seeing the situation from the civilians’ perspective. One is also able to note instances in which cuts take place and shots are inserted which seemingly do not fit in to the sequence of events taking place on screen.. pg. 178 corrigan) A prime example of this can be seen when the mutinying sailors aboard the Potemkin throw the ship’s doctor overboard after he encourages them to eat maggot-infested meat. As the doctor hits the water, a shot appears of the maggot nfested meat, despite the fact that this shot was only seen in an earlier episode. This type of cut can be seen as an attempt by Eisenstein to provide Justification for the actions of the sailors, encouraging the viewer to side with them.
Despite its apparent sequential irrelevancy, this is a narrative technique by Eisenstein which aims to remind the viewer of the reasoning behind the actions of the sailors. Whilst Eisenstein’s editing and montage technique can be seen to advance the film’s emotional connection with the viewer, particularly in the Odessa steps sequence, one ack of narrative structure in Eisenstein’s film. Whilst portraying these montages that serve to prompt an emotional response from the viewer, aiming to draw the audience to the film’s underlying socialist, anti-Tsarist message, the narrative of the story seems to take something of a backseat.
Although many montages, such as those of the civilians and soldiers on the Odessa steps, are emotionally resonant whilst still advancing the plot of the story, one is left with many examples of montage which do little do advance narrative and serve only as emotively charged imagery. A prime xample of this can be found in the montage of the lion statues the Eisenstein includes in the Odessa steps episode. Here Eisenstein attempts to invoke the image of the Russian people rising up by carefully placing shots of three different lion statues, one sleeping, another awakened, and the third rising up.
Although this imagery of the lion statues is not directly related to the events on the Odessa steps at all, this could be seen as an example of the Kuleshov effect, a technique first shown by Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, which leads the audience to associate apparently nrelated imagery with shots directly preceding and following it. (pg. 64 betancour) This leads the viewer to associate the rising lion with the rising of the Russian people.
This scene does not add anything to the narrative structure or progression of the film, instead only aiding the promotion of the ideology behind the film. The narrative structure of Eisenstein’s film differs largely from much of conventional modern-day cinema. The fact that the film is silent and contains little dialogue means that different techniques must be used to provide the reader with information about he story and characters. Eisenstein uses techniques such as the symbolic imagery of the light and dark uniforms of the good and bad characters.
Eisenstein’s techniques of parallel montage serve the purpose of invoking emotional responses in the viewer, as can be seen in the sequence on the Odessa steps in which the shots Jump between the inhuman Tsarist soldiers and the innocent civilians being massacred. However, this technique can also serve to limit the film’s narrative, as story often takes a backseat to the emotional and ideological message Eisenstein attempts to transmit. Works Cited The Battleship Potemkin. Dir. Sergei Eisenstein. Mosfilm, 1925.
Betancourt, Michael. Structuring Time: Notes on Making Movies. N. p. : Wildside, 2004. Print. Chatman, Seymour Benjamin. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film / by Seymour Chatman. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1986. Print. Corrigan, Timothy, and Patricia White. Film Experience: An Introduction. New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. Print. McManus, Barbara F. “Outline of Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy. ” Outline of Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy. College of New Rochelle, Nov. 1999. web. 8 Jan. 2013.