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Montage and Gestalt Psychology

Question:

Asses how Battleship Potemkin uses editing (montage) both to convey action and to highlight political themes.

Montage is a technique of combining several small shots and converting it into a sequence, which will be having meaningful information to convey on the screen. In several movies and in television as well montage is a popular choice. This technique helps the filmmaker to convey an emotional message through the minimum use of dialogue. Montage is actually a series or chain of several shots which are combined together to convey a coherent message in a way that dialogue will be unable to do, it is a way of making the audience to relate  with the situation emotionally without using words or dialogues.

The best way to use montage is to adopt a story, which has taken place over a long period of time probably several months or weeks or even an year, and show it in a compact form within a few seconds or a minute (Bergan 2016). The people who will be seeing it will be using Gestalt psychology to interpret the scene logically; the audience interprets the underlying stories or the unseen incidents that occurred during that period of time. For example, if a young woman is shown sitting at a window looking out and in the next scene, she becomes old still sitting at the window looking out, one can understand that she had been waiting for someone for a long time and the person has never returned back to her.

Sergei Eisenstein is often called the “godfather of montage”  according to him the editing portion of the filmmaking was the most important to make people relate with the content, and he called montage “The essence of cinema”. Eisenstein believed that a “collision” of separate shots could control audience emotions using the medium of “collage,” or montage, of images (Durst 2015). The time during which Eisenstein made his films was the silent era, thus the use of dialogues was minimum, and he realized that he could use various editing techniques to express the story to the audiences using minimum dialogues.        

The film Battleship Potemkin is often said to have opened the eyes of the filmmakers to the use of montage. In this famous film directed by Eisenstein the part of the film, which showed the Odessa steps was one of the most famous scenes of that period, the audience had never seen anything like that before (Harte 2015). In the scene, a group of soldiers marched down a flight of stairs and the villagers tried to flee using the same stair, while the villagers were trying to run away the soldiers opened fire upon them and most of them. Those people who were not hurt by the first round of firing, another group of soldiers opened fire upon them who were waiting at the end of the stairs for them.

Eisenstein and the Collision of Shots

Eisenstein believed that fiction is a better medium to tell truth rather than just stating facts. The example of such an incident was recorded by Eisenstein himself in which the fictional adaptation that he created made more impact than the real incident (Kolker 2015). Right after Potemkin was released, one of the 1905 mutineers who were in the real incident sent a letter to Eisenstein, he had signed the letter at the end “one of those under the tarpaulin”. Eisenstein had invented that tarpaulin scene himself and this was the real fact, he had this idea of putting the condemned sailors under the tarpaulin so as to prevent their blood from staining the deck of the ship (Fan et al. 2017). His imagination was so powerful that one of the veterans of the actual Battleship Potemkin mutiny said that he remembered the mutiny in a way that Eisenstein showed in the film rather than how he had experienced it on first hand basis. In this way, the fictional depiction made a deep impact on the people rather than the real incident.


The editing techniques and the way Battleship Potemkin was filmed were ground breaking and very unique compared to the techniques used at that time by the film makers. The blocking technique used in the film was quite ahead of time. Generally in the films during those days the camera was kept at a static position and the actors had to act out their parts in front of the camera, the camera movements were not that popular at that time. The scenes at that time was shot in a way that seemed that the camera was watching the actors from the perspective of the audience.  The scenes of “The Odessa Steps” were shot in a beautiful and unique manner and some people thought the camera positions used in the films were in a way daring and odd.    There was a beautiful shot in which the camera was placed in a position above looking down at the feet of the soldiers marching in unison, the scene had an artistic touch which was absent from the filmmaking of those days. The most noticeable scenes were those having the dolly shots showing the soldiers going down the steps (Facca et al. 2017). Those scenes did not look as nice as the dolly shots which are used today but still the efforts which they put forward while taking the shots was impressive provide the fact that did not have any steady cam technologies present at that time.

The Impact of Battleship Potemkin

Editing was another groundbreaking element, which was used in that film. During that time the most common ways to edit scenes included a wide shot, and a close up shot. The close up shots at that time is similar to the mid shots, which are used nowadays (Cook 2016). The camera was almost never placed directly at the face of the actors.  The editing which was done in the in the Odessa Steps sequence, is somewhat close to the techniques used. Probably Eisenstein sat with the editor himself while they spliced up the films and watched it together until they reached the perfect phase.

The scene where the people tries to flee running down the stairs here quick cuts has been used to provide the audience with a sense of fear and urgency (Brecht 2015). The technique of cutting to shots of people trying to flee down the stairs, the audience relates with the urgency and dread that those people are feeling, in this way the scene permeates from the screen into the hearts of the people and they feel concerned for the safety of the people who are fleeing for their lives. The feeling of concern is even heightened as the scene cuts to the shot showing the feet of the soldiers marching down the stairs, giving the scene a feeling of impending doom for the common people who are trying to run away(Cole 2015). The intensity of the concern increases in the minds of the audience as the baby carriage is shown to be falling down the stairs while the baby still sitting inside it (Fabe 2014). After that, the scene cuts to a shot showing a group of shocked onlookers and that enhances the feeling of shock and horror in the audiences.

This sequence influenced the filmmakers all over the world, they became aware of the new techniques that can be used in filming and editing and they started using it in their own films. Eisenstein changed the process of filmmaking and his film was the first one, which influenced the filmmakers in various other countries. Movies like The Untouchables, The Godfather, and Requiem for a Dream, are all indebted to the scene of “The Odessa Steps” and to Eisenstein. Montage has been one of the most crucial techniques used in films for a century to tell a story. All the filmmakers are indebted to Sergei Eisenstein and his film Battleship Potemkin for showing them the different ways in which montage can be used to depict a story on screen, this film is one of the most important films in the history of cinema.

Reference List:

Bergan, R., 2016. Sergei Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict. Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Brecht, B., 2015. Brecht on Film & Radio. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Cole, T.B., 2015. Panic: Nikolay Viting. Jama, 314(17), pp.1780-1781.

Cook, D.A., 2016. A history of narrative film. WW Norton & Company.

Durst, P., 2015. Film in the Advanced Composition Classroom: A Tapestry of Style. In Composition Forum (Vol. 32). Association of Teachers of Advanced Composition.

Fabe, M., 2014. Closely watched films: an introduction to the art of narrative film technique. Univ of California Press.

Facca, Z., Shen, M., Smith, L.H., Stewart, E. and Waggott, J., 2017. Group C: Montage and Soviet Cinema. Group.

Fan, J., Pasquier, P., Fadel, L.M. and Bizzocchi, J., 2017, July. ViVid: A Video Feature Visualization Engine. In International Conference of Design, User Experience, and Usability (pp. 42-53). Springer, Cham.

Harte, T., 2015. The Men with the Movie Camera: The Poetics of Visual Style in Soviet Avant-Garde Cinema of the 1920s. By Cavendish Philip. New York: Berghahn Books, 2013. xii, 342 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Filmography. Illustrations. $110.00, hard bound. Slavic Review, 74(2), pp.426-427.

Kolker, R., 2015. Film, form, and culture. Routledge.

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