The formalist devices in Battleship Potemkin and their effect
In this essay I am going to look at the formalist devices used in Battleship Potemkin, its effects and what impact they have on the viewer. I am also going to look at different formalist theories and their relevance on the film. I have chosen to select a five minute sequence from Battleship Potemkin's Part Three: a Dead Man Calls for Justice.
In formalist’s theory, form is more important than content. Formalists deconstructed the film to find out how it works in order to gain deeper understanding. The plot of the story is not the most important; the emphasis is put on how the film is constructed. This can be seen on this sequence as well.
The message of the sequence could have been conveyed in a different style (in example continuity style) which would have made it easier for the audience to embrace. In continuity editing, the audience is left alone with the film; they are unaware of the cuts, locations are established constantly with establishing and re-establishing shots and there is one clear protagonist. In soviet montage, there is no single clear protagonist, instead typage is used. Actors were selected based on their looks, not their skill.
In addition, formalists were looking at the structure of films to find a scientific way of looking and understanding the art form.
Stam Robert Film Theory: An Introduction (2000:49) state that: ‘The constant emphasis upon the construction of artworks led the Formalists (particularly Jakobson and Tynyanov) to an understanding of art as a system of signs and conventions rather than the registration of natural phenomena.
Formalists saw a connection between film and literature, they applied theories from literature on film and they were the first to explore it. The theory of the signifier and the signified implies that words do not represent the objects; in fact they have no connection with the objects they describe, but are only mirroring reality. Formalists used this in montage (thesis + antithesis = synthesis) and they discovered shots can be used like language; editing shots in different order provides different meanings.
Formalists were also looking for the conflict in the image, which can be found in various areas (between planes, volumes, lighting, movement, rhythm etc.). In example, the shots where it is implied that the crowd is on the pier heading towards the dead sailor’s body, there is a conflict between the movement of the masses and the camera movement.
Firstly, in the beginning of the sequence, an example of overtonal montage can be seen. There is a variety of shots cut together with shots which have different movements in them, there is a mismatch in the length of shots and the shots are containing different emotional content.
The shots are cut together in a montage; there is no trace of continuity editing. This makes the audience very aware of the editing and makes them wonder why these shots are here. The lack of establishing and re-establishing shots creates confusion in the spectator; if these shots cut together are all taken in the same location and what is the relevance of these shots. The montage requires active viewers, the audience is constantly required to think how these shots work and contribute to the story.
Different shots of the ships arriving to the pier are almost romantic, yet there is no continuity between the shots.
Secondly, an example of tonal montage and typage can be seen. A shot of the tent where the body of the dead sailor lies is cut together with different shots of people gathering around the tent and expressing their sorrow.
The audience is not aware if these characters are related by blood, these people represent the lower class. After a few shots of the lower class, two well-dressed women with their umbrellas can be seen to having a glimpse at the tent and the dead sailor; however they walk away carelessly and do not show any misery. More masses can be seen gathering around the tent. Lowering of the sails representing grief.
The spectators are now identifying with the working-class, the fact that the two upper-class women didn't show any remorse, creates aversion towards the upper-class.
As a woman from lower class kneels before the dead sailor, two upper class women carelessly take a glimpse of him and walk away.
Third, an example of rhythmic montage can be seen. An empty staircase is suddenly filled with people is cut together with lots of different shots where many people are moving edited together with the shots at the pier. This time, the pier is crowded with a large amount of people, lots of movement in the shot.
As before, there is no trace of continuity editing, the audience cannot be sure where these people are going and where the locations are; they can only assume they are moving towards the pier according to the captions.
This montage creates tension; the viewers are wondering what the goal of these masses is.
The empty staircase is suddenly packed with people after a dissolve transition between the two shots.
Fourth, the sequence ends with overtonal montage, the masses find the note left by the crew and vow to revenge the dead sailor. The usage of typeage can be seen again and the masses start moving again.
As a woman carries out her speech, the crowd rises to revenge the dead sailor.
Soviet montage alienates the audience from film; they have no protagonist to relate with, they have no continuous sense of time and space and the spectators are very aware they are watching a film.
In conclusion, soviet montage requires an intellectual viewer. Formalist devices such as montage and typage differ from the mainstream cinema, but successfully deliver the story. Soviet montage as an opposite of the long take, another formalist device, leaves less to the imagination.
Stam Robert Film Theory: An Introduction (2000:49) state that: ‘The critique of Formalism as mechanistic, ahistorical, and hermetically sealed-off life began to be addressed by the Formalists themselves in Tynyanov’s notion of “dynamic structure” and later in the Prague School work of Jakobson, who spoke of “dynamic synchrony”, and others who tried to correlate the literary and the historical “series”. Indeed, many of the fundamental positions of Russian Formalism were adopted and elaborated by Prague structuralism in the late 1920s and early 1930s, with Roman Jakobson as a key figure linking the two movements.’
Russian formalism contributed to the film theory tremendously; many other theorists later picked up some of the key elements of the movement and explored the possibilities (in example Christian Metz, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson etc.).
Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999)