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Close-ups and the Collective: Eisenstein from Potemkin to Ivan the Terrible

Sergei Eisenstein’s films Battleship Potemkin (1926) and Ivan the Terrible Part 1 (1944 – referred to forthwith as Ivan the Terrible or an italicised Ivan) straddle the advent of socialist realism in the early to mid 1930s, a period in which the director struggled to adapt to the new directives, producing only one film the 1930s. After the first Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934 and subsequently the publishing of Boris Shumatsky’s Cinema for the Millions the following year, filmmaking was shifted away from the Avant-Garde movement in the silent films of the 1920s, in which ’montage [became] the mightiest means of for a really important creative remoulding of nature’ (Eisenstein 1977, p. 5). Meaning was generally created between the shots, rather than in the shots themselves. Shumatsky and others decried this as bourgeois formalism and too complex for ‘the millions’, praising films like the Vasilyev Brothers’ Chapaev (1934) for their ‘exceptional simplicity’ (Shumatsky, 1935, doc. 140). In addition, the ascension of Joseph Stalin to the position of General Secretary eventually led to a change in the idea of a ‘Soviet Hero’; in 1926 the hero was the collective itself, whereas by 1944 a depiction of a single ‘positive hero’ was required, and usually shown to carry out a journey from ‘spontaneity to consciousness’ (Clark, 1981, p. 1). The individual creator had relative control over their work in the 1920s, but this disappeared with the coming of Stalinism. As such, the writer became ‘the teller of tales already prefigured in Party lore’ (p. 159). Specifically in film, the director became subservient to the scriptwriter (all forms of art became secondary to the word, meaning far less montage is used), which is partially why Eisenstein produced so little in this period. However, with Ivan, Eisenstein was able to take what survived from the ‘formalist’ period in which he had thrived, in order to create a film which still builds its meaning visually rather than verbally, yet does so emphasising a radically different ideology to his earlier work.

Ivan the Terrible's Coronation
Fig 1: A scene from Ivan the Terrible pt. 1 (Eisenstein, 1944) - Ivan's coronation

This essay will discuss the treatment of the hero, the collective and the enemy in Ivan and Potemkin, largely through the use of close-ups in both films. Eisenstein uses close-ups in Potemkin to establish typage, but he doesn’t go beyond grouping individuals into collectives (typage is the practice of casting based on the physical appearance of the actors, and in early silent film was often used as a means of easily characterising people into groups, as seen here). This detail will be shown through analysis of the opening scene. However, in Ivan, while the use of typage is still there, the montage (or the practice of stitching together different shots, what is more commonly referred to today as simply editing) of close-ups also builds a network of gazes and motifs (particularly religious signs) designed to highlight symbols and in particular raise up Ivan himself as an exemplary member of the general population (as opposed to Vakulinchuk, who is not venerated by the film as an individual – this becomes clear in his funeral scene and Ivan’s ‘resurrection’). Finally, the way he treats enemies is much more complex in the later film, largely because of the classification of ‘enemies within’ of which Stalin was so afraid compared to the much more symbolically simple Tsarist forces in Potemkin.

Battleship Potemkin sailors
Fig 2: A scene from Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925) - The sailors sleep. Note the similar physical appearance of the men, and the lack of hierarchy in these sleeping arrangements.

The first extended scene in Potemkin, the dormitory scene, include a series of close-ups of the sleeping sailors (for example at 2:09 and 2:15 [Fig:2]). The faces are not clearly or specifically lit, with light falling naturally over them, and there are no shots of any sailors with open eyes. Eisenstein is using the technique to establish unity of type between these pre-Communist sailors. In the Marxist framework under which Eisenstein is operating, they are not yet class conscious, yet on the brink of revolution should they attain that ideal, as the introductory text panel explains. This idea is expressed by the camera associating them through the series of close-ups and the typage casting; the sailors are all characterised as robust, hard working, and beardless (meaning working class i.e. not peasant) men, and this fact is highlighted by the camera. This idea is furthered by the shot at 3:05 of the hurt sailor, who looks shocked by the attack on him by the petty officer. This shot then leads into the appearance of Vakulinchuk as the de facto leader, but it is made clear by the camerawork that he is not ‘above’ the rest of the sailors or have the ‘exceptional strength and capacity for life’ (Clark, 1981, p. 180) that characterises the socialist realist positive hero. From 3:28 he is shown vigorously speaking, reading from a pamphlet, but he is dressed and lit the same way as the rest of the crew, as well as being from the same typage as the other sailors. He is shot at eye level, and crucially does not look at the camera, focusing his gaze on the collective. The following close-ups of the crew awakening from the bunks, focused on the faces as they literally wake up into class consciousness, emphasises his role not as a leader, but simply as the vanguard whose function is to bring the collective to this new state of awareness. When contrasted with the depiction of Ivan and the surrounding members of high society in the opening scene of Ivan the Terrible, the way in which portrayal of leader characters changed in the almost two decades between the works becomes clear.

Ivan is crowned
Fig 3: A scene from the Ivan the Terrible pt. 1 (Eisenstein, 1944) - Gold coins are poured on Ivan's head

Where Vakulinchuk was emblematic of the collective, a member of a wider group, Ivan (who in this film is intentionally a depiction of Stalin) is very much an exemplary or exceptional figure, raised above the rest of his society. Eisenstein establishes this in several ways (not least by literally having him crowned) by withholding the close-up of his face until he has been formally made Tsar (or General Secretary). He venerates the position by focusing the camera on the crown jewels from 5:04 to when Ivan turns at 7:20, particularly the shot of the crown on his head at 6:29, and by pointing the audience's attention to the priest before they see Ivan. Under Stalin, religious imagery cannot be taken as literally divine, but as the essay will touch on throughout, Eisenstein essentially co-opts it to represent something higher, most often the will of the people. Therefore, the focus on the religious imagery, as well as the number of people in the room, indicate that Ivan has been raised up by the masses. The clearest indication of this is the pouring of the coins over his head at 8:13 [Fig: 3] (close-up at 8:20), an event that is heavily emphasised. We see later at 32:19 how the soldiers leave behind a coin to represent their life before they go into battle, so in the coronation this action of pouring symbols of Russian lives over his head is heavy with meaning. This contrast between the two leader figures even in the opening shows clearly the new ideological approach under which Eisenstein is working, and while he uses similar techniques, it is in service of a very different idea.

potemkin funeral scene
Fig 4: A scene from Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925) - Vakulinchuk's funeral. Note the sun rising over the sea, paralleling the rising revolution.

The attitude to the collective and Ivan’s enemies in the respective ‘funeral’ scenes in these two films is evident. After Vakulinchuk’s death in Potemkin, the shots are of his dead body, but also critically of the sign pinned to his body; ‘for a spoonful of borsch’ (31:40), focusing on the symbol of what his death means, rather than the man himself. In contrast, when Ivan is on his ‘deathbed’, for example at 1:00:03, the focus is clearly on his face, the death of this exceptional man, rather than of a man who represents a group in the case of Vakulinchuk.


Potemkin revolution
Fig 5: A scene from Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925) - A woman speaks whips the crowd to revolution outside of Vakulinchuk's tent

This is further emphasised by the public reaction to the ‘deaths’. In Potemkin, the crowd gather around the tent, with shots focusing on the people either crying (38:50) or pushing for an uprising (38:10 [Fig: 5]). They don’t seem to mourn Vakulinchuk the man, but rather are snapped into consciousness by his death, realising the cruelty that they suffer under this system. The shots are all either from above or from eye level, showing the people in a sympathetic light and specifically not venerating his corpse, just the public reaction it causes (for example, a shot at 33:48 looking out of the tent at the new day emphasises how Odessa is waking up to this symbol revolutionary action). What this leaves the audience with is the idea that the people of Odessa have seen one of their own die, and are thus compelled into action. The reaction to the parallel scene in Ivan could not be more different. Eisenstein uses menacing close-ups from below of the various enemy characters as they plot to replace the Rurikid dynasty, with shadows framing the faces (56:12 and 57:30). In particular, this second timestamp shows Vladimir of Staritsa’s gaze flicking towards the infant Dmitri, implying that he will take the throne now that he believes Ivan is dead.

The Odessa Steps Sequence
Fig 6: A scene from Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925) - The Tsar's soldiers march down the Odessa steps

The focus here is very much on the enemies within the Russian state, a major fear of Stalin’s that he expressed through spreading the importance of vigilance to the Soviet public. ‘Vigilance – the ability to recognise an enemy of the Party, no matter how well he might be disguised – was an essential attribute of every Communist’ (Fitzpatrick, 2017, p. 165), and Ivan realises that here as his Boyars turn on him. In Potemkin, the enemy is depicted most famously in the Odessa Steps scene [Fig: 6], where they are not shown in close-ups at all. They are presented as robotic and very much ‘other’ an enemy outside of the people presenting an external threat. There are many close-ups in this scene, but they are all either of the crowd itself (e.g. 52:08) or of individual members of the crowd (e.g. 51:02), who like Vakulinchuk are represented as emblematic of the rest of the people, even when shown solo, rather than as particularly special individuals.

Ivan's enemies
Fig 7: A scene from the Ivan the Terrible pt. 1 (Eisenstein, 1944) - Ivan's enemies, shot from below in highly detailed outfits, with shadows over their faces (some of which is lost in this high definition remaster)

By contrast, Ivan’s enemies are much more sinister individually than any of the Tsarist soldiers, who for the most part are shown as an unstoppable force. The Boyars are much more complex as enemies, surrounded by shadows and shot from below as if they were a divine force [Fig: 7]. Potemkin shows a machinelike enemy, but a large and very obvious one. Ivan shows a hidden enemy that can strike at any moment and which presents a much greater threat to the hero, because the hero is one man, who can die. In Potemkin, the hero is not one man, it is the collective idea of revolution, and as with Vakulinchuk, violence against the collective can only increase its power, which is further shown by the fact that the Tsarist forces cannot touch the original sailors (the place of the revolution’s genesis) as they sit out at sea and fire upon them.

Sergei Eisenstein wrote that ‘my subject is patriotism’ (Eisenstein, 1939, doc. 154), and that in his later, Stalinist films (Alexander Nevsky and his planned Ivan trilogy) he wanted his ‘film not only to inspire those who are in the very thick of the fight against fascism, but to bring spirit, courage and confidence to those quarters of the world where fascism seems… invincible’ (doc. 154). This line comes from a 1939 piece discussing Nevsky, which came out the previous year and which shows a battle against invading German forces which he identifies with fascism, but it can be applied to Ivan as well. Stalin personally commissioned Eisenstein to make his trilogy, and as such it reflects his great fears in the 1940s. Ivan comes under attack from the East (in the form of a very Asian-coded Kazan, mirroring the Japanese involvement in the Great Patriotic War) and from the West (in the form of Livonian Germany, mirroring the Nazis), but the greatest threat that he must overcome is from within his own state. Eisenstein portrays the Stalin archetype as a strong leader beset on all sides, but who is the only man who can lead the country. He is symbolically resurrected by what appears to be the dire need for an autocrat to lead the country through the crises, and associated throughout with images of Jesus and other religious icons. In this, it is clear how Eisenstein’s patriotism evolved. The picture of Russia through his portrayal of people in close-ups is one of a sleeping giant held back by its rulers; no matter how much the Tar oppresses his people, they continue to rise up and sail to a glorious, Communist future. The same techniques in Ivan show us a fractured, dying state, in need of a strong, almost godlike figure to take the will of the people and destroy their enemies without mercy. Eisenstein in 1944, espousing his patriotism, gives us a collective that he has stripped of all agency as they give their power to one strong man, bestowing upon him at the film’s conclusion the very crown his collectives once railed against.

Bibliographical References

Clark, K. (1981). The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual. University of Chicago Press.

Eisenstein, S. (1925). Battleship Potemkin. Kino Lorber.

Eisenstein, S. (1944). Ivan the Terrible Part 1. Mosfilm.

Eisenstein S.(1977). Film Form (J. Leyda, Trans.). Harcourt, Brace & World Inc.

Eisenstein, S. (1939). My Subject is Patriotism. International Literature. In Christie, I & Taylor, R. (2012).The Film Factory, Routledge.

Fitzpatrick, S. (2017). The Russian Revolution (Fourth Edition). Oxford University Press.

Shumatsky, B. (1935). Cinema for the Millions, Moscow, In Christie, I. & Taylor, R. (2012). The Film Factory, Routledge

Visual References

Eisenstein, S. (1925.) Battleship Potemkin. Kino Lorber. [Film].

Eisenstein, S. (1944). Ivan the Terrible Part 1, Mosfilm. [Film].


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Jack Preston

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