The Odessa Stairs

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By FERNÃO PESSOA RAMOS*

Considerations on the famous sequence of the film “The battleship Potemkin”, by Sergei Eisenstein

The sequence of the massacre of the civilian population on the steps of the port of Odessa, Ukraine, is one of the most famous in the history of cinema. Composes the fourth movement of The battleship Potemkin (1925), the work of filmmaker Serguei Eisenstein. It was filmed on location, Odessa, a Soviet production to mark the twentieth year of the 1905 uprisings, a kind of dress rehearsal for the 1917 uprisings.

The immense 200-step staircase (also known today as the Potemkin Staircase in honor of the film), built at the end of the XNUMXth century to connect the port to the upper part of the city, is still there – apparently the same with a few steps less due to of a recent renovation. The silent film, with original orchestration by Edmundo Meisel, and later in the dominant DVD version with the 5th Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich, definitively built Eisenstein's international reputation.

It was chosen for decades in the British lists of the best films of all time, alternating with Chaplin and later giving way, more recently, to the charms of Vertigo (a body that falls) to The Godfather. But these correspond to a certain postmodern retrospective taste, and the great cinematographic work of the first half of the twentieth century until the interwar period, with its modern freshness at first hand, can be considered The battleship Potemkin. It highlights the long sequence, lasting more than 10 minutes, of the Odessa steps.

The scene portrays absolute cruelty, a kind of Guernica of cinematic art. The battleship Potemkin was a warship of the Russian Empire, anchored in the Black Sea, in which the sailors rebelled against the mistreatment inflicted by superior officers, within the context of the 1905 revolts. of Odessa where he is greeted by the population. In the free dramatic version of a historical fact (uprisings and massacres that took place in several places in Odessa in 1905), a kind of docudrama, the population salutes and supports the rebels on the steps of the port.

At the time, Ukraine was an integral part of the Russian Empire. Putin, recently, seems to have accused Lenin of having as one of his biggest mistakes granting Ukraine sovereignty, with status of Soviet republic. The film portrays the Russian battleship pulling into the port of Odessa and obtaining support from the population that sails to the vessel to take supplies and congratulates, from the steps of the port, in support of the rebellious sailors. The sequence takes place with full rejoicing between sailors and people, carrying strong empathy.

Suddenly there is a cut: in the foreground, a woman's head is shaken, as if it had been brutally hit by a bullet. There follows a series of shots of the tsarist army, in its white uniform, advancing in line and marching downwards, from step to step, firing mercilessly on the crowd that gathered on the stairs. In the last shots of the sequence, the Cossack cavalry below completes the work of the soldiers who make the people retreat.

As the crowd flees, a child is injured and trampled. The mother retreats to rescue her and, disgusted, carrying her son, starts an upward journey over the soldiers who, in a horizontal line, keep descending and shooting. The direction of movement reverses, with the mount now following the mother in the new upward direction. The soldiers, after a certain hesitation that corresponds to the suspension of the action, shoot the mother with the bloodied child in her arms, killing her.

Then begins the strongest and most well-known part of the sequence: another woman, on one of the platforms of the stairs, is still holding a baby stroller, not knowing where to go. She looks up asking for mercy, but is also fatally hit. She doubles over and, mortally wounded, lets go of the cart, which shoots out of control down the steps. The images are known. The movement in the sequence now turns downwards again and syncopated with the leaps of the baby carriage that descends aimlessly down the Odessa staircase.

The cart's movement is punctuated by the looks of some characters (common people, not actors), filmed in extreme feelings of horror and pity. This is one of the objectives of the construction of Eisensteinian aesthetics, which wants to reflexively compose, in the various articulations of planes (in montage), the emotions of the spectator. One of the women who screams while looking at the cart scene is hit by a bullet in the eye, which bleeds.

It is a particularly striking close-up shot that has become one of the hallmarks of crystallized imagery in the history of cinema. The scene ends with one of the Cossacks at the bottom of the stairs, in the foreground, in a movement of faux match (repeated action, cut with no consecutive line of continuity), then moving the sword downwards with murderous intent (murdering the baby, or another participant), followed again by the image of the bleeding woman with the pierced eye who watches, mutilated, before dying , the ultimate horror.

The staircase sequence ends there. In this fourth part of the film (entitled “The Odessa Stairs”) there is a brief ending before the next movement (“The meeting with the police station”). After the massacre, the Battleship Potemkin reacts and starts bombarding the city (and the assassin army). It follows, in the good style of Eisensteinian montage theory, an example of intellectual montage, if not the most sophisticated (Eisentein will reach the peak of his experiences in this line two years later, in October), perhaps one of the best known: the three planes of the lion statues that rise up creating the action, in the figurative mode of revolt, carried by the construction in the immobility of the stone. These shots retroact on the entire sequence, giving a qualitative leap in the dialectical emotive-ideational synthesis of constructivism, the heart of what the director is looking for: lion sleeping, awake and roaring, in the same movement, now action and reaction, therefore the idea of ​​transformation.

It is interesting to note that the target of the battleship Potemkin when bombing Odessa (the bombing plans quickly end the fourth part of the film) is to hit the Odessa Opera House, explicitly defined in a sign as 'enemy fortress', perhaps because it means the type of art that avant-garde modernity saw at the time as part of a remote bourgeois past. The metaphorical lion statues seem to emerge from within and through the rubble of the bombed-out Opera House, rising to signify the revolt of the mutinous sailors as they avenge, by violent action, the oppression of the elites.

The battleship Potemkin stands out for its graphic violence plans that clash until today, clashing with the standard of the time. In his theoretical writings, Eisenstein is known for developing an elaborate theory of montage, but his reflection on the pathetic in the arts, and particularly in cinema, did not have the same impact. O pathos, for the director, must be obtained as a way to conquer the spectator's empathy and make him understand, when he is hooked (mainly revolting in the action), the veil of the ideological curtain that covers the reality from which he is alienated.

It is through pathetic emotion that we can penetrate social objectivity led by the hand that constructs, as representation, the shock that intrinsically composes the structure of synthesis that crowns the Marxist dialectic of history. This must also move the particular in the work of revolutionary art. From the particular to the general, from the general to the particular, it is the conception of the same great dialectical movement that manages the cosmos and history.

The concept of ideology, as a veil of thought that prevents a full encounter with the external object hidden in reification (a moment dear to Marxist reflection), occupies a central place here. A place that reveals its position by being deconstructed by the can opener of empathy in the dialectical leap of emotions raised by the clash between planes and, more than that, by the pathos extreme properly, built on the heels of this shock. It is in the movement of the qualitative leap of the dialectic of emotions, to the dimension of the outside-of-itself, that the new enlightened conscience of Eisenstein's pathetic constructivism, if we can call it that, germinates. It is through the pathetic that the consciousness of de-reified practical experience opens up, ready for engagement.

In Eisenstein's sophisticated montage theory, which unites pathos and construction in the not indifferent nature, a new qualitative synthesis emerges where this clarified and dereified conscience reigns. Potemkin is perhaps not such a clear example of the intellectual transmutation of consciousness by the pathos, such as the most radical innovations of the general line (1928) or, mainly, the first part of October. In any case, the formulation of the idea in the pathetic is clear, in the strategy reduced to a 'piano' rhythm at the beginning and then in accelerated progression until the qualitative leap (the milk that overflows, the water vapor that turns to strength and whistles).

This is how the shock of montage takes place, away from the dramatic emotions of the ideological haze of alienation. At this point, the qualitative synthesis of the pathos enseinsteinian and the most absolute deconstruction through the interval in Dziga Vertov's documentary cine-olho diverge, as the period polemics involving the two directors already make clear. Potenkin brings in the image of the pathetic its purest expression as a construction in the achievement of the filmic course: the effect of the temporal flow in the succession of shots, but without the actional or motivational causality of the classic narrative (Dickens, Griffith and Us, is the title of one of Eisenstein's best-known essays on the subject). At the heart of Eisensteinian theory beats the demand for pathos provoked by the representation of the cruel action, but which spins out of itself and, without falling into catharsis, ties itself around the idea.

 

the camera image

What makes the human being, the good man, faced with the experience of the suffering of others, not capable of empathy, but that he takes refuge exclusively in intellectual constructs to superimpose, on what he sees and experiences, the knowledge of the propositional argument? What makes you not give in to experiencing the image of horror with disgust, or pity? The camera-image has this unique relationship with the circumstance of the shot (where it is formed) and which grants it a different status from the painting or the written report (which do not have the dimension of the 'shot').

Much has been written, in the last decades of the last century, about the illusions that surround the transparency of this camera-image vis-à-vis the outside world that comes to conform to it through automatism. The critique of transparency and the critique of ideology go together, hand in hand, debating themselves as constructions of a consciousness that seeks to remove, through reason and its assertions, the empathic power of the referential dimension. Camera-images are part of the interpretive communication of language and are now omnipresent in digital devices on networks. They serve socially as evidence of crime, testimony of our recent or remote memory, of the best moments of our life, or of personalities or public events that surround us.

What prevents us from seeing misery when it appears that way, in the form of imagery witness of those who live the horror and widespread physical destruction, whether in Odessa (still relatively spared by the war at the time I write this), or in Kiev, in hospitals, or on roads littered with refugees from Ukraine? Is it cruel to look at these images and take refuge in the convenient interpretation that, because they are multiplied in digital mode, they are loaded with fans of fallacious reasoning that manage to claim that the earth is not round? What is it like to look and just see the reports of the convenient reason that carries these camera-images beyond expression, avoiding being reached by their pathos? Isn't there something absolute in this, an absolute that should provoke some kind of empathy, even if it's not the same one we dedicate to the figure of an icon with an arrow?

Compassion takes its toll on the narcissistic, non-humanist interpretative discourse, which satisfies consciousness through the logic of knowledge. It works for the reason of the geopolitical constructions, but it cynically leaves behind the responsibility for the evidence of the immediate horror that it does not want to see. It is misery and horror, for the present life of immediate experience – and what matters at all. This is what must be recognized if we want to think about ethics. Let the mind's satisfaction go through causes, effects and arguments for a later moment, when displaced from life, because life is there screaming torn apart for those who honestly want to look, evidencing what cannot be silenced.

The postponement of empathy in catharsis for future redemption bridges it. Isn't there an insane intellectual abstraction in this? An abstraction that wants to take us beyond experience, closing itself in a convenient propositional causality that satisfies itself? Isn't he condemnable who satisfies his analytical intellectual capacity, alternating strategic propositions on a new social and geopolitical map, paying a low price for immediate responsibility for the misfortune of others? It thus nourishes a kind of pleasure by postponing the experience of ruin and destruction that the redemptive launch of finalist messianism allows. Wouldn't it be a mere stopover for the redeemed future, on a path where only the narcissism that I call cruel is glimpsed, a convenient exit strategy for bad conscience?

The horror of the Odessa steps depicted in Potemkin will repeat. Odessa has already suffered, after 1905, two other great massacres in the last hundred years. Perhaps we will soon see in the everyday media the same images of the elderly, the disabled, young people, women, rolling down the stairs, shot at, running down the steps with bloodied children in their arms. The same images of destruction and buildings in ruins, of testimonies showing everyday life that used to be peaceful and now completely distraught in the misery of a torn life, outside its space and shelter.

This for what? Responding to what great liberating cause? It seems to be suitable for rationalizing arguments as long as it doesn't conveniently happen under our roof, in safe proximity to our intact body, or in the space of praxis of our own life, untouched. In this case, the line that follows the proposition would certainly be another, diverted by pain in the flesh.

Barbarism has free rein on humanity when its powers are unleashed. This is how man is and, more than that, this is how history seems to be. It is the same horror of war and its circumstances that Homer describes to us in the Iliad, in Tróia; that figures us Picasso in the Spanish civil war of Guernica; or recapitulates Godard in the recent image and word; or witness Primo Levi in ​​the memorialist Is this a man?. Are we at this point again? At the same time, the horror that so marked the prolonged trench warfare of the 1914-18 generation, masterfully portrayed, among other more explicit ones, by Jean Renoir in the classic the grand illusion (1937). Or is there still time, are there still positions that can be defended?

There was a significant part of the left that was opposed to the imminent war of 1914, such as the one that had the figure of the socialist leader and convinced pacifist, Jean Jaurès – assassinated premonitorily on the eve of the conflict. Conflict that led vast portions of this same left to lose self-control and plunge headlong into the barbarism of war, driven by empty nationalist discourses. Is this where we are today? Or the will-o'-the-wisp that shines and moves us when we look at the horror of the narrative of night and fog (Alain Resnais, 1956), can you still make your eyes burn?

It is the horror of war that we cannot accept, in an absolute way and as a principle of position. Whether it serves as a basis for attractive ideological formulations, or feeds geopolitical constructions that carry the banner of redemptive architectures. In the face of war, the pacifist discourse is still current as a precondition, the same one that prevailed strongly, and even consensually, in the most progressive conscience of humanity in other key moments of its history.

*Fernao Pessoa Ramos He is a professor at the Institute of Arts at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of The camera image (Papyrus).

 

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