SOCIAL REALISM was, to the theorists who propounded it, another advance in the accurate representation of life, another step towards "objectivity." The line between life and art was supposed to dissolve, and there would in the end be no difference between the way things were "out there" and their representation in the work of art. ". . . you get the impression," Pauline Kael has written, "that such cinema theorists think that Griffith shot The Birth of the Nation while the battles were raging, that Eisenstein was making newsreels, and that Rossellini and Bunuel were simply camera witnesses to scenes of extraordinary brutality."
In fact Social Realism is the aesthetic implication of a particular ideology, and its representation of events is objective insofar as you share in the ideology. One need only listen to a member of Progressive Labor--the sponsors of this showing of Potemkin--tell you what "objectively" happened at an event, as opposed say to what you thought you were experiencing, to know just how useless the word "objective" has become.
Social Realism as a form is tighter, more constrained, more artificial than the sonnet. It has only one scenario: the proletariat realizing its historical role. It has no hero except the proletariat itself. It has only one outcome, the triumph of workers. To a Marxist of course this is the scenario of history, so it is obviously valid and objective. Social Realism is in many ways more like a theorem than a complex work of art. It uses the postulates of a particular system of belief in order to deduce a proof that the original beliefs were valid.
Sergei Eisenstein, the director of Potemkin, was originally a mathematician an engineer. His chief artistic interest was for many years the Japanese theater, perhaps the most stylized of all artistic representations. And in Potemkin Eisenstein made one of the few triumphs within the prescribed Marxist form. Potemkin does not deviate one iota from the social realism formula. It is propaganda, and yet it is compelling. It transcends its message and endures not just as a chapter in art history, but as a still fascinating work of art.
Its story is of the uprising aboard the ship Potemkin. The sailors revolt against the abominable conditions in the Czarist Navy. their comrades of the ship's guard refuse to fire on the mutineers, turning on the officers instead. When news of the uprising reaches Odessa, thousands of supporters rush to the waterfront to send aid or to salute the men of the Potemkin. These supporters are slaughtered by the cossacks who have been ordered to suppress the demonstration. They march ruthlessly down the great flight of stone stairs leading to the waterfront killing anyone before them: men, women, cripples, infants, children.
This scene on the Odessa steps is the most famous in the film, primarily for its innovations in editing. Time is enormously expanded here by inter-cutting between separate actions, an expansion that represents the psychological truth that for the people trapped on the steps these minutes while fleeing the Cossacks would be the most terrifying and the longest in their lives. The scene also demonstrates with great economy the ruthless, relentless nature of the Czarist forces. The cossacks marching methodically down the steps embody the absolute indifference of the Czar towards the people of Russia. The scene even shows a group of women cringing before the Cossacks and begging for mercy; no doubt they are representative of the Social Democrats.
There can be no heroes in Potemkin, in fact no real individuals. Courage here isn't a human trait, but an idea begin embodied in a class. Potemkin ends triumphantly as history itself will. The other ships of the Czar's Navy refuse to fire on their brother sailors. And as the prow of the Potemkin cuts through the water towards freedom one shares in the exultation.
The movie is by no means realistic. There is here no simple or indifferent recording of events. Time is distorted. Important actions--the breaking of a plate, for example, that symbolizes the start of the mutiny--are shown from several different camera angles. Actions are expanded on the screen until they have what the director considers to be their proper psychological weight.
One feels Eisenstein's intelligence at work in every frame of the film. What is most fascinating about Potemkin is ultimately very individualistic. It is the virtuosity of the director. The drama of Potemkin is of an artist making a masterpiece out of his raw materials as we watch. Motion is created before our eyes, from still shots, as in the montage on the steps, or the three shots of stone lions whose juxtaposition makes the Czarist lion seem to stand up and roar. The very astringency of the proletariat form seemed to bare, as in any stylized form, the sinews of the artist's mind. It is Eisenstein himself, finally, who is the hero of this "drama without a hero."