Orson Welles, the master of the long take deep–focus approach to filmmaking, and Sergei Eisenstein are different but revolutionary in their approaches to the film product they create. Welles’s film, Citizen Kane, was heavily inspired from German Expressionist cinema, owing to tunnel-like designs, engulfing spaces that look all-encompassing, ceilings that were unnaturally low as if they were going to squash the characters. In Kane’s mansion Xanadu, the rooms are large and while Kane and Susan are conversing by the fireside, the emptiness of the mansion can be felt, the space consumes both the characters. Similar surroundings can be seen in German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene. An exaggeration of perspective to symbolise internal turmoil or tension is present in both The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Citizen Kane.
Welles uses long deep-focus takes where all objects or characters present in the setting appear in focus from front to back. Deep focus is used in scenes in which Kane is disturbed or is distressed which on screen. He may demand and occupy space and have grand stature, figuratively speaking, but there are also things he can not control, like his wife leaving him, or his empire falling apart. Welles also employs wipes wherein one image wipes the other into the next scene. Unlike Battleship Potemkin, Citizen Kane has several flashback sequences in which people from Kane’s personal life narrate their version of him.
Battleship Potemkin is set against the backdrop of the Tsarist rule and presents a dramatized version of the failed revolution of the 1905, when the crew of a Russian battleship rebelled. It is a labour of Eisenstein’s constructivist approach towards film making and released into Lenin’s Russia, where artists employed newer elements in their art, like steel, concrete, engines and focused on class struggle. Russia was free from the shackles of Tsarist regime and moved into a newer environment that was a result of successful communist revolution.
Battleship Potemkin’s story is told in stages - The Men and The Maggots, Drama on the QuarterDeck, Appeal From The Dead and Odessa Steps. In Kane, Welles often used three planes of interest, like in the scene in which young Charles is playing in the snow. Dialogues overlap and certain actions take place together. The snow contrasts with the grey interior and then there is a reverse angle shot that shifts the focus of the spectator to Mrs Kane’s unhappy face. Eisenstein uses juxtaposition of shots to understand concepts that have escaped notice.
Eisenstein’s montage is a conscious, well executed editing technique that rejects traditional art practices. Breaking scenes into a montage suggests that he wanted to transform ordinary events to be witnessed into events with metaphorical significance. Brief close ups coupled with the montage in the maggot scene illustrate how, to the Tsarist officers, the maggots were merely eggs that would wash away, but the subordinates in the battleship see them for what they are. The exploited are sensitive to the exploitation.
In the case of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, the director uses formalism, and his trademark montage. Formalism was considered as a form of cinema that, according to Stalin, was detachment from the masses. Film critic Victor Schlovsky argued in favour of formalism. Kane who gained popularity and wealth through advocating for the underdogs and the ones whose suffering did not see the light of the day, was ultimately destroyed after the onset of Great Depression, by the media itself. This points out the power and manipulation media can play. Kane was involved in an extramarital affair with an opera singer. When this hit the headlines, courtesy political rival Jim Getty, it cost him his reputation and candidature. Several country heads and prominent political figures have had their candidature annulled due to scandals that were leaked just before an important election. For example, the Monica Lewinsky scandal that posed a threat to American president Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Both Eisenstein’s and Welles’s approach had implicit or explicit political messaging as a part of their narrative. Citizen Kane’s central character was inspired by iconic newspaper editor Randolph Hearst, who was the creator of yellow journalism. The film shows the various ways media influences mass opinion. It is instrumental how the means of production in this piece was turned against one one the most important media moguls of all times. The film also gives insight into America’s history. Kane in one scene says, "You’ll provide the prose, I’ll provide the war." This points to Kane’s involvement in inciting the Spanish-American war the same way the television played a role in propangandising the Vietnam war.
The fate that Kane faces in the film, of the media turning against him, was also true for Welles. Hearst, who had a vendetta against him, dissuaded the media from advertising his film. Both the films have a socio-cultural element to them. Kane represents his class less as he moves up the societal ladder and Battleship Potemkin has class struggle and political consciousness as the driving force of the film. The film explicitly quotes Lenin when it says ‘Revolution is War. Of all the wars known in history, it is the only lawful,rightful , just and truly great war. In Russia the war has begun.’
Unlike Citizen Kane, Battleship Potemkin does not follow the journey of a tragic-comic hero but is instead a social comedy centering along social integration and there is no conflict that Potemkin aims at solving to help the narrative. Both Potemkin and Kane have oppressors, but in Citizen Kane, there is an element of sympathy that the film exudes, through portraying Kane’s private life and problems subjectively and in close ups. In Potemkin, Eisenstein does not look at the Tsarist oppressors with any sympathy.