Potamkin's film criticism

by Russell Campbell

from Jump Cut, no. 18, August 1978, pp. 23-24
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

Lewis, Jacobs, ed. The Compound Cinema: Film Writings of Harry Alan Potamkin (New York: Teachers College Press, 1977), $25.

When Harry Alan Potamkin died, his body lay in state at the Workers Center in New York. Representatives of the John Reed Club, the Communist Party, and the Young Pioneers spoke in his memory. The fact that Potamkin is undoubtedly the only U.S. film critic ever to be accorded a Red funeral (though not a Party member, he was so honored "because of his revolutionary activity in the workers' struggles") has more than curiosity value. At that time, in 1933, closing the schism between art and politics was no dream of a handful of isolated intellectuals, but the daily practice of a whole cluster of organizations on the Left. To cite but one statistic, the Workers Cultural Federation of New York District had been launched the year before by the delegates of 130 working-class groups with a total membership of 20,000 (and characteristically, it was Potamkin who outlined its program in the press). Potamkin's writing, that is, came out of a milieu the likes of which has no parallel today. It was a milieu in which the radical critic could be sustained by the actual existence, small but active, of a revolutionary labor movement in the United States.

Potamkin was born in Philadelphia in 1900. He studied social sciences and liberal arts at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, and afterwards spent five years directing an experimental children's play center. Meanwhile he wrote poetry and edited his own literary magazine. His passion for the cinema dates from a 1926 visit to Paris—it was certainly not Hollywood movies which first excited him—and he began publishing film criticism the following year. From then until his death (from stomach ulcers) his work appeared regularly in a broad range of film journals (Close up, Movie Makers, American Cinematographer), liberal periodicals (New Freeman, Hound and Horn) and organs of the Left (The New Masses, Workers' Theatre).

The Daily Worker dated Potamkin's attachment to the revolutionary cause from 1927. He was one of the founders of the John Reed Club, the Communist writers and artists group, and was a delegate to the Kharkov Conference of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers in 1930. Much of his writing consisted of radical verse, prose, songs, plays and operettas for working class children. He was a major influence in the creation and shaping of the Workers' Film and Photo League, and was at the time of his death a member of its National Committee, as well as executive secretary of the John Reed Club.

Potamkin, thus, was a true radical activist. His writing is quite free of the equivocation and condescension characteristic of the liberal sympathizer with left wing causes. That it is being reprinted only now, a generation and a half after it first appeared, says something for its subversive integrity as well as for the profound rightward shift of U.S. culture following the Depression years. Even in 1977, Potamkin can be presented only with a stern caveat from his publishers. Anyone who believes that the aura of the Cold War has finally been dissipated from U.S. life need but refer to the Foreward contributed by General Editor Martin S. Dworkin to The Compound Cinema. This anti-Marxist diatribe is so tediously prejudiced, and so irrelevant to the content of the book, that it does not merit serious attention. It is enough to note that for Dworkin—the complacent bourgeois who sees ideology everywhere but in his own ideas—Potamkin is worth reprinting despite his politics. Hence, even what Potamkin waved as red flags in his film criticism were often also (incongruous as it may seem) "banners for serious, critical understanding of the arts in general and the cinema in particular."

Ironically, Dworkin's hypersensitivity to red (look out, he warns, for the "sentimental Bolshevism coloring so much" of Potamkin's writing) has led him to give a false impression of the book as a whole. For at least half the contents do not betray, or are not logically dependent upon, the author's left wing convictions. Before, roughly, 1930—and the onset of the economic crisis—Potamkin was a belle-lettrist scrutineer of film as an art, independent of any categories of class or mode of production. It was only in his later writing that he began the quest for Marxist aesthetic.

But Potamkin was always a systematic thinker. The shift which took place in his criticism did not entail an abandonment of former enthusiasms, or even of former principles. It was rather a change of emphasis and a reapplication, in more political terms, of fundamental concepts. There is no inconsistency between his 1927 survey of the contributions of Alexander Bakshy to film theory and his posthumous pamphlet, Eyes of the Movie (1934), a savage indictment of the practices of Hollywood (if poorly written). It is just that his perspective has altered. Dworkin to the contrary, it was a positive development. As editor Lewis Jacobs, a much more sympathetic interpreter, notes in his introduction:

"This new aspect of Potamkin's critical philosophy wrenched film criticism out of narrow aesthetic habits of perception, exposed it to a deeper engagement of experience, and underlined the necessity of the filmmaker's responsibility to social and cultural forces."

As a formalist, in his first years of writing, Potamkin rigorously applied to the medium of cinema the traditional aesthetic category of unity. Camera angle, lighting, movement, acting, could all be studied and judged according to this criterion. Yet this passion for unity did not propel him, as it did so many of his contemporaries, into a defense of the silent movie as an artistic form. His early triumph was in fact a bold and well-judged attack on the purists those who resisted the encroachment of sound. "It is the creator of films who tells us how many kinds of films there are," he insisted, "and not the critic." And again:

"To force the movie constantly into its simplest form is to keep it forever simplistic, a lisping, spluttering idiot."

Perceptively, he argued that the sound film would fulfill the aspirations of many twentieth century artists for a form containing multiple, heterogeneous elements. Innumerable hybrids "that could not survive or propagate" had been tried—he mentions dynamism in paintings of Der Sturm, avant-garde theatre, and experiments linking texts and photographs. But the cinema was "born in the age of the multiple" and was, "by nature of its potential structure, a compound form."

Potamkin was thus open to technological innovations—widescreen and 3D as well as sound. His only condition was that they be capable of stylization. (Odors, he noted, quite accurately, were "diffusive, not contained within limited areas," and hence could not be incorporated structurally within a film: "How will one stylize odors, of hay, perfume, dung, cadaver, hair pomade, cold cream, George Bancroft's sweat?") For some time, before the intensifying class struggle pushed such thoughts to the background, speculation on stylization of sound led him to reject the idea of simple dialogue in favor of a modified spoken language—"reduced speech"—using devices such as monotone, rhythmic repetition, sustained pitch and modified inflection.

What was to become the pivotal concept of Potamkin's mature film aesthetics first found expression in a 1929 review of Dreyer's PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. This was the notion (as he expressed it elsewhere) that

"the film is a progressive medium aspiring to intensiveness."

"Progressive" referred to the dominant ordering principle of most films, that of sequential time. "Intensiveness" was the quality by which images could be clustered according to different logical criteria, including that of space.

In Potamkin's view, cinematic energies derived, in part, from a tension between the progressive and the intensive; but in most films the latter was weak. THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC was outstanding because it did not succumb to the pressures of the plot, but allowed for concentration on "the inferences of the theme." In so doing, it became "the archetype of intensive cinema."

The judgments, at this point, are strictly those of an aesthete. It is not the content that counts, but its treatment. Film is superior because "there is no extraneous detail" and because it offers "an experience of form and content completely fused and fluid." It has unity. Within a year, such an intrinsic virtue, for Potamkin, would no longer suffice.

His verdicts become political. He is more alive to the significance of subject: HALLELUJAH! displays "all the trappings of the legendary negro, as the white man likes to see him." THE CASE OF SERGEANT GRISCHA, with its pacifist suggestions, plays into "the social mood that accepts the fraudulences of capitalist conferences on disarmament."  Yet Potamkin never travels all the way down this path. What is fascinating about him, and what links him closely with modern Marxist theorists of the film (despite his lack of an adequate vocabulary), is the degree to which he is able to pronounce a death sentence on the bourgeois film on formal grounds.

The feat is achieved by converting the progressive-intensive model into a tool of class cultural analysis. In his discussion of JOAN, Potamkin had written:

"The consideration of plot as narrative has been the cause and the result of the movie's literalness (particularly in America)…"

Several months later, he noted:

"American movies, because they are usually built on a single line, do not allow the composite structure…"

The characteristic was a national one. It remained so in a 1930 article for the American Cinematographer. But here in the contrast with the Soviet cinema there was the hint that by "American," Potamkin meant "capitalist" as well. The argument is a crucial one; it is worth quoting in detail:

"The logic of film-construction is termed 'continuity.' The very word suggests the matter-of-fact, arithmetic or geometric, literal sequence of the American film progression. Griffith created the 'flashback,' a diverting of the progression by means of a subtraction or fractional intrusion; but, since the American film, remaining muscular, literal and sentimental, could not see the structural significance of this device, it remained as merely a part of the practice of 'cutting.'"

"Russia, re-studying the film at its source, developed the Griffith technique and established montage as cinema construction. The flashback has become a paramount instrument within montage. In FRAGMENT OF AN EMPIRE it is the pivot of the rhythmic structure … The structure of the film is far from the mind of Hollywood and will be as long as the mind of Hollywood is composed of the non-critical mentalities of America. Indeed, Hollywood is bewildered by the evidences of the cinema's positive tendencies: toward the reflective, toward non-sequential logic. It has accepted the compound i.e. the sound film as fiscal salvation and as palpable technology. But the compound is an art, technology informed by philosophy. The philosophy, critical viewpoint, is absent. Russia alone is completely the land of the philosophic cinema…"

In an unpublished manuscript written a year or so later, the point became explicit. Potamkin declared,

"The seediness of Griffith, is important less as an individual case than as an epitome of frustration in the bourgeois cinema." (Emphasis mine.)

"Observe how the American director, including Griffith himself, has relapsed completely into the chronological film, rather than developed the associative, constructed, back-and-forth reference film."

Meanwhile, an economic development had occurred which could hardly fail to be connected with the aesthetic one:

"As American society has become less and less diffuse, and more and more concentrated, with a corresponding concentration of the economy of the land in fewer and fewer hands, the motion picture has become less and less expressive of 'independent' manipulators and more and more the merchandise and instrument of consolidated enterprises, until at present there can hardly be said to exist any 'independence.'"

Thus, Potamkin had arrived at a fundamental critique of Hollywood cinema: that, hogtied by the demands of capitalism, it could develop no further than the film of linear narrative progression, and accordingly remained at the adolescent level of "muscular impact."

Potamkin was scornful of fellow critics who refused to recognize these politically determined limitations of U.S. film, particularly the "cultists" or "populists" (he had Gilbert Seldes particularly in mind), for whose attitude he sought to provide a class explanation. He argued, in a jibe that is not without its relevance to the contemporary critical scene:

"The enthusiasm, more quasi than real, for the lowly or 'lively arts,' has been the effort of young men who had been precocious and had missed the normal childhood intimacy with the popular amusements. These young prigs, of a disintegrating class and of an unstable group within that class, have sought to establish empathy between their antipathetic environment and themselves."

"Such was the perpetrator of the cartoon cult, the critic who … retreating from any examination of the basic evils frustrating the advance of the movie, and perishing to be at one with the easy-going movie fan, persists in the adoration of the infant cartoons."

Potamkin's fundamental reproach against the bourgeois cinema was more a bludgeon than a flexible critical weapon, and he disdained wielding it each time a new film was released. In fact, he did very little regular movie reviewing, relinquishing the chore to comrades on the Daily Worker staff. Yet at times, in his hands, it could be used valuably in the demolition of individual films. Consider, for example, the following comments on THE BIG HOUSE (l930):

"The film begins within the prison, begins, that is to say, with a promise of intensiveness. But to sustain the intensive there is required a disciplined and rigorous mind, which is not the mind of the American movie … The film should have been intensive, gray, cumulative. Its model might well have been THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. We should have felt the slow process of festering, monotonous, oppressive, bursting in the riot—just as the mob explosion released the accumulation within the dungeon at Rouen."

Significantly, for Potamkin, "the first American film … to attempt intensiveness as against progression" was an independent, amateur production: THE STORY OF A NOBODY (1930) by Jo Gercon and Louis Hirshman.(1)

Potamkin held out no false hopes for the liberation of Hollywood. Bleakly prophetic about the chances of subversion from within, by infiltration, he warned:

"The force that will set the film free to develop beyond its rudiments will not come from the film-industry itself. It will need to be an 'outside force,' the force of progressive antithesis to the status quo, the vested interests and closed circles of Hollywood. The young men, self-rationalizers, who go to 'bore within' the compact monopoly of the film cosmopolis, will either succumb to the dominant bribe or be the more irascible in their cries."

Outside the confines of the United States the intensive film was to be looked for, of course, chiefly in the Soviet Union. There was FRAGMENT OF AN EMPIRE. There was also, for example, Dovzhenko's ARSENAL, in which

"we find the new logic having attained to a non-logic—if we think in terms of sensible verbal cogitation—by means of juxtaposition of images not immediately leading out of one another, but producing a total conveying idea and form, fluidity."

The method by which such a construction was built was montage, which carried the great potential of disrupting the insistent narrative flow. Montage, however, also harbored dangers. Over emphasis on it could lead to the disunity, the non-convergence of ideas, characteristic of Dada and surrealism, an aesthetic to which Potamkin was resolutely opposed. In Pudovkin's interest in non-diegetic metaphor, Potamkin detected the possibility of such a flaw developing. He cautioned,

"This continual major preoccupation with montage threatens to cast the artist into dissociations or mere pictorialism."

The remark betrays the fact that Potamkin was far from any compensatory cultist adulation of the Soviet cinema. Although rooted in the fertile soil of a socialist society, it was yet to reach full fruition in his view. Soviet filmmakers, like any others, could come under his testing critical scrutiny. Strong reservations are expressed, for instance, in both "Pudovkin and the Revolutionary Film" and "Eisenstein and the Theory of Cinema," two essays which, with their companion pieces "Rene Clair and Film Humor" and "Pabst and the Social Film," contain Potamkin's most brilliantly sustained criticism.

Potamkin's model for the revolutionary film in a socialist society was what he termed the "dialectical." Dialectical film, he said, traced the growth of an individual or mass group (preferably both, in symbolic tension) through a decisive experience towards a higher consciousness. For left wing filmmakers in the capitalist world, he suggested a concentration on documentary and satirical forms (the "futilitarian pathos" of German proletarian productions angered him). Ultimately, he said, when dramatic re-enactment could be attempted, "a film like KAMERADSCHAFT will not be a bad pattern."

The advice was offered to the New York Workers' Film and Photo League, the group who had a multi-pronged attack on the movie front of the class struggle—combating reactionary films, fighting censorship, initiating film education, popularizing Soviet pictures, producing workers' newsreels and documentaries. This group owed much to Potamkin's participation. His program for the League can, in fact, be read in The Compound Cinema.

(It is unfortunate that Jacobs has chosen to reprint, under the title "A Movie Call to Action!" what appears to be—despite the attribution in the book—an early draft for the article "Film and Photo Call to Action" which was actually published in Workers' Theatre, July 1931. The draft makes no direct reference to the WFPL, while the later version is much concerned with concrete problems of the organization.)

For Potamkin, theoretical critique of the bourgeois film thus carried as it corollary practical work devoted to the creation of an alternative, working class cinema. Through the existence of radical cultural organizations intellectual and worker, critic and artist could be—and were, in his time—brought into fruitful mutual contact.

This summary of the vectors of Potamkin's cinematic thought does no justice either to its range (from theatre design to the portrayal of Jews in film; from Moholy-Nagy to Carl Laemmle) or to its density. With the exception of several pieces (particularly some thumbnail histories, now long since superseded, of national cinemas), all of his writing can be read valuably today. His style, apart from an idiosyncratic forcing of language in places and an unfortunate tendency to repeat cute remarks ("griefs of the river!" he always exclaims, when mentioning Dolores Del Rio), is lucid, even elegant. Hopefully, publication of The Compound Cinema will lead to the revival of his ideas and their rethinking within a more sophisticated Marxist theoretical framework.


Gratitude is due Lewis Jacobs for his cultural salvage job in rescuing Potamkin from forty years of oblivion—and for his long, generous and informative introduction. However, I have reservations regarding the editing of the book (particularly at the price being asked for it). Apart from the "Film and Photo Call to Action" piece, there are several articles that might have been included which would locate Potamkin more firmly within the radical film movement of the thirties. These are "Workers' Films" (Daily Worker, May 31, 1930) and "Who Owns the Movie?" (Workers' Theatre, February and April, 1g32), which add a sociological critique to his previous aesthetic indictment of Hollywood.

The dating of the unpublished manuscripts is unpardonably sloppy. "A Diet of Stars" ("Circa 1929-30") is replete with references to films released in 1931 and 1932. "The Film in the Theatre," given as "Circa 1928-29," could not have been written before Piscator's 1931 departure for the Soviet Union, mentioned in the text. Someone should have informed the compiler of the index that THE GOLDEN AGE is the same film as L'AGE D'OR, LAND'S END equals FINIS TERRAE, ONLY THE HOURS is also known as RIEN QUE LES HEURES, etc. Finally, if the General Editor felt called upon (quite legitimately) to correct Potamkin's mistaken impression that Chaplin was born in Paris and Balazs in Germany, he might also have rectified Potamkin's repeated assertions that Dreyer (born in Copenhagen) was Swedish, and that Pabst (Czechoslovakian) was Viennese.


1. Or is it Hershell Louis? Lewis Jacobs gives it as the latter in his essay "Experimental Cinema in America" (The Rise of the American Film); and as a former collaborator of the man, he ought to know …