Normally I can try to view an older film through a different set of mental lenses and filters. I could not find a way to do this for the classic The Battleship Potemkin.
The film is divided into three distinct sections (5 chapters in the film, but only 3 major sections). The first section is aboard the battleship Potemkin toward the end of Russian involvement in WWI. Sailors mutiny over bad conditions, most famously soup made from maggot infested meat. During the melee, the leader of the mutiny is killed. Section two is in Odessa as the citizens rally around the mutineers, particularly the dead Vakulinchuk, “killed for a plate of soup.” The tsarist army tries to squash the popular support. The third part has the Potemkin going out to the Black Sea to face the imperial navy and either get them to surrender to the cause of the Bolsheviks or die trying.
This is a propaganda film made in 1925 by the master of the montage Sergei Eisenstein. I have no problems with the propaganda aspect at all (it and the famous Odessa Step sequence are the only reasons I requested it). Propaganda can only be a complicated as the intended audience can tolerate. So there is what I call a Sesame Street quality to the narrative—there is something for the children, but it is done in such a way to appeal to adults while not being condescending. The common folk for whom this was meant would have no trouble getting the message since it is delivered with no subtlety at all. Those interested in the art of film can marvel at Eisenstein’s editing abilities. That said, because I could not find the correct mix of lenses and filters to watch the film, I can only say that film historians and scholars would find the film engrossing.
The whole movie was one big montage. The Odessa Step sequence is just the most majestic of them. At least it was somewhat coherent, but I could not follow the reasoning behind many of the others. The first one that caught my attention was the incident that caused the mutiny. A group of sailors who would not follow a command to move was covered with a tarp and ordered shot by firing squad. The boisterous Vakulinchuk convinces the firing squad to lay down their arms. The very swift changes from full face close-ups, legs of the condemned under the tarp, the other soldiers looking down as if in prayer or away, the vicious looks (literally villainous moustache twisting) of the officer crew, faces of the firing squad, and their rifles would make sense to increase the tension, but Mr. Eisenstein doesn’t stop there. He throws in shots of the ship’s yard, the life saver with the ship’s name on it, the bow of the ship and so on. These, to me, motiveless shots served not to heighten the tension but break it up so that, finally, I didn’t care what happened to the sailors. By the time the firing squad put their arms aside, I was a bit nauseous of all the swift changes that seemed to be there for no reason.
In Odessa, things are a bit more meaningful. Tension and crowds mount around the fallen Vakulinchuk magically. It is as if the whole city has heard about the mutiny and heroic death and has turned out en masse to pay respects or just ogle the curiosity of it. The camera work prior to the riot is, beyond doubt, masterful. The camera glories in the faces, the mourning, and the hope of the peasants who have turned out. The camera looks askance at those with means. One lady of means is given cinematic sympathy because she seems to recognize the rightness of the crowd (she is unusually attractive for this film and she lifts her veil a bit and smiles as if to say ‘right on’). One man, who is presumably killed, laughs at the crowd in a dismissive manner and is overtaken by the peasant men around him. (In an odd cultural aside that has no antecedent or call back within the film, before the man is overtaken by the mob, he tries to blame the situation on Jews; this moment is so jarring from a narrative perspective it doesn’t make any sense within the film; you would have to be fairly well versed in the history of the time to know why this statement would even have a place.) Otherwise, the wealthy are just white dresses and pressed pants—their faces obscured if in the shots at all in a way that their peasant counterparts are not.
The riot itself is just chaos. Control is maintained for three portions of the famous montage. One little boy is trampled and his mother (who in a personal aside looks like a man who could play Dracula) picks him up and confronts the row of tsarist riflemen with the body of her dead son. They shoot her. A bullet also finds a woman pushing a pram. Scattered about the mob scenes is her slow death and how her fallen body gives enough push to the pram to send it down the stairs. The baby in the pram then takes his/her place among the quick shots of the mob, the riflemen, the peasants scrambling for a hiding place and so on. And in what is one of the most heartless moments of any movie in recent memory, when the baby makes it to the bottom of the stairs, he/she is hacked to death with a sword wielded by a man I can only describe as insane.
This is where the propaganda is at its best. The noble peasants try to stand up against the army as bravely as possible, but are no match for bullets and their own fearful comrades. Some amount almost anachronistic multi-cultural sensitivity deserves mention. During this montage that seems to last forever, the women do most of the talking—not the men. Further, Eisenstein makes David Lynch look like an amateur when using the disabled or disfigured. He uses a man with one leg, a legless man and people with disfigured faces as heroic types during this sequence. The propaganda angle is obvious. But there is more to it. When American filmmakers use the disabled, they tend to point to the nobility of their efforts to be ‘normal’ or whatever—the tired notion of noble suffering rewarded in some way. What I saw was just a population of a city fully represented and the disabled and disfigured were shown not as different, but as having equal worth, not special worth.
The montage for the final portion, facing the rest of the Black Sea fleet, is just as strange as the first one. There were several shots of ropes or rigging or other inanimate things thrown in with the supposedly anxious crew (who are quite good at sleeping despite being anxious). Again, rather than adding to the anxiety, it detracts from it.
To sum it up in a simple comparison: Eisenstein uses montage, at least in this film, with the same frequency as Spielberg uses special effects; do it even if it doesn’t make sense because it is loaded with a ‘wow’ factor.
The score was by Dmitri Shostakovich and was ok, if you like him. I am not a fan of Russian classical music in general (it tends to favor the brassy more than the strings of more western music), and not a fan of Shostakovich in particular. The score fits though. It is frenetic and meanders in one direction and another, just as the film. The best I can say is that it is not distracting—the film takes care of that all by itself.
The film is interesting only from a historical prospective. If you are a fan of revolutionary Russia, early film techniques, or propaganda, then this is a film you must sit through. If these things do not appeal, do not bother.
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The Battleship Potemkin, sometimes rendered as The Battleship Potyomkin, is a 1925 silent film directed by Sergei Eisenstein and produced by Mosfilm. It presents a dramatised version of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their oppressive officers of the Tsarist regime.
The Battleship Potemkin has been called one of the most influential propaganda films of all time, and was named the greatest...