Cinema of Silence
A Lunch community devoted to classic silent films.
Battleship Potemkin

A movie directed by Sergei Eisenstein

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Montage after montage after montage after montage

  • Jul 7, 2006
Rating:
-3
Pros: Historical significance, the famous Odessa Step sequence

Cons: Everything else

The Bottom Line: Historically significant, for history fans, not for casual viewers.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie''s plot.

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.

Recommended:
No

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November 07, 2010
It's really sort of sad that you say one "would have to be fairly well versed in history" to know why the man tried to save himself by trying to shift the blame onto the Jews. I'm not into history but I did know from a young age that almost all of Europe and Russia had major problems with the Jews. You had the pogroms in Russia, you had ghettos in German and Poland. My mother was Polish and she was shocked when she saw SCHINDLER'S LIST because up until then she had thought that everybody had it hard and the Jews were just whiners. So it isn't just an age thing. I don't get it. How can people not know things?
November 08, 2010
Just because Jews were often persecuted doesn't mean that when persecution or other hateful behavior makes sense in a story. I brought it up because it was out of place for the event the film portrays. Anti-Jewish sentiment wasn't really running that high during the time covered, but were beginning to become an issue during the time of the filming. Stalin was in power but Trotsky had a strong following and was preferred by those loyal to Lenin. Trotsky was Jewish (that he never really practiced the religion was beside the point). The implication is that Eisenstein was showing Stalin and the stalinists which side he was on.
November 10, 2010
There were in fact pogroms in 1905 and 1903 which would have put them in exactly the right historical time frame.
 
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More Battleship Potemkin reviews
review by . August 01, 2009
Battleship Potemkin is a celluloid masterpiece. The direction of Eisenstein is truly a sight. The film chronicles a ship of disgruntled sailors who are tired of being mistreated by their superior officers.   Eventually, the sailors finally have enough of the abuse and send the officers packing.   The sailors decide to spread the message of revolt elsewhere  raising the ire of the local government who tries to crush it with an iron fist.      During this …
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Sergei Eisenstein's film of the famed Odessa revolt has been one of the landmarks of cinema since its release. Commissioned by the government to commemorate the failed uprising of 1905, it's without stars or even actors in the usual sense, exemplifying the collectivism it celebrates. The Battleship Potemkin has just returned from the war with Japan, its crew near mutiny because of brutal treatment and bad rations. When they're served maggot-infested meat one morning, the sailors finally rebel. One of the sailors, Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov), dissuades the officers from firing upon the mutineers, and they join the rest of the crew in revolt. Hearing of the mutiny, the people of Odessa send supplies to express their solidarity with the crew and gather en masse to mourn a slain sailor. The czar's troops arrive to dispel the crowd. In perhaps the most famous sequence in film history, the director rhymically intercuts shots of the troops marching machinelike down the Odessa steps with shots of innocent ci...

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...

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Details

Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Genre: Drama
Release Date: 1925
MPAA Rating: Unrated
DVD Release Date: Kino on Video (October 23, 2007)
Runtime: 1hr 7min
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