Sergei Eisenstein
The Battleship Potemkin
Medium: film
Year: 1925
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Writer: Nina Agadzhanova
Keywords: silent
Language: Russian
Country: Russia
Actor: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov, Ivan Bobrov, Mikhail Gomorov, Aleksandr Levshin, N. Poltavtseva, Konstantin Feldman, Prokopenko, A. Glauberman, Beatrice Vitoldi
Format: 75 minutes
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 13 January 2012
Big famous one here. It's been called the greatest film of all time, at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. Hundreds of books have been written about it, including by Eisenstein himself. It's technically ground-breaking, with a montage sequence that's one of the most famous in cinema.
It's pretty good. It occasionally gets a bit slow, but this will always be building up to something powerful.
The story is that of the mutiny of the Battleship Potemkin, which coincided with the 1905 Russian revolution that led to a short-lived democracy as opposed to the 1917 ones that led to Lenin and Stalin. Russia was losing the Russo-Japanese war and its fleet was in bad shape, madly manned and badly led. What exactly happened on the Potemkin is a little vague, but it looks as if Eisenstein's film isn't too far off the truth, despite the fact that it's proud to be communist propaganda. It gets names and incidents right, anyway, even if its famous Odessa steps sequence is at best a distillation of other incidents and wasn't even in the script, but instead was devised during production.
As a piece of history, it's more accurate than you'd expect. It doesn't need to get preachy, since it can do its job far more effectively just by painting the Tsarist forces as they were. The maggot-ridden meat is probably real, as is the tarpaulin and the firing squad. The Odessa steps massacre isn't, but at worst it's merely a dramatic exaggeration since it's known that there were that there were demonstrations in the area around that time and that troops fired into the crowds, causing an unknown number of deaths. There are reports of this from both The Times (London) and the British Consul.
As a movie, it's quite an experience. Eisenstein thinks big, with real ships and massed crowds of thousands, but he can keep it personal at the same time. The most impressive thing about the Odessa steps montage, for me, is the way he manages to be huge and tiny at the same time. The chaos is massive and so well orchestrated that it impressed even the Nazis, but we have children being gunned down and then their mothers carrying the bodies up the steps to confront the soldiers. There's a pram with a baby in it. There's a gore shot of a woman who's lost an eye. Meanwhile this carnage is being juxtaposed with a line of soldiers marching down the steps in perfect unison, like machines. Their guns are all at the same angle. They fire as one. This is not only a scene that's impressed film critics through the decades, but also my dad, who saw it thirty years ago (best guess) and has been talking about it ever since.
It works like a modern movie. You don't need to put on your "Silent Film Appreciation" head. Eisenstein does ball-busting action sequences, but he can also get it going with an angry crowd high on revolutionary fervour and quoting The Three Musketeers.
The film's divided into five episodes with kick-arse titles:
1. Men and Maggots
2. Drama on the deck
3. A Dead Man Calls for Justice
4. The Odessa Staircase
5. The Rendez-Vous with a Squadron
MEN AND MAGGOTS -- shows the downtrodden crew of the Potemkin being forced to eat bad meat. How bad, you ask? Well, the officer in charge thinks it's okay because you can wash the maggots off with sea water. This would have hit home particularly strongly for contemporary Russian audiences because 10 million of them had recently died in the Russian famine of 1921-22. (Lenin refused offers of foreign food aid, only changing his mind after the Kronstadt rebellion, peasant uprisings and the failure of a German general strike.) This is a great episode, with lots of evil bastards in charge to hate, but it's also unfortunately the one with the most unintentional humour. Self-avowed deliberate propaganda that takes itself this seriously is always liable to fall into that trap. Note the gay subtext:
1. Bare-chested men with muscles on their muscles, shot like gay porn. They all sleep together in their hammocks and one is seen bending over, shaking with suppressed emotion. "There's a limit to what a man can take!"
2. All these sailors just want to get their lips around good meat.
3. The repeated thrusting of penetrating the ship's cannon. I think they're cleaning it, although you could be forgiven for thinking you were looking at something else. I think it's the first time I've seen something that's a visual metaphor for both the male and female sexual organs at the same time.
4. The sailors standing next to those hanging dining tables look as if they have four-foot erections.
The comedy doesn't end there, though. I laughed at the face-pulling sailor on "give us this day our daily bread", while you've got to admire the naturalism in that dialogue at the beginning. "We, the sailors of the Potemkin, must support our brothers the workers. We must stand in the front ranks of the revolution!"
DRAMA ON THE DECK -- so you thought the officers were bastards in episode one? Check out these dudes. "All who enjoyed their soup, step forward." They're about to have a mass execution because of complaints over the food. This goes where we already know it's going to go and it's great fun to watch, irrespective of your political persuasion. (If you don't believe me, ask Goebbels.) Also check out the Werewolf Priest's insane hair.
A DEAD MAN CALLS FOR JUSTICE -- the first dull bit, although this is semi-deliberate because it's going to get ever more stirring as the crowd gets worked up. The Odessans hear about the Potemkin and come to political enlightenment. There's a cool bit as someone shouts "kill the Jews", only for everyone to stare at him angrily and then beat him up. Tsarist Russia wasn't a good place to be Jewish. They had pogroms, of which the first is ironically considered to be the 1821 riots in (wait for it) Odessa. The Bolsheviks in contrast opposed anti-semitism, although Stalin himself was anti-semitic and in time it crept back under the Soviets too.
THE ODESSA STAIRCASE -- the famous one.
THE RENDEZ-VOUS WITH A SQUADRON -- again, dull for a bit before getting strong at the end. "The attack began."
In summary, quite an education in what you can do with silent cinema. It's very watchable and Eistenstein really knows how to use scale. It's hard not to think that this was an influence on Nazi cinema, actually, although obviously it was an influence on everyone else too. He's called the "Father of Montage" and the Odessa Staircase sequence is by far his most celebrated example. He had a theory of five methods of montage (Metric, Rhythmic, Tonal, Overtonal, Intellectual), but more importantly what he achieves with it here would be remarkable even from a modern filmmaker. Yes, Eisenstein made it as communist propaganda, but that's okay. It's powerful. It does its job and gets you going. Charles Chaplin said it was his favorite movie, believe it or not.
"Killed for a plate of soup."