4 Stars out of 4
Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin hurdles past cinema into the heart of history itself. It manipulates montage to a tee and also manipulates our sympathy to the point that the film is a transgressive angle to historical analysis. Never have I seen a film that made me want to root, cry, squirm, and then applaud. Eisenstein’s film is labeled, in a simple sense, as propaganda. It gives the film a harsh label, and not one it deserves, because it evokes feelings that, despite Eisenstein’s conceited ways, never feel synthetic.
The film released 8 years after the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution, where Communist took on an age of its own. Russian socialists began to rebel against the elitist tsarists and violence, pain, and civil animosity was overwhelming. As a silent film, The Battleship Potemkin works best. In all the quiet, the film is juxtaposed by a visual that moves vigorously. In the silence, the mayhem surrounding evokes repression and the emotional strife of sympathizing with our inferior heroes.
Well, the point is these heroes are no longer tolerating their subjugation. What began as a quarrel over food rations snowballs into a grand-scaled uprising on the ship – you guessed it - the Potemkin. The ship holds a triumphant stance; it travels along the waters at ease and aggressive power. The sailors move throughout in coordinates but feel disjointed from each other and discontent with their duties.
Soon, all hell breaks loose. They rise up and Eisenstein emphasizes courage over disruption. The narration, written by Eisenstein, is expressed mostly in dialogical passages that evoke urgency. The music, orchestrated (from the version I saw) was by the Club Foot Orchestra who nail the daringly ostentatious epic soundtrack.
The Battleship Potemkin is divided into episodes, which give the audience an obvious direction towards the emotional impact. Emotion, in this film, is delivered through set pieces, that’s power is assured through the film’s brutal courage. During the famous Odessa Staircase sequence, the Tsar’s Cossacks march in a mechanical and highly foreboding manner towards a crowd of rioting civilians. They fire at the people, as the bullets tare through the crowd and into our emotions. After we are perturbed by Eisenstein’s startling sequence, a baby carriage tumbles down the stairwell as the Cossacks fire frantically. Eisenstein power is pure: no one was afraid to shoot the baby - which symbolically, and fairly so, refers to the neglected, fragile, yet very healthy Bolsheviks.
Eisenstein is said to have made the film based on the Kuleshov school of filmmaking, which emphasized splicing images together to create the most emotional resonance. The film’s weight even affected ruthless Nazism and figures of that political position who became fascinated by the film’s ability to epitomize the pleasure of revolt and chaos. The Battleship Potemkin is a turning force against authority but it also believes in authority in another sense - the coerciveness of the mutineers.
Joseph Stalin would ban the film during his reign when the Comintern ceased to promote world revolution and mutiny among the navies of capitalist countries. It was eventually repudiated by Nazi Germany and tagged ‘X Rated’ until 1978. Despite its contention, the film is appreciated, homaged, and transcended in contemporary cinema. De Palma revitalized the Odessa Staircase sequence in The Untouchables - great film. Even George Lucas reflected the episodic sense of chaos in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.
So where does this leave the film? A masterwork, slow at times (as I find most silent films) but it conveys itself in a way that a silent film only could: restrained, elegant, yet relentlessly exuberant. It should be watched by all film and even history students because it manipulates the true effects of cinema, while balancing the subjective vulnerability of history. When that woman bled from her right eye, Eisenstein presented something uncanny, disturbing, and unknowable. We never could understand the agony of those neglected. Eisenstein tells us why we always root for the underdog in cinema.