Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein
“Decades of censorship and militant support, countless words analyzing its structure, its symbolism, its sources and effects, and thousands of visual quotations have all served to make it very difficult for us to see the story behind the film.” (52, Jean-Michel Frodon, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) I first watched The Battleship Potemkin while at university – as part of my Film History module – which was a few years ago now. Even then I don’t think I could have told you what the story was although I did recognize (and still do) that it’s an important film in the history of cinema. I suppose it helped that we worked somewhat chronologically through that module so you could easily tell that technically it was a game changer.
“Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin may not be historically accurate, but his legendary vision of oppression and rebellion, individual and collective action, and its artistic ambition to work simultaneously with bodies, is a unique keyboard.” (52) Eisenstein was one of the first filmmakers to use editing as an integral part of the story telling process. He realized the audience would create a link between separate images if they were shown in sequence – a technique we now take for granted. While the subject of his film focusses on revolution his unique style of editing was itself revolutionary.
In essence a silent film, although the copy I’m currently watching has a soundtrack, with dialogue cards – in Russian I might add, albeit with English subtitles – means that you have to actually pay attention to the film rather than having it on in the background. Shot in black and white it has a wonderfully jerky and ‘vintage’ feel to it. It’s quite removed from the ultra-smooth camerawork of todays cinema. The black and white really compliments and highlights the use of light and shade creating a beautifully aesthetic piece of film. “[…] this aesthetic sensibility was endowed with political significance as well: the “changing of the world by conscious men” that had been dreamed of in those times and was known by the term “Revolution.” (52) The ship’s captain is actually a mustache twirling villain!
Told in multiple parts each section could be watched on its own. Part 3 moves at a fairly slow pace compared to the frenetic uprising of the preceding section. The uprising of the sailors is pretty dramatic and the first of many which sparks the greater revolution that has become so iconic. Part 4 – The Odessa Stairway is probably the most recognizable of all the sections – even seen out of context you know without a shadow of a doubt you are watching The Battleship Potemkin which cannot be said for the rest of the sections that comprise the film. The flight down the stairs is chaotic and messy, packed full of all the most well-recognized images from the film. Some are particularly harrowing like the little boy being trampled after having fallen and of course the baby pram careening out of control down the immense length. There is something terrifying about the babies situation – greatest fear of any parent is losing their child (despite not being a parent I can still relate!) That image in particular is a visual representation that revolution affects everyone even the most innocent. Quiet moment when the mother of the trampled boy, who looks very masculine indeed, appeals to the soldiers only to be brutally shot down, quite literally. “[Then] before it all becomes ideological interpretation, the stone lion coming alive to roar with anger and a desire to live will become a metaphor for the film itself – and for the high and daring idea of cinema it was bearing – escaping from its monumental status to be found, alive and fresh once again, by every new pair of eyes that looks upon it.” (53) The lion is actually pretty bizarre – up until that point the film had some basing in reality. Once the inanimate object gains life, no matter how briefly, it all becomes a bit surreal.
I have to say both while at university and re-watching The Battleship Potemkin now I find the story a bit turgid. However I can appreciate the stunning, and now iconic, images Eisenstein stitches together as well as the important contribution it made to the development of cinema and film. I suppose the film was only really allowed because the revolutionaries won – they overthrew the tsars in 1917 and therefore there was no threat of inciting new uprisings.