“Comrades! The time has come when we too must speak out. Why wait? All of Russia has risen! Are we to be the last?” asks Vakulinchuk.
In June 1905, the crew of a pre-dreadnought Russian battleship called the Potemkin staged an insurrection and overthrew their oppressive superior officers during the Revolution of 1905. This event would later be viewed as one of the first steps that would lead to the Russian Revolution of 1917. After the success of his 1924 film Strike, Sergei Eisenstein was commissioned by the Soviet government to make a propaganda film that commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Revolution of 1905. The result was a fictionalized account of the events involving the Potemkin and, 90 years later, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin remains one of the most important and influential films of all time. I was fortunate enough to see the new restoration of Battleship Potemkin on the big screen at Film Forum in New York City four years ago in a brand new 35mm film print. It was a very enjoyable experience, and this silent film classic proved to be as powerful today as it was almost a century ago. This review of Battleship Potemkin is my entry in the Russia In Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and sponsored by Flicker Alley (as noted by the logo at the top), who’s promoting their new release of The House of Mystery.
1925’s Battleship Potemkin centers on the sailors aboard the battleship Potemkin, who become fed up with eating rotten meat and dealing with cruel superior officers. They stage a mutiny that soon spreads to the port of Odessa, where civilians face off in a bloody battle against Cossack soldiers. Eisenstein makes great use of the amateur actors and actresses, who he hired based on how they looked for their parts. He also used the film as an opportunity to experiment and test his film editing theories of montage (which he referred to as “an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots wherein each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other”). The most famous example of the effectiveness of his montage theories is the Odessa Steps sequence, where Cossack soldiers shoot down rioters and innocent bystanders. The part where the carriage falls down the steps is one of the most famous scenes in all of cinema, and was most famously paid homage to in Brian De Palma’s 1987 classic The Untouchables (whose own steps sequence at a train station was successfully parodied in 1994’s The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult). Other films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather and Terry Gilliam’s 1985 cult classic Brazil also pay homage to the Odessa Steps sequence.
Eisenstein’s rhythmic editing succeeds in creating the greatest emotional response that enables audiences to sympathize with the rebelling sailors and hate their superior officers. His editing also increases the intensity of the Odessa Steps sequence. The film was graphically violent (for that time), shocking audiences who had not seen that level of violence in a film before. Eduard Tisse’s cinematography is top-notch; it heightens the reality of the sailors’ plight especially when combined with Eisenstein’s editing (even when it sometimes comes off as stylized). Though it was intended as just another Soviet propaganda film, Eisenstein made Battleship Potemkin into something so much more that people are still talking about it almost a century later and its continuing influence on filmmakers cannot be overstated.