Revolutionary in more ways than one, this masterpiece still carries a real punch today
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Cast: Aleksandr Antonov (Grigory Vakulinchuk), Vladimir Barsky (Commander Golikov), Grigori Aleksandrov (Chief Officer Giliarovsky), I. Bobrov (Young sleeping sailor), Mikhail Gomorov (Militant sailor), Aleksandr Levshin (Petty Officer), N. Poltavseva (Pince-nez woman), Lyrkean Makeon (Masked Man), Konstantin Feldman (Student agitator), Beatrice Vitoldi (Woman with baby)
If you have any doubt whether you have ever seen a film influenced by Battleship Potemkin I’d direct your attention to just one sequence. No, not the Odessa Steps. Instead: we’re on the deck of the Potemkin. The tyrannical captain has reacted to a complaint about the mouldy meat by demanding everyone refusing to eat it is shot. In a series of swift edits, mixing shots of the soon-to-be-victims, the marines who will do the shooting, different angles of the ship, we keep cutting back to Sailor Vakulinchuk’s face. What will he do? Will he protest? If you have ever seen a film build a violent crescendo with repeated cuts to a hero torn on taking action, you’ve seen something inspired by Battleship Potemkin.
It was made to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Russia’s first go-round for revolution, the series of uprisings that nearly overthrew the Tsar in 1905 (and led to him caving and allowing a degree of political representation anathema to him). Sergei Eisenstein, with the highly praised film Strike under his belt, was selected to direct. Eisenstein was offered a script full of events, but just one really spoke to him. That revolt of the sailors of the Potemkin, off the coast of Odessa. This was something he thought he could make a movie about! Eisenstein ditched nearly the whole of the script to focus on the class struggle between the sailors and workers and the faceless Tsarist system.
Battleship Potemkin would be a showcase for Eisenstein to expand the possibilities of editing images, cross-cutting to suggest inferences between events and characters. It’s no accident we cut so swiftly, and so often, from the maggot-filled meat the sailors are given and the stubbly, smug faces of the officers who insist the meat is edible. It’s pretty clear those maggots aren’t the only parasites aboard ship. The guns of the Potemkin are returned to time and again, dominating and dividing the frame or serving constantly as a reminder, first of the oppressive Tsarist regime, then of the heroic defiance of the sailors when faced with the Tsarist fleet sailing towards them.
Eisenstein’s mise-en-scene would become unimaginably influential. Not least because Battleship Potemkin is the most effective propaganda film ever made. It is impossible not to feel complete kindred with the sailors – all humble, honest, stoic Russian types, roused only to action by repeated provocation – and to despise the officer class, puffed up, dripping in elaborate uniforms, sneering at everyone, twirling moustaches over stubbly faces.
The film is shot time and again to present the sailors and the crowds in Odessa as a single, unified force. It’s rare where one of them appears alone – only reaction shots which capture their individual resolve (and, later, horror) – and they are mostly presented as united in purpose. In particular, Eisenstein shoots the citizens of Odessa as a near never-ending flow: they pour down the streets and steps (in a disciplined, respectful, mass) and fill the pier leading to Vakulinchuk’s makeshift grave. They work together and collaborate on tasks. On the other hand, the officers are frequently shot alone, either in close-up to stress their monstrous features or to capture their spittle-filled rants.
The sole exception is that meat-grinder of sabres and bullets that chews through the crowds at the Odessa Steps sequence. Here these soldiers – the brothers who don’t rise up but carry out the cruel, sadistic orders of their superiors – are barely human at all. There is no trace of personality or individuality in them. The features Eisenstein cuts to most are their marching feet, striding inexorably forward over bodies like a machine, and the bayonet tip of the rifles that relentlessly pour bullets into the crowd. If Bolshevism is a mass of individuals working as a coherent whole, then Tsarism is a brutality where the only faces are scornful and cruel officers.
The eventual coup of the sailors is masterfully cut together, fast-paced and overwhelmingly modern. It’s another indicator of the huge influence Battleship Potemkin has had on the grammar of modern filmmaking. As we watch Vakulinchuk and his fellows fight the officers, chasing them across the deck, scrabbling for weapons and the final duel between Vakulinchuk and Commander Golikov, its only the silence and black-and-white imagery that really distinguishes it from a similar end sequence in Avatar: The Way of Water. Battleship Potemkin can lay claim to being the most influential action film ever made, it’s use of fast-cutting to build tension, empathy and the imposing terror of seemingly insurmountable odds in a hostile environment second to none.
Editing and montage was central of Eisenstein’s technique – and you can argue that camerawork, character and (sometimes) narrative were secondary. Battleship Potemkin works as well as it does because it is an experience film. Its characters are ciphers, all of them Marxist tools towards an end effect. Eisenstein’s film is one of cuts designed to bring pace and rhythm, to project and create a visceral emotive reaction. He is very different from other silent directors who used the camera as a viewing tool, mobile and flowing. His movement comes from fast edits and quick cuts. Battleship Potemkin is modern in the sense that its finest sequences are a dizzying array of cuts and quick shots, that continue to influence action films today.
Which brings us, of course, to the Odessa Steps. Does it matter that this never happened in real life? Eisenstein essentially takes the 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre at the gates of the Imperial Palace in St Petersburg and transposes it to Odessa. It captures the mood of the time. Edits build in intensity – and swiftness – to highlight the growing tension and then explosive terror when the guns start firing. People flee in terror – one of the few tracking shots in the film follows the descent first of people, that that famous pram – down the steps. Reaction shots show a horrified mother, an older woman pleading for peace and a furious student radical.
And the furious intensity of the montage helps communicate the rampage. Careful cutting highlights the horror of a boy shot, trampled and then carried up to the soldiers by his distraught mother only to be gunned down. This is montage at its finest, and it even transforms time. People are shot and start to fall, we cut to reactions, soldiers marching, the stairs and then back to that person still falling. Is it reality? No. Is it drama? Yes. It’s a magisterial triumph of Eisenstein’s style, everything servant to the editing machine.
Battleship Potemkin is in the end all about editing. Eisenstein loves the impressions it can build. From maggots to officers. The sadistic priest’s face which constantly cuts back to his crucifix which thuds into his hand like a mace. The three lion statues – one lying down, one sitting, one standing up – cut swiftly together in sequence to give the impression the statue is reacting to events. Where Potemkin avoids camera inventiveness it more than makes up for it with the power of its montage.
And Eisenstein would argue that’s what cinema (ultimately) is and what differs it from theatre. It certainly works to make Battleship Potemkin thrillingly impactful. It’s no wonder that almost every country in the world – including the USSR – seems to have banned it at some point. It carries such visceral impact, it’s practically a weapon in the class war. Eisenstein’s influence continues to felt today, and while other pioneering directors would introduce more effective camerawork and story-telling techniques, none would harness the potential of the editing suite as effectively as Eisenstein.
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