This is the first post in a casually maintained series about politics and film. I am no expert at all in neither of those so any constructive criticism is more than welcome!
Reading through late Eric Hobsbawm’s superb ‘The Age of Extremes 1914-1991’, on page 183 I came across his appraisal of the silent movie ‘Battleship Potemkin’. This movie is a propaganda piece with which the Bolshevist ruling class intended to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1905 anti-czarist uprising. The leadership’s aim was to show that the army supports the workers in their epic fight against bourgeois rule, and for the building of a communist society (Ebert, 1998). Director Sergei Eisenstein was passionately dedicated to the cause, since it was his belief that the artist should service the higher aim of a just society (cinewiki.com). He was, it seems, a little bit too much into it, because Battleship Potemkin was banned in supposedly democratic capitalist countries like the US and the UK, as well as Stalinist Russia (Grace, 2000).
The plot revolves around how the crew of the Battleship Potemkin incites revolution in the city of Odessa. The key character is called Vakulinchuk. He is what is commonly known as a troublemaker. Vakulinchuk stands up to the ship doctor, who repeatedly declares maggot infested beef as edible and delicious (of course only for the lower ranks).
From this very beginning Eisenstein creates a tension that is not only carried by dramatic silent-movie music, but also via intense pictures. Eisenstein’s communist world-view and his philosophy to engage, rather than entertain, the audience is thus felt throughout the entire movie. Eisenstein pushes this philosophy to the limits in a scene in which several members of the crew were meant to be executed: the captain having been infuriated by the crew’s refusal to eat the rotten food ordered some of the ‘traitors’ to be shot. The time from the captain giving the order to the climax of the scene is so tense that as a viewer I almost could smell the fear! And this is no small achievement, given that Eisenstein did not have any of those posh tools like colour or even voice at his disposal!
Anyway, as the security guards awaited the firing order while taking aim, Vakulinchuk just in time, yelled at them asking what it was they were actually doing. The revolution began. What followed could be read as an allegory of the real revolution. The suppressed sailors pursuing their officers, or bourgeois masters, into every corner of the ship (read the country) and throwing them eventually over board. Revolution is simple, comrades! Unfortunately, Eisenstein led Vakulinchuk die during the mutiny, in order to create a martyr the inhabitants of Odessa could praise when the Potemkin arrived. As before from the captain’s death sentence to the mutiny, Eisenstein in this scene also masterfully takes an event (the death of Vakulinchuk) and builds up to a climax. In the process he centres on the grievances the Russian population dealt with under Czarist oppression, by letting them shout the usual two-liners, such as down with the autocrats etc. In that section Eisenstein makes a powerful statement when he let the people to take down an anti-Semite, who yelled a fascist-style parole.
The movie’s tension, however, peaks with the scene of the Odessa steps. As the people gather on the steps to organize for revolution, tsarist troops approach from behind and begin a massacre. Eisenstein shows the soldiers as an indivisible bloc marching forward, killing everyone in their way. They do not even have mercy with a mother who is confronting them because she needs help with her injured child. The child was in a pram, rolling down uncontrolled as the Cossacks opened fire (the scene has been most famously cited in de Palma’s The Untouchables). In this scene Eisenstein visualizes Marxist communism with perfection: the violent agents of the bourgeois elite as unstoppable bloc and the good-hearted individual subalterns, who struggle to survive (Grace, 2000). The scene is indeed impressive. It shows why Eisenstein is still considered the master of editing. He created the scene with “hundreds of shots edited to precise instruction” (cinewiki.com).
After the troops dispersed the crowd in plain view of the Potemkin’s crew which watched in awe and rather helpless from the ship, word gets out that an armada of battleships is arriving in order to defeat the revolution definitely. As they arrive, however, they join up with the Potemkin and set out to show the bourgeois who’s got the power.
‘Battleship Potemkin’ is currently rated at 100% on rottentomatoes.com and 8.0 out of 10 on Imdb. The ratings are justified. It is a movie with such intense pictures that are impossible in conventional movies (‘Gone with the Wind’ came close though). Eisenstein fused genius with technology and a powerful narrative. He thus created more than a movie or a mere piece of propaganda; he created one of the most intriguing 20th century piece of art.
Ebert, R. 1999. The Battleship Potemkin. rogerebert.com. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-battleship-potemkin-1925, accessed January 2014.
Cinewiki.com. Sergei Eisenstein. http://cinewiki.wikispaces.com/Eisenstein%2C+Sergei, accessed January 2014.
Grace, H. 2000. Battleship Potemkin. sensesofcinema.com. http://sensesofcinema.com/2000/cteq/potemkin/, accessed January 2014.