The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

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  • directed by Sergei Eisenstein
  • starring Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov
  • A dramatized account of a Russian naval mutiny and the resulting street demonstration, which brought on a police massacre.

This was a lot more in line with what I expected from Eisenstein than what I saw in Alexander Nevsky, with a focus on the hard realities of its hundreds of characters and extras instead of the almost cartoon versions of good and evil that I noticed in the latter.

Divided into five parts—the seeds of unrest onboard, the uprising itself, the transfer of chaos from the sea to mainland, the brutal and fictional Odessa sequence, and the final confrontation that keeps the torch lit for the future—the film eschews the concept of main characters, instead following the idea of the revolution and its many iterations as its focal point. It starts small with rumblings of the social unrest spreading throughout the country and a realization that conditions on the ship were approaching intolerable—cruel treatment from higher-ups, maggots in their food (“Those aren’t worms, it’s dead fly larvae. They wash off with brine, the meat’s perfectly fine”). The tension then boils over into a confrontation between the crew and commanders, resulting in a bloody, successful mutiny.

From there the ship heads for shore, bringing to the beaten-down public lessons of action against Tsarist oppression and the exciting taste of victory. It’s this sense of excitement that leads the many soldiers and Odessa citizens to converge on the steps to demonstrate. Eisenstein’s camera finds the faces of seniors in the immense crowd, mothers with their young children, beggars, a double amputee. All people who have seen their share of struggles, with expressions that gradually morph from hopeful to panic-stricken as the squadron descends the stairs taking down anyone and everyone. There were many brilliant technical choices and haunting images throughout this scene, including the leaning baby carriage; Eisenstein limiting what we see of the police force so as to present a faceless, absent-of-humanity mass of guns and marching feet; the distraught mother who watches on as her dead child is trampled by the crowd; the woman whose utter devastation can be seen through her broken, blood-soaked glasses; and the many quick cuts to scenery pieces that heightened the atmosphere, my favorite being the three consecutive lion sculptures outside of the headquarters building, each expressing a different shade of grief or fear.

As well done as the scene was, I do have some questions as to how this horrific and fictional massacre scene, jammed into somewhat of a historically accurate if slightly skewed account of the Potemkin and the Russian political climate played with audiences at the time. Never one to mask his allegiances, it’s clear to see why Eisenstein took this path, but I wonder how much was clear to audiences, especially internationally.

I don’t know how many more Eisenstein films I’ll go through from here on out, but I have come to enjoy his style. He is the not-too-frequent case of a guy with visionary talent who finds himself in an era of political and cultural strife that’s impossible to ignore. There are no side plots in his films that I’ve seen. He depicts his characters caring about nothing at all except their deteriorating status and the eventual healing of Russia the only way possible; his way.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

One Response to The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

  1. Pingback: Chess Fever (1925) | classixquest

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