Review of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, a 1925 Russian Pioneering Film

Vintage Potemkin.jpg

Battleship Potemkin (wikipedia)

GRADE: AA / 90%

Summary: Two intensely memorable moments from Battleship Potemkin strike you with such a direct, crashing force, you cower in your seat in disbelief of the horror you’re witnessing in the film. That’s how evocative the film is.

Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin has two intensely memorable moments; the first one surges when the captain of ‘Potemkin’ (a battleship) orders his loyal officers to execute the mutinous sailors who are covered in tarpaulin, which instantly took me to the horrifying image of the shrouded Abu-Ghraib prisoners. The second one erupts when the Tsarist army marches down Odessa steps as Cossacks attack the revolting civilians during the famous ‘Odessa Sequence’. These two sequences strike with such a crashing force not only because they are expertly edited by director Sergei Eisenstein, who rapidly cuts his camera across the various forces in action in a way that keeps one’s heart racing throughout, but also because the scenes are supplemented with astoundingly evocative background score by Edmund Meisel. The images terrify at times because they’re so direct, such as the close up shot of a baby getting trampled by fleeing crowd during the Odessa massacre. You cower in your seat as though you’re the one being attacked, and you sit with the same expression the characters in the film have because you can’t believe what you’re witnessing. That’s the impact Battleship Potemkin had on me in 2013 so you can imagine how deeply it would’ve influenced movie-goers in 1925, when the film actually released.

Eisenstein’s take on the 1905 incident in Russia where the crew of ‘Potemkin’, a battleship, mutinied against the dictatorial regime of their Tsarist officers, is partly subjective. He deliberately chose not include the outcome of the mutiny in order to present his film as a celebratory instance for the mutineers. He has included a fictitious massacre sequence that’s become the most famous scene in the movie – the Odessa massacre, which never occurred. He opens the film with repeated shots of waves crashing on rocks and then takes us to the Potemkin ship, where an officer inspecting the sleeping crew unfairly vents his anger on a young member. The officer is angry because he finds it difficult to make his way through the room filled with sailors, who are huddled in a small room and given little space to sleep. As the other sailors console the weeping sailor (yes, Russians men do weep easily. Know it because I’ve read Tolstoy), Vakulinchuk, an older sailor incenses his crew to fight back the officers.

Massacre Scene from Battleship Potemkin (wikipedia)

The next day, there’s a commotion on the ship as the crew complaints that their meat is rotten with crawling worms visible. An officer’s response – ‘These aren’t worms. They are maggots. Just clean them and they’re fine’ (not quoting verbatim so don’t bother correcting). This kind of cruel indifference leads to further non-cooperation from the crew, who refuses to finish their soup. For this minor reason, the captain willfully orders for their execution until the soldiers fight back. The spirit of their revolt further manifests in the people of Odessa, who no longer are tolerant against Tsarist oppression. Eisenstein knows the facts but he can’t put across his intended message without some artistic tweaking, and so he does it without making his changes feel evident. As Roger Ebert said: ‘he did it so well that today, the bloodshed on Odessa steps is often referred to as if it really happened’. The bloodshed sequence comes as so shocking that I was taken to the Jallianwalla massacre that actually happened in India; it made me reflect on what it would’ve felt at such a moment of unbridled horror.

Battleship Potemkin works excellently as a film. A similar mutiny-themed film came out in 2012 which many of you may be aware of – Les Miserables. I have a hunch that the editing in the latter film may have been influenced by Battleship Potemkin. I also know why Potemkin works so well now: firstly, it was silent and so broader gestures and highly expressive classical acting was necessary, whereas Les Miserables was an overkill of broad gestures, expressions and singing,singing,singing; secondly, music is solely what drives the movie’s expression without characters having to tear their lungs out singing till even music says ‘Take a break already!’, and thirdly, the characters in Potemkin, despite their gestures, seemed natural and made the scene look as if it was really happening, unlike the artificial Broadway feel in Les Miserables. Masters like Eisenstein and Kurusawa are very judicious in their use of film elements; they know what-to-keep and what-to-leave so the audience is impacted in the best way. And they made movies ages before, so why haven’t many newer filmmakers perfected the art yet? You should compulsorily watch Battleship Potemkin for its able to impact you greatly within a quick seventy minutes, something Les Miserables couldn’t do in two-and-half chugging hours.