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.

Review of 1929 German film ‘ Pandora’s Box’ Starring Louise Brooks

Cover of "Pandora's Box - Criterion Colle...

Cover of Pandora’s Box – Criterion Collection

Summary: Is it really worth the curious peek or just an empty box? Louise Brooks‘ risky performance and the controversial subjects apart, I didn’t know what to feel about the movie

(spoiler alert)

Pandora’s Box is a 1929 German silent film about the life of Lulu, a beautiful, lively, gregarious but opportunistic and manipulative woman who gets everything she wants with her seductive charms. Her life takes a positive turn at first when one of her lovers’, a wealthy editor in chief Mr Schon agrees to marry her, and she is able to break into show biz. But after she kills Mr. Schon in retaliation, her life disintegrates till she is reduced to go back to her old profession as a street-walker.

A lot many viewers today regard Louise Brooks’ uncanny performance as bold, uncompromising and naturalistic. However, in 1929 soon after the film’s release, a reviewer from New York Times had said that her expressions were ‘hard to decipher at times’. After watching the film twice in two days, I too had similar question about Brook’s character Lulu: what is her ultimate aim? Sometimes  we find her confident and heedless of her actions but at others she radiates warmth and sympathy which contradicts her former emotions.

Actress Louise Brooks in 1927, wearing bobbed ...

Actress Louise Brooks plays Lulu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take Lulu’s relationship with Mr. Schon, for instance. At the stage show in Act 3, Ludwig Schon along with his fiancé oversee the backstage happenings. When Lulu finds her lover with his fiancé, she flips out. The camera pans on her face and she genuinely seems heartbroken in that frame. That act made me believe Lulu, despite her promiscuity and love for money, truly loved the rich editor in chief. But during act 4 and especially in Act 5 after the ruckus in the courtroom scene, I found myself confused about Lulu’s character. I remember Natasha’s character from War and Peace who took some reckless decisions driven by instinct but that character, despite being unpredictable, at least had consistency. Therefore we could anticipate to an extent what she might do and become more curious about the situation. I could not say the same about Lulu at points in the film, and this may be partly attributed to the fact that the movie is silent and therefore doesn’t have rather advantage of dialogs.Had there been dialogs, I would’ve probably got a better insight into Lulu’s personality. But I should credit Brooks for giving her best shot and making her character starkly different and almost contemporary for that time; her killer looks are something to die for, seriously.

I also didn’t find  some cohesiveness in the storytelling as well. Gustav Diessl‘s character, a brutal motif serving as a resolution to Lulu’s life, should’ve got more screen time. In fact, I was under the impression she would ditch Alva, the son of Late Schon and Lulu’s hapless lover, and make off with that waiter whom she was flirting for a moment at the ‘hospitable and discreet’ gambling den. I also felt the character of Schigolch could have had more development; it was ironical when Lulu ends up at a garret ( she had mentioned before that she wouldn’t want to go back with Schigolch to his old garret), but the initial scene when Lulu danced as Schigolch played his mouth organ could’ve been brought back towards the end ( like showing Lulu putting on an entertaining act along with Schigolch on the streets trying to fetch some money or attracting some bawdy men perhaps). For some reason, the initial unimportant scenes, though entertaining enough, are unnecessarily stretched. For example, when Lulu refuses to perform the skit, the director could’ve showed her running straight into the property room instead of having Schon coming to her, pressing her arm in front of the crew and ordering her to perform ending with Lulu telling Rodrigo that they’d do the skit they had planned, before getting into the room with Schon.

The film’s take on lesbianism is praiseworthy and Alice Roberts deserves credit for not shying away from the role. In fact, I heard she had pitched the idea of making the character of Countess Augusta a lesbian. She displays her affection so naturally, understanding the essence of her role. I remember an episode from the reality show Top Chef when one of the female contestants was highly appreciative of a fellow lady contender, and was extremely upset when the latter was eliminated. It was later told during the reunion episode that the two women had pursued a relationship after the show. And I saw the same behavior from Roberts’ character – two thumbs up for her performance.

Even though chiaroscuro is heavily used to the point that sometimes characters lose their facial features, I didn’t think there was any purpose to the lighting whereas in movies like Citizen Kane, the lighting created depth, style and personality. The background music is flat and for most part inconsequential and the reason I could not find a connection with the film could be attributed to this element; it seemed to say ‘watch the film like you watch any other film, and when the movie finishes, you leave’. For a movie that included controversial subjects, couldn’t the background music be more radical and risky instead of a generic orchestra?

Pandora’s Box seems to have gained critical acclaim over the years. But apart from Louise Brooks’ risky performance and the fact that controversial subjects were tackled, I did not know what I was supposed to feel after the movie. Is Pandora’s Box really worth the curious peek or is it just an empty box?

Verdict: BBB