Battleship Potemkin (1925)

“. . . it is a production in which the director displays a vivid imagination and an artistic appreciation of motion picture values.” – Mordaunt Hall[1]

            In 1905, the crew of the battleship Potemkin mutinied in response to meat that had gone bad. Amongst economic unrest on the mainland and loses during the Russo-Japanese War, the mutiny would be cited as the start of the Russian Revolution of 1905.

            It was this event that director Sergei M. Eisenstein choose to immortalize for the twentieth anniversary of the revolution. Commissioned by the government of the Soviet Union, it has since become a classroom staple for its technical achievements.

              This movie is best known for the invention and use of the montage. You’ve probably seen the scene it’s most famous for: (warning – this video clip contains graphic content).

The Odesa steps is a classic lesson in how editing can be used to full effect. The quick cuts from civilians to soldiers to victims to wounds show the action happening in real time. The variety of shots and camera angles – wide shots, close-ups, extreme close-ups – also convey the urgency of the action. We’re removed from it at first – it’s just a bunch of people running down stairs – but as Eisenstein brings us closer to the characters and shows us their reactions, we become part of the throng too.

            While it’s important to study this scene as it is, it’s also important to watch it within context. The scene prior to the massacre isn’t technically advanced, but its simple premise helps make the Odesa steps that much more tense. As a volunteer flotilla goes out to supply the Potemkin with food, the people of Odesa stand and wave, smiling to support the burgeoning revolutionaries. We are shown several people – a woman and her child, a grandmother with a pair of glasses, a student, a man with no legs. As the massacre gets underway, they are all directly effected by it. Because Eisenstein gave us time to develop a relationship with them – albeit, a small one – it makes the following montage more impactful: we know these people and don’t wish for them to get hurt.

            The montage is used elsewhere in the movie; it usually involves crowds of people and is used to help heighten the tension of the moment, as well as show multiple sets of action happening at once. But if I may be honest, I did not find the film enjoyable. May that’s not the right word – I found it predictable. There are no surprises, no twists, no deeper pathos to draw me in. The characters are largely symbols and therefore have no backstory; they are there to serve the larger purpose of the narrative, which is to glorify this part of the Revolution.

So, what makes this film significant?

            I wrote the majority of this review back in October, long before Russia launched a war on Ukraine. While the movie glorifies an event in Russian history, it takes place largely in Odesa, today a Ukrainian port. I’m not going to talk about the war itself, because there are people more qualified than me who can do a better job. But maybe this movie exists as a reminder that it is worth standing up to tyranny and injustice. The results or the end of the movement may not conclude as nicely as it does at the end of this movie, and it may not happen within a seventy-four-minute timeframe. But the end will come. The end always comes.

[1] Ed. Schroeder, Wallace. The New York Times Book of Movies. New York, NY: Universe. Print. Pg. 101.

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