Film Review #173: Battleship Potemkin
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Cast: Alexsandr Antonov, Grigory Aleksandrov, N. Poltavseva
Presidential primaries and elections are always times to dust off your old, possibly never-finished copy of Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 book about where propaganda fits into private mass media’s relationship to government and markets.
For a meatier take on the meanings of “making history,” go directly to cinema. Barry Levinson’s satire Wag the Dog (1997), a Robert DeNiro-Dustin Hoffman vehicle about starting a fake war to distract the electorate, has gotten some play recently. But 83 years later, pioneering Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin is still the granddaddy, both for how his version of a 1905 uprising against the Czarist regime has often effectively replaced accounts of the real events and – perhaps more far-reaching – his early, heavily influential techniques for generating emotional responses in audiences. Battleship Potemkin was banned in a number of countries – in England until 1978, longer than any film there ever – because authorities considered its story of political uprising so inflammatory during decades of global economic depression and conflict.
Battleship Potemkin was state-sponsored propaganda, planned as a popular commemoration of the 20-year anniversary of an actual ship’s mutiny and resulting violence in the port city of Odessa when citizens supported the sailors. In his second of only six feature films, Eisenstein condensed and altered historical events to dramatize early rumblings of the Bolshevik revolution and demonize the Czar’s regime.
The actual battleship Prince Potemkin was cruising the Black Sea in 1905 after returning from Russia’s war with Japan. Sailors did mutiny, over rotten meat and their officers’ brutal response to their protests. The Potemkin’s crew did get a warm welcome from the people of Odessa, whom the Czar’s Cossacks violently put down in a series of skirmishes throughout the city.
Eisenstein made three critical changes in his tightly-structured, five episode story. First, he inserted the character of the “new revolutionary man,” the sailor Vakulinchuk (Alexsandr Antonov), who heroically exhorts his fellows and the ship’s guards just as they are about to shoot innocent men. Vakulinchuk dies during the ensuing shipboard battle after the guards turn their guns on the ship’s officers. The sailors take his body to the Odessa docks, where streams of citizens come first to mourn and then to rally. Notably these mourners illustrate extremely wide-spread sympathy for the sailors, featuring many women – both poor and middle class – plus children, old people, even the infirm.
Second, Eisenstein altered the final outcome of the sailors’ revolt, clearly intending to replace historical accounts. In the film, Potemkin’s crew – helpless to save the Odessan people from slaughter – turn their cannons on the great symbol of upper-class oppression and decadence, the Odessa Opera House. Then, the Czar’s naval squadron, first pursuing the rebels at sea, joins their revolt after the Potemkin turns around and sails boldly into their midst. The original Potemkin instead less gloriously fled to safety in Romania.
Third and most important for filmmaking ever since, Eisenstein used Odessa’s multi-tiered Maritime Steps as the site for the major confrontation between the Cossacks and people of Odessa, condensing the real smaller skirmishes into a single bloody massacre, where lines of black-booted, white-uniformed Cossacks – moving with machine-like precision – relentlessly descend the steps, mowing down a panicked, disbelieving, chaotic crowd. The violence in this scene is quite graphic, with crushed children, the now-iconic “Woman in Pince-nez” (N. Poltavseva) who imagines she can “talk to” the troops and is shot in the eye for her genteel illusions, and the famous careening white wicker baby carriage – all have found their way visually into other films.
This fictional massacre – more than the trumped-up ending – is what sometimes replaces the historical events. The Netflix blurb for Battleship Potemkin, for example, cites the “czarist troops’ infamous systematic slaughter of insurgents and bystanders” as if it were an accurate depiction of an historical event. This confusion is likely because, more than any other sequence in the film, the Odessa steps massacre demonstrates Eisenstein’s pioneering use abrupt edits to create montage. Just as changes in rhythm (the analogy Eisenstein himself elaborated most) or heavy use of sharps and flats in music disrupt our expectations and provoke emotional response – think torch songs here – so does abrupt visual juxtaposition override orderly – and more rational – exposition and narrative transitions. Watch this film to see how it’s done and go armed into this election season.
This review appeared in the 9/4/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that do not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth. Since 1998, at least seven DVD editions of Battleship Potemkin have been released to the US market either as single discs or part of collections. Last year’s stellar two-disc set made Richard Corliss’ Top 10 DVDs list in Time magazine & is reviewed at some length in the current issue of Cineaste. Five of Eisenstein’s six feature films are available at Netflix, all with the Instant Viewing option, although right now the Netflix Potemkin is the truncated 1976 Soviet version.