Battleship Potemkin [Bronenosets Potyomkin] (1925)

Sergei M. Eisenstein's Bronenosets Potyomkin [Battleship Potemkin] is an unquestionable triumph of filmmaking. While it can certainly be fairly and accurately classified as Communist propaganda, it also manages to rise above that level to become not just a patriotic historical recreation, but a work of real dramatic, and distinctly cinematic impact. Eisenstein devises methods of depicting scenes so that, despite the iconic style of acting and a lack of strong individual characterizations which might personalize the story, the moments of tension, fear and excitement inspire powerful emotions in the viewer.

In fact, personalization of the story beyond what exists might have actually lessened the impact of Potemkin--or at least not told the same story as the one Eisenstein is telling. The hero of Potemkin is mass action, as is suggested by the title, Battleship Potemkin, rather than The Incident of the Battleship Potemkin or Sailor Vakulinchuk.

That having been said, the acting is not really bad, just not as important to the message of the film as are elements such as symbolism, parallelism, and depictions of mass action. Certainly none of the actors breaks character or makes a moment unbelievable (with the possible exception of the heavy-handed treatment of the ship's chaplain--Eisenstein himself).

The most recognized part of Battleship Potemkin is the Odessa step sequence, and rightfully so. It surely does not detract from the power of the rest of the film to say so, however. The Odessa steps sequence is so raw that no viewer could be left untouched by it. Particularly shattering are the scenes in which the stone statue is shown guarding over the carnage below, the shooting of the woman and others appealing for the soldiers to stop, the ominous, unbroken marching of the soldiers, which Eisenstein emphasizes by putting their feet in full frame, and the baby in the carriage reaching out its hand before the carriage begins to descend the stairway.

The scene of the pre-mutiny confrontation between the sailors and the marines is extremely powerful. Eisenstein has created a camaraderie among the sailors up to that point, using physical comedy and showing us a bit of what it must have been like to be crowded in together as sailors on a battleship while the officers lived in relative comfort.

This becomes a metaphor for the Industrial Age class struggle, something that was difficult to portray in the proper Marxian fashion, as there was little industrial development in Czarist Russia. Having shown what was the most notable incident of labor unrest in Strike (1924), Eisenstein had to find a new way to portray the dichotomy of the powerful and the controlled.

In this sequence, the dead silence when the trapped sailors are draped with a tarpaulin (their death shroud) and about to be shot by the marines, is broken by a shot of the Czarist military flag flying above the action. Just as the viewer makes the connection between the rippling tarpaulin shroud and the rippling flag, a startling statement and one that is difficult to comprehend all at once, the audience is thrust back into the mounting tension of whether the marines will actually shoot their comrades.

The tension is nerve-wracking. When it is finally broken and the mutiny is actually in progress, Eisenstein slyly inserts another shot each of both the now-empty tarpaulin and the fluttering flag, and we now associate it with throwing off the actual bounds of death, and feel a twinge of patriotism for a country that could create such noble soldiers. It is a masterful use of symbolism to convey many complex emotions and ideas at once.

Eisenstein has created a work in a genre that had not existed before, and really cannot be said to have outlived him at all: a film about a people, not a person, featuring that people as its hero.

Links for Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin)

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review


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