In the last post, I talked about Sight and Sound’s top ten films lists. The whole idea of ‘top tens’ and ‘best films’ and so on is obviously problematic; if we COULD compile a ‘top ten’ with any sort of reliability, then we could compile a top five, two, one. And the idea of a ‘Best Film Of All Time’ is ridiculous. Right? Right.
If there WAS a ‘Best Film Of All Time, then there’s a fairly good chance that Battleship Potemkin might be in the running. Made by Sergei Eisenstein in 1925, it’s a (very inaccurate) recreation of the 1905 rebellion by sailors of the real-life Potemkin against their officers. Made 8 years after the Communist revolution in Russia, obviously it is a heavily propagandist piece, designed to show the nobility of the workers (the sailors) rising up against Tsarist oppression (the officers) and seizing control of Russia (the battleship.) Like Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, it is revolution on a screen, the filmic or artistic counterpart to the actual revolution which had reshaped Russia and the world.
The story is very simple. The crew of a ship, already unhappy at the quality of the food they are being fed, finally snap and rise up against their cruel and violent officers. As the now-liberated ship steams into the port of Odessa, the population of the city stream into the streets to support the sailors. This new uprising is brutally repressed by the tsar’s imperial guard, and other ships are sent to chase the Potemkin but at the end, it appears that the crews of those ships have decided to support the rebellion and they allow the Potemkin to escape.
So, why does it have the reputation it does? The same reason any film with that kind of reputation does; the story is delivered with power and conviction, particularly considering the technical limitations of the time. There is some wonderful cinematography in the film; the montage close to the start of the sailors sleeping below decks, obviously symbolic of the sleeping proletariat, is beautifully shot, a tangle of diagonal lines which recalls a lot of the expressionist work of directors like Fritz Lang.
Likewise, the shots when the Potemkin steams towards Odessa whilst dawn breaks are lovely; the fragility and elegance of the ships’s masts seem to evoke some sense of the fragility of the state itself. Whatever, these are lovely shots, stunning in the way film can be, particularly when there is no dialogue to steal power from the visuals.
It’s real power, however, comes from the editing; that same montage editing which would be used in much more experimental a fashion by Vertov in Man with a Movie Camera a few years later. Montage is all about juxtaposition, putting two or more things together to create a new, more powerful, meaning. This happens throughout Battleship Potemkin; one example is when the men are about to be shot on deck. We see the ship’s priest descending to watch, fingering his crucifix; then we cut to the sadistic officer fingering his sword.
The implication is clear; the crucifix, representative of religion, is as much a tool of oppression against the working class as the sword is. Such examples occur frequently, but the most famous examples are in the Odessa steps sequence, when the civilians who turn out to support the rebellion are massacred by the troops. This may well be the most studied piece of film in history, and that is entirely due to the manner in which Eisenstein handles his montage. The shot themselves are so famous they barely need mentioning; soldiers murdering civilians, surrounded by the trappings of a useless religion; a fleeing adult stepping on a dead child; a baby’s carriage hurtling down steps after the mother has been shot; an old woman, blood flowing from her broken glasses, screaming directly into the camera.
The images are powerful, and still amazingly graphic now. But it’s the editing, the montage, which creates the sense of chaos and terror, and the way Eisenstein handles the pace of the piece – slowing down, for example, when the woman approaches the soldiers to ask for mercy, making us think she has a hope of success – is masterful. Objective time becomes meaningless – it takes the army seven minutes to complete their descent down the steps – as Eisenstein creates a dark, expressionist hell in which unimaginable things happen with terrifying rapidity. He manages to make a stone cherub appear to throw a punch and stone lions seem to rise up. It is justly viewed as one of the greatest pieces of editing ever; watch it!
Typically of Soviet film of the era, there are no main characters and thus no character arc for us to identify with. The hero is socialism, collectivism, unity, Russia, humanity. If ever a film captured the socialist ideal that groups are stronger than individuals, this is it; perhaps it conveys that most revolutionary of messages too well, given how it was banned in so many countries – including Russia itself – for so long.