Written by Nina Agadzhanova and directed by Sergei M. Eisenstein “The Battleship Potemkin” is about a mutiny aboard the Russian battleship during the height of the Russian Revolution of 1905. It is also the first silent film I have reviewed on the blog thus far. This film is so infamous by this point that there is little I can add to the conversation other than regurgitating the film’s numerous technical achievements that so many others have touched upon. If you haven’t given the film a watch before and you’re invested in learning about the history of cinema then I encourage a viewing- especially since it’s only a brisk hour and fourteen minutes long. Otherwise most modern audiences will bore with the lack of dialogue and color, which can edge out one’s attention span, even I had to stay focused during my own viewing.
The film begins with the Russian ship returning home through the Black Sea from the recent war with Japan. The crew inspect the meat to be used that day and stir the captains and officers to complain of its quality. The ship’s doctor is sought to inspect it and when the camera gets a closer inspection to show the meat squirming with maggots he labels the meat satisfactory. Mutinous boiling rage fills the crew and they refuse to eat. This act of defiance comes to a head as the captain and officers round up the crew asking who is dissatisfied with the food, when a portion stand their ground they are ordered to be shot dead. Vakulinchuk, the voice of the ship’s imminent revolution, shouts above the clamor as the officers raise their guns “Brothers! Who are you shooting at?” and thus the raucous mutiny begins. After the crew is victorious the battleship heads to the port of Odessa where the locals have heard of the uprising and feel connected to the hardships of the sailors as the lower classes of society were engaged in revolutionary war. This prompts a swift damnation by the Czar’s elite guard as they march down the steps of Odessa shooting into the crowd creating one of early film’s most infamous scenes.
After this the crew aboard the Potemkin engage in debate over what to do with the supportive citizenry. Eventually they decide to help and target several locations of importance to the Czar’s government and fire away. This calls the attention of a nearby fleet of unknown allegiance and the remainder of the film is brilliantly played for anxiety with the score and inter-cutting of scenes of preparation for battle on the Potemkin as they go to meet the fleet. In the end the Potemkin glides through the approaching ships’ guard unscathed as they realize that they too are revolutionaries in arms. In doing some light research on the film’s history and how it helped to shape cinema nearly a century ago I read Roger Ebert’s 1998 review and he was right. I had already seen the parody of the massacre on the Odessa Steps years before (ie The Untouchables) seeing the source material. In fact, I will post a link below to his review of the film, which is far more in depth and personal of a review than what I have experienced with Potemkin.
What is most impressive about the film in my opinion is the use of space in the film. Granted this may have simply been a side effect from having masses of people represent groups and ideals over individualized ‘characters’, but its still years ahead of its time and is even today a bit of a wonder as to how they accomplished this in 1925. This paired with the sheer choreography of hundreds of extras milling about the Odessa Steps and aboard the Potemkin makes for good eye-catching movement. Especially aboard the Potemkin, where the sailors can mill above and below where the main action is focalized- the staging makes for layered movement and gives the impression that the warship is gigantic in scope requiring a village of people for upkeep. The score was also incredibly important here, as the only sound in the film it helps to engage the viewer in the intended feelings of the characters onscreen. The brash and overbearing clash of orchestral audio waves crash as the Czar’s men advance with their rifles drawn, the inherent sadness and grief at the useless killing is portrayed in weeping stringed symphonies, and the finale assuages the audience’s anxieties with triumphant and victorious horns. Altogether “The Battleship Potemkin” is an important piece of cinema’s history while the film’s history itself is also quite fascinating given how many governments across the globe banned it fearing Potemkin‘s call to arms aimed at the masses. If you’re at all invested in cinema’s history, this is one you should see.
Final Score: a Mutiny and a Slaughter
Roger Ebert’s 1998 review of “The Battleship Potemkin”: