Classic Movies: Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein
Screenwriter: Nina Agadzhanova
Cast: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov, Ivan Bobrov, Mikhail Gomorov and Aleksandr Levshin
Runtime: 75 min // Certificate: N/a
A powerful and influential man once said of Battleship Potemkin that it was “a marvellous film, without equal in the cinema”. This man went on to suggest that “anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film”. It’s a passionate endorsement, I’m sure you’ll agree, and one that captures both the purpose and the nature of the film perfectly. Its eloquence and appreciation for the medium of cinema sounds almost Kermodean, as do its sympathies for the glorious revolution of 1917. By all accounts, it’s the type of endorsement that you might expect to see film adverts and posters adorned with today.
It may therefore surprise you to know that the quote in question came straight from the lips of one Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in Nazi Germany… yeah, I know, it doesn’t sound so appealing now… Nevertheless, Goebbels was absolutely onto something and if anyone was going to appreciate a good piece of propaganda it was going to be him. Battleship Potemkin is a film rich in the imagery of the Russian Revolution; it is pro-worker, anti-Capitalism, anti-religion and – perhaps peculiarly – wholly opposed to anti-Semitism (unlike, for example, Karl Marx). Whether one supports, opposes or has no knowledge of its messages about politics and society, it is a fascinating and thoroughly engaging piece of silent cinema and that, in turn, is what makes it such a powerful piece of propaganda.
The film tells a dramatized version of the 1905 mutiny on the Potemkin and the events that followed. Mistreated and under-nourished, the crew of the Potemkin decide to fight back against their vicious masters after the ship’s Captain (Aleksandrov) threatens to shoot anyone who refuses to follow his command. Having taken control of the Potemkin, the crew sail to Odessa where the workers are fired on by Tsarist forces – a sequence that is so powerful and jarring that people falsely believe it to have actually happened.
Battleship Potemkin is a feast for the eyes, the ears and the mind. Eisenstein’s direction was, for the era, unparalleled and the way in which he captures the spirit of the revolution is astonishing. The film is grainy, almost depressing, yet it is still a work of sheer beauty. Amidst all the propaganda and the political commentary are shots of utter majesty, some of which are quite deeply affecting. The death of Vakulinchuk (Antonov) and the subsequent shots of countless people marching through the city of Odessa to remember their fallen hero are mesmerising and to this day it is tough to find more than a dozen sequences in the whole of cinema that are more stunning. Eisenstein captures the zeitgeist of the era with the perfect degree of subtlety, utilising new and innovative techniques to tell a truly moving and often devastating story.
And it is in these techniques, and in Eisenstein’s ability to both create propaganda and a film that was well ahead of its era, that the film gains its unassilable reputation. I spoke earlier of the film’s fierce and committed opposition to anti-Semitism, and there is a wonderful moment in which a member of the celebrating crowd declares that they should proceed to “smash the Jews!” In virulent disgust, the masses turn on the man and beat him to death. It is a violent and surprising turn of events, but one that demonstrates just how unique the film was. Eisenstein uses his film to envisage a World in which there is true equality; the famous sequence on the steps of Odessa, in which the Tsarist forces massacre the revolutionaries, is full of such imagery; the disabled man, the young boy who is mown down and killed, and the baby in the pram all work to demonstrate not just the brutality of the old system but the importance of solidarity. The weak must be protected from the brutality and insensitivity of the old system, says Eisenstein, though this wasn’t just basic propaganda, this was fresh and innovative cinema in its purest form.
Furthermore, the imagery of Battleship Potemkin is stunning and Eisenstein manages to craft a film that is a real work of art and beauty. From the beginning, he uses dehumanisation as a way to separate the workers from their masters; the maggots on the meat resemble how the workers are seen, feeding on the rump of the elite, whilst on numerous occasions they are compared to dogs. The central tenets of the revolution are shown in all their glory, with the sequence involving the priest on the Potemkin being particularly affecting. This is a film that tells a familiar story in a unique way and it is a film that, despite its purpose as a piece of Bolshevik propaganda, still feels scarily relevant today. Viewed through the prism of the influences of contemporary cinema, the film almost feels postmodern and it is so rich in imagery and subtlety that I could watch it again and again and again and always find something new.
Whether you’re a Bolshevik, dirty Capitalist scum (I jest) or somewhere in between, Battleship Potemkin is a powerful and mesmerising film that has had an astonishing influence on the cinema that we all know and love today. Even if you ignore the fact that it is a piece of propaganda, the story it tells is emotional, engaging and distinctly human. For that alone, Battleship Potemkin more than earns its lofty reputation as one of the true classics of cinema. The fact that it was made in 1925, yet looks more impressive than a lot of modern cinema is also pretty damn astonishing.