Friday, January 15, 2010

Ahoy, Proletarian Masses!

Film: Bronenosets Potyomkin (The Battleship Potemkin)
Format: DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

Sometimes, you can tell the where and when of a film within the first few moments of footage. I commented earlier, for instance, that Amelie could only be a French movie, and I stand by that assessment. In this case, Sergei Eisenstein’s Bronenosets Potyomkin is undeniably Russian, and undeniably filmed within a decade of the Russian Revolution.

The movie begins with a battleship heading home after defeat in the Sino-Russian War. What we discover immediately is that the ship is at war with itself. The officers of the ship are brutal, petty, angry, and lord their power over the enlisted men. This happens immediately in the film when an officer beats a young sailor for hanging partway out of his hammock. The next day, the men complain about the quality of the meat they are being forced to eat.

We’re given a close-up of the meat through the pince-nez of the medical officer, and the meat is crawling with worms. The officer, however, states that the meat isn’t rotten, but merely infested with maggots, which can be rinsed out with brine. Based on the quality of the meat, some of the men refused to eat the borscht. Based on this, a sailor named Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov) believes that the men are being treated worse than Russian POWs in Japanese camps. Insurrection is mounting.

Soon, all hands are called to the deck, and the captain calls out anyone who refused to eat the borscht. A small group is left standing alone, and, due to their insubordination at the refusal of food, they are going to be executed by firing squad. A group of guards are brought on deck and the condemned are covered in canvas to make the shooting of them easier for the troops. Additionally, a Russian Orthodox cleric tells the men under the canvas to repent.

This is where the action changes abruptly—the troops don’t want to shoot their shipmates. Vakulinchuk tells the men with the guns to ignore their orders, and they do. Mutiny takes hold of the men on the ship, and they rebel, tossing officers into the sea and taking control of the ship. While this takes place, the priest is knocked down a staircase and pretends to be dead, and an officer gets hold of a gun and shoots Vakulinchuk in the back of the head, making the man who started the revolt its first martyr.

Now under the control of the rank-and-file, the Potyomkin sails into Odessa. Vakulinchuk’s body is placed in a tent on the docks under a sign that says (depending on the translation) either “for a spoonful of borscht” or “for a bowl of soup.” The tragic death of the rebel leader infects the people of Odessa, who now wish to support the men of the rebellious battleship. This leads to a classic confrontation between the citizens of Odessa and the Cossacks, who attack down the Odessa steps with guns blazing. The Potyomkin sails off, leading to another confrontation, this time with the bulk of the Russian Navy.

Potyomkin is thought of as Eisenstein’s masterpiece. I can’t as yet speak to that, since my Eisenstein vocabulary is extremely limited. It is, like most silent films, highly stylized. There are great moments throughout, but it is the scene on the Odessa steps that is rightfully the most famous. What is fascinating to me is not the staging or the action here, but the evidence that the film vocabulary has changed dramatically since Eisenstein filmed this. For a modern audience, it’s evident that this scene could not have happened as filmed unless the steps in question are about a mile high. People run down the stairs en masse over and over, and yet there are still people at the top, far above the Cossacks chasing them.

This isn’t a complaint, but an observation. When Eisenstein made Potyomkin, his audience was not nearly as versed in film as a modern audience and expectations were dramatically different. What a modern audience notices about a sequence like this is not what an audience in the 1920s would have seen.

The emotional center of the film is its firm belief in the proletarian sailors and people of Odessa. The officers on the ship are uniformly cruel, stupid, arrogant, and sadistic. The same is true of the Cossacks, who shoot children and stomp on the bodies of the fallen. The sailors themselves are downtrodden, but filled with revolutionary spirit. In short, Bronenosets Potyomkin is a victory of the proletarian masses over their bourgeoisie masters. The impotence of the church (Marx's opiate of the masses) as represented by the cleric is pure communist dogma. Looked at in this light, it comes as no shock that the film was made a year or so after the death of Vladimir Lenin.

Worth watching? Yep, if only for the cinematic history wrapped up in its short running time. This is not a movie to watch for the compelling story, no matter how compelling you find the story. This is a film that has been copied and studied for years—you’ll see pieces of its composition, design, and full scenes in other films everywhere you look.

Why to watch Bronenosets Potyomkin: A large chunk of cinematic style started here.
Why not to watch: Hooray for communism!


  1. I prefered 'October' to 'Potempkin' and just plain disliked 'Strike', but I absolutely love what Eisentein did with montage in all his films.

  2. I still haven't seen Oktyabr or Strike...but I will. The steps are a classic scene, though--immortalized forever.

  3. I watched Battleship Potemkin on YouTube and I find it very impressive. Well, now, I didn't like it the first time I saw it.

    I saw it in the late 1980s when I was expanding my movie horizons a bit, a little Fellini, a little Kurosawa, a few silent films. I think Potemkin was very likely the first Russian film I ever saw and I hadn't seen many silent films outside of Chaplin, Keaton, Lon Chaney and some D.W. Griffith. (I remember watching Orphans of the Storm on A&E about 1987, possibly the first silent feature film I ever saw. Loved it!)

    I wasn't too impressed with Potemkin back then. But about five years ago, I watched a bunch of 1920s Russian films - Strike, Zemlya, Chess Fever, The Fall of St Petersburg - and I very much enjoyed them! In the intervening years I had learned a little Russian history and a lot of film history, and I had a much better idea what I was looking at.

    The 1001 list reminded me I've been meaning to watch Potemkin again, and I'm glad I did! It's really quite amazing! I'm kind of surprised I didn't get it the first time around, but it might have been a bad print with a silly soundtrack.

    If you enjoyed The Battleship Potemkin and are interested in other films about the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 to 1905, we suggest Lady Snowblood II. We aren't sure there are any others.

    1. This is one of those films that I think needs to be seen to really understand where film started and where it has come. Even without a background in Russian history (which I certainly don't have), there's so much going on here that is influential that knowing this film helps to understand film now.