Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Great Movies: "Battleship Potemkin"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Battleship Potemkin 
Sergei Eisenstein (1925)

In 1905, the sailors of the Potemkin, a battleship in the Russian Imperial Navy, mutinied over brutal discipline and inadequate provisions. Sergei Eisenstein's portrayal of these events has been credited, depending on whom you ask, with either inventing a vocabulary of cinematic techniques that has shaped all moviemaking since, or with being the first film to discover and employ the techniques that work best for the medium. It's a philosophical question, and we'll leave it to the film students. My point is, this is considered a Very Important Movie.

It's tough for me to tell for sure just how novel Potemkin was, since I haven't exactly been immersing myself in films of the 1920s lately, or ever. Even so, it's obvious that in terms of its cinematography, this is a very sophisticated motion picture. The action proceeds is swift cuts from image to image, each with an immediately recognizable symbolic weight, and all sequenced together in such a way that we never lose track of the narrative. The well-known "Odessa Steps" sequence is a terrific example: only in occasional snippets do we pull back to get an overview of the action, a panicked crowd fleeing before an advancing line of Cossacks. In between, we see individual faces contorted by fear, fists waved in the air, guns firing, Cossack boots, a hand being stepped on, a body falling, and of course that famous baby carriage careening down the stairway. Great stuff, and a radically different presentation of material than had been possible in traditional, pre-cinema theater.

Now, speaking of radical.... Potemkin is unabashedly a propaganda film, and consequently it is always trying to manipulate you. The ~bad~ naval officers are preening, smirking, mincing, and lit in high contrast to make them look vaguely satanic. The ~good~ sailors, handsome, manly, and filmed from the most flattering angles, seem like the saintliest crew of comrades to ever embody the naval tradition. A dozen bad guys die, and we are supposed to cheer; one good guy dies, and we are supposed to weep for the sorrow of his poor mother. When the (virtuous, proletarian) mob beats up people who aren't on the bandwagon, that's supposed to be cool.

In other words, this is a film that wants to work your emotions and tell you what to think. I hate that shit. It's exactly why I don't like to watch most modern American movies, and I find I don't like it any more just because it's 80 years old and Russian. Fun fact: the Odessa Steps incident, which Eisenstein portrays in that riveting sequence that so vividly captures the brutality of the Tsarist regime? Never really happened. Hmm...

Visuals: Striking and sophisticated, as discussed above. Sometimes pretty over the top to modern eyes, though. The revolutionary fervor of the Odessa crowds looks like a modeling session for propaganda posters, and the freaky old priest on board the Potemkin is laugh-out-loud absurd.

Dialogue: Well, this is a SILENT movie, so....

Prognosis: Highly recommended for students of film history, or for those wishing to rekindle their righteous anger at Tsarist oppression and their belief in the correctness of Marxist-Leninist principles of proletarian revolution. Otherwise, it doesn't have a ton of entertainment value for the modern viewer.


Rebel said...

Hmmm... yeah.... that'll be going on my netflix list.... someday.

Anonymous said...

Well, that saves a spot on the queue then.

Oddly, I watched a silent (dialogless anyway) Russian short film based upon the Bradbury short story based upon the Sara Teasdale poem : There Will Come Soft Rains. It was creepy and a bit over the top but for silent sci-fi not so bad.

Wait . . it might not be Russian. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

I've seen Eisenstein's movie and one other Russian-ish movie:

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Ukrainian: Тіні забутих предків, Tini zabutykh predkiv; also called Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, Shadows of Our Ancestors, and Wild Horses of Fire)

which I preferred.