Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 production of Battleship Potemkin dramatizes the events of the 1905 Russian Revolution through the eyes of both the valiant crew of the aforementioned ship and the intended Soviet public. This film was a study in art technique while delivering a message and story that was uniquely geared to communism.
One of the difficulties in reviewing a film of this age was the images and ideas that were cutting edge in 1925 have been used by other directors to the point of rendering them ineffective and cliché. Clichés are poor storytelling because they embody a valid idea in a framework of shorthand, either through poor writing skills or a poorly executed desire for brevity. To review this film requires a suspension of one’s experiences with modern storytelling while looking at this work as a singular project of film artistry. Eisenstein’s purpose was to retell a topical, well-known story using innovative techniques that were artistically pleasing, thought provoking and even a little shocking. While the movie was clearly in the model of the five part play, Eisenstein sets aside any preconceived notions that the production was a film of a standard play. From the opening scene, he used imagery to set the tone of this film and complex angles of real life to frame this retelling of the 1905 Russian Revolution.
Battleship Potemkin’s plot was delivered in 5 parts. The first act introduces the characters; the fine and mighty Officers and the lowly, commoner crew, which immediately sets in motion the conflict of the story. The second act exposed the possibility that the fine Officers of the ship are not so fine which was immediately obvious to the common class crew. While the crew acts as a unit, they are spurred on by a brave man named Vakulinchuk. In this second act, the Officers too have a spiritual leader in the form a Russian Orthodox priest. The character completely lacks the rebel Vakulinchuk’s heroism and quality of character. Act three places Vakulinchuk in repose. His death was not the end, as the crew was unified and their purpose was not at an end. Historic Odessa was the scene of the final conflict, although Eisenstein skillfully prolongs the resolution of the action to the final act, where the Potemkin meets its fate at the hands of the loyal and powerful Russian navy. Unity was the message and the resolution to the film as the Potemkin was joined in revolt by the crews of the other ships and not obliterated by the massive fleet.
A classic review or historical work generally relies on the author or reviewer to evaluate accuracy, sources and quality of information in the piece. For Battleship Potemkin, this was simply not possible. The film inaccurately portrays historical events because it was a retelling a story with an ending that was known to the Soviet audience. The film’s goal was not to inform but to resonate. Eisenstein took the limitations of the day, the lack of voice, the lack of color and the possibility of an uneven soundtrack to create an emotive story. As much as other reviewers highlight Eisenstein’s gift for editing, montage, and the delivery of masterful propaganda, the director created a work that resonates with the viewer. Eisenstein was working in the uncertain European and Soviet film industry of the 1920s. He could count on nothing that modern filmgoers would expect, no marketing, no commercials, certainly no critical reviews, plus it was possible that the insecure venue system in the nascent Soviet Union was a limiting factor in presentation to the masses. While he was telling the ultimate story of the rise of the 1905 Revolution, the 1920s were a period of great social and economic upheaval in the Union. Collectivization of the masses in the Soviet Union could have created a backlash against even pro-Soviet messages by an artistic, avant-garde director. Non-conformity would have been an dangerous attribute to possess.
Imperfection of execution and delivery was amplification of the message. This could have been the part of the rationale of the editing and montage sequences. Acts would have been placed on different reels, which was a natural pause in the story. Outside of our dreams, the real time, analog nature of our being prevents the direction of our point of view to be rendered as disjointed series images and themes. Battleship Potemkin turns this experience on its head. It was the display of nonlinear ideas and the limiting the viewers information builds to evoke a feeling. While Eisenstein was profoundly good at this method of storytelling, the effect was not done for the sake of using an certain technique. Eisenstein was an effective communicator and use of effects were held to a minimum to keep the message intact.
The message itself was a rejection of traditional Russian mores and their replacement with new, worker-centric planning. Eisenstein does not dodge the ugliness of the situation. On the steps of Odessa, a woman was gunned down within a crowd. The pram with her baby crashed down the stairs while an onlooker had their eyes put out with a sword. Defiance of tradition is often brutal. Eisenstein does not place the totality of criminality on the military, he shows sailors on one side of the issue and infantry on the other. While the Potemkin destroys the source of the infantry and the focus of control, the story does not entirely suggest that these men are irredeemable. The story hinted that there was a right way to be and a wrong way. The second act briefly touches on the idea of change, with the infantry refusing to fire on the crew of the battleship, but the film was not an exploration of introspection and adjustment.
The mother with her child was an embodiment of the message. When struck by gunfire, the camera lingers on the mother’s belt buckle, a beautiful swan covered in blood. Her child took a terrifying spill down the stairs. The swan was clearly the Soviet people, as was the baby in the carriage. The swan was covered with something unclean and horrifying, yet was still beautiful underneath. The baby in the pram was also the people as they travel into an uncertain future, perhaps one that was not as the audience would wish.
Battleship Potemkin is an unusual exercise in propaganda. It has left a lasting impression on viewers for almost a century. While the techniques of film did not hold up over the passage of time, it is a film of “first”. Quality “firsts”. Every student should take the time to explore this film as it delivers so much creativity, expression of ideals and wonderful storytelling with relatively limited resources. The story and lessons of Battleship Potemkin have stood the test of time.
Battleship Potemkin. USSR: N.l., 1925. Accessed January 19, 2017.