Battleship Potemkin is one of those films you’ll always find in any list of the top films ever made/films you should watch before you die etc. Made in 1925 under the auspices of the Soviet Central Committee to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the unsuccessful 1905 revolution, the film was directed by Sergei Eisenstein. It tells the story of the mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin, its rousing effect on the population in the nearby harbour city of Odessa and the subsequent massacre of civilians by the repressive Tsarist authorities.
It’s clearly a propaganda film for the Soviet revolution. However in the Soviet Union propaganda wasn’t seen as something negative as long as you were proselytizing on behalf of the State of course. Propaganda was seen more as educating what was then a vastly illiterate population and opening them to new ideas though evidently funnelling those ideas in such a way that they were in line with those of the State. In the early days of the Soviet Union cinema was an indispensable tool in getting State propaganda out among the masses. It could convey ideas and thoughts to large swathes of the population who didn’t need to read and write to understand the messages being conveyed.
Film had the added advantage that depending on how you edit and arrange the images, you can surreptitiously use film to manipulate the viewer. The Soviet directors of this time were famous for one thing in particular – montage. In other words, how they edited a movie. They understood that you can cut a movie so that the brain thinks it’s seen something that hasn’t actually been shown on the screen thereby inducing a specific response in the viewer. Importantly, the viewer remains totally unaware he is being manipulated. Soviet movies weren’t the only films to use this technique, however they did excel at it and no more so than in this film. For an example of its use across the pond in Hollywood’s heyday take the earthquake scene in the 1936 film San Francisco starring a wonderfully manly Clark Gable. During that scene you see a little girl lying on the ground looking up, the film then cuts to a building falling down. Your mind tells you you’ve seen the building fall on top of the girl – even though you haven’t. We just think we have simply because both images follow each other so quickly. What you have seen in fact are two completely separate shots.
Battleship Potemkin starts with images of a rough sea followed by a quote from Lenin regarding the justness of a revolution in Russia. We are then given an insight into the horrendous living conditions of the sailors and the capriciousness of the officers. Set in 1905, revolution is already in the air. A Bolshevik sailor Vakulinchuk (who looks frighteningly like a young Stalin) is already inciting his fellow sailors to join the revolutionary ranks. Not only do the sailors have to put up with cramped living conditions, the only meat they are given to eat is crawling with maggots. A representative of the Tsarist regime, the ship’s doctor Smirnov, comes to inspect the meat. He folds his monocle in half to look at the meat thereby ensuring he can’t properly see the reality of the situation and thanks to this distorted view dismisses the justified complaints of the sailors. Not surprisingly, the officer class does not come out well in this movie. At best they are sneering and disdainful and at worst sadistic, imperial and murderous.
When the men refuse to eat their soup they are called on deck where the ship’s commander threatens to hang the men from the yardarm and calls for the ship’s guards to come on deck. Meanwhile another revolutionary sailor Matyushenko calls for his fellow sailors to resist and gather by the turret. Most do so but the last of the men are cut off by the officers at the bow of the ship. These men are then covered with a sheet of tarpaulin by the officers and the commander orders the guards to shoot them.
Although the start of the movie is probably a bit too slow in unfolding the story for most modern audiences, at this point the film starts to grip you as you wonder whether these men really will be mowed down on the capricious whim of the commander. As they are about to be shot, we also catch our first glimpse of the ship’s priest, representing of course the Russian Orthodox Church and who is clearly in cahoots with Tsarist repression. Instead of trying to step in on the men’s behalf, the priest quotes the bible to justify the commander’s would-be murderous actions. Given that the priest in question looks like a lunatic whose face is ensconced in a white beard and a mass of white hair with seemingly a life of its own while holding aloft a crucified Jesus, we are left in no doubt about the moral bankruptcy of the Orthodox church. However just as the guard are about to fire, Vakulinchuk decides to act and shouts to the guards to remember who they are shooting at. The guards hesitate, refuse to shoot and an all-out mutiny begins. Officers are unceremoniously thrown into the sea. The priest, who has been knocked to the floor, sees what is occurring around him and soon closes his eyes again thereby ignoring what’s happening and ensuring he is no longer involved in the surrounding chaos. Just as the sailors are celebrating the successful mutiny, a wounded Vakulinchuk is pursued by one of the last remaining officers and shot dead.
Vakulinchuk’s body is laid in state and taken to the nearby harbour of Odessa. People flock en masse to show their respect to the murdered, revolutionary sailor. Vakulinchuk’s martyrdom seems to inspire the revolutionary fervour of the crowds. In the furore a man shouts “Kill the Jews” and the crowd turns on him pummelling him to the ground. Killing the Jews was of course a commonplace technique employed by the Tsarist authorities to assuage the wider population in times of popular unrest. Not surprisingly then that at first many of the leading revolutionaries were of Jewish stock as was Eisenstein himself in part.
Then we see an armada of small boats sail to the battleship with supplies for the mutineers while crowds of onlookers stand on the Odessa steps cheering them on. It’s at this point in the film that one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history unfurls.
This scene is rightly considered by many to be one of the finest examples of film-making ever made. While the crowd are happily cheering on the sailors of the Potemkin from the Odessa Steps, the subtitle “suddenly” flashes on screen and pandemonium now breaks out among the crowd. The viewer hasn’t seen what the crowd has seen but we know it’s bad from their reaction and the fact that everyone is beginning to flee down the steps. Suddenly we see the soldiers arrive – just from behind. We never see a close up of their faces. These are after all the faceless individuals who kill on behalf of the State. Suddenly people start to fall to the ground. A mother then realises her small son has been fatally shot and as he lies on the ground, his body is trampled on by people desperate to escape. In one of the most haunting moments the mother picks up her fatally-wounded son and carries him in her arms walking back up the steps to the approaching soldiers. As the soldiers descend the steps their shadows fall on the ground in a tooth-like formation. The mother is literally walking into the jaws of death. They shoot the mother dead then step over the prostate body of her and her son, and then go on to shoot a group of civilians who have tried to reason with them.
The soldiers continue to shoot and this time they kill a mother who is pushing a pram. Falling to the ground, she knocks the pram and both it and its tiny occupant go careering down the stairs. As the pram finally lands at the bottom of the steps and the baby is about to tip out, soldiers shoot at the wounded lying on the ground and a Cossack soldier goes to kill a bloodied woman with his sword, his arm movement edited in such a way that it shows the arm only going forward and not back and forth in order to create a more violent image. In reply to the massacre the guns of Battleship Potemkin ring out and destroy the enemy stronghold at the Odessa Opera House. A squadron then arrives to attack the mutinous battleship. However the crew of the Potemkin ask the other ships to join them and they do so. The battleship sails among them with the flag of freedom fluttering overhead.
It’s mind-boggling to think that despite its current classical status when it first came out Battleship Potemkin only ran for 4 weeks in Moscow. Years later the SS were banned from seeing it on the orders of Himmler and it was banned in Britain till the 1950s and X-rated until the 1970s (though why I have no idea). Yes, the film is slow in places for modern day minds, yes it’s unashamedly a propaganda piece for a country that had just recently concluded a brutal civil war and needed to justify all the sacrifices that its people had made in the name of revolution. But Battleship Potemkin still works as a film almost a century after its completion and despite lacking the many accoutrements of modern-day film making we are now used to. At times you could swear you are looking at clips from a Pathé newsreel somehow intercut with dramatized close ups of individuals caught up in the massacre. These cameos of the mother and young son, the mother and the pram, the Cossack using his sword to murder a defenceless woman give a weight and meaningful human edge that can otherwise get lost in the sheer weight of a mass murder.
My first ever paid acting job was working at the Museum of the Moving Image, a great museum, unfortunately now long extinct, where one of my roles was to play a Soviet political agitator in a mock-up of an agitprop train based on those that went round the Soviet Union in the 1920s spreading propaganda and culture to the masses. My stint there taught me 2 things. One – it’s amazing how much you can get away with if you’re in a costume and apparently speaking with a foreign accent; and secondly, that even almost 70s years on The Odessa Steps scene still has the power to mesmerize even rowdy British schoolchildren (no mean feat) as well as those adults who normally wouldn’t watch a silent, Soviet black and white movie if you paid them to.
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