Battleship Potemkin (1925)*

*And supplementary lecture on the nature of silent film.


This blog is due for another silent film, and the one that I have selected is Battleship Potemkin (or, in Russian, Bronenosyets Potyomkin).  As was recently posted, Potemkin stands at number 2 on my list of the “Most Important Films of All Time.”  These are films selected strictly for aesthetic and technical innovation, with the qualification that said innovation produced radical change in the popular movie landscape, and not due to story or tertiary film elements along the lines of score, acting, or literary devices—save for those situations when one of those tertiary elements brought forth radical change (Wizard of Oz, for example).  These were, quite simply, decided upon the film itself.  Not the film as in “the movie,” but film as in the film, the literal celluloid collection.  Embracing film as a singular art medium is a necessary facet to understanding silent films, and is unfortunately lost in much of what we consider quality film criticism today.

In my review of Buster Keaton’s The General a few months ago I put forward an argument in favor of exposure to early silent films as soon as possible in the experience of a potential “competent movie-goer.”  As a reiteration of that argument, it suffices to say that a silent film—due to the extreme differentiability between it and, say, a sound film from the recent past—provides a unique opportunity to change your perception and standards in the movie-watching experience.  When Charlie Chaplin, for example, makes an overtly bombastic facial expression, or when Lillian Gish flails her arms in an over-the-top exhibition of physicality, we don’t react as negatively as we would if, say, Talia Shire were to have done that in Rocky or The Godfather.  Because these silent films are so foreign to a beginner, the standards change, which can be very influential and helpful in molding proper film-watching technique.

I pause for a quick and tangential digression.  I have, on a few occasions, sat in class with a group of supposedly educated college students and watched silent film clips.  I recall one moment in particular when we watched the final, beautiful scene in City Lights.  Another moment was during a presentation I made to a class on sound pictures pre-dating 1933.  (This was not in a film class…the presentation was assigned as a supplement to a reading we were doing of Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat).  I showed clips from King Kong.  In both these examples, I was perturbed to hear the occasional laugh and chuckle in response to some of the acting or special effects techniques of the era.  I include this to say something in regards to the argument of the last paragraph: the ones that weren’t chuckling were the ones that wanted to be competent movie-goers, even if they weren’t yet.  The ones the were, on the other hand, had no desire to become so.  If you find yourself in line with the former, then read on and enjoy watching Battleship Potemkin.  If you are of the latter, I hope that you can read on and maybe change your mind.

As you watch these movies that can seem so old as to appear to be other-worldly, you begin to look for other, new ways to get something out of the film.  Your eyes are drawn to other aesthetic virtues, and your imagination is more intrigued as you put yourself in the world of the silent film.  This is important: it is part of the behavior of a competent movie-goer.

One of the reasons these films are so different from more modern movies of the color/sound/computer ages is not that they have pantomime acting styles or less technological prowess, but rather because the language of these films is completely different.  Language of a film involves the form and purpose of its presentation: what is the film supposed to do and how do you make that happen?  In essence, the silent film is the purest of films, because its goal is to create film and it uses film to do it.

All this can seem kind of redundant, and that is intentional.  In order to better understand my point, let’s take, for example, the great blockbuster, Titanic.  Why did they make Titanic?  Your skeptics will say it was to make a lot of money, and that’s probably true, but we’ll ignore that possibility and just focus on Titanic as movie—an art form, not an economic venture.  What was the movie supposed to do?  It was, basically, made to tell a story.  It was made to make you experience true, sweet, young love.  It was a story of young love, of class dynamics, set amid the true story of the Titanic disaster in the Atlantic Ocean.  Now, how did they make it happen?  They needed two actors to play the young, loving couple, and they did a great job casting Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.  They needed a superb special effects team—as well as a set direction and construction team—to create the boat and the disaster.  They needed the right music.  And whatever they couldn’t adequately film, they just recreated through a computer.  And, they succeeded.

But what of a silent film?  Take, for example, A Trip to the Moon, or Le Voyage dans la lune, made by Georges Méliès in 1902.  What was the movie supposed to do?  It was supposed to provide an image and a story of people landing on the moon.  Pretty simple.  How did they make it happen?  They needed to create an aesthetic situation—or mise-en-scène—that could fit within the frame of a given lens, and then manipulate the camera—as well as the resulting celluloid to provide the best image possible.  No music, no script, no computers.

The evolution in the language of film—the means whereby the image and sound is manipulated to send a specific message—has occurred slowly over the last century.  The introduction of sound into film provided probably the greatest jump in the evolution of the language.  This evolution has led to what I referred to in my review of The Godfather as a “Gesamtkunstwerk.”  This was in reference to the art form of Richard Wagner (which, in translation, meant “complete work of art”) during the mid-1800s that focused on aesthetic accompaniment to musical presentation.  In it, he combined costume with opera with soliloquy with ballet with symphony with painting with carpentry…you name it, basically.  In other words, today, the clout of a film is dependent often times on its use of multiple forms of art to create a single movie.  That was not the case with the silent film.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the moving picture (or cinema) was known as the seventh art (particularly in France).  The other six arts were architecture, sculpture, painting, dance, music and poetry.  If Leonardo DaVinci had etched a poem on the bottom of his “Mona Lisa,” it would not have made the painting better.  If anything, it might have made it worse.  The trend to combine various forms of art was spat upon or lauded depending on the generation.  But, with the emergence of the film, the consensus was mostly clear.  Cinema was its own art form, independent of the other six arts (and independent of photography as well, though the ideology of good photography carried over into the quality of good cinema.)

In this regard, silent film is the purest of all types of film: it is the only one that fulfills its purpose by utilizing the qualities of constructs of its own nature.  It is self-evident, and self-extant.  The story it tells is the result of itself.  As a fan of film from every era, I recognize both the “Wagnerian” style of complete works of art (a la Lawrence of Arabia) and the simple purity of the seventh art (a la The Passion of Joan of Arc).  I do not intend here to argue that one is better than the other; both succeed at times and both fail at times.  But, I do intend to put forth the perspective that will aid in watching silent films and will also help in using those films as a springboard—I’ve used that term a lot in this blog—into the world of movie-going competency.

With all that being said about the language of silent films, let me put forward a hypothetical.  You are born at the turn of the twentieth century: there have been no world wars yet, Russia has not yet turned into the Soviet Union, the automobile is a rare novelty, and you’ve never even heard of Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, or Pablo Picasso.  You want to tell the story of a violent battle, and you want to tell it through this new and popular art medium called the cinema.  All you have is a 1.33 aspect ratio, 16mm camera—in other words, a camera with a small frame and little sensitivity to red light (making it difficult to differentiate day from night at times).  How do you make it?

That was the task of Sergei Eisenstein during the making of Battleship Potemkin.  Filming everything from a mutiny, to a bustling city, to a massacre on the steps of Odessa, Eisenstein needed to fully grasp and execute the principles of film-making (the entire grammatical curriculum and lexicon of the language of film, if you will) like few directors before him.  Surely D. W. Griffith attempted to conquer equally daunting tasks in movies like Intolerance and Birth of a Nation, and Eisenstein himself saw these as courageous and bold, but for Eisenstein there was a better way to do what had been done in the past.  His advantage was that the foundation had already been built by men like Griffith, but it was his job to perfect what had come before.

The answer to his daunting task (as well as the answer to how to improve on the foundation of past genius), lay in a concept called “montage.”  The next chapter of my blog will deal with montage deeply, but for now merely mentioning it will be enough.  As I mentioned montage in my review of Apocalypse Now, perhaps the reader will benefit from checking that out, too.  (That means you should read my review of Apocalypse Now…don’t know if I made that clear enough).  Montage is basically, the shift from one image to another to another and back again—in whatever order the directors deem best—to tell more of a story than the images separately would be able to convey.  This is not new: montage is so common in film these days it’s hardly noticed.   In commenting on Intolerance Eisenstein said there was, in the movie, “a desire to get away from the limits of story towards the region of generalization and metaphorical allegory;” however, the weakness of the presentation lay in the fact that “the region of metaphorical and imagist writing appears in the sphere of montage juxtaposition, not of representational montage pieces” (in his book Film Form, emphasis added).  If all this makes little sense, it’s okay.  Basically, Eisenstein broke into uncharted territory through his use of montage in this film, and he, in the process, made one of the coolest movies you’ll ever see.

(Note to Readers: For further information about montage theory, please read my two-part essay on the subject).

The movie is the true story of a crew of soldiers and workers aboard a Battleship called Potemkin.  At the outset, Eisenstein gives visual descriptions of their disparate and sickly condition aboard the poorly-managed battleship.  When bad meat is found in a their bowls of borsch, riots and outbursts ensue that eventually lead to outright mutiny on the ship.  The swells and ebbs of the pacing and conflict are almost musical in their dynamics, and all throughout the scenes on the boat are images that stick out beautifully—and in some cases, hauntingly.  Perhaps the most haunting is the image of the ship’s priest, Rasputin-like, holding up his gold (maybe it’s gold, the film’s black and white) cross above the revolt and violence.  Later, he slips underneath a staircase and hides, while the heroic instigator is killed in the bustle.  After the mutineers win control of the battleship, the instigator, whose name is Vakulinchuk, now dead, is placed on a small lifeboat with a sign across his chest which reads “due to a spoonful of borsch,” or as the intertitles say, “killed for a bowl of soup.”  The lifeboat floats along with Potemkin, and, as Potemkin floats into harbor at Odessa, men and women start to gather around the dead body of Vakulinchuk, which has now drifted to the pier.  Soon, developments are seen through Eisenstein’s superb use of imagery  that hint of class rivalry and revolutionary build-up.  What ensues is spectacular.

In the history of movies, there are a several scenes that are more famous than the rest: the “lasso the moon” scene in It’s a Wonderful Life, the horse’s head scene in The Godfather, and the “mirror” scene in Duck Soup to name a few.  From my perspective (and this is shared by many), the greatest scene ever filmed may just be the Odessa Steps Massacre in Battleship Potemkin.  The lead-up to the scene is already engrossing.  As the citizens of Odessa start to assemble to the body of Vakulinchuk like a raised standard, the sign on his chest a call to revolutionary arms, suddenly, there appears a marching line of white: Tsarist soldiers have come to stifle the rebellion before it even begins.  The massacre is among the most violent and emotionally potent scenes ever filmed, and also the most technically Eisenstein-ian of all the scenes in the movie.  Into this scene, Eisenstein poured all of his innovation and intellectual dexterity, particularly in the case of his use of montage.

While at first glance, one can readily see that the descent from the top of the stairs to the pier below would take only a matter of seconds…one minute at the most.  But Eisenstein stretches that minute into over seven minutes of gruesome violence and painful melancholy.  He does not merely juxtapose images, he blends them.  Shots are fired.  People run down the steps, away from the steps.  Some stop to beg mercy.  A man rolls over a railing in desperation.  A woman is shot in the eye, blood pours down her cheeks and her glasses crack.  A woman holds her dead child in her arms, screaming helplessly at the sky.  Soldiers trample a baby; we can tell its a baby by the tiny hand.  Perhaps the most famous image of this montage is the carriage that rolls down the steps to the bottom.  Cossacks on horses charge the retreating citizens, chopping them down with swords.

Those who haven’t seen the movie may not want to after hearing this scene described.  But, the full completion of the montage involves the more fine—and often overlooked—threads of film that make up the tapestry of the film as a whole.  Scattered throughout the massacre scene—and throughout the course of the entire film—are images of uprising, of strength despite oppression, of the volatility of the human character.  Revolution, after all, is the most telling of human nature.  Even those who advance the cause must take a step backward in order to go forwards.  In this regard, even the good guys are subject to criticism.

This brings me back to my take on “anti-war” films.  Again, if you haven’t read my review on Apocalypse Now, you may be missing out, because this is talked about in more detail.  In this case, Eisenstein, the director was a revolutionary.  He was given the Stalin State Prize (later known as the USSR State Prize) twice: in 1941 and 1946.  He helped to provide propaganda for the October Revolution and was given a command position in Minsk in 1920 for those efforts.  He was in favor of the uprisings that preceded 1917; including such as the one that occurred on the Battleship Potemkin in 1905.  Yet, we see, despite the propaganda-like bias in favor of at least some of the violence (Odessa Steps not included), the anti-war nature of the picture is still visible.  For example, the face of the mutiny, Vakulinchuk, was not, after all, killed over a spoonful of borsch.  He was killed in the bustle of a fight that he started.  To provoke the citizens in that way, therefore, was not entirely rooted in truth.  Second, we see that the uprising against the officers on board wasn’t exactly fruitful: lots of people died and, in the end, there was no mention of any improvement in the quality of their meat.

But, the mutineers are vindicated—even glorified—by the sacrifice of the citizens on the altar-steps of Odessa.  The Tsarist response was, by definition, cruel and unusual in that it did not match the gravity of the crime.  Evil of this kind can justify evil of a lesser kind far too often, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad.  In this era of Arabian revolution and worldwide intervention (or lack of intervention, depending on the case) we can see this idea of two evils, one evil and one good, or two goods all over the place.  How that informs our viewing of Potemkin would be interesting to dissect and analyze.

Battleship Potemkin enjoys some other innovations.  For one, the acting style lacks a lot of the physical hyperbolism and excessiveness that contemporary movies had.  This could help the novice movie-goer better appreciate what they are seeing in the context of their own visual experience.  The plot is fast moving and therefore evades some of the preachy demagoguery or plodding rhetoric of many Griffith and Lang pictures.  There are others as well; after all, it’s a certifiable action-flick.

Anyway, the credentials are endless.  In the end, you have a one of the finest propaganda films ever made.  It was recently named number 11 on the 2012 Sight and Sound poll, one spot behind Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and one spot ahead of Jean Vigo’s L’AtalanteEmpire magazine named it #3 on their greatest films of world cinema list, one spot behind Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie and one spot ahead of Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.  (Amelie does not come close to deserving the number 2 slot).  Its influence is not only felt in every movie ever made since…seriously…but also in various homages to its imagery in movies such as Brazil, Bananas, and perhaps most famously, The Untouchables.  To quote the review in Total Film magazine in 2011, “…nearly 90 years on, Eisenstein’s masterpiece is still guaranteed to get the pulse racing.”

4 thoughts on “Battleship Potemkin (1925)*

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