THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, 1925
Cinematography by Edward Tisse
Starring: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Beatrice Vitoldi (woman with baby carriage)
Based on the historical events the movie tells the story of a riot at the battleship Potemkin. What started as a protest strike when the crew was given rotten meat for dinner ended in a riot. The sailors raised the red flag and tried to ignite the revolution in their home port Odessa.
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As a work of art, The Battleship Potemkin could easily have sunk under the weight of its own agitprop. The characters are cardboard social types, the kind that our writing professors warn us about. The script was approved by the country’s Script Czar Stalin, funding came from the Central Soviet Committee and director Sergei Eisenstein was a serious Marxist intellectual.
Any one of these factors can doom a project to long speeches, ham-driven symbolism and sheer ennui. But the collective brilliance of Eisenstein and his cinematographer Tisse have created a compelling example of pure cinema. This film astonishes, frightens and entertains. You may not understand the editing or montage techniques, but you’ll definitely feel their effect.
The film opens with stark imagery, the agitated waves of a violent sea. On deck, a group of sailors vow mutiny against their tyrannical officers. They soon have a reason: meat that’s not just rotten, but crawling. The ship’s doctor declares the bugs to be “just maggots”, not actual worms. He orders it cleaned with brine. But a small group of sailors reject this sanguine explanation in favor of canned food from the ship’s store.
When the Potemkin’s commander (Vladimir Barsky) learns of the incident, he orders the sailors to be executed. A courageous seaman named Grigory Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov) steps forward and asks the firing squad to lay down their arms and join the revolt against their cruel superiors. The sailors succeed in taking over the ship, but Vakulinchuk is shot and killed in the scuffle.
Like Nathan Hale or, more recently, the Iranian Neda Agha-Soltan, Vakulinchuk becomes a symbol in death. His body is placed on the pier and the town folks stream past in tribute. United by the idea of freedom from oppression, their mood is celebratory. But the celebration is quickly over. The dreaded Cossacks appear.
By using a small number of soldiers, fourteen, maybe fifteen at the most, Eisenstein obtained a stunning juxtaposition of the few armed men against the huge mass of unarmed citizens. As the soldiers march down the marble steps, they shoot indiscriminately. They squash the fingers of a small child. They shoot a woman who pleads with them to stop. The bodies pile up; the Cossacks march on, relentless in the intoxication of absolute power.
Then comes one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history: The Steps of Odessa. Among the crowd is a mother (Beatrice Vitoldi) with her baby in its carriage. As she tries to protect the child, she is shot in the stomach. When she collapses, she nudges the carriage, which begins to bounce down the steps. Although the entire film is riveting, it is worth watching for this scene and this scene only.
Eisenstein played with the facts to end his film triumphantly. The uprising on the Potemkin failed; the Russian Revolution wouldn’t succeed till 1917. Sadly, Eisenstein filmed no more than ten other works. A brief foray in Hollywood came to nothing; he clashed a bit with Jesse Lasky. Still, given the loss of so many silent films, we’re lucky to have what we have.
Although just a minor footnote in history, one wonders what Eisenstein the man, as opposed to Eisenstein the Marxist, thought when Beatrice Vitoldi was arrested and tried during the Great Purge. Or what he thought when The Battleship Potemkin was briefly banned in Russia by Stalin himself.