In which we witness rebellion, mutiny and the first famous steps in cinema.
The real joy of giving myself a challenge to watch only films from the 1920s in 2020 is the classic cinema that I’m seeing, often for the first time. Films like Battleship Potemkin have been familiar to me for years, I know the references to them in other films, their place in early film theory and usually the full plot courtesy of Wikipedia. By sitting down to watch these movies, I finally get the true experience they were first released for – entertainment, emotion and enjoyment.
One by one, these films are becoming fully rounded and part of my life rather than just academic references that help me in the film rounds of quizzes. I can begin to recommend them honestly and choose the ones I look forward to sharing with my children when they grow up.
Battleship Potemkin is one of those films I’ll be sharing in the years ahead. Much like Chaplin’s The Kid, the story is deep and tender, but here much wider in scope as it covers the true story of a mutiny in 1905 Russia. Made two decades later as part of the Russian revolution anniversary, the film is a direct critique of the imbalance in Russian society that led to the uprising.
Quick warning, I’m going to cover the film from start to finish in my analysis so please do take the time to watch it if you’d rather see it first.
Aboard the Potemkin, the sailors discuss the rebellion happening across Russia and wonder if they are to be the last to join. As they inspect the meat they’re to be served, the sailors complain to the ship’s Doctor that it’s rancid and crawling with worms. The Doctor replies that they’re maggots and therefore can be washed off – the meat is fine. The sailors refuse to eat.
The Officers call the sailors to the deck and announce they’ll shoot those who won’t eat. Tensions build between the officers and lower classes as those in the firing squad join the mutiny and a fight breaks out across the Potemkin.
In Odessa, where the ship docks, the locals learn of the mutiny and the actions of the Officers. They soon turn on the government and police and chant for rebellion. In the most famous scene, armed Cossack guards march mechanically down a huge flight of steps, shooting the rebels without mercy as they flee or plea for their lives. The camera is unflinching as woman and children die, falling bloodied to the floor only to be trampled under the desperate crowd.
In a final moment of hope, the ships sent out to sink the Potemkin choose instead to grant it safe passage.
It’s incredibly to think Sergei Eisenstein was 27 when he began work on Battleship Potemkin. The film is wonderfully direct, almost like a fairy tale, in its depiction of a downtrodden lower class finding the strength to rebel against government tyranny. Its bold use of violence underlines this simplicity by showing, often in close up, the damage caused by the oppressors.
The Odessa steps sequence is the pinnacle of this approach, the panicking crowd is at first a substitute for the rebellion as a whole. The cruel and unending march of the Cossacks against unarmed and powerless civilians is enough to drive the message home. It’s raised though by the personal stories that Eisenstein inserts into the scene. Images of the famous pram careening downwards, with close ups of the baby throughout, sit alongside close ups of parents and children crushed underfoot and the haunting full-screen face of a woman shot in the eye with broken glasses still hanging on her nose.
Something Steve Rose wrote in the Guardian a decade ago still rings true today:
“It is still a potentially incendiary work of art, very much concerned with the tipping point between mass obedience and unstoppable uprising.”
That simple message holds the same power it did almost a century ago, thanks to Eisenstein’s incredible direction and our unbuild fear of being controlled. We hear it and see it in many works of art, but Battleship Potemkin is one of the most enduring and majestic.
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