Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

"Down with tsarism!"

Obviously, this is a much-admired film, largely because of the inspiring and extraordinary effective use of montage in the "Odessa Steps" sequence to manipulate our emotions. Sergei Eisenstein, like a Bolshevik Steven Spielberg, uses masterful framing and editing techniques to maximise the pathos of the (entirely fictional) massacre of the universally revolutionary population of Odessa at the hands of some nasty Cossacks. It is indeed both effective and extraordinarily both technically as cinema and as propaganda; Goebbels admired The Battleship Potemkin. Not to the point of allowing it to be shown in Nazi Germany, of course, but he admired it as propaganda. But what is left for me to say about it?

Well, the Odessa Steps sequence is but six minutes out of seventy-three. The rY pRt of the film is set entirely within the cramped confines of the eponymous battleship, a considerable contrast with the later scenes. Tension is built up, with an officer attacking a recruit, unprovoked, and maggot-riven meat being the catalyst for an uprising. The moustaches and stiff collars of the officers- this is 1905 and the time of the Sevastopol uprising and the Japanese victory over Russia- alienate them from us as much as their evil, scowling faces. This being propaganda, characterisation is simple. Vakulinchuk, the leader of the revels, is martyred and fetishised much as was being done to the recently departed Lenin shortly before the film was made. And it's tempting to see Vakulinchuk, more directly than Marx, as the I spirTion for the character of Old Major in Heorge Orwell's Animal Farm.

The Russian navy of 1905 looks positively Nelsonisn in parts, with its hammocks and maggot-infested meat. But I suppose the impression of ancient regime archaism is the point. The film is based on an event, manipulated and used to stand for the Russian Revolution in microcosm. 

This is a genuine milepost in cinematic technique on the part of the Odessa Steps sequence. I wouldn't say it's quite as affecting as its reputation- I found the sailors less than hugely sympathetic- but it's a film every film buff should see. If nothing else, it's an early triumph of direction.

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