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Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) – the Friday Classic review

April 20, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

Coming soon: the Hollywood remake.  “We’re keeping those dazzling action sequences but the Soviet propaganda has to go. The proletariat need a real hero!”

Battleship Potemkin Sergei Eisenstein

Battleship Potemkin
(Sergei Eisenstein, Rus, 1925)

Battleship Potemkin’s reputation as “one of those films you have to see” precedes it…and that’s not necessarily a good thing.  The reality never comes close to capturing the anticipation generated when critics rave about a groundbreaking masterpiece, and that’s even more of a problem here because of the nature of the ground being broken.  Bluntly, the foundations laid by Sergei Eisenstein are so familiar, so central to today’s movies, that it’s easy to take his innovations for granted.  Is there anything left for today’s audiences beyond academic interest?

The first thing newcomers spot is that this is where the great ‘pram-on-a-staircase’ routine from The Untouchables comes from, but Potemkin’s influence stretches far beyond specific homage.  Eisenstein’s rhythmic, rapid cutting, an orgy of imagery that accumulates in power and meaning, is embedded in the DNA of MTV music videos and just any contemporary action movie you’d care to name.  Yes, you can blame Eisenstein for Michael Bay as well.  Potemkin’s fans would baulk at the association, but then association is the name of the game here: link two things together, et voila!

Battleship Potemkin stands up today for its visual spectacle, filmed using vast numbers of extras and enough military hardware to keep Bay happy for years, and structured as a series of high-octane set-pieces – the rebellion, the quelling of dissent, the climactic face-off.  So why is the film the preserve of intellectual film buffs?  Why do so many newcomers treat it as a chore?  And why hasn’t Hollywood got around to remaking it?

Essentially, Eisenstein was so successful in fulfilling the film’s propagandist intent that his story is hard to separate from the dreaded C-word.  This certainly ain’t subtle in promoting Communist ideology, as it juxtaposes stern, decadent Tsarist officers with rugged, earthy sailors, and showing the earnest proletariat gunned down by shadowy assassins.  The captions, strident even in silence, are a model in disingenuousness – “killed for a loaf of bread?” Or because he was a mutineer!  Silent cinema is the natural home for this kind of tunnel-vision: the politics would sound naïve spoken out loud, which is one reason why Potemkin’s many descendants in political cinema – The Battle of Algiers, for example – are slightly more even-handed in their study of the class struggle.

But Eisenstein’s is a very different kind of cinema from the norm, a study of faces and crowds rather than individual people – and that’s another obstacle for newcomers.  Most moviegoers want to see sexy, heroic screen idols strutting their stuff, which explains the irony of why Battleship Potemkin – a film made for the masses – has become the darling of film-buffs.  Only a few characters here get so much as a name, and the central figure is killed before he can establish himself as a true cinema hero; instead, his place is to become a martyr.  The sacrifice spills out from the one to the many, the self subsumed into the collective as his mausoleum a Mecca for an astounding number of pilgrims.  Can you imagine the Hollywood remake of Potemkin?  Vakulinchuk’s death would make for a great Psycho-esque twist, but we’d need someone to take his place.  Here, anybody who gets more than a cursory cutaway is actually less likely to live to the credits.  Martyrdom proves infectious.

And yet…there is, at heart, a really gripping story for the hypothetical remake to get its teeth into.  Unlike Eisenstein’s debut, the near-abstract Strike, this doesn’t concern an archetypal struggle but a specific historical incident, giving the politics at least some semblance of narrative to kick against.  And although Eisenstein’s methods are overly theoretical, the results thrive on raw emotional power.  The Odessa Steps massacre remains gripping because Eisenstein – his POV firmly fixed on the proles – doesn’t warn us of the imminent attack.  Instead, it comes suddenly, triumph descending into chaos with unflinching brutality.  What’s noticeable, though, is that the cliché that Eisenstein is all about the montage is only half the story.  While the power certainly comes from the calculated assembly of the fragments (a flurry of terrified faces, running feet and gunshots) Eisenstein certainly has a decent eye for capturing those images in the first place.  It obviously helps that he had the resources of a government behind him (propaganda has its advantages if you need to film a navy) but the film’s most haunting moment is a single, simple shot of a mother – injured child in her arms – stepping into the shadows of the approaching army.

Actually, in order to make this work as a modern-day feature, all you’d really need to change is the downtime between these battles.  Eisenstein gives prominence to the action by slowing down the rhythm, indulging in contemplation of boats against the sunset, or the chugging of pistons in the battleship’s engines.  Fascinating from a film student’s viewpoint, but unfortunately also deathly dull as a thriller…but it’s nothing a few snappy one-liners and a comedy subplot or two wouldn’t cure!

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