Saturday, 24 January 2015

Revolutionary... Battleship Potemkin (1925)

OK, so this is one of those films you probably don’t need anyone else writing about - many hands click the return and continue on with Google - but it’s new to me at least. I’ve never consciously watched Battleship Potemkin all the way through (yes, I know…) but I’ve been aware of it as one of the great films since reading about a list of the best films in my parents’ copy of Purnell's New English Encyclopaedia – we didn’t have the internet in the seventies.  So, Sergei, no pressure then….

Battleship Potemkin impresses immediately as one of the most controlled of films with a precise rhythm that still carries force and which still catches the viewer off guard: this film makes you tense and the sequence on the Odessa Steps is, of course, still horrific – never more so than after recent events in Paris. Why are we so brutal?

The build up to the Russian Revolution in 1917 was a long one with anti-Tsarist political movements dating back well into the nineteenth century – see the Narodniks and their To the People Movement of the 1860-70s - as problems escalated across society and the economy. Karl Marx may have expected the mature industrial economies of Germany or Britain to provide the first communist states but Russia was a more desperate society with a higher proportion of people with nothing to lose…

She also lacked the great national projects of imperial expansion and commercial innovation that drove the other super powers…Rightly or wrongly she lacked this kind of success. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the disastrous war with Japan in 1904-5 which gave rise to much discontent at home and which contributed to the mutiny on the Potemkin which formed the basis of the film and which, twenty years later, was to be celebrated as an important precursor to the Revolution’s eventual victory.

Battleship Potemkin presents as one of the most  beguiling propaganda films in history with one sumptuous image following another as Sergei Eisenstein infuses his narrative with irresitable emotional and moral force. Joseph Goebbels later admiringly declared that no one with any pre-existing political leaning could watch it without wanting to become a Bolshevik (incidentally only newly formed after a split with the minority – Menshevik – element of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party in 1903 although the sides didn’t dissolve that party until 1912…).

One of its successes may be that it doesn’t necessarily paint the naval commanders and the Cossacks as pantomime villains: they’re bad and brutal enough but believably so:only following the orders of a failing regime. But what really works is Eisenstein’s portrayal of the ordinary individuals caught up in these events`- people who had no option but to make a stance against intolerable conditions and a regime blind to the suffering of its own people.

The men of the Potemkin live in something akin to institutionalized poverty, cramped together in hanging bunks, exhausted from the war and fed maggot-ridden rations. The men are bullied and then told to swallow the meat they’re offered with the ship’s doctor declaring the meat fit for consumption. Tempers fray and the Captain calls his company to a meeting during which a line is drawn and he orders his troops to execute the ring-leaders. In a tense face-off, communicated through the rapid cuts and escalating tension that is Eisenstein’s trademark, the marines cannot fire on their comrades… the mutiny begins.

From order to chaos
The men run riot and soon gain the upper hand by throwing the officers over board. Soon the red flag flies over the ship but not long after their leader Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov) is gunned down, shot from behind by one of the cruellest of the officers, Commander Golikov (Vladimir Barsky). His body hangs grotesquely from the rigging before falling limp into the murky waters: the revolt has its first martyr.

Vakulinchuk falls
Free of naval authority, the crew, now led by Chief Officer Giliarovsky (Grigori Aleksandrov), take the Potemkin to Odessa. They are welcomed  by the majority of the town who come to pay their respects to Vakulinchuk as he lies almost in state. There are strange lingering shots of the body holding a candle and the masses staring in awe at the dead man – every new system needs to celebrate the fallen.

Thousands of extras swarm towards the docks
The people grow in number and all snake their way down streets, along causeways, over bridges and down steps… There’s a joyous mood as they celebrate the start of their move to freedom but as one woman throws her head back in close up and another moves forward to obscure the camera-view with a parasol, there’s a sudden – startling –shift in mood: these people aren’t celebrating they’re running and in total fear as armed militia men stride down the top of the Odessa Steps bayonets drawn and guns pointed directly at the innocents.

The sequence is stunning, visceral and unflinchingly horrific as the rifles start to fire and no one, not women, children or babies is spared. The camera tracks alongside the steps following the soldiers’ relentless, murderous march placing the viewer in the centre of the tragedy hoping for the survival of each individual highlighted in the slaughter. The soldiers force the people down the steps and towards the welcoming blades of mounted Cossacks… there is no mercy.

In reality there was no massacre on the steps but there were plenty more elsewhere. Eisenstein’s film does not mislead, this is what happens when civil war erupts and change was increasingly inevitable once the social contract was ripped apart over the ensuing months of the revolution.

The Tsar regained control but Russian society was changed for ever after the 1905 Revolution and the lessons of solidarity in the face of state oppression were not forgotten. Here in the discipline of the country’s military were the hearts set and the minds open to the truth of the old regime. The film closes with a segment as poignant as the steps as the battleship heads to face the Russian fleet: will they be blown from the waters or will they find merciful solidarity? Whatever happens next is based on actual events…

There have been many versions of Potemkin over the years and I watched the BFI version which is as close to the original as you can get - I think? It's available direct - on sale! - or from Movie Mail.

Every home should have one... but then you probably already do.

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