A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1925 – The Battleship Potemkin
What? Was that not the only way I could have started this article?
Clearly the choice for 1925, Battleship Potemkin is one of those movies that will be on the lists of most important films ever made, best films ever made, all of that stuff. And so far, we’ve been pretty American and European in our selections, even though Russia (Soviet or not) has a very long history of important filmmaking. How do I know? I took a class on it. They have a lot of great shit throughout the years. Some of it’s really, really great. Others, really only important in the context of their history, but still good.
And then you have the important filmmakers that came out of there. But still, an overlooked nation of cinema. Especially when some of the most important names came out of there. Eisenstein, who was and is so important in film theory, and Vertov, and Pudovkin, and Kuleshov, whose eponymous effect explains essentially what editing does.
But this film, speaking only in the context of itself, since you have to, otherwise I’d be going on forever, is a real masterpiece, and I’m not even sure where to begin with it.
This film is basically a propaganda film. Which is pretty incredible. A film we consider one of the best and most innovative ever made is essentially propaganda. Then again, so are Triumph of the Will and I Am Cuba, and those are also considered masterpieces of cinema. But I felt that was worth mentioning. It’s basically a film that takes a story of a real event and uses it to be like, “Yes, we can do it, comrades!” Essenitally, a battleship crew mutinied against their officers. And since the officers were part of the old tsarist regime, and the crew was comprised of good communist boys, it was an easy story to tell.
However, aside from all that, Eisenstein decided to try out his own theories of film form with it. Which is basically like being assigned to direct a B movie thriller and turning it into something like Godard. Kind of like Drive. A plot that would normally go straight to DVD but elevated due to the use of film form. There you go, hipsters. Battleship Potemkin was the original Drive.
Eisenstein’s experimenting had to do with the idea of montage. He tried to cut things together in such a way as to elicit the greatest emotional response. It would also represent the way people thought. It would cut from shot to shot, not necessarily in a fluid manner, but rather similar to the way our thoughts function. Plus, through the power of editing, the connections between the shots would form in audiences’ minds, and in effect, would act as propaganda. Like, you see shots here, of the maggots and stuff, and you really grow to side with the crew, and are essentially supporting the soviet ideals because of that.
Eisenstein called it “intellectual montage” whereby the film was cut together in such a way that you could draw certain connections between the events. The famous example is in Eisenstein’s other movie Strike, where the workers on strike are intercut with a cow being slaughtered (also made use of in Apocalypse Now), to basically say the workers are being treated like cattle. He uses that here to show how badly the crew is being treated by the officers, and to get the audience to sympathize with the crew and hate the officers, so when the mutiny happens, they cheer.
And of course, the famous moment in this film, that must be talked about, is the Odessa Steps sequence. Tsarist soldiers fire on a town full of people and start massacring them. And the Battleship Potemkin must come to the rescue. But the actual sequence of the soldiers firing at the people is so wonderfully constructed, and so visceral, that it seems way more violent than you’d think a film of 1925 would be, and actually still holds up as one of the more gruesome sequences ever put to film. It’s quite impressive how well the violence holds up because of the montage. (Which, by the way – even never happened. Eisenstein just made it up for dramatic reasons. And he did it so well, people talk about it like it actually did happen.)
And of course, the most famous moment of all, pictured in the Pic of the Day, is when a mother is shot, and falls down on her baby carriage, which sends it plummeting down the steps. And the way he cuts between the carriage and other people, it really pulls the whole thing together and makes you really get emotional. It’s incredibly done. (And yes, to those who’ve seen it and want to mention it and will bring it up if I don’t… yes, Brian De Palma basically ripped it off for the climax of The Untouchables.)
To me, though, while the baby carriage is an iconic image, I almost chose the image of the woman with the bloody face. Who is the last person we see in the sequence. We see closeups of her throughout, and then the final one is her, with her glasses all broken, all bloody and screaming. It’s one of those images that really stays with you.
Anyway, Potemkin is a masterpiece, has been referenced hundreds of times in other movies, is one of those movies you know about even if you don’t know about it, and if you’ve studied film, you’ve come across it and its Odessa sequence and know exactly how important and iconic it is. Clearly this was the choice for 1925.