Classic films are tricky beasts — their cinematic reputation builds to monstrous proportions. Seminal titles such as Citizen Kane, 8 1/2, and Battleship Potemkin resonate through the historical cinematic mind. While the first two retain a story that is fresh and relevant, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent epic doesn’t have a timeless story to back up its ground-breaking aesthetics. Unfortunately, this instills a feeling of obligation. The only motivation to watch this film is to see how a piece of communist propaganda has influenced more than 75 years of cinema.
The film glorifies an actual 1905 event in which the crew of a Russian Battleship (guess the name) rebelled against its Tsarist captains. Potemkin is cut and dry revolutionary propaganda, but it’s most interesting in its structure and aesthetics. The film is broken into five vignettes that basically follow from the theme of a proletariat uprising: the cluttered shots of men sleeping in hammocks and the tracking shots of the masses fleeing down a flight of stairs from the Tsar military.
Even with the impressive shots and obtuse-for-the-time story structure, Battleship Potemkin is anti-climatic. Eisenstein spends so much time on experimenting with framing, light and dark contrast, and blocking that the action loses all meaning. For instance, after the men take over the ship, they spend a good 15 minutes preparing for battle against the rest of the Tsar fleet. When the fleet is in sight, the tension built from the preparation montage crumbles; their working-class brothers had already overtaken the other ships.
Luckily, the film’s crowning cinematic achievement, ‘Odessa Steps’ segment, still delivers the goods. Duplicated in a multitude of films including The Untouchables and even The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, the scene is a breakthrough in mise-en-scene and montage. The camera floats above the masses pouring down the staircase, as Eisenstein simultaneously invents the building of thematic tension as he cuts between the people flowing and falling down the stairs with a baby carriage rocking on the end of the massive staircase. But given the cinematic influence, we recognize the segment and instead of losing ourselves in it, we think ‘so this is the first time that happened.’
The film’s silence is its most vital element. Given the 1925 release date, the film was clearly made before the acceptance of sound in cinema (released just two years before the first talkie, The Jazz Singer). Because of the strength of the images in both composition and montage, we are drawn into its beauty. Our eyes are free to wander the frame, searching for information that would be filled in by a talking soundtrack. At the very least, the film demonstrates the importance of the visual information we gather from a film. If a vast majority of human communication is non-verbal, than the same is true for film. The images speak volumes louder than words and Battleship Potemkin is the perfect reminder that silent cinema is not a dead genre that should be overlooked because of technological shortcomings. Potemkin comes from a time where films communicated primarily through images, even if its themes fade into historical irrelevance.
The new Kino DVD includes two versions of the film, one with Russian intertitles and one with English. Both have been restored magnificently and feature missing shots replaced and the re-recorded 1926 score.
Aka Bronenosets Potyomkin, Potemkin.