I'm not ashamed (well, maybe a little ashamed) to admit that despite my status as an avid movie geek, there are a few gaps in my knowledge. The largest of these gaps is that of silent film. Given that silent movies provide a connection to the dawn of the motion picture, it is important that all cinephiles acquaint themselves with as many as possible, if for no other reason than to understand the roots of our beloved art form. I will be watching as many silent films as I possibly can, and each month I will spotlight the titles that really stand out.
Today we give the silent treatment to 1925's 'Battleship Potemkin.' The Basic Story
In 1905, the sailors on the Russian warship Potemkin had finally had enough of the deplorable conditions forced upon them by the Czar's officers. When a group of dissenters voice their displeasure, they are rounded up for execution. This attempt to reestablish dominance ends up sparking a full mutiny. The sailors take control of the ship, and their raising of the flag of revolution inspires the people of their home port, Odessa, to rise up against the Czar's Cossack forces. This film is a dramatization of real events.
The film was directed by celebrated Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Formerly an engineer, Eisenstein grew fascinated by the idea of films as instruments of social consciousness and change. He is also credited as the father of the montage, the technique that arranges a sequence of images for maximum emotional impact, even if the individual moments are not as powerful as the full series. In 1919, he helped found the world's oldest film school, the VGIK.
For this month's entry, I viewed 'Battleship Potemkin' via Kino International's 2007 DVD release. For years after it was produced, 'Battleship Potemkin' suffered a gauntlet of censorship that ended up butchering the film and making it nearly impossible for modern audiences to view it as it was intended to be seen. That is, until Kino released the current version in its entirety. This commitment to film restoration is the reason that many of the Silent Treatment entries will most likely be Kino releases. The transfer looks fantastic, and the original score has been restored to near perfection.
What Makes It Special?
More than anything, what makes 'Battleship Potemkin' so valuable is that is an artistic benchmark in the history of film. Eisenstein basically created the concept of the montage as he went along, also making strides in the field of editing. Editing is now such a basic component of filmmaking that it seems counterintuitive to talk about a filmmaker creating the process. But the fact is, films used to be -- mostly out of necessity -- shot in a linear progression that allowed for very little flexibility in the film's structure. But in order to elicit the emotional connection he sought from his audience, Eisenstein would rearrange the images to (more or less) manipulate viewers' perceptions. The montage is now such a ubiquitous filmmaking device that it is fascinating to witness its origins.
The sequence of 'Battleship Potemkin' most dissected by film historians is the Odessa staircase scene. The Czar's army attempts to quell the revolution with extreme use of force. Showing no reluctance to shoot, the army causes a massive stampede down an elaborate staircase. What is so incredible about this scene is how fearless the violence is despite the fact that the film was made in 1925. The iconic close-up shot of the woman's bloody face and her broken glasses, in one instant, captures the anguish of oppression and the cost of revolution. There is also a brutal sequence of a small child being repeatedly trampled that is absolutely heartbreaking. The Odessa staircase scene is one of the most imitated moments in all of film, having been referenced in -- or just plain aped by -- the likes of 'The Godfather,' 'Brazil,' and 'The Untouchables' (the baby carriage tumbling down the steps).
What Makes It Timeless?
Beyond the fact that montages are still used to this day, the timelessness of 'Battleship Potemkin' lies rooted in its objective. Though the merits of propaganda films can be dubious, films such as 'Battleship Potemkin' definitively demonstrate the power of cinema. The film became a symbol of national pride and of the Russian Revolution. It was so well made that there were generations of Russians who believed that the Odessa staircase massacre, which never actually happened, was a real event. While modern cinema is no stranger to commercialism, there are still plenty of artists using the medium of film to articulate larger social messages. Again, the propaganda issue is up for debate, but the ability of a film to affect people on a deeply personal level is the reason the art form exists.
The importance of 'Battleship Potemkin' can scarcely be measured, but in all honesty it is probably not a film I will revisit. I couldn't really put my finger on what I didn't enjoy about the film until I began researching Eisenstein and the pioneering of the cinematic montage. As the definition suggests, 'Battleship Potemkin' is rife with inspiring imagery but staggeringly lacking in character development. Probably as a result of Eisenstein's intention to inspire the masses and communicate the power of the working class as a singular entity, there are very few individual characters. The character most focused upon? A dead sailor whose grave becomes a rallying point for the populace. So, while I admire Eisenstein's film, its merit is more in its historical importance than its re-watch value.