Battleship Potemkin (1925): Dir. Sergei Eisenstein. Written by: Nina Agadzhanova, Nikolai Aseyev, Sergei Tretyakov, and Sergei Eisenstein. Starring: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, and Grigori Alexandrov. Running Time: 75 minutes.
Exactly how does one go about reviewing a propaganda film? Do we judge it by its efficacy? Or is it possible to review in the same fashion as any other movie, say, in the same way we look at any commercial film? Propaganda films also beg the question of political agenda in the movies. They heighten our awareness to political content in other films, they make us aware of subtext, seemingly absent from this film. Perhaps we can keep these questions in mind while we look at this widely-acclaimed Russian landmark, Battleship Potemkin.
Acclaimed as one of the best films ever made, and one of the finest achievements in world cinema, Battleship Potemkin was released in 1925. By now I should have no need to retell the story, but humor me: Eisenstein’s film retells a famous historical event where the crew onboard the Potemkin rioted against their superior commanders and seized command of the ship, led by a Ukranian sailor named Grigory Vakulinchuk, who was killed during the ensuing uprising. The nearby town of Odessa mourns the fallen figure “killed for a bowl of soup”, and before the end of the film, they will need to pay for such blasphemous tribute. The mourning stirs ferment, and faster than you can say “Bolshevik” the police subdue them, in probably the most famous scene of the film: the Odessa staircase scene.
The film has been critically lauded for its editing techniques; indeed, Eisenstein is often dubbed the “Father of montage.” It’s here where the film is most impressive, influencing, oh, probably every filmmaker who came after him. The Odessa staircase scene is probably the most famous instance of this (never doubt humanity’s obsession with death), in which we are bombarded with images of fleeing citizens, first as a group, then individually. By combining these images Eisenstein gives his film scope.
But technical achievement does not a movie make. From a character perspective the film is positively, absolutely flat. Vakulinchuk is flawlessly brave and magnanimous, and his loyal sailors are dressed in white (take a wild guess what that means). In the Odessa Staircase sequence the Cossacks are often shot from behind, marching in callous precision. There is never a question of who is good and who is evil.
And yet, that is the film’s purpose. Not realism, historical or otherwise, but persuasion. If the imagery is obvious, it’s meant that way. This is a propaganda film, and its first purpose is persuasion of a large audience. The characters are not so much “characters” as “embodiments,” and by being so, never question the morality of revolution. Let’s not forget that fact. While the film urges camaraderie and brotherhood among its viewers, the biggest brother of all looms behind it all. Vakulinchuk’s moustache should quash all doubt.
Is Battleship Potemkin a great film? Perhaps. But not in a way that sits right with me.