Unrated because it was 1925. This is Grandpa Simpson old. But realize, Grandpa Simpson may have had a point about the old days. There's some pretty brutal imagery in this film. If you have a thing about harm coming to babies, maybe this movie isn't for you. It's not super graphic, but Eisenstein uses his montage of attractions to think you see some gross stuff. Also, a kid dies in a fairly disturbing manner.
DIRECTOR: Sergei Eisenstein
I keep showing this movie to students. They keep not liking it. (Okay, that's what I assume. My previous class absolutely abhorred this movie. I haven't gotten the two cents from my new class, but they weren't raving about how amazing the movie was after it was done. Maybe Battleship Potemkin might be hard sell for a lot of people. Silent films aren't necessarily the most accessible, especially for people who are accustomed to a different pacing. Also, the content is a little bit awkward. It is Soviet propaganda. It is unabashedly Soviet propaganda. That's tough for me even. The movie is extremely moving, and I can't deny that, but how does one approach reviewing a very dated piece of Soviet propaganda.
Let me establish my honest feelings about this movie. I have such a deep appreciation for Sergei Eisenstein. I really liked both parts of Ivan the Terrible and I think I even really like Battleship Potemkin. I've now watched it three or four times. The movie is amazingly shot and wrecks me emotionally. God forbid, it actually does what propaganda is supposed to do: it manipulates me into ignoring the logic center of my brain. Yay for that / would you like to buy some LuLaRoe clothingwear? But there is a part of my brain that will always stay firing. Maybe it isn't even my brain per se, but my need to be slightly entertained. This movie has two real sequences of riveting action (I don't count the last because I'm kind of ready for the movie to be over) that are super awesome. While I'm often cool with boring, there is very little content in Battleship Potemkin. I think a lot of that comes from Eisenstein's view on protagonists. Eisenstein was a big advocate for there not be a single protagonist. Rather, like the Russian revolutionary that he was, he saw the people as a joint protagonist. The issue with this and the narrative is that most of the movie then becomes about the setting. Eisenstein does a masterful job of establishing the setting of the film. Like a character, the setting has a choice to develop from what it once was to what it should be. A dynamic character changes over the course of the narrative. Since there is no character, it is the job of the setting to adapt. That change is awesome because it is made of people, but there is something very comforting about relating to an individual character. I will say that, considering that there is no individual character, there are moments where I, as an audience member, identified with individuals in the crowd. The scene with the sailors inspecting the maggot encrusted meat drove me to anger like they had. The mother holding her child as she went up the steps made me question what I would do in that scenario. That scene was almost like a horror movie. I wanted to scream at the screen and tell her to turn back, that the soldiers didn't care and wouldn't care about her plight. That's great storytelling.
Considering that the early Soviets were masters of editing, there is a pacing problem. The movie is barely over an hour. If you know anything about early Soviet cinema, this wasn't uncommon. The reason that the Soviets became so good at the edit is that, post-Revolution, there was very little film stock. They had to make due with what they had at their disposal. This often meant that stock footage had to be spliced in and they tended to rely on what we now term the Kuleshov effect. (Read about it. It is fascinating.) This often meant that Battleship Potemkin would try to stretch out a moment by cutting between different locations to make it seem like more was going on. But at one point while watching, and I acknowledge that this is my 21st Century laziness talking, that I realized that we've been arguing over the same point for a really long time. It doesn't help that I just shotgunned a whole bunch of Hitchcock movies during the month of October. Eisenstein uses the cuts in his film to build suspense in his story. With the score (which I acknowledge is contemporary) giving hints to the rise of tension, many of his scenes tease a boiling point. The cuts become frenetic and individual expressions are stressed. For example, the first moment of mutiny on the titular boat is criminally stressful. It is so hard to critique Eisenstein for any of this because he's the guy who understood and introduced editing as a viable film technique, but he holds these moments just too long. I go back to Hitchcock, who made his suspenseful moments painfully long, but always managed to explode at just the right moment in the climax. Eisenstein always takes it too far, especially with the last sequence of the film. I mentioned that there were two exciting parts of the movie. The only reason I say that is that the final sequence plays on the same images for far too long. The cuts to machinery working is effective the first few times, but I suppose the rules of threes A) doesn't apply to film editing and B) hasn't been invented yet.
I'm really mad that I missed the red flag sequence. I watched the movie pretty intently, putting my phone way out of reach. I must have side eyed something because I don't remember seeing it this time. That use of color is so darned effective in this movie. I have to admire Eisenstein's restraint when using this effect. The only reason that this sequence works is because it is so scant. I know that Melies did his entire movie in color and I love that stuff. But that is a very different tone than Battleship Potemkin. I have a buddy of mine, who doesn't read this (I think), who hates Schindler's List. But the thing that Schindler's List does effectively is the contrast of color. I think that Eisenstein does it even better. The use of color is somehow manipulative. It draws the eye and, considering that it is so contrasting, gives a weird sense of patriotism. Heck, I don't even like the Russian Revolution, but I'm all jazzed for it in this one. I guess this critique is one for my soul than anything else. But the movie really works. As a follow up to Birth of a Nation, the movie knows how to propagandize events. The good guys are really good and without fault. The bad guys are super evil and need to be overthrown. While the events of the Potemkin are technically non-fiction, it is amazing how the slant of the film makes it actually kind of worth watching. That shouldn't be the case. I should hate the manipulation, but I kind of just watch in awe how good of a director Eisenstein actually is.
My favorite sequence in the film might be one of my favorite scenes in film history. I think it is the reason that I even consider liking Battleship Potemkin. The Odessa steps sequence is so darned powerful. It almost might contribute to my dislike of the final sequence. I talked about the Soviets and how they love to edit their movies, but this sequences is just amazing. (I do have to giggle a little at how they actually tried to avoid crushing a little kid by being gentle around him, but sometimes you have to accept that you can see the zipper on the monster.) I usually have an eye thing. Movies love messing with people's eyes. I'm talking to you, Un Chien Andalou and the cover for Straw Dogs. I used to be terrified to watch Battleship Potemkin because my book shows the famous image of the crushed glasses in the lady's eyes. It now works so much. It is the most effective use of eye damage in a film. The shot is so quick and such a sharp juxtaposition to her pleading for mercy. There is this off screen beat that happens and so much is told in that moment. I can't also help but feel like the masses of people running down the stairs, while extremely effective, probably caused a few injuries. There had to be a billion takes of Eisenstein just wondering if they could go faster. There's no stuntmen in Russia. There's no actors, let alone stuntmen in an era where the stuntman hasn't been created. These were peasants running down the stairs. But that's also a testament to the power of this sequence. No one in the movie was a professional actor. These were the people. (I have to admire that the ideology carried over into the casting out of necessity. During the revolution, directors, producers, and actors all fled Russia. So they had to be peasants.) If you watch nothing else in this movie, I recommend the Odessa steps sequence. It may be slightly unearned, but it is the perfect middle for this film.
I'm going to watch this movie time and again. I'm not in love with this era of filmmaking, but Battleship Potemkin shows Soviet film's true promise. It's pretty great, as long as you are okay with being a little bored. Boring's not bad and it helps to know the content. But the movie itself has objective value. Perhaps those who don't like war movies might get annoyed, but that's on them.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.