BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN directed by Sergei Eisenstein (Russia, 1925)
How can this be one of the greatest movies ever made? – it’s silent and it’s in black and white FFS!
This, I hasten to add, is not my personal opinion but the kind of comment you might stumble upon if you click on clips or watch the full movie on You Tube.
Educating the lumpenproletariat is going to take longer than expected, and, stirring though Eisenstein’s images are, his film was not, nor ever will be, the revolutionary stimulus he hoped for.
This film nevertheless is rightly celebrated for turning propaganda into art. Eisenstein tweaks the facts by taking one real historic event and inventing another with the direct aim of inciting rebellion against Tsarist corruption and oppression.
It all starts with maggot infested meat that the ship’s officers insist is safe to eat. This inedible food is a potent symbol of the rotten regime and the final straw for the crew. A bitter on board protest quickly ensues and soon becomes a full-scale mutiny.
News of the revolt spreads fast and the death of the ringleader, Vakulinchuk, becomes the catalyst for a full-scale escalation of the protest on shore.
The images in the movie of the masses queuing to pay respects to the dead leader are all the more remarkable because you know these are not digitally enhanced crowd scenes.
Eisenstein’s editing is designed the provide maximum emotional impact by showing the stark contrast between the smug and ruthless oppressors (yah boo!) and the protesters (hurrah!).
How can viewers fail to be incensed when squads of faceless soldiers shooting women and children in cold blood?
Even if you’ve never seen the whole movie the fictional Odessa Steps confrontation will probably still be familiar as the powerful images are rich source material for other art and entertainment works ranging from Francis Bacon’s paintings to The Simpsons (see Treehouse of Horror XI).
It may not have prompted a revolution but , 87 years after it was made, this is still a movie with the power to amaze and enthrall.