Battleship Potemkin has one major drawback: it has become too famous. It’s just one of those silent films that everyone seems to have seen, and loves. Sergei Eisenstein’s techniques and choice of shots have been studied in film schools all across the globe (including mine), and have been analysed and critiqued by theorists and fans alike. The seminal “Odessa steps” sequence has lodged itself in the annals of cinema history as one of the most thrilling and influential sequences of all time. It’s so popular that watching the film in its entirety almost becomes a superfluous act; all we want are the Odessa steps.
But of course, it’s unfair to make such a statement. All movies should be appreciated in their entirety, even though it’s a task that sometimes requires a lot of patience. Movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Eraserhead, are so trying in their narrative, so vague in their message that just sitting through them becomes a challenge. Potemkin isn’t like these films. Its message is clear and its storyline is organised. Why it’s a challenge to sit through is mainly because of the “Odessa steps” sequence, which has become the movie’s highlight, instead of its climax.
“Is there a difference?” you might ask. Yes, there is. Eisenstein might have filmed the sequence with the intention of making it the crescendo of his film. It’s a scene where hundreds of innocent Odessians are mercilessly slaughtered at the hands of Tsarist soldiers, who look like robots as they systematically descend the steps. There’s bloodshed, silent screams, children being trampled on, and babies being abandoned. The scene is so traumatic, so shocking in its content — for that era — that it’s all the movie is ever remembered for these days.
But Battleship Potemkin has so much more to offer. It is broken up into five stories, each linked to the other. They introduce us to the crew of the battleship Potemkin, immediately informing us of their plan to overthrow the Tsarist officers who run the show. They are led by a passionate Grigory Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov), who wants to do his part in the war against the government. He rallies his shipmates together and — over the course of the next couple of stories — succeeds in his mission.
The story is not important, however. Not in today’s context anyway. It is the one aspect of the movie that has aged rather inappropriately. The rabble-rousing spirit of Vakulinchuk doesn’t exactly strike a chord with the society of the present, but in trying to encapsulate the result of his efforts, Eisenstein has crafted a movie of exquisite elegance and pioneering cinematic technique. He uses cuts and close ups to great effect, sometimes resting his camera on inanimate objects that are of no real consequence to the events of the scene, such as the Father’s crucifix. They provide parallels that slow down the pace of the movie enough to make each shot meaningful.
Back in the ’20s, the movie was seen as a well-made piece of propaganda. Today, it is simply a well-made masterpiece (though I use the word loosely). Much like Triumph Of The Will that came after it, it glorifies the military and gathered a following among the commoners. It shows how the spirit of one man can affect the spirit of many men, and drive the willful to take the future into their own hands.
If Vakulinchuk ever needed a theme song, it’d be “Come Together” by The Beatles, and he’d be singing the line “Come together right now, over me” all day long.
Best Moment | Yes, I’m going for the cliched here. It’s the “Odessa steps” sequence. As over-analyzed as it is, it remains a riveting sequence that perfectly highlights the ruthlessness of the Tsarist regime.
Worst Moment | The sailor crying in the beginning because his officer picked on him. Grow some nuts my friend.